NCAA Tournament: 1st Round Picks For Thursday 3/16
Let the Madness begin. The best tournament in sports is finally upon us and that means a gambler’s paradise is set to open up for the next three weeks. This tournament has it all from enormous upsets to dominating performances. The buzzer-beater reigns supreme and hard work and talent are on an equal playing field.
With the majority of teams playing their games on a neutral site the skill and planning will rise above the support of the crowd and it’s important to break down every game to see where else teams will get an edge. That’s why we’re here as a guiding hand to help you get the best information and make the most solid pick you can, given the circumstances.
March isn’t a time to be safe, but it’s not a time to be foolish either. This is where the Madness comes in. Buckle up and get ready for the best event in all of sports. Let’s get to it!
*Seeds are only reflective of the team’s seed within the tournament. There are 64 teams with seeds ranging from #1 to #16 meaning there are four of each number in the tournament.
#12 Princeton Tigers vs #5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
- Princeton (+6.5) vs. Notre Dame (-6.5)
The Fighting Irish enter the NCAA Tournament with a little swagger in their step thanks to some recent success. They are the only team in the field to have reached the Elite Eight in tow straight tournaments and will be trying to draw from that experience when they take the court on Thursday to kick off the tournament against Princeton.
The Fighting Irish enter with a 25-9 seed overall and are ranked fifth in the West Region. They tip off against the Tigers who are 23-6 overall this season and the game between both teams will mark the official start of the Madness. Notre Dame is coming off a tough loss after reaching the ACC championship and running into a red-hot Duke team but are now rested and ready for revenge against the tournament field.
The Tigers aren’t going to be an easy customer. Princeton enters the tournament on a 19-game winning streak including a perfect 16-0 mark against the rest of their Ivy League conference members. They also dominated their league’s first championship tournament with two straight wins despite having to come back from a ten point deficit against Pennsylvania and dispatching a strong Yale team in the finals.
While the Ivy League doesn’t carry the same weight or skill as many of the other conferences it still usually produces a dark horse to make it deep into the tournament and Princeton certainly seems up fro the challenge. The Tigers last played in the tourney back in 2011 but had little to show for their efforts.
An Ivy League school has produced a big upsets n two of the past three years during the tournament as a 12th seed. Harvard took care of Cincinnati back in 2014 while Yale did way with Baylor just last year. Those kinds of results are encouraging for a Princeton team that has little experience against some of the better schools like Notre Dame in the tournament.
The Tigers are led by Steven Cook and Devin Cannady who both average exactly 13.7 points this season to make up the first half of four players who all average double digit scoring for Princeton. With no start player to lean on the Tigers will truly need a team effort if they are going to upset the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame certainly has a star and his name is Bonzie Colson. The Irish big man leads the team in points with 17.5 and rebounds at 10.2 and has 19 double-doubles this year. The Fighting Irish can also play defense and Colson’s presence at the rim will be tough for Princeton to penetrate.
Bonzie Colson against Spencer Weisz. As we said earlier Colson does everything for this Notre Dame team and that means playing some solid defense as well. He leads the team in blocks with 1.4 a game and will be responsible for helping to shut down Weisz who leads the Tigers in rebounds and assists. If Weisz is crafty enough to set up his teammates, pull down some boards, and avoid Colson it could be an interesting day in Buffalo.
Princeton earned a small spread with how well they’ve been playing this season but the Fighting Irish have been a dominant force in a much tougher conference this season and are just coming off a tough loss in the ACC championship. Take Notre Dame on the spread.
#12 UNCW Seahawks vs #5 Virginia Cavaliers
- UNCW (+7) vs. Virginia (-7)
The Seahawks may be a bit of an afterthought when it comes to all the other teams in the tournament but the Cavaliers would be foolish to underestimate them on Thursday when the two teams square off in round one of the tournament.
UNCW enters playing a much different brand of basketball than the Cavaliers and it’s going to make for a very interesting game. The number 12 ranked Seahawks are all about offense while the number 5 ranked Cavaliers bring their high-ranked defense into the game to try and shut them down.
Virginia is 22-10 overall this season and have the best scoring defense in all of college basketball. They held their opponents to a paltry 55.6 points all season long while also limiting them to just 39.5 percent shooting from the floor. The result has caused fans and bettors to do a double take when they look at the score the next morning. Take their game against Grambling when they limited them to just 34 points all night or when they held Robert Morris to just 39. In a victory over one of the highest scoring teams in the country they shut down North Carolina completely to the turn of just 43 points.
As strong as their defense has been this season the Seahawks know how to score the basketball. Their 29-5 record overall and 15-3 mark in the Colonial Athletic Association comes from being able to score at will this year including some seriously goo shooting from the perimeter. They average 85.2 points per game this season and while they’ve never gone up against a group as defensively strong as the Cavaliers chances are they’re going to find a way to get theirs.
UNCW is led by three players in the backcourt that can score in bunches. C.J. Bryce leads the team with 17.6 points per game, Chris Flemmings is right there with 15.8 and Denzel Ingram chips in with 14.5 of his own. They all helped to lead the Seahawks to drop 326 three-pointers this year, a number that ranks 14th in the country. They’re also hungry for a win after putting up a strong effort against Duke before ultimately bowing out in the first round last year.
The Cavaliers will need to be careful thanks to their struggling offense. They lost four straight games back in February thanks to a weak offense and will need to try and pick it up if they want to get past the Seahawks let alone go on a deep tournament run.
London Perrantes against C.J. Bryce. The Cavaliers already know their strength lies in their defense but they’re going to need to score as well and that responsibility falls mainly on Perrantes. Their senior guard is averaging just 12.5 points per game but hips in with 3.8 assists as well and is the only player on Virginia to average double digit scoring numbers. If he can’t find a way to slow down the pace, he’ll need to match Bryce offensively and that’s a game that Perrantes doesn’t want to play.
With so many people predicting a UNCW upset thanks to their high scoring the spread has shrunk to just seven points. While Virginia has struggled lately they still have the best defense in the country and that means a lot in a tournament like this. Take the Cavaliers to cover and hope Virginia makes UNCW play their game.
#13 Winthrop Eagles vs #4 Butler Bulldogs
- Winthrop (+11) vs. Butler (-11)
The Bulldogs continue to be a tournament staple and are now enjoying their highest seed ever thanks to a strong regular season. The number 4 seeded Bulldogs take on the number 13 seeded Eagles on Thursday at the Bradley Center in the third game of the afternoon on Day 1.
Butler enters with a 23-8 recover overall and finished a very respectable second in an extremely talented Big East Conference this season. The Bulldogs won four straight and five of their last six before losing their final two games of the season in the Big East tournament that included a 62-57 loss to Xavier in the quarterfinals. Despite the two losses to end the year the selection committee still liked what Butler had done all season long and awarded them their highest seed ever at number 4.
Now they enter their 9th tournament in the last 11 years and know what it takes to go on a deep run in March. They beat the defending champions Villanova twice this year and are excited to get things started when the ball tips on Thursday afternoon against Winthrop. The Eagles enter with a 26-6 mark overall and are an excellent 17-2 since the start of 2016. Both of their losses since the start of the calendar year have come in overtime and they’re just thrilled to be back in the tournament for the first time since 2010.
Kelan Martin against Keon Johnson. Martin has had an up and down season for the Bulldogs but after being sat due to a perceived lack of effort earlier in the year he seems to have found his drive. He led the team with 16.1 points and 5.7 rebounds this season and will try and take advantage of driving on Johnson. Winthrop’s guard is just five-foot-seven but was the Big South Player of the Year with 22.5 points per game this season and 99 three pointers. If he gets hot he can shoot the lights out in a hurry.
The Bulldogs know what it takes to make it far in this tournament and one of the first lessons is taking care of lesser teams. The Eagles have some strong players and can score in a hurry but Butler has been here before and already has a win in this arena this season when they dispatched Maryland. Take the Bulldogs on the spread.
#16 South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
- South Dakota State (+22) vs. Gonzaga (-22)
The last time the Bulldogs were ranked number one to start the NCAA Tournament was recently in 2013 and things didn’t exactly go as planned. Gonzaga barely held on against the 16th seed in the first game of the tournament and needed some clutch buckets in the final minute to pull out the victory then promptly lost in the next round to the ninth seeded Shockers as Wichita State marched all the way to the Final Four.
Now the Bulldogs get a chance to redeem themselves as they bring their 32-1 overall record and number one seed into the tournament for a chance at winning it all. They’ll be back in the same arena they lost in just four years ago, but will be ready to play against the 16th ranked Jackrabbits. This Gonzaga team seems deeper and more skilled than the squad that lost in 2013 and are 32-1 on the year for a reason. They handled their only competition in the West Coast Conference again when they beat St. Mary’s 74-56 to win the tournament title and will try to build off that momentum when the tournament kicks off.
The Jackrabbits have had a strong season by their standards but it will be tough for them to hang around against a team as deep and talented as the Bulldogs. South Dakota State are feeling confident after winning six straight games before the tournament and nine of their last 11 overall. They won the Summit League title and are going to be drawing on the experience of almost beating Maryland last year in the first round. They’re still 0-3 in the tournament overall and going up against a much superior Gonzaga team but the Jackrabbits will come to play.
Nigel Williams-Goss against Mike Daum. Williams-Goss has been incredible all year for the Bulldogs with averages of 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He makes it rain from the free throw line with a 91 percent shooting rate and is the most important piece on this Bulldogs team. He’ll need to worry a little more on defense in this game with the nation’s number two scorer opposite him. Daum averaged 25.3 points per game this year and is coming off a 37 point, 12 rebound game in the final of the Summit League.
As amazing as Daum has been this year and as strong as South Dakota State has looked recently their caliber of opponents don’t come close to what the Bulldogs have had to deal with this year. With that being said, Gonzaga will need to exercise some demons first and that means this game could be a little bit closer than the 22 points people are expecting. Take South Dakota State on the spread.
#13 Bucknell Bison vs. #4 West Virginia Mountaineers
- Bucknell (+14) vs. West Virginia (-14)
The Mountaineers will be happy to star their tournament off in Buffalo on Thursday. After all, it’s where they launched their last Final Four run from 2010 and have another strong team capable of making it deep this year. The number 4 seeded Mountaineers will try and make a deep run again when they kick off their tournament against the number 13 seeded Bison.
The Mountaineers enter with a 26-8 record but are coming off a tough six point loss to Iowa State in the championship of the Big 12 Conference. They have relied on their full-court defense all season long, earning them the nickname “Press Virginia” and we expect to see that frantic style of play when the ball tips on Thursday afternoon. They lead the country in steals this season with 10.4 a game and forced turnovers at 20.4. Their defense is ranked in the top five overall in the very trustworthy KenPom system and they also have the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year on their team in Jevon Carter.
While all that is excellent news for the Mountaineers they’ve struggled by their standards towards the end of the season and it could be due to the fatigue of playing the full-court press all year long. They’ll be ready on Thursday though after being upset as the number 3 seed last season
The Bison have what it takes to orchestrate another upset this year. They enter with a 26-8 record after winning the Patriot League title and are back in the tourney for the first time since 2003. They dropped a 15-3 record in the conference to win a second straight regular season title and swept the conference championship to earn an automatic bid into this year’s March Madness tournament. They enter this game on a six game winning streak and have won 14 of their last 16 games.
Jevon Carter against Nana Foulland. Foulland was the Patriot League Player of the Year this season with averages of 14.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and a whopping 2.1 blocks and while the competition he faced wasn’t up to par with what Carter had to deal with he’s still a big presence at the rim. He was also Defensive Player of the Year in the Patriot League but then again so was Carter in his conference. Both players will need to play strong defense in what could be a very low scoring game.
Bucknell went 2-3 against NCAA Tournament bound teams this season which is a very respectable mark but they’re still 0-8 all-time against the Mountaineers and we don’t see their fortunes changing on Thursday. The spread is large but if West Virginia can get their press working early it will be a long afternoon for the Bison. Take the Mountaineers on the spread.
#13 East Tennessee State Buccaneers vs. #4 Florida Gators
- East Tennessee (+10) vs. Florida (-10)
The Gators are back to finish what they started in 2014 after a deep run to the Final Four and while they have just one player from that team remaining on the roster he’s a good player to have. Kasey Hill will lead the charge for the Gators in his senior year and he’ll start with a tough test against the Buccaneers on Thursday on Day 1 of the tournament.
While it may seem like a lot to put the entire expectations of a team on one player that’s certainly what it feels like for Florida. The Gators are 24-8 overall this season and are an excellent team when Hill is running the floor well. He leads the team with 4.6 assists per game and chips in with 9.8 points. He’s also a strong defender and will need to lock it down on that end against the Buccaneers who are 27-7 overall this season and have a strong backcourt made up of T.J. Cromer and Desonta Bradford.
East Tennessee State is back in the tournament for the first time since 2010 and it’s mainly because of the play of Cromer. He’s the first player since a guy named Stephen Curry to score more than 40 points in the Southern Conference Tournament when he dropped 41 on Samford in the semis and leads his team with 19 points per game this season. He also dropped 23 on UNC Greensboro to win the conference tournament and earn his team an automatic bid into the Madness.
Cromer will be Florida’s main concern on Thursday but they have plenty of ways to shut him down including KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza who are two excellent defenders. Florida held their opponents to just 66.6 points per game this season thanks mainly to the play of those two in the backcourt and they’ll be expected to be strong against Cromer.
KeVaughn Allen against T.J. Cromer. As well as being arguably his team’s best defender, KeVaugn Allen also leads the Gators in points per game. With John Egbunu out for the year with a torn ACL he’ll be depended on more on both ends of the court and that means shutting down Cromer. The Buccaneer is feeling himself right now and will come out gunning for points.
East Tennessee State has won nine of their last ten and is playing extremely well as they enter the tournament. With four senior starters, they won’t be intimidated and have what it takes to cover the spread, if not win this game. Take the Buccaneers on the spread.
#12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders vs. #5 Minnesota Gophers
- Middle Tennessee (-1) at Minnesota (+1)
The Blue Raiders know what it’s like to be the underdog, and better yet, what it’s like to succeed as one. A year ago, Middle Tennessee was part of one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history when they knocked off the Michigan State Spartans. The Blue Raiders were the 15 seed and had zero expectations entering the tournament yet dug deep and knocked off the Spartans in a shocker for the ages.
Now they’re more mature and riding an awesome streak and ready to dance as a higher seed in this year’s tournament. They’ve won a ridiculous 20 of their last 21 games and are riding a ten game winning streak into Thursday’s round one action against the Gophers.
If any team is going to be ready to take on the Blue Raiders, it’s the Golden Gophers. Minnesota is enjoying one of the best turnarounds in all of college basketball this season. After going 8-23 last year they finished this season with a 24-9 record and have won nine of their last 11 games for a pretty impressive streak of their own to enter the tournament on.
Richard Pitino deserves a ton of credit for turning the program around after his team had just two wins in the Big Ten last year and saw three players suspended for posting sex videos online. That type of dysfunction has been dealt with and now the Gophers enter the tourney ready for redemption. They also come into the tournament I a great spot as the number 5 seed and playing in Milwaukee which is just a four hour drive from their home arena.
With that being said, the game is still going to be tough. Middle Tennessee dominated all season long in the Conference USA this year with a 30-4 record overall. They’re also undefeated with five wins on neutral courts this season and have six players still on the team from the time they shocked Michigan State last year. As strong as they’ve been they’re going to need to bring their absolute best this tournament thanks to some strong defense from the Gophers. Minnesota holds teams to just 63.3 points this year which ranks 21st in the entire country.
Giddy Potts against Nate Mason. Mason is averaging 15.5 points and 5.0 assists for the Gophers this season and while both numbers lead the team his 1.3 steals per game may be the most important stat. He’s a huge reason why Minnesota has been so strong on defense this year and will need to be at his best to lock down Potts. The Blue Raider is dropping 15.8 points per game with 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals of his own and is a menace on both sides of the ball.
Minnesota is playing close to home and coming off a huge bounce back season and actually getting a point. This game has the feeling of a buzzer beater at the wire and we like the Gophers to come out on top. Take Minnesota on the spread.
#9 Vanderbilt Commodores vs. #8 Northwestern Wildcats
- Vanderbilt (-1) vs. Northwestern (+1)
Congratulations are in order to the Wildcats who are in their first NCAA Tournament ever after a 77 year wait. Not only are they in the tournament for the first time but they actually have a decent seed and a chance at making some noise. The Wildcats open up their tourney against the Commodores on Thursday as the number 8 seed against a slightly favored number 9 seed in Vanderbilt.
It’s been a long time coming for the Wildcats who were perennially occupying the basement of the Big Ten conference before finally emerging this season with a 23-11 record. They’ve done it with defense all season long while scoring timely buckets to make it to the Big Ten semis before ultimately bowing out. They’re still as inexperienced as they come when the tournament is involved but they are as hungry as anyone and excited to get the games started.
Northwestern has turned in a great team performance all season long but they truly owe the brunt of their success to Bryant McIntosh. The junior guard is averaging 14.4 points and 5.3 assists per game and both numbers lead the team. He’s eclipsed the 20 point mark ten separate times this year and handed out over six dimes over 12 times. The Wildcats and McIntosh are one of the best teams in the nation at taking care of the ball and average just 10.5 turnovers per game while dishing out 15.8 assists for an awesome ratio.
While those numbers are excellent it’s not going to be an easy first game for the Wildcats when they take on the Commodores. Vanderbilt has had one of the toughest schedules in the land but their strong finish has put them in a spot to succeed. They ended with 19-15 record but won seven of their last nine to lock up a tournament spot. They beat number 4 ranked Florida three times this year and made it all the way to the SEC semifinals.
Unlike the Wildcats the Commodores rely on a very balanced offense to get the job done. Four different players average double digit scoring and the team has some unfinished business in the tournament after winning just one game in their last five appearances.
Bryant McIntosh against Luke Kornet. McIntosh won’t have to guard Kornet but Kornet will certainly protect the rim against McIntosh and his teammates. The Commodore big man averaged 13.2 points, 62. Boards and 2.0 blocks and if he gets into a rhythm early on defense it could be a long night for this upstart Northwestern team.
With both teams playing well this season but coming in either their own struggles this game basically amounts to a pick ‘em. As much as we love the Cinderella story of Northwestern we think they’re going to have to wait a little longer for their first tournament win. Take Vanderbilt on the spread.
#11 Xavier Musketeers vs. #6 Maryland Terrapins
- Xavier (+1.5) vs. Maryland (-1.5)
Both of these teams didn’t even know if they’d make it into the NCAA Tournament this year and yet here they are squaring off in round on action on Thursday in a highly anticipated matchup. Both teams struggled down the stretch and will try and right the ship on the biggest stage possible, the March Madness tournament.
Maryland enters with a 24-8 record overall while Xavier joins the party with a 21-13 mark of their own looking for an upset. The winner of this game will play either Florida State or Florida Gulf Coast and both teams want a crack at advancing in the tournament. Maryland is led by guard Melo Trimble who is dropping 17 points a game this season and thanks to his play the Terrapins looked like one of the elite teams in all of college basketball to start the season before they came crashing down to earth.
They won 20 of their first 22 games this season before fizzling out, losing six of their last ten including three straight at one point during the slide. After a disappointing loss to Northwestern, Maryland was booted from the Big Ten tournament in the quarterfinals and have been itching to hit the court ever since.
Xavier’s problems started with an injury when they lost arguably their best player to a torn ACL at the end of January when Edmond Sumner went down. The Musketeers were 18-6 on February 8 but lost six straight games before beating DePaul and Butler in the Big East Conference. Without those wins, Xavier is likely watching the tournament from home and they’ll try and ride that momentum on Thursday against Maryland.
Trevon Bluiett against Melo Trimble. It’s all about the guards when these two teams battle. Bluiett is averaging 18.1 points per game and has been incredible in picking up the slack after Sumner went down but will be in tough against Trimble who was a player of the year candidate earlier in the season. Whoever has the better game between these two may decide the outcome of the entire game.
Maryland’s struggles are well documented but Xavier has risen to the occasion time and time again to earn a spot in this tournament. The Musketeers are only getting a point and a half which means they essentially need to win this game to cover but we think they have what it takes to get it done. Take Xavier on the spread.
#16 Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers vs. #1 Villanova Wildcats
- Mount Saint Mary’s (+27) vs. Villanova (-27)
Villanova didn’t even know who were they playing until Wednesday when Mount Saint Mary’s won their First Four game to get into the tournament as one of the last #16 seeds. Now the Wildcats are well-rested and prepared to defend their title when they take on the Mountaineers on Thursday night.
Villanova enters with a 31-3 record and are trying to become the first defending champs since Florida accomplished the feat ten years ago in 2006 and 2007. While Villanova doesn’t want to look too far ahead the future of their bracket is looking good. If they can win their first two games they’ll get to play on a familiar court in the Sweet 16 which takes place at Madison Square Garden where they already locked up the Big East Championship this season with a big win over the Creighton Blue Jays.
Mount Saint Mary’s meanwhile is just happy to be here. They started the season at 1-11 but finished strong with a 19-4 record down the stretch. They’re making their fifth overall tournament appearance but little is expected from a team that had to win their play-in game just for a shot at the number one seeded Wildcats.
Villanova knows all about the tournament and this is the third time they’ve been the number 1 seed. They’ve been in a variety of situations over the years and will know not to take the Mountaineers lightly when the ball tips on Thursday night.
Josh Hart against Elijah Long. The Mountaineers have a balanced scoring attack with three different players averaging double digit scoring but Long leads the charge with 15.1 points per game with 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He also chips in with 1.6 steals and will need to use that skill to keep the ball out of Hart’s hands. Hart has been the star for Villanova this season with 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He also shoots over 50 percent from the field and is a problem with the ball in his hands.
27 points is as large as spreads come but Villanova is as good as teams come and more than capable of dealing with the Mountaineers. Take the Wildcats on the spread in what should be a bit of a blowout in the first round on Thursday.
#10 VCU Rams vs. #7 Saint Mary’s Gaels
- VCU (+4.5) at Saint Mary’s (-4.5)
The Gaels can breathe easy now that they’re in the tournament after being snubbed last year. Their excellent regular season didn’t get them in last year but after some excellent play again this season the selection committee had no choice but to give them a shot at March Madness. Saint Mary’s had enough quality wins and a strong enough RPI to get them into the tournament and now they get to start it off with a game against VCU.
The Gaels enter with the second strongest defense in the entire country and are now 28-4 overall this season. They allow just 56.5 points per game which is second only to Virginia. Three of their four losses came against number 1 ranked Gonzaga but they’ve held opponents to under 50 points on ten separate occasions and have all the tools necessary to lock down a team like the Rams.
They use close man-to-man defense and some excellent rebounding tactics to achieve their results and are especially dominant on the glass with a plus-9.3 margin on the boards which is second only to the Tar Heels. Their offense on the other end is slow but efficient as evidenced by their 49.6 percent shooting from the field which ranks 8th in the country.
They’re led by center Jock Londale who’s game is even better than his name. He shoots 60.9 percent of the field this season while leading his team in points and rebounds per game. He’ll be the “center” of attention for VCU when they start their tournament run on Thursday.
The Rams enter with a 26-8 record overall and are back in the tourney for the 7th straight year but have yet to get back to the Final Four after their magical run back in 2011. They haven’t made it past the round of 32 since then and will have a tough first step ahead of them against the Gaels.
VCU is led by Senior guard JeQuan Lewis who can pass and shoot with the best of them. He leads the team in points and assists while chipping in with a very strong 1.8s steals a game. The Rams are coming in without any hype and will be a sneaky out for the Gaels.
JeQuan Lewis against Jock Londale. A guard against a center is hardly a matchup that is likely to happen but with the way both players lock it down on defense they’ll be relied on heavily down the stretch as this game is set to be close. Londale has been a better player this season, but most of his production has come in a weaker conference.
The spread is somewhat large for a team from the West Coast Conference to cover and while the Gaels have looked dominant all season long VCU has faced stiffer competition. Take the Rams on the spread and hope they can make it close enough to cover.
#13 Vermont Catamounts vs. #4 Purdue Boilermakers
- Vermont (+9) vs. Purdue (-9)
It’s more than just a first round game for the Boilermakers when they take on the Catamounts in round one action on Thursday night. Purdue is trying to erase the memory of a first round upset they suffered last season and getting rid of old demons is never easy on a stage as big as the NCAA Tournament.
Purdue came in as the number 5 seed last season and were promptly eliminated by Little Rock in an 85-83 thriller after committing 18 turnovers. Now they enter as an even higher seed after winning the Big Ten regular season by two full games despite being knocked out early in the conference tournament. They’re 25-7 overall this season and despite their latest loss have looked good down the stretch. They won six straight before the Big Ten tourney and have won eight of their last ten games.
That doesn’t mean the Boilermakers don’t have problems though. Purdue is near the bottom of the league in turnover differential and still has trouble limiting teams’ shooting as their opponents are averaging 41.3 percent from the floor. They have an excellent offense led by Caleb Swanigan though and as long as he’s ready to go the Boilermakers can hang with anyone.
Their first game won’t be easy though as Vermont has looked dominant this season with a 29-5 record and haven’t lost a game since Butler defeated them before Christmas. The Catamounts are in the middle of a 21 game winning streak that is the longest in the nation and includes their perfect run though the America Easy regular season and conference tournament.
Unlike the Boilermakers the Catamounts take care of the basketball and average just 11 turnovers a game compared to their 13 assists. They have faced slightly easier competition this season but their run of dominance can’t be ignored and they look set to give Purude all they can handle on Thursday night.
Caleb Swanigan against Anthony Lamb. Both players play big inside and this battle will be the key to both teams chances of winning this game. Swanigan was the Big Ten Player of the Year this season and is a candidate for National Player of the Year thanks to an excellent campaign. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists this season and can help out all over the court. Lamb is big for the Catamounts and while his 12.6 points a game aren’t on the same level as Swanigan he’s still a force in the paint.
A Vermont win would shock few at this point with the way they’re playing but having a dominant player like Swanigan can carry a team far into the tournament and Purdue is set to win this game on Thursday. With that being said, it’s all about the spread here and we think Vermont can come together to cover. Take the Catamounts on the spread.
#14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles vs. Florida State Seminoles
- Florida Gulf Coast (+12) vs. Florida State Seminoles (-12)
Florida Gulf Coast has been a bit of a Cinderella powerhouse for a while now and are back in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons. They arrived on the scene with a vicious barrage of dunks five years ago, and after earning the nickname “Dunk City” during a deep run to the Sweet 16 are officially on the college basketball map.
The Seminoles meanwhile have their expectations much higher than just a visit to the Sweet 16. Florida State has missed the tourney in four straight years but after a dominant regular season are ecstatic to be back in the action. It’s going to be offense against offense when the Seminoles and Eagles get together on Thursday night and we couldn’t be more excited.
The Eagles are approaching that mythical basketball status as a team that everyone seems to get behind regardless of their circumstances. They enter with a 26-7 record and after their amazing run to the Sweet 16 just a few seasons ago know what it takes to move on in this tournament. They lost in the first round last year against North Carolina and will be out for revenge against a very tough Florida State team.
The Seminoles have found it difficult to partake in the madness with any sort of consistency but after a 25-8 record this season are ready to enter with a bang. They finished in second place in the ACC and have one of the most balanced lineups in the country. Florida State is led by Jonathan Isaac who look NBA ready with his six-foot-ten frame and averages of 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds a game while Dwayne Bacon has been a stud all season long for the Seminoles with 16.9 points per game.
The Eagles counter with Demetris Morant who averages 10.7 points and 8.0 rebounds inside to give Florida Gulf Coast some size against Isaac and the rest of the Seminoles. They also have a decent back court led by Zach Johnson who adds 11.8 points per game and Christian Terrell who drops 10.3. If they can combine to limit Bacon and the rest of the Seminoles’ crafty guards, we could be in for a tighter game than many predict.
Jonathan Isaac against Demetris Morant. Isaac is likely to go in the NBA lottery thanks to his size and athleticism but Florida Gulf Coast has always been known as a team to attack the rim and bring a physical nature to every game they play in. That’s going to need to start with Morant who will be in for one of the toughest battles of his college career.
The Eagles are going to give it their all because they know exactly what is capable of happening in this tournament but the Seminoles have been too strong in a tough conference all year to just let Florida Gulf Coast come in and ruin their party. Take the Seminoles on the spread in what could turn out into a bit of a blowout.
#9 Virginia Tech Hokies vs. #8 Wisconsin Badgers
- Virginia Tech (+5.5) vs. Wisconsin (-5.5)
It’s been a long time since the Hokies put on their dancing shoes but after a decade absence they’re back in the NCAA Tournament and ready to make some noise. They come in against a tough first round opponent with the Wisconsin Badgers ranked 8th and coming off another strong appearance but either team could easily emerge victorious in this first round matchup.
Wisconsin certainly has experience on their side. The Badgers have won 11 games in the NCAA Tournament over the past three years which is more than any other school involved in the Madness this year and will be aiming for another deep run. Despite their recent success this is the lowest seed they’ve had in the tournament since 2009 and have been shaky at best during the end of the regular season.
They enter with a 25-9 record overall and would have liked a much higher seed considering the four seniors they have on their team, two of which played in the final just two years ago. Despite their strong record the Badgers finished with five losses in six games before figuring it out in the nick of time to eventually make it into the Big Ten Championship only to lose to Michigan 71-56.
Virginia Tech enters with a 22-10 record and could care less about their ranking in the tournament as they’re just happy to be playing some meaningful basketball in March. This is just the Hokies’ first appearance since 2007 compared to the Badgers’ 19th straight tournament and the difference in experience will be a huge focal point.
Like the Badgers the Hokies have also had some great play out of their seniors this year including two players in their fifth year. Seth Allen was in the tournament for Maryland last year and is now averaging 13.4 points on 54 percent shooting including a blistering 45 percent from deep as a transfer student for Virginia Tech. He’s joined by Zach LeDay who is also a transfer from South Florida and is leading the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game while chipping in with 7.4 boards. Their desire to lead a team deep into the tournament is going to be on full display when the ball tips.
Still, the Hokies are in some trouble after losing their second leading rebounder to a season ending injury when Chris Clarke went down. They’ve compensated by moving their scoring outside where they connect on 40.3 percent of their threes, a number that ranks ninth in the country. They’ll need to make sure their shots are falling with the way the Badgers are playing defense. Wisconsin is among the best in KenPom defensive rankings and will try and slow down the Hokies’ excellent shooting early.
Ethan Happ against Zach Leday. Happ does it all for the Badgers and has all season long with 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds. He loves to play inside and will be a nuisance for LeDay all game long but if anyone can hold him down it may just be the Hokies’ big man inside.
As much as the Badgers have struggled down the stretch this season they’ve been here before, and countless times to say the least. Virginia Tech is making their first appearance in a long time and simply don’t have the depth or knowledge to take down a powerhouse like Wisconsin. Take the Badgers on the spread as they start another March Madness run with a big win against the Hokies.
#15 North Dakota Fighting Hawks vs. #2 Arizona Wildcats
- North Dakota (+16.5) vs. Arizona (-16.5)
It’s been a tough year for Arizona but no matter what seems to get thrown at the Wildcats they just continue to find ways to win. Arizona has dealt with suspensions and early injuries and while their depth suffered during the regular season they found a way to thrive. Allonzo Trier’s return from a 19 game suspension and Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s emergence have launched this team into the National Championship conversation.
Arizona enters with a 30-4 record and has all the talent in the world to try and get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011. The Wildcats survived all season to earn a share of the Pac-12 conference championship and then defeated Oregon in the final of the conference tournament. Now they have their sights set on getting back to Phoenix where the Final Four will take place this season.
The Wildcats didn’t just get their excellent record beating up on weaker opponents. They averaged 76.4 points on 47.0 percent shooting against their Pac-12 opponents this season and outscored everyone in the Pac-12 by an average of 9.7 points per game while outrebounding them by 6.5.
The return of Allonzo Trier has perhaps been the biggest catalyst for this team’s rise. Trier has only been in 15 games thanks to his lengthy suspension to start the year but has responded by leading the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game and can create plays all over the court.
His and the rest of his teammates’ opponents are the Fighting Hawks who captured the Big Sky championship to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. North Dakota swept the regular season and the tournament to earn its first trip to the Madness in school history. They come in with a 22-9 record having won ten of their last 11 games after a rough 5-6 start to the year. They showed some serious resolve in their last game too by coming back from an 11 point deficit in the second half to force Weber State to overtime where they ultimately completed the comeback and won 93-89.
The Fighting Hawks are second in both scoring and defense among the Big Sky conference teams. They average 80.5 points a game while holding their opponents to just 72.8. While the quality of the teams they play against aren’t anywhere near the level of what Arizona had to deal with they’ve still shown some brilliant stretches of basketball this season.
Lauri Markkanen against Quinton Hooker. Hooker has been lights out for the Fighting Hawks this season averaging 19.1 points. He shoots 87.7 percent from the line and connects on 43.6 percent of his shots from deep. He’ll be up against Markkanen though who has been hands-down one of the best players in college basketball this season.
The seven-footer from Finland is averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds and can also shoot. He bangs home 43.2 percent of his shots from deep despite being one of the tallest players in the country.
Thanks to the Fighting Hawks’ strong finish to the year they’re being rewarded with a respectful spread, but that doesn’t mean you should respect it. Arizona has been dominant all year and are now fully healthy and ready to go. Take the Wildcats on the spread.
#12 Nevada Wolf Pack vs. #5 Iowa State Cyclones
- Nevada (+6) vs. Iowa State (-6)
The Cyclones are slowly but surely making a name for themselves in the March Madness tournament. After winning the Big 12 tournament they’re back in the NCAA Tournament for the 6th straight year and this time they’re playing close to home.
The Cyclones have an important number 5 seed but maybe even more important than their ranking is their location. They’ll play their first game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee which is less than a 400 mile drive from Ames Iowa, the hometown of three Cyclones players.
Deonte Burton might benefit the most from the location. The Iowa State guard played tons of high school ball in the building and surrounding area and is having a great season for the Cyclones with 14.8 points per game while leading the team in rebounds at 6.2 The six-foot-five 250-pound player is a force everywhere on the court but especially on the glass against smaller guards. He’s also playing arguably the best basketball of his career with six straight games of at least 16 points.
Thanks to his and the rest of his teammates’ performances the Cyclones have now won nine of their last ten games including three straight culminating in the Big 12 championship. Not to be outdone are the Wolfpack who have won nine straight and enter with a 28-6 record overall.
Nevada won the Mountain West regular season title and then beat the Rams in the conference championship game to earn a trip to the Madness for the first time in a decade and just the seventh time in school history. They dominated the Mountain West on offense this season with 80.0 points per game and drilled 38.5 percent of their threes to lead the conference.
They are led by Cameron Oliver who averages 15.8 points and 8.7 rebounds and Jordan Caroline who drops 14.8 and 9.2 of his own. The two players have been two pillars of strength all season for the Wolfpack and will be the keys to getting by the Cyclones on the opening day of the tournament.
Cameron Oliver against Monte Morris. Morris won’t be guarding the towering Oliver but he’ll certainly be trying to score against him. The Cyclones’ guard is averaging 16.3 points with 6.1 assist to lead the team and will need to attack the rim and look for his teammates to get around Oliver and his ability to protect the rim. He averages a shocking 2.6 blocks a game and will be looking to swat away every opportunity.
The Wolfpack look awesome and matchup well inside against the Cyclones but Iowa State has been on a tear lately and come into the tournament having beat strong competition. Still, we like Nevada’s chances to make it close so take the Wolfpack on the spread.