Get your tournament brackets ready, NCAA hoops fans, the fun is about to begin.
Selection Sunday has come and gone and the action gets cooking on Tuesday night with the first of four play-in games. In one contest, Mount St. Mary’s squares off with New Orleans for the right to play top ranked Villanova in the East Region (New York).
Also on Tuesday, Kansas State and Wake Forest will duel for the no. 11 seed in the South and will face no. 6 Cincinnati in the first round.
In the other First Four games on Wednesday, UC-Davis battles N.C. Central (winner to play no. 1 Kansas in the Midwest) and Providence tackles USC for the no. 11 seed in the East and a first round tilt with no. 6 SMU.
The permutations, for those trying to predict who will advance round to round, are near endless. We have taken the time to analyze the brackets and have come up with potential upsets, eight in the first round and two in the second, just for good measure.
10. Michigan State (9) Over Miami, FLA (8) – Midwest First Round
We’re starting this with a “softball” pick, since 8 vs. 9 is a fairly easy call. Neither team comes into this contest on a winning note, as the Spartans lost to Minnesota in the Big 10 quarter-finals on Mar. 10, and were just 5-5 in their last 10. The Hurricanes also lost in the quarter-finals of the ACC tournament to North Carolina and sported a 6-4 record down the stretch. We’re giving MSU to the nod in this one since they have a game-breaking player on the team who can help them rise to the occasion. He would be 6’7″, 230 lb. freshman small forward Miles Bridges, who is ranked the 22nd best prospect for this year’s NBA draft. He averaged 16.7 points per game, along with 8.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists. He had seven double-doubles and shot 38.8 (52-for-134) from three-point territory. We also think Tom Izzo will out-coach Miami’s Jim Larranaga.
9. Wichita State (10) Over Dayton (7) – South First Round
The luck of the Irish will be with the 10th ranked (South Region) Shockers when the tangle with no. 7 Dayton on St. Patrick’s Day in the Round of 64. Wichita State comes into the Big Dance on a big, big roll, having won their last 15 in a row, including the Missouri Valley championship on Mar. 5 (a 71-51 victory over Illinois State). They have an overall record of 30-4 and have an upset history that is well established at March Madness. Dayton, meanwhile, limp into the South Region on a two-game losing streak and having the dubious distinction of being a no. 7 seed in the 2016 tournament and being taken out by a 10th seed (Syracuse). Dayton, the no. 1 ranked team in the Atlantic 10, suffered a crushing 73-67 loss to no. 9 Davidson in the A10 quarter-finals on Mar. 10. We think lightning could strike twice for the Flyers.
8. Marquette (10) Over South Carolina (7) – East First Round
The 10th seeded Golden Eagles come out of the Big East with a so-so 19-12 record and into their first tournament since 2013, when they went to the Elite 8. But, under coach Steve Wojciechowski (who was mentored for many years by Coach K at Duke), this team plays one of the most dynamic run-and-gun offences in DI basketball. That’s why we say they have the juice to beat the Gamecocks in a thrilling, defence-be-damned, first round game. Two consecutive games in late January really sum up Marquette’s cred as a monster-beating offensive juggernaut. They beat then no.7 Creighton 102-94 on Jan. 21, then clipped no. 1 Villanova 74-72 on Jan. 24. The Gamecocks got a seventh seed in the East based on a 22-10 record in the SEC. However, they haven’t been hot in the last month, sporting a 3-6 record in their last nine. They were beat soundly by lower-seeded Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament, too.
7. Xavier (11) Over Maryland (6) – West First Round
Momentum, or lack thereof, is everything when it comes to the one-and-done Big Dance. In the West Region, the Maryland Terrapins, despite featuring great players like Melo Trimble, might have had all the momentum sucked out of them when they lost to Northwestern in the quarter-finals of the Big 10 tournament on Mar. 10. The Terps, ranked no. 3 in the Big 10, also played a hand in Northwestern garnering their first DI tournament invite ever thanks to that defeat. The 24-8 Terrapins (ranked 34th overall nationally) will get all they can handle, and then some, from the Musketeers, who went 21-13 in the Big East and are ranked no. 37 in the nation. They beat no. 15 ranked (nationally) Butler 62-57 in the Big East tourney quarter-finals before being beaten 75-72 by no. 26 ranked Creighton in the semi-finals. The Swashbucklers just might beat the Tortoises in this one.
6. Rhode Island (11) Over Creighton (6) – Midwest First Round
Little Rhodey, which was last at the Big Dance in 1999 (they were seeded 12th and lost to Charlotte in the first round), will be looking to take down a major foe on St. Patty’s Day. And we think the momentum the Rams gathered under coach Dan Hurley (Bobby’s brother and son of Hall of Fame coach Bob) gives them the potential to take down the no. 26 ranked Bluejays. Rhode Island, ranked no. 4 in the Atlantic 10 with a 24-9 record, clipped no. 5 St. Bonaventure 74-63 in the A-10 quarterfinals on Mar. 10, then beat upset minded Davidson 84-60 in the semis. They capped a magical run in their conference tournament with a 70-63 victory over the VCU Rams on Sunday night. The Bluejays will provide a stern test of Rams’ coach Dan Hurley’s offensive and defensive schemes, as they went to the Big East final, ultimately losing 74-60 to Villanova. This is the closest call we’re (sort of) making.
5. UNC Wilmington (12) Over Virginia (5) – East First Round
Now we get into the weeds of the unpredictability of this tournament. The challenge the University of North Carolina Wilmington presents no. 5 ranked Virginia is offence, lots and lots of offence. The Kevin Keatts’ coached Seahawks earned their second straight tourney invite by shooting 56 percent inside the arc, while attempting a crazy amount of threes — which resulted in plenty of second chances off the offensive glass — as well as turning the ball over fewer times per possession (13.9 percent) than any team in Division I. The Seahawks, who were 29-5 this season and are ranked 27th in the nation (according to the RPI poll) won the Colonial Conference with a sound 78-69 thumping of Charleston. The Cavaliers (ranked 18th nationally) went 22-10 this season and finished it off with a disappointing 71-58 loss to no. 22 Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarter-finals. We smell an upset.
4. Middle Tennessee State (12) Over Minnesota (5) – South First Round
Call this one six degrees of Big 10. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who were seeded no. 15 in the Midwest Region in 2016, shocked the basketball world by beating no. 2 Michigan State 90-81 in the first round. The Blue Raiders, who hit the Cinderella button just once a year ago, are a much better team this time around, generating more of their points from inside the arc (58 percent) than any other team at the Big Dance and have been lighting it up for four months. They have lost but once in their last 21 games and capped a 30-4 season with a sound 83-72 triumph over Marshall in the Conference USA tournament final on Saturday. The Golden Gophers, ranked fifth in the South, will want to heed the fact that Big 10 rival Michigan State fell to this same Blue Raiders squad last year. Yet, we can’t shake the feeling the Blue Raiders have another card up their sleeve in 2017.
3. Florida Gulf Coast (14) Over Florida State (3) – West First Round
And now for our boldest almost prognostication of the first round. And this one isn’t without merit. In 2013, the FGCU Eagles, known affectionately as “Dunk City” and “Florida Dunk Coast”, the Eagles had a Cinderella run of Cinderella runs. In their first ever DI tourney, the 15th ranked Eagles knocked off no. 2 seed Georgetown, the beat no. 7 San Diego State before succumbing to no. 3 Florida in the Sweet 16. This season, FGCU topped the Atlantic Sun Conference again, going 26-7, and beating North Florida 77-61 in the conference tournament final. Eagles junior guard Brandon Goodwin will give the Seminoles all they can handle in this first round match-up, as he averaged 18.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. The Seminoles, who were full value in the ACC with a 25-8 record, slumped a bit down the stretch, going 9-7 since Jan. 14 after going 16-1 to start the DI season. They don’t enter the tournament hot, either, having lost to Notre Dame 77-73 in the ACC tournament semi-finals. This all-Florida tilt could go to the lads from Fort Myers.
2. Wichita State (10) Over Kentucky (2) – South Second Round
Providing the Shockers do what we are predicting them to do and beat Dayton in the Round of 64, we think that mighty Kentucky could also suffer an upset at the hands of Wichita State. Again, we predict that the no. 2 ranked Wildcats will take care of no. 15 Northern Kentucky, making their first Big Dance appearance. The Wildcats won the SEC tournament for the third year in a row and finished 29-5 under John Calipari. They also have prolific scorers in top 10 NBA prospects Malik Monk (rated ninth best prospect) and De’Aaron Fox (10th). Yet, they are both freshmen who have yet to put their talents on display on the big stage. Monk, who averaged a team high 20.4 PPG, but averaged just 13 in the SEC tournament, which included a lousy two-point performance against Georgia in their first game of the tourney. Fox was better, averaging 22 PPG in the SEC tourney (he was 16.1 in the regular season), however his assists were down (2.6 after registering 4.8 in regular play). The Shockers may well pull a duel upset.
1. Michigan State (9) Over Kansas (1) – Midwest Second Round
We predict the first no. 1 seed who could fall will be the Kansas Jayhawks. This is, again, providing the Spartans take care of the Miami Hurricanes in the Round of 64 and Kansas wins its first round tilt (TBD). These two teams are well coached (Tom Izzo at MSU) and Bill Self at Kansas, so it is one great mind against the other. The edge could go to the Spartans, however, as they would enter the Round of 32 on a winning note, should they knock off Miami. The other thing favoring the Spartans is the fact the Jayhawks lost to lowly TCU, 85-82, in the quarter-finals of the Big 12 conference tournament. This is highly irregular, as the 28-4 and no.3 nationally ranked Jayhawks have won the league title every year since 2005 and the Big 12 tourney seven times in that span, including 2016. It’s just a hunch, but these Jayhawks are ripe for the picking.