NCAA Tournament: First Round Preview
The first two days of the NCAA Tournament are among the best days of the sports year. Games are on from noon until after midnight, mostly four at a time. They are filled with exciting plays, chaotic finishes, and huge upsets.
After the cancellation of last year’s tournament, this year should bring even more joy to viewers. This year’s opening slate features a lot of toss-up games, and a few potential upsets. Read up on all 32 first round games ahead of tip:
FRIDAY, MARCH 19
7 Florida vs. 10 Virginia Tech (12:15 PM, CBS)
This will be one of many toss-up games in the first round. Both teams have been in the second tier of their respective conference for pretty much the entire season. Florida is led by Tre Mann, who has put together a quality season. Mike Young’s Hokies, however, appear to be a bit stronger going into the tournament. They rebound well, and are very athletic.
The pick: Virginia Tech
3 Arkansas vs. 14 Colgate (12:45 PM, TRUTV)
This will be one of the higher scoring games of the first round. Colgate has absolutely dominated their opponents all season long, averaging close to 90 points per game. The Raiders might have a tough time with Arkansas, however. The Razorbacks also possess a high-caliber offense, averaging 82 points. They have also won 12 of their last 14 games. It might be close at times, but Eric Musselman should get it done.
The pick: Arkansas
1 Illinois vs. 16 Drexel (1:15 PM, TBS)
The Illini are red-hot going into the tournament, winning 14 of their last 15. After being tested all season long in the Big Ten, they are ready to make a deep run. Drexel’s run has been fun to follow, but Illinois should win with ease.
The pick: Illinois
6 Texas Tech vs. 11 Utah State (1:45 PM, TNT)
Chris Beard has produced some consistent results in recent years, both in the regular and postseason. His team is primed for another deep run, and have yet another efficient defense (24th in AdjD). Utah State has put together back-to-back tournament-quality seasons, and have the talent to make things interesting. Some big pieces are missing from last year’s team, however, and that missing offensive punch will swing the game in Texas Tech’s favor.
The pick: Texas Tech
2 Ohio State vs. 15 Oral Roberts (3:00 PM, CBS)
The Buckeyes lost their last four games going into the Big Ten Tournament, but proceeded to win three-straight before falling to Illinois in overtime. Don’t forget this was a top five team not too long ago. Oral Roberts has the nation’s top scorer, Max Abmas, but not enough to top the Ohio State.
The pick: Ohio State
1 Baylor vs. 16 Hartford (3:30 PM, TRUTV)
Many wondered how long it would take Baylor to regain its footing after its COVID-19 pause. Being in the Big 12 certainly didn’t help their cause. A game like this should help, going up against a Hartford team making it’s first-ever tournament appearance.
The pick: Baylor
8 Loyola-Chicago vs. 9 Georgia Tech (4:00 PM, TBS)
Toss-up game alert! This is one of the must-watch games of day one. Loyola-Chicago was the nation’s best mid-major (outside of Gonzaga), and ranks first in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. That defense will be tested as they clash against a Georgia Tech team that went from the NIT to a nine seed in the span of a few weeks. These teams are pretty evenly matched, but the Ramblers should have the edge due to their defense.
The pick: Loyola-Chicago
5 Tennessee vs. 12 Oregon State (4:30 PM, TNT)
Oregon State capped off a magical run in the Pac-12 Tournament with a win over Colorado last weekend. The Beavers have a tall task, playing a very deep and talented Volunteers squad that was highly praised coming into this season. Rick Barnes’ squad has the fourth-most efficient defense in the nation, which could cause problems for an Oregon State team that ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in scoring. Consistency has been an issue at times for Tennessee, but their talent should prevail in this one.
The pick: Tennessee
4 Oklahoma State vs. 13 Liberty (6:25 PM, TBS)
The Cowboys have played eight-straight games against ranked opponents, and won six of them. Yes, you read that right. Perhaps no team has had a more arduous stretch of games down the stretch than Oklahoma State. They have one of the best players in the country in Cade Cunningham, plus some really good supporting players. Liberty isn’t a pushover opponent, however, as they have the second-best scoring defense in the country.
The pick: Oklahoma State
8 North Carolina vs. 9 Wisconsin (7:10 PM, CBS)
Yet another toss-up game on day one, with two teams that fell short of their preseason expectations. North Carolina has more youth, which can lead to some offensive inconsistency at times. They rebound the basketball really well and have a solid defense especially near the rim. Wisconsin has a wealth of experience, with a number of seasoned veterans that they can throw at a team. This game is truly a toss-up, but North Carolina’s ability to rebound gives them the slightest of edges.
The pick: North Carolina
2 Houston vs. 15 Cleveland State (7:15 PM, TRUTV)
The Cougars are very good, and this could be the year they make a run, despite losing Caleb Mills in the middle of the season. Cleveland State was one of the Horizon League’s best teams all season long, but the Houston offense (eighth in AdjO) might prove to be too much.
The pick: Houston
4 Purdue vs. 13 North Texas (7:25 PM, TNT)
Not many expected Purdue to be this good at the beginning of the season, but they have proved to be a very solid and steady squad all year long. Trevion Williams is a tremendous player, and the Boilermakers have a lot of size and strength they can throw out there (like usual). North Texas isn’t a team to sleep on. They have shot the ball extremely well over the past two seasons, and have a top 50 defensive efficiency. This game has the potential to be an upset, but the Mean Green might come up just short.
The pick: Purdue
7 Clemson vs. 10 Rutgers (9:20 PM, TBS)
This website is Jersey-born, so Rutgers holds a special place, especially since it is their first tournament appearance since before anyone on the Best Available Player staff was born. They are tough, battle-tested, and experienced after a brutal Big Ten schedule. Clemson is a hard team to gauge after an up-and-down season with a few bad losses recently. Their defense is still among the nation’s best, but offense can be a struggle at times. Rutgers plays with an edge, and they should have one in this matchup.
The pick: Rutgers
6 San Diego State vs. 11 Syracuse (9:40 PM, CBS)
It happens every year, so let’s not be surprised. Syracuse got hot towards the end of the regular season and snuck into yet another tournament. This year’s team looks a little different than the previous ones. They don’t have as much size and length, but they pack a little more punch offensively than past teams. San Diego State was robbed of a deep run last season, and they might be this season as well. The duo of Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel is electric and could very well swing this game the other way.
The pick: Syracuse
3 West Virginia vs. 14 Morehead State (9:50 PM, TRUTV)
Morehead State is one of the hottest mid-majors coming into this tournament, but they might run into a buzz saw against West Virginia. The traditional defensive culture is still there with the Mountaineers, but this year’s team also features an elite offense. They ranked 11th in offensive efficiency this season, with a talented pool of players who can score.
The pick: West Virginia
5 Villanova vs. 12 Winthrop (9:57 PM, TNT)
Collin Gillespie is out, but let’s hold off on writing Villanova off just yet. Justin Moore will slide into Gillespie’s spot, and Moore had a great season, averaging close to 13 points a game. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is one of the more efficient and smart players that you will find, a prototypical Jay Wright player. Winthrop has everything needed to pull off the upset, however. They have depth, talent, and versatility, and can score in a number of different ways. Villanova should hang on, but a slow start could bury them against this Eagles squad.
The pick: Villanova
SATURDAY, MARCH 20
5 Colorado vs. 12 Georgetown (12:15 PM, CBS)
The Hoyas are red-hot, and have put together a very solid end-of-season stretch going into the tournament. They have a lot of athleticism, and gave a lot of their opponents trouble over the past month. Colorado for the second-straight season has been efficient on both sides of the ball. Georgetown might be the hotter team, but Colorado’s consistency should prevail.
The pick: Colorado
4 Florida State vs. 13 UNC Greensboro (12:45 PM, TRUTV)
The Seminoles are long, athletic, and deep, and will throw a lot at Wes Miller’s Spartans. UNC Greensboro is good on defense, and if they can generate points off turnovers they can make things close. Florida State, as long as they limit mistakes, should take care of this one.
The pick: Florida State
3 Kansas vs. 14 Eastern Washington (1:15PM, TBS)
Eastern Washington is a sneaky good mid-major, and have the firepower to keep up with high-major programs. The big question here will be how Kansas will bounce back from their COVID-19 pause. The Jayhawks’ defense will help them ease back into the flow of the game. Kansas ranked sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency this season, and will make it hard for the Eagles to put together multiple solid possessions.
The pick: Kansas
8 LSU vs. 9 St. Bonaventure (1:45PM, TNT)
Toss-up game alert! This will be one of the best games on Saturday, featuring two really intriguing teams. LSU has potential to really blow this tournament wide open. If they can get past the Bonnies, they have the talent to give Michigan fits. Their offense was top five in efficiency, and has three guys who can score 15 or more points per game. They will be tested against St. Bonaventure’s defense, which ranks among the nation’s best. This game is truly a toss-up, but LSU has the slight edge, especially with their ability to score.
The pick: LSU
1 Michigan vs. 16 Texas Southern (3:00 PM, CBS)
Not having Isaiah Livers will 100 percent impact the Wolverines’ ability to make a deep run. They face a Texas Southern team that had a huge second half turnaround in their First Four game Thursday night. With that being said, Michigan is on an entirely different level, and should be able to build some continuity in their post-Livers rotation.
The pick: Michigan
5 Creighton vs. 12 UC Santa Barbara (3:30 PM, TRUTV)
This is perhaps the most popular upset pick, and it is clear why. UC Santa Barbara tore through the Big West during the regular season, and they have one of the most exciting guards at the mid-major level in JaQuori McLaughlin. Creighton was a top 10 team early on in the year, and still grades out exceptionally well. They are one of the most-efficient shooting teams among power conference teams, and a lot of their opponents struggle to keep up with it. It will be close, but the Bluejays should bounce back after their Big East Tournament loss.
The pick: Creighton
2 Alabama vs. 15 Iona (4:00 PM, TBS)
Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Tournament, and it looks like he might be a regular visitor again over the coming years. His Gaels have some size and length in the frontcourt, but they have endured the most shutdowns out of anyone in the country. Alabama has too much offensive firepower for them to handle, and the Crimson Tide should roll onto round two.
The pick: Alabama
6 USC vs. 11 Drake (4:30 PM, TNT)
The Bulldogs barely hung on Thursday night against Wichita State, and will have a quick turnaround against one of the better teams on the west coast this season. USC has quietly been one of the better teams in the country, and can beat you in a number of different ways. Drake is good, but USC has a lot of pro-level talent. The Trojans potential deep run begins here.
The pick: USC
2 Iowa vs. 15 Grand Canyon (6:25 PM, TBS)
Not as many people are high on Iowa compared to the beginning of the season, mainly due to the injuries they sustained down the stretch. They aren’t as deep as they used to be, and their defense is still susceptible at times. With that being said, their ability to shoot the ball efficiently, as well as rebound (Luka Garza) will get them to the next round. Grand Canyon might generate some highlights, but a lot would have to align for them to pull off the upset.
The pick: Iowa
7 UConn vs. 10 Maryland (7:10 PM, CBS)
Toss-up alert! UConn is the popular pick here, and rightfully so. Their first season in the Big East felt like they never left, and they have exciting talent all throughout the roster. James Bouknight has been one of the best guards in the country, but he will have to crack a gritty Maryland defense. That has been the Terps’ identity this season: toughness. It is a much more balanced team this year after losing pros Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. A battle-tested Maryland team could very well edge out a win in the final minutes.
The pick: Maryland
4 Virginia vs. 13 Ohio (7:15 PM, TRUTV)
Ohio is gaining a lot of steam in this game. They capped off a very strong MAC Tournament run last week, and face a Virginia team coming off of a COVID-19 pause. Like Kansas, there are questions about how the Cavaliers will look in their opening game. The defending champions should ease back in fairly quick, especially if they can get shots to fall early. Ohio’s Jason Preston is electric, and could help the Bobcats go on a big run at some point during the game. Virginia, if they can withstand that run, should be able to keep their title defense going.
The pick: Virginia
8 Oklahoma vs. 9 Missouri (7:25 PM, TNT)
The Sooners can’t seem to catch a break, as star guard De’Vion Harmon will miss their first two games due to COVID-19. He is an integral piece of their offense, and a fast start will be imperative to a team that has lost five of their last six games. Missouri has had a solid season, and should be able to take advantage of Harmon being out. If Alondes Williams has a big game filling in for Harmon, Oklahoma should be able to hang on. This game is another toss-up.
The pick: Oklahoma
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 Norfolk State (9:20 PM, TBS)
The pursuit for the Bulldogs’ first title begins against a Norfolk State team that edged out a close win in the First Four. Gonzaga is very, very good, and their high-powered offense will be too much for the Spartans.
The pick: Gonzaga
6 BYU vs. 11 UCLA (9:40 PM, CBS)
Teams that play in the First Four tend to have some success in the Round of 64, and UCLA could be part of that group this year. They won a tough overtime game against Michigan State in the play-in round, and showed that they still are the team that looked really solid throughout the first few months of the season. BYU is a good team that does a lot of things the right way, so they never will really be out of a game. UCLA, however, has a very good offense, and if their defense plays like a traditional Mick Cronin defense they will continue their run.
The pick: UCLA
3 Texas vs. 14 Abilene Christian (9:50 PM, TRUTV)
Abilene Christian has dominated teams all season long, but Texas will be a major step up in competition. The Longhorns are very deep, especially at the guard position, and are position for one of the deeper runs they have had over the last decade. There might be times that this game looks like an upset, especially if Texas gets a little reckless with the ball, but their final push will be too much for the Wildcats.
The pick: Texas
7 Oregon vs. 10 VCU (9:57 PM, TNT)
This game will be a great one to close out the first round. VCU has put together yet another quality season in the Atlantic 10, and they are led by the A-10 Player of the Year “Bones” Hyland. The matchup between their defense (10th in AdjD) and the Oregon offense (15th in AdjO) will be a must-watch. Oregon’s ability to shoot the ball might propel them into another deep March run, and they will be hungry to bounce back from their disappointing exit to in-state rival Oregon State at the Pac-12 Tournament.
The pick: Oregon
(Cover Photo: Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports)