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Eric Vander Voort | | March 20, 2014

Contenders and Cinderellas: What to watch as tourney begins

The NCAA tournament gets under way with first-round games this Saturday and Sunday. With 64 teams in 16 locations set to tip off the action, here are a few things to keep an eye on as the road to Nashville begins.

The No. 1 seeds

Connecticut and Notre Dame both enter the tournament undefeated, with the AAC champion Huskies at 34-0 and the ACC champion Irish at 32-0. It is just the second time that two teams have come into the tournament unbeaten. Notre Dame is the last team to hand the Huskies a loss, which came in last season’s Big East championship. On opposite sides of the bracket, the former conference rivals seem well positioned to meet in national championship game that would feature two undefeated teams for the first time.

Looking to disrupt the two at the top will be Tennessee, a squad coming off the SEC championship and seeded at No. 1 for the 22nd time, but on the top line for the first time since 2011. The Lady Vols come in at 27-5 and have won 13 of their past 14 games. Conference foe South Carolina rounds out the No. 1 seeds, which came as a surprise to many, with Stanford and Baylor also thought to be in contention for the final spot. The Gamecocks earned their first top seed in program history after winning the SEC’s regular-season crown, but lost two of three heading into the NCAA tournament.

Historically, chalk thrives in the NCAA tournament. The last time more than two No. 1 seeds failed to make the Final Four was 2004. Since then, 22 of 36 have reached the national semifinals. The road could prove more difficult this season, though, with only Notre Dame not having to play on an opposing team’s court if seeds hold. UConn could potentially meet regional host Nebraska in the Sweet 16, South Carolina shares a regional with No. 2 seed and host Stanford and Tennessee may have to play at No. 3 Louisville in the Elite Eight.

Hoops in the heartland

If you’re looking for a good place to catch a lot of basketball during the first weekend of the tournament, you might want to check out Iowa. Ames, Iowa hosts two games on Saturday and Monday, while Iowa City, a two-hour drive to the east, hosts its games on Sunday and Tuesday.

Both cities are teeming with talent and storylines. Iowa State is the seven seed in Ames and is in the tournament for an eighth consecutive year and will matchup with a solid Florida State team in the first round. The only previous matchup between the two teams was in 2001, when Iowa State won in Seminoles’ head coach Sue Semrau’s first trip to the tournament. Stanford, a powerhouse and a team that spent much of the year in the top five, would most likely await the winner. Cardinal star Chiney Ogwumike, one of the top players to keep an eye on this tournament, is third in the nation with 26.8 points per game and was the unanimous pick for the second consecutive year as Pac-12 player of the year. A second-round matchup with the Cyclones could be tough, though – Iowa State is 10-3 at home in the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile over in Iowa City, third-seeded Louisville will begin its journey to attempt to repeat a run to the national championship game. The Cardinals, who only lost four times this season (three of which came at the hands of No. 1 Connecticut), may feel like they deserved better than a three seed. However, If they can get past 14th-seeded Idaho, a tough test could await just for the Cardinals to get to the regionals on their home floor.

Sixth-seeded Iowa will host 11-seed and perennial mid-major power Marist in the first round for the right to (probably) play the Cardinals. Iowa comes in a 26-8 and had won nine of 10 before falling to Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. The Cyclones have just two losses to non-tournament teams and rank 23rd in the national in scoring offense, while Marist is 32nd in scoring defense. A win for the Red Foxes would be no surprise -- they have been in nine consecutive NCAA tournaments and have beaten Ohio State, Middle Tennessee, DePaul, Iowa State and Georgia in that run.

Ready for a run: Three potential Cinderellas

(11) James Madison

James Madison lost just once in its conference schedule and all but one of its 18 wins in the CAA regular season and tournament came by double digits. The Dukes have four players averaging double-figure scoring, led by Kirby Burkholder’s 18.3 points and 3.2 made 3-pointers per game. JMU has a tough road ahead of it, with a more established mid-major in Gonzaga in the first round and likely host Texas A&M in the second, but the Dukes have shown this season they are no ordinary mid-major. The conference that brought us Delaware and Elena Delle Donde may still have some tournament magic left to provide.

(8) Middle Tennessee

The Blue Raiders easily cruised through their first year in Conference USA, accumulating a 15-1 record and winning the tournament. They had a couple out-of-conference tests as well – losing to Tennessee by 10 and Kentucky by 12. It was good enough for a top-25 ranking, an eight-seed, and a first-round date with Oregon State in Seattle. If Middle Tennessee can get through that, a potential matchup with South Carolina, arguably the weakest of the one seeds, awaits. Ebony Rowe is the Blue Raiders’ star, leading in points (21.7) and rebounds (11.7). With the ninth-best scoring defense in the country (55.2 ppg), Middle Tennessee seems to have the perfect recipe to be capable of pulling off a second-round upset and reach the Sweet 16.

(7) DePaul

A mainstay in the tournament, having not missed one since 2002, the Blue Devils have only advanced past the second round once. The departures of UConn and Notre Dame allowed DePaul to step in and win its first Big East championship, including a 100-point performance against Marquette in the semifinals. The Demons have won 15 of their past 16 games and will face an underachieving Oklahoma squad in the first round. After that would probably be two seed Duke, an injury-depleted team that is 6-5 in its past 11 games. If their offense that averages 83.7 points per game (sixth in the nation) can function at its highest level, watch out for a run from the Blue Devils.

Fun facts

• Chattanooga coach Jim Foster is first to reach the tournament with four different teams. He also brought Saint Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State to the big dance.
• Army’s Dave Magarity is the second coach to bring a men’s team and a women’s team to the tournament. He was the head coach of a Rik Smits-led Marist men's team in 1987. The other was Bill Morris with both teams at La Salle.
• Baylor’s Odyssey Sims has played 439 minutes in 12 NCAA tournament starts. None of her teammates have a single tournament start.
• North Dakota, Winthrop, Wright State, Akron and South Dakota are all making their first NCAA tournament appearance.
• Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford, Duke and Georgia are the only schools to have made each of the past 20 NCAA tournaments.
• Connecticut’s first-round opponent, Prairie View A&M, is the only team in the field with a sub-.500 record (14-17).

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