The tournament field is set, the teams know where they are going, and college basketball fans everywhere can tediously overanalyze every matchup to win bragging rights or extra spending money from their friends’ or office’s bracket pool.
So-called “bracketologists” like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’s Jerry Palm have exhausted every detail of the selection committee and how matchups are set; but all of that talk is null.
Simply put, whether you go on gut decision or have several spreadsheets incorporating a combination of KenPom ratings, NCAA statistics and KPI ratings to accurately evaluate every team from perennial powerhouse Kansas to the lowly 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, realistically everyone has the same chance to pick a perfect bracket: none at all.
What makes March madness so exciting are the upsets, especially in the first round. Who can forget R.J. Hunter’s cold-blooded 25-footer in the waning seconds last year when No. 14 Georgia State toppled No. 3 Baylor, which forced R.J.’s dad, head coach Ron Hunter, to fall off his stool he needed after tearing his ACL in the conference championship game a week before?
At this time each year, YouTube hits increase and Twitter timelines are filled with videos of unforgettable moments from years past. I find myself researching every morsel of available input from analysts who usually “play it safe and go chalk” by picking all higher seeds to advance. That’s not what makes this season so much fun to indulge in endless hours of hoops.
It’s watching No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” team miraculously make it to the Sweet 16 in 2013. It’s rooting for a team on which you might know one player at most but suddenly become its biggest fan because you picked them when no one else would. Upsets are what make the NCAA tournament incredibly unpredictable every year.
Before Duke and North Carolina Wilmington tip off at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday to kick off the first of 32 games to be played on Thursday and Friday, consider these potential upsets to transform you into a college basketball guru.
No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 Wichita State
Wichita State won its First Four game in Dayton on Tuesday over Vanderbilt 70-50, amassing an 18-2 run to end the game. Much of that was due to coach Gregg Marshall’s do-it-all senior duo of sharpshooter Ron Baker and versatile point guard Fred Van Vleet. Baker and Van Vleet were a staple on the Wichita State teams which made a Final Four and were a No. 1 seed in 2014 after posting an undefeated season.
No one wants to see the Baker and Van Vleet play their final game in college, so expect the Shockers to play for their lives this tournament. Hailing from the Missouri Valley Conference, the Shockers have a pesky defense that posted a plus-5.5 turnover margin which ranks second in the nation.
Coach Sean Miller of Arizona has had better seasons. Five of Miller’s team’s losses have come on the road this season, and his Wildcats own a minus-1.2 turnover margin. With that being said, Arizona finished fourth in the Pac-12 and lost in the Pac-12 semifinals to No. 1 seed Oregon.
With three players averaging at least 15 points per game and seniors Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski being nearly walking double-doubles, you would think Arizona has this game in the bag. But I expect Wichita State to create turnovers to provide Baker and Van Vleet with open looks on the offensive end. Senior Gabe York is a terrific scorer for Arizona, shooting 42.5 percent from deep, but Wichita State ranks first in the nation in scoring defense, only allowing 59.3 points per game.
I expect Marshall to design a game plan for Van Vleet and Baker in what should be a fast-paced, up-and-down game, which plays to the advantage of the Shockers.
No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 12 Yale
For the first time since 1962, the Yale Bulldogs are champions of the Ivy League and in the NCAA tournament. And make no mistake, this team has come to play. Playing SMU, Duke, USC and Illinois in non-conference games — although it lost all of them — coach James Jones’ team garnered valuable experience against major college basketball programs.
Seniors Justin Sears (15.8 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) and Brandon Sherrod (12.5, 7.1) lead the charge for the Bulldogs, with sophomore Makai Mason adding 15.8 points per contest. Even with senior captain Jack Montague dismissed from the team regarding sexual assault allegations, Jones has kept his team focused all season and will continue to do so in the first round on Thursday.
Baylor coach Scott Drew finds himself, once again, facing a team prime for an upset. Surviving a scare in 2012 against South Dakota State and losing last year to Georgia State in the first round, the Bears are a hot pick to go home early.
Despite Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince manning the middle for the Bears, averaging 15.2 rebounds per game between them, Yale is also a stout rebounding team, ranking second in the country in rebound margin at plus-11.1. The Bulldogs played sufficient competition in Ivy League play with Princeton and Columbia. Expect the Bulldogs to give Baylor a game in its first appearance in the Big Dance in 54 years.
No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Northern Iowa
Champions of the Missouri Valley tournament as a No. 4 seed, Northern Iowa took down No. 1 seed Wichita State in the semifinals and No. 2 seed Evansville in the finals on a dramatic buzzer-beater by senior guard Wes Washpun that seemed to hit every part of the rim before going through the net, sending the Panthers into pandemonium.
For the third time since 2010, coach Ben Jacobson has his Panthers in the NCAA tournament, where his team has won at least one game the previous two trips. Washpun, a transfer from Tennessee, is ready to prove that he is worthy of national praise. Having taken down North Carolina (without star Marcus Paige) and Iowa State already this year, Jacobson’s team knows how to win against Power Five conference schools and how to win in March.
On the other sideline stands Shaka Smart, the former VCU coach who led the Rams to a Final Four in 2011. Now coaching for the Longhorns, Smart is seeking to avoid a third straight year being beaten by a double-digit seed (Stephen F. Austin and Ohio State).
The wildcard for Texas is senior big man Cameron Ridley, who has been sidelined since the end of December after undergoing foot surgery. Ridley did play two minutes last Thursday in the team’s quarterfinal loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament.
Smart and his crew will need everyone to contribute to attempt to manage a balanced attack from Washpun, Matt Bohannon (11.8 points per game), Paul Jesperson (10.7) and Jeremy Morgan (10.4), who should all see over 30 minutes of action.
No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 14 Green Bay
The Green Bay Phoenix enter the NCAA tournament as the highest-scoring team in the field, averaging 84.2 ppg. Led by seniors Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse, this up-tempo attack exploits teams’ weaknesses while causing turnovers on the defensive end.
Lacking in size, Green Bay lets up a lot of fast-break opportunities with its press, but it makes up for its small stature in grit, athleticism and hustle. Junior guard Charles Cooper was a human highlight reel on the way to a Horizon League tournament championship last week and is a tough, physical player at 6-foot-4. He is possibly the best defender in the country.
Texas A&M has impressed analysts all season with consistent play from Danuel House (15.5 points per game), Tyler Davis (11.1 points, 6.1 rebounds) and Jalen Jones (15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds). Alex Caruso has also contributed greatly to the lineup, averaging 5.1 assists per game. Aside from the freshman Davis, the other three stars for A&M possess lots of experience and leadership in their senior year, which helped the Aggies to an SEC regular-season title.
However, it is alarming that coach Billy Kennedy’s squad dropped four in a row in February to three teams in the tournament, while the other was ousted in the First Four. The Aggies then went on to win eight straight, but three of their four losses were against SEC teams with the fastest tempo. Green Bay possess the sixth fastest tempo in the nation, according to KenPom, which makes the Phoenix a dangerous team.
If first-year coach Linc Darner can apply enough pressure to create more chances for his team to push and score the ball (plus-4.8 turnover margin), expect a high-scoring game in which the Phoenix might just pull off the upset of the 2016 tournament.
No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 13 Iona
In what will likely be the highest-scoring, and possibly, most-entertaining basketball game of the first round of the tournament, an experienced Iona Gaels team will try to take down first-year head coach Steve Prohm and Iowa State.
In any realm, it is difficult to see Iowa State losing, although it did last year. Led by All-Big 12 first-team forward Georges Niang and All-Big 12 second-team guard Monte Morris, the Cyclones possess a team that — on paper — appears poised for a deep run.. But it draws up a difficult first-round opponent in Iona. Actually, a difficult single player: A.J. English.
If you watch college basketball, you know about Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine, but what if I told you English might be on the same level as those two? He does everything for Iona. Averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game, English can score off the dribble, one-on-one or pull up from three.
Lucky enough for Iowa State, Prohm’s team has already faced Oklahoma’s Hield three times, so Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jameel McKay should be battle tested by the time the ball tips in Denver on Thursday.
I could overwhelm you with stats or talk about Jordan Washington, Deyshonee Much and Isaiah Williams, all who score around 13 points per game, but this game can be put simply as the A.J. English show. He is the type of player to take over a game and break down an opponent. Iona is a completely different team with English off the court, so don’t expect him to play less than 40 minutes against the Cyclones.