Ah, the best time of the year. The drama of Thursday and Friday is only matched in magnitude by the anticipation in the days leading up. Every single game, player, and possibility needs to combed through diligently, so we can all succeed in our brackets or embrace the beautiful chaos of March Madness.
To make the whole thing easier to swallow, we’ll break the bracket into its four regions. From there, we’ll step beyond the arc and try to hit some threes, highlighting trios of the bests and biggests in each set of 16 teams.
For our next region, let’s head West.
Three Most Interesting First Round Games
(4) Duke vs (13) UNC-Wilmington
ESPN’s Jordan Brenner runs a model to determine which high seeds are vulnerable and which low seeds have a shot at an upset. This year, they added a new functionality: comparing match-ups to past “Giant Kills”. This match-up in particular led to some interesting results:
UNCW is quick, small, and loves tempo. Duke has depth issues, no true veteran point guard, and lacks the inside scoring that could expose the Seahawks. Watch for foul totals in this game. If Duke shoots a ton of free throws, it won’t just be because they are Duke, UNCW sent opponents to the line at the second highest rate in the nation. All those foul shots could bolster a Duke win, but if the refs let them play or the Devils get the yips at the line, watch out.
(6) Texas vs (11) Northern Iowa
Two teams who made their names this season based on early season home wins against a top team. Funny enough, in both cases, the top team in question was North Carolina. The Heels are glad to see both of these teams across the bracket, rather than looming in their region. Both have high ceilings, capable of beating anyone.
Wes Washpun may sound like a superhero’s friend in a comic book, but by March’s end you may well know the Northern Iowa guard’s name for other reasons. He could make some noise this month.
(8) St. Joe’s vs (9) Cincinnati
The Hawks come in on a hot streak, but nothing throws a team off of their comfort level like some good old fashioned backyard wrestling, which is what Cincinnati calls defense. Mick Cronin always seems to have a bench full of athletic specimens who take joy in terrorizing opposing ball handlers. St. Joe’s had serious trouble late in the A-10 title game against VCU’s press. With a week to prepare, look for De’Andre Bembry to handle the ball more and control the tempo.
Three Best Players
Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
The most interesting thing about Buddy Hield in this tournament is how high his ceiling is and how low is floor is. He is absolutely capable of gunning Oklahoma to the National Championship. He is also capable of a 2-12 night and a sad face in the “One Shining Moment” montage. This March will be a lot more fun if we see the former and forget I mentioned the latter.
De’Andre Bembry (St. Joe’s)
Bembry is a really interesting player and the school that may be the least interesting for him. My new favorite question to ask people in Philadelphia is “Would De’Andre be Villanova’s best player?”. They start screaming, whether they agree or not.
Here’s the crazy part: HE WOULD BE. When push comes to shove, there aren’t many teams where Bembry wouldn’t be their best guy. He’s averaging 17-8-5 like it’s nothing with a good, not great mid-major team around him. The number of St. Joe’s players to shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc this season? A whopping zero. Give Bembry some space and his game would expand to new heights.
Gary Payton II (Oregon State)
Speaking of players who didn’t get enough love this season: I love me some little Glove. The Mitten was a monster for the Beavers in the Pac-12 this season. Check out his rankings in major statistical categories this year, per game, compared to his conference:
Points: 15.9 (7th)
Rebounds: 7.9 (9th)
Assists: 5.1 (3rd)
Steals: 2.5 (1st, 6th in the nation)
Blocks: 1.2 (8th)
That’s how you fill a stat sheet, on both ends of the floor.
Honorable Mention (in no order): Brandon Ingram (Duke), Dillon Brooks (Oregon), Danuel House (Texas A&M), Grayson Allen (Duke), Taurean Prince (Baylor)
Three Stats That Make You Say “Huh.”
- No team in the tournament returned a greater percentage of their minutes played from last season than Cincinnati…and they won a first round game last year.
- Baylor was 3rd in offensive rebounding rate and 126th in defensive rebounding rate….Yale was 7th in offensive and 7th in defensive. Battles for boards should be fiesty.
- VCU, as usual, was top 5 in the nation in steal percentage with their Havoc defense….Potential second round opponent Oklahoma had the ball stolen from them 51st most often.
Three Teams Who Could Make the Final Four
Oklahoma: The Sooners live on 3-pointers. If the well goes dry, they’ll be out of luck. But by the same token, if they play sloppy defense or aren’t careful with the ball, the longball can always bail them out.
Texas A&M: When they lost 5 out of 6 midseason, people wrote the Aggies off. But four of those losses came on the road and all five came to KenPom top 100 opponents. Since that swoon, they won 8 in a row before giving Kentucky all they could handle in the SEC title game. This is a team full of seniors, but their most important player, freshman Tyler Davis, has been growing up all year. If he has a big tournament, the Aggies go deep.
There’s always one region that hits the fan. I think Oregon deserved to be in the discussion for a number one seed and Oklahoma was the best team in the nation a few months ago, but both are vulnerable. We talked so much about this being the year of parity, so why wouldn’t that continue in the tournament? There are ten teams in this region able to make a deep, deep run. Figuring out which ten and how deep their run can actually go is up to you.
Three Really Bold Predictions
St. Joe’s beats Oregon.
Only one of Duke, A&M, Baylor, and Texas survives the first round.
Buddy Hield never scores more than 20 points in a tournament game.
Header image via Marco Garcis
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.