NCAA Tournament First Round Games to Watch

Posted: 03/16/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

Something tells me that doing a writeup for all 32 NCAA tournament games that will take place in the next 48-ish hours would be neither fun nor all that helpful even if I had the time to do such a writeup. Instead, I’ve picked out the games I think are the most interesting of the first round with the expectation that I can write about some of the better teams later in the tournament, when they’ll (presumably) still be in the field. I think the five top title contenders are Kansas, Virginia, Michigan State, North Carolina, and Kentucky, and I’d be pretty surprised if any of them missed the second weekend, although a Kentucky-Indiana second round matchup should scare UK a bit, as the Hoosiers have looked very good of late, especially on the offensive end. For now, I’m going to avoid writing about those teams or about the others who should have no trouble disposing of their first round opponents. Here goes, in order of tip-off time…

Thursday:

#4 Iowa State vs. #13 Iona (2:00): A shootout! The over/under for this game is 167, more than 10 points higher than any other first round game. According to Kenpom, these teams play at the fifth and eighth quickest paces of any tournament team, making this the highest-octane game… easily. More importantly, though, I think this could actually be a competitive game, something you might not expect out of a 4-13 matchup. Iowa State is a good team, as they’re experienced, talented, and tremendous offensively. Senior Georges Niang is one of the best players in the country, and he always seems to up his game in key moments, as evidenced by the fact that he’s scored 20+ points in eight of his 11 games against teams ranked in the top-25 at the time of the game. Niang’s a very efficient player, and so is point guard Monte Morris, who boasts a 4.09 assist/turnover ratio. Throw in tremendous all-around play by big man Jameel McKay, the grittiness of Abdel Nader, and the terrific shooting of Matt Thomas and this is one of the best starting lineups in the country. The problem is that the Cyclones have neither depth nor much defense (they rank 100th in Kenpom defense), hence their failure to win more than two consecutive games since January (they’re 5-7 in their last 12). The depth issue could be magnified by the fact that this game is being played in Denver, also known as the Mile High City. The defense issue could be magnified by the fact that Iona’s offense is not just fast but also pretty good. Their 67th-ranked offense may not seem great, but it’s better than any other 12-or-worse-seed’s offense besides Stephen F. Austin (more on them soon). The Gaels are also hot (11-1 in the last 12) and have one of the best scorers in the country in A.J. English (22.4 points per game). The Cyclones are going to hit their fair share of threes, but English and Co. will shoot right back at them. And the Gaels really run into trouble when they face bigger and better rebounders; Iowa State, though, isn’t a very good rebounding team, either. The Cyclones are clearly the better team here, but expect a good game in Denver.

Prediction: Iowa State wins 88-85

#6 Arizona vs. #11 Wichita State (9:20): The first half of Wichita State’s First Four win over Vanderbilt was ugly. That suited Wichita State just fine, as they entered the half tied, but it left me unsure of the Shockers’ potential to move forward deep into the tournament again this season. The second half was a different story, and Wichita State ended up winning the game 70-50. Unfortunately for Arizona, I think that’s the Shockers team we’re going to see tomorrow night, because I believe Wichita State was just rusty in the first half after 11 days off. Arizona’s not facing any normal 11th seed. The Shockers, who are led by tough-as-nail-seniors Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, have tournament experience, and they’re also the ninth best team in the country per Kenpom. This is a gritty, deliberate team whose offense sometimes stalls but whose defense will always keep them in games. The Wildcats are 1.5 point favorites, but I see no scenario in which they blow the Shockers out, while the inverse is probably just as unlikely. Yes, this is going to be a close game between two teams who seem good enough to meet in the Sweet 16 (the Wildcats rank 16th in Kenpom). While Wichita State grinds teams down with good guard play and defense, Arizona is a very modern team, and coach Sean Miller’s love of advanced stats is certainly no coincidence. They out-rebound teams by 9.2 boards per game, shoot 37.7% from three, and allow opponents to shoot just 32.1% from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, their guards are inconsistent and mistake-prone, and this is not one of the stronger Arizona teams in recent years (last year’s T.J. McConnell-led team was terrific, for example). Miller-coached teams are always good, though, and this one definitely has talent, which ensures that this will be a high-quality and close game. Yes please!

Prediction: Wichita State wins 66-61

#6 Seton Hall vs. #11 Gonzaga (9:57): Why do these teams have to play each other in the first round?? Why couldn’t it have been Notre Dame-Gonzaga and Seton Hall-Tulsa or something? I like both of these teams a lot, and I think this will be another close one (sensing a theme? There’s a reason I think these are the best games of the first round), as Gonzaga ranks 27th in Kenpom, just three spots behind Seton Hall. I’m actually surprised by the fact that the Zags are favored in this game over a team that is coming off back-to-back wins on a neutral court over two-seeds (Xavier and Villanova). The Zags, like the Shockers, are a small-school team that is no stranger to playing big games. They’ve made 18-consecutive NCAA tournaments and have won their opening-round matchups seven straight times. The loss of center Przemek Karnowski removed a head from the Zags’ three-headed big-man monster, but make no mistake: the other two guys are darn good. Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 and 6.5 with 49%/42%/87% shooting) and Domanatas Sabonis (17.4 and 11.6 while shooting 62% from the field and 77% from the line) can flat-out dominate while also ensuring that the Zags will make their free throws. Remember, a lot of these guys played on one of the best teams in the country last year, a #2 seed that gave eventual champion Duke a very good game in the Elite Eight. This team certainly underperformed this season, but it’s squads like this one, the preseason #9 team in the country, that can be extremely dangerous in the postseason if they’ve figured things out, which Gonzaga seems to have done. Seton Hall, however, will be far from an easy out. They, too, have been playing some pretty good basketball of late, and they have a guard by the name of Isaiah Whitehead who could easily take over the tournament. Whitehead shoots from all over the place and averaged upwards of 20 points per game in Big East play, including 25+ ppg in the last seven, six of which were wins and five of which came against tournament teams (two vs. Xavier, one against Villanova, Butler, and Providence). I really want this to turn into a Whitehead vs. Gonzaga bigs game, and I want it to come down to the last possession. I also think that scenario is fairly likely in a game between two very even teams who, again, might each be good enough to reach the second weekend were they not facing each other tomorrow night.

Prediction: Gonzaga wins 72-70

Honorable mention: #8 USC vs. #9 Providence (9:50) — the late Thursday night TV is going to be incredible

Friday:

#3 West Virginia vs #14 Stephen F. Austin (7:10): You know what might be even better than the likely fast-paced scoring fest between Iowa State and Iona? How about a clash of two styles that are about as disparate as it gets? Bob Huggins has been around for long enough that you probably know that his teams are generally pretty similar. This West Virginia team is better than most of Huggins’ former squads, but it plays the same style. The Mountaineers are a deep team that presses nonstop, relying on suffocating defense and scrappy offense to win games. Given that this team ranks sixth in the nation in Kenpom, I’d say that they’re pretty good at what they do. They’re physical, they force turnovers, they score in transition, and they’re the best offensive rebounding team in the country, all of which ensures that even when they have off nights offensively (which is often), they’re still generally good enough to win ugly games. Nobody plays more than Jevon Carter’s 27.7 minutes per game and nobody scores more than Jaysean Paige’s 13.9 points per game, but six guys average 8.9+ ppg and eight play at least 18 minutes per game. This seems like a team that might struggle against elite opposition but will almost never be upset by a less-talented team. Why, then, do I think this has a chance of being competitive? Because SFA is the type of deliberate, balanced team that could cause the Mountaineers some problems. In the interest of full disclosure, this iteration of West Virginia is one of my favorite squads to watch in the country, so I want them to advance for selfish reasons, and I’ve picked them to do so in all of my numerous brackets. With that being said, I’m scared by the fact that the Lumberjacks went undefeated in their conference, ranks second in the nation in assists per game (19), and shoots 54.9% from two point range along with their 37.1% mark from beyond the arc. I’m worried by Thomas Walkup, the senior who seems like the kind of player who would be able to beat the press. I’m nervous about Brad Underwood, SFA’s tremendous coach who will try and probably succeed to foil some of Huggins’s tricks. This is probably the worst matchup the Mountaineers could have gotten in the first round, and it could be close, though I expect West Virginia to pull it out. I would like to say that this game is different from most of the others on this list in that it has a pretty decent chance at ending in a blowout if SFA is overwhelmed by the press or can’t keep West Virginia off the boards.

Prediction: West Virginia wins 68-59

#8 Saint Joseph’s vs. #9 Cincinnati (9:57): Can the Bearcats knock the Hawks hard enough in the teeth to slow their offensive tear? That’s the big question here. I probably don’t need to tell you that this is expected to be a close game; the fact that it’s an 8-9 matchup probably tells you that. But the reason I’m putting this one here is that I believe the winner of this one has an excellent chance of taking down #1 Oregon and then possibly either Duke or Baylor. Saint Joe’s was on fire offensively in the A-10 tournament, putting up 86, 82, and 87 against three pretty good teams in George Washington, Dayton, and VCU. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, but they also rarely turn the ball over themselves and get a lot of easy baskets thanks to their great movement off the ball. I wouldn’t go as far as saying this is a two-man team, but DeAndre Bembry and Isaiah Miles make up one of the best 1-2 punches in the tournament. Bembry is the best all-around player on the team and a likely early second round pick whenever he decides to turn pro. He’s a good scorer and also a tremendous passer and is truly the key to the offense. But Miles is the one who has made the huge improvement from last year to this campaign, going from 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds on 39%/35%/75% shooting to 18.4 and 8.1 on 53%/39%/88% shooting. Guys like Aaron Brown, Shavar Newkirk, James Demery, and Papa Ndao should not be overlooked, because they all must play well for the Hawks to be successful. But the leaders, obviously, are Bembry and Miles. Meanwhile, the Bearcats are the quintessential Mark Cronin team. They play super slowly (320th in pace among 351 D-1 schools) and are the eighth best defensive team in the country. If they can keep the game at their pace and stop Bembry, they will win this game. But if Saint Joe’s can find the openings they have of late, it could be a long night for the Bearcats in what is a higher-stakes 8-9 matchup than most.

Prediction: Cincinnati wins 63-62

Honorable mention: #7 Oregon State vs. #10 VCU (1:30) — Can Gary Payton II solve the press? Vegas doesn’t think so, as VCU is a 4.5 point favorite.

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Comments
  1. Ellen Goodman says:

    This was interesting…

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