It’s the most wonderful time of the year. As we settle into our “sick” days or prep the clandestine CBS browser window, let’s take a look at which games we should keep an eye on for this, one of the most wonderful days in American sports. Even though – unfortunately – some of the best games look to be the latest (on St. Patrick’s Day, no less), take heart in the fact that these games rarely follow the script and chaos can erupt anywhere at any time.
Here’s a look at today’s first 8 games:
4. Duke – 13. UNC Wilmington (12:15, CBS)
A year after a national title, it’s been a pedestrian season by Duke’s standard: a frighteningly shallow rotation and inexperience left the Blue Devils tied for fifth in the ACC. Serial tripper and classic Duke White Guy Grayson Allen has moved from the end of the rotation to be the featured guard (and has since played at an All-American level); one-and-done freshman Brandon Ingram plays as a stretch-4 and his skill-set mixed with his extremely lanky frame has drawn optimistic Kevin Durant comparisons; yes, there is another Plumlee.
It’s a rare game where a have-not gets to take on an in-state blue-blood – UNC Wilmington split the CAA regular-season title and won the rubber-match against co-champion Hofstra in overtime in the conference title game. The Seahawks favor an egalitarian approach on offense and feature a deep bench, but allow the second-most free throws of any team in the country – and their opponents are known to get more than their fair share of whistles.
Once the next game starts, consider flipping to it, but Duke – UNC Wilmington is positively dripping with schadenfreude potential so don’t stray too far.
8. Texas Tech – 9. Butler (12:40, tru TV)
While Minnesota is the worst Big Ten team (outside of Rutgers, obviously) under Richard Pitino, former Gopher coach Tubby Smith has taken the Texas Tech Red Raiders to their first NCAA Tournament in almost a decade despite starting 3-7 in conference play. Tech boasts a strong trio of guards: senior Toddrick Gotcher is the team’s best shooter, Keenan Evans gets to the free throw line a ton, and Devaugntah Williams is a defensive specialist. As a team, TTU’s strength is their free throw shooting: they were the second-best in the Big 12 in getting to the charity stripe and the best at converting those opportunities.
Butler’s third season in the New Big East has mostly been a success: even though they were swept by the league’s elite (Villanova and Xavier), they have two wins over Seton Hall, and possess non-conference wins over Cincinnati and Purdue. The player to watch in this game is Roosevelt Jones, an anachronistic bully-ball lead guard who’s seemingly been at Butler forever and never shoots threes despite standing at just 6’4. He’s flanked by an array of shooters, most notably Kellen Dunham.
This 8/9 game is more appealing than the other one in this window; Texas Tech and Butler are decidedly offense-first teams and should provide a competitive game. One thing that could prove to be decisive is the Red Raiders’ weakness on the defensive glass.
[After the JUMP: more basketball]
8. Colorado – 9. UConn (1:30, TNT)
Michigan fans should be at least somewhat familiar with UConn, who beat the Wolverines in a poorly-lit Bahamian hotel ballroom way back in November. Since then, it’s been quite a ride for the Huskies: they turned in a mediocre conference season that left them squarely on the bubble before winning the AAC conference tournament – in the first game against Cincinnati, they hit a three-quarters court buzzer-beater in the 3rd overtime to send the game to the 4th before eventually winning. UConn certainly has solid personnel: point forward Daniel Hamilton finished as Kenpom POY in the AAC and, when healthy, Amida Brimah is one of the country’s best rim protectors.
Colorado may find it to be tough sledding against that UConn defense: the Buffs finished with the Pac-12’s second-worst offense (and the worst 2-point shooting % in the league) and have to hope that the game turns into a low-scoring slog – a strong possibility. Senior center Josh Scott is one of the most productive bigs in college basketball and the battle between he and Brimah will likely be the best individual matchup of the first window. While Scott isn’t considered an NBA prospect, he creates enough gravity on offense to open up things for good three-point shooters (George King, Josh Fortune, and Dominique Collier) on the perimeter.
4. Iowa State – 13 Iona (2:00, TBS)
Two of the most high-tempo teams in the field of 68 meet up in the last game of the first window, as Iowa State and Iona both look to push the pace at every available opportunity. ISU has one of the most potent offenses in the country and haven’t missed a beat on that end after Fred Hoiberg left to coach the Chicago Bulls. They’re led by Flint’s own Monte Morris at point guard and phenomenal senior stretch-big Georges Niang – both are superb offensive weapons who can score and distribute to others. After a slew of injuries, Iowa State’s depth might be an issue, though the Cyclones are one of the best teams in the country at avoiding fouls (and Iona doesn’t draw them at a substantial rate).
Iona has been the class of the MAAC for the past few seasons, and in the conference championship game, the Gaels eliminated minor internet sensation Monmouth to make their way into the field. They have two key players: senior point guard AJ English leads the team and junior big man Jordan Washington – who has the largest usage rate in the country despite playing less than half of Iona’s available minutes – is a beast on the offensive glass. Like Iowa State, the Gaels are a more offensively-oriented team.
Last season, ISU lost to UAB in a 3/14 upset – most of the Cyclone core is back for another go-round in the NCAA Tournament and hope to avoid taking a tough upset loss in the early Thursday game for the second consecutive season. One thing’s certain: this will be an up-and-down game with plenty of scoring.
5. Baylor – 12. Yale (2:45, CBS)
Like Iowa State, Baylor fell victim to Georgia State in a 3/14 game last season – RJ Hunter’s huge three to seal the win capped a Baylor meltdown in the last few minutes. The Bears aren’t quite as good this year, but have the athleticism and offensive rebounding ability that have become synonymous with Baylor hoops under Scott Drew (along with their funky sorta-kinda amoeba zone, which they still run). Up front, they go with two excellent seniors: Taurean Prince is a guy who can step out and hit threes (35%), but he scores from all over the floor; Rico Gathers is a bully down low and has the best offensive rebounding rate in college basketball this season.
The Ivy League champions should provide a reasonably tough test for Baylor, as Yale has the statistical profile of a high-major team. The Bulldogs are in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates – if they can neutralize Gathers after missed shots, they certainly can hold their own on the glass enough to win. Yale’s led by sophomore point guard Makai Mason and a traditional four in Justin Sears – but they usually win with their defense. One thing to note: Baylor’s zone can force a lot of turnovers and Yale is one of the most turnover-prone teams in the field of 68.
5/12 upsets have become commonplace to the point where a bracket almost feels incomplete without one. With a 40% chance of winning, per Kenpom, Yale has the best chance to pull one off of any 12-seed this season.
1. Virginia – 16. Hampton (3:10, tru TV)
Kenpom gives UVA a 97% chance of winning. I suppose it should be noted that Hampton once won an NCAA Tournament game as a 15-seed against Iowa State, but another historic upset is obviously very unlikely.
Ivan Drago Isaac Haas
1. Kansas – 16. Austin Peay (4:00, TNT)
Kenpom also gives Kansas a 97% chance of winning. The unprecedented 16 over 1 shocker probably isn’t happening here either, but at least we get to watch a fanbase chant “Let’s Go Peay!” for 40 minutes.
5. Purdue – 12. Arkansas-Little Rock (4:30, TBS)
While watching Purdue and Michigan up close a week ago, I was struck by Purdue’s size: AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas are both at least seven feet tall (and they definitely play like it) and Caleb Swanigan is a load as a four next to either of those two. Purdue is a team that’s defined by its mediocre backcourt, but the old-school “pound the post” offense can be a lot for teams to handle – and Michigan was clearly unable to during the Big Ten Tournament. More than anything though, the Boilermakers possess a very good defense and should be able to withstand struggles on the offensive end.
UALR doesn’t exactly match up well against Purdue: only two rotation players check in at over 6’6 and are susceptible on the defensive glass. The Trojans ran roughshod through the Sun Belt and have an impressive 29 wins on the season so far – though their best two wins on the season are against San Diego State and Tulsa. With a decided disadvantage inside, UALR might have to turn to a perimeter-oriented attack, and they have the personnel to do so with sharpshooters Josh Hagins, Marcus Johnson, and Mareik Isom in the starting lineup.
Purdue is getting a little bit of hype as a potential Final Four darkhorse, and while I think their guard play isn’t good enough for that, they certainly have a good chance to advance to the Sweet 16. UALR is somewhat of an unknown – they didn’t play many quality teams and dominated a bad conference – but an upset here looks unlikely.
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Check back later for a preview of the evening games.