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.
Next up, the region playing in my backyard, the East.
Three Most Interesting First Round Games
(8) USC vs (9) Providence
Everyone who lives east of the Mississippi probably thinks Providence will coast here. They’ll have the two best players on the court and most of their games end by 11 PM EST.
Don’t sleep on the Trojans, though (There’s a joke there, but this is a family blog!). They already have five wins against tournament teams this season. Their 9-9 PAC-12 record isn’t stellar, but nearly all of their losses were to the best of the best or came in tough road atmospheres. For the most part, USC has beaten who they should and lost to teams better than them. The question then, is where does Providence fall on that spectrum?
(3) West Virginia vs (14) Stephen F. Austin
Bob Huggins loves to play aggressive defense and get after teams, coercing turnovers and steals from backpedaling opponents. His Mountaineers forced the 2nd most turnovers in all of Division I.
SFA head coach Brad Underwood used to be Huggins’ assistant and shares the same philosophy. His Lumberjacks forced the most turnovers in all of Division I.
I’ve never done cocaine while riding a mechanical bull in the bed of a speeding pickup truck, but watching this game will probably feel similar.
(5) Indiana vs (12) Chattanooga
What’s the one thing Indiana really struggles with? Turning the ball over. They finished 282nd in turnover percentage on offense.
What does Chattanooga do best? Take the ball from their opponents. They led their conference in turnover and steal percentages on defense.
That sound you just heard was the state of Indiana collectively gulping.
Three Best Players
I spent the hours between Stony Brook clinching their tournament bid and the Selection Show praying to the gods of college basketball. I had one goal in mind: let Jameel Warney avoid the teams with elite big men.
Seeing him try his best against Purdue’s frontline would have been tragic, but we luckily avoided that. Instead, we’ll get to see what Warney can do against the blue-chippers of Big Blue Nation. If there’s hope for Skal Labissiere as an NBA prospect, stopping Warney, a tough task, would be a good place to start.
Kris Dunn/Ben Bentil (Providence)
Ok, so I’m cheating here. Dunn and Bentil have been the nation’s most potent combination all season. Bentil has proven himself to be much more than the beneficiary of Dunn’s court vision and Dunn is potentially the biggest two-way gamechanger in this tournament.
Tyler Ulis/Jamal Murray (Kentucky)
Fine, let’s keep cheating and picking duos. This time, it’s the country’s best backcourt. Murray has been absolutely scorching since the New Year and will almost surely break the NCAA record for 3-pointers by a freshman (set by…guess who).
Ulis meanwhile continues to be the most interesting, most fun, and most exciting 5’9 player since…ever? The two fit perfectly side-by-side, which is nice, because there may not be two players I’m more eager to see in this tournament that these two.
Honorable Mention (in no order): Thomas Walkup (SFA), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Brice Johnson (UNC), Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), Edmond Sumner (Xavier)
Three Stats That Make You Say “Huh.”
- Kris Dunn led the Big East in assist rate…and steal rate.
- Only four teams in the nation scored a higher percentage of their points on 2-point shots than FGCU…and one of those was their first round opponent, North Carolina. Who’s ready to see some deuces??
- Tulsa, believed by many to not be worthy of a spot in the field (keep in mind what VCU did when they received the same distinction a few years ago), is the most expereinced team in the nation, based on average service time….with seven seniors and a junior in their rotation.
Three Teams Who Could Make the Final Four
North Carolina: The Tar Heels won the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles. They did the latter by topping Virginia and their vaunted slow pace attack. North Carolina showed they can win even when they aren’t in their comfort zone.
Xavier: The X is definitely gon’ give it to ya, and they do so in so many different ways. Just when you think you have them figured out, James Farr lumbers off the bench to dominate the glass or JP Macura checks in and hits four quick triples. They may be the most malleable team in the tournament, and that is a winning formula in March.
Kentucky: The most amazing thing about John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky is their ability to peak at the right time. Filled with young players, they grow and develop around one another as the season progresses. The way he slowly gives them more and more confidence and freedom is like a jockey holding his horse back for the stretch run. Now Cal goes to the whip and heads for the finish line.
Three Really Bold Predictions
Indiana beats Kentucky and Carolina.
Stephen F. Austin makes the Sweet Sixteen, winning twice by double-digits.
Wisconsin, yes that Wisconsin, reaches the Final Four.
Header image via Gerry Broome/AP
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.