Great First Round Matchups
by Phil Kasiecki
So far, many people, myself included, have voiced complaints about the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s job with some seeds. As the seeds will not change, we should make the most of what there is – and that includes many intriguing first round matchups, perhaps more than we have seen in many years. You don’t have to wait until the regional finals or even the Final Four for great games to watch.
Here is a look at some of the matchups worth keeping an eye on.
(4) Kentucky vs. (13) Valparaiso
This game could be one of the big first round upsets this year. Valparaiso has been a Cinderella before, and this is not one of Kentucky’s better teams. The Wildcats have been unpredictable this season, looking unbeatable one night and mediocre the next. They don’t shoot the ball very well and lack the star power of recent teams, though they are solid rebounding the ball. Further hurting this team over the course of the season was many off-court problems with players leaving, being suspended, or just having attitude problems. Valparaiso shoots the ball well and is a veteran, well-coached team with good chemistry, and it showed with a school-record 25 wins. This team also has good balance, and Mid-Continent Player of the Year Lubos Barton has emerged as a go-to guy.
(5) Marquette vs. (12) Tulsa
Call this one the battle of two unknowns. Marquette was one of the bigger surprises in college basketball this season thanks largely to star Dwayne Wade. With Cordell Henry at the point and solid shooter Travis Diener, this team is solid at the offensive end as evidenced by their 47.4% shooting and just 13.9 turnovers per game. Some feel Marquette was slighted with a number five seed. Tulsa is similar, as they shoot 47.7% from the floor and turn the ball over just 12.8 times per game, which means that we should see a good game with fundamental basketball. Tulsa has a solid backcourt led by senior point guard Greg Harrington, but they also have a good inside threat in junior Kevin Johnson. Neither team shined against tournament teams during the regular season, but Marquette played and won more games against them, giving them a slight edge there.
(7) North Carolina State vs. (10) Michigan State
This could be the best game of the first round. Michigan State came on in the latter half of the season, as Tom Izzo’s club was hit by injuries early and inexperience did not help. Meanwhile, North Carolina State finally had the breakthrough season long expected after Herb Sendek took over as head coach. They did it behind a solid perimeter unit led by do-everything guard Anthony Grundy and freshman Julius Hodge, and freshmen Josh Powell and Jordan Collins helped on the low post. Michigan State might have the edge here with Marcus Taylor playing very well of late and a more experienced and physical front line. The Spartans also shoot 39.8% from behind the three-point line and have several good threats.
Pick: Michigan State.
(8) St. John’s vs. (9) Wisconsin
Call this game the matchup of indescribable teams. Wisconsin is a well-balanced team that wins games largely on intangibles; they don’t shoot the ball exceedingly well, they aren’t as good defensively as in past years, they have more turnovers than assists (not by much) and won’t beat many teams on the glass. St. John’s, meanwhile, was very inconsistent and struggled mightily at the offensive end this season. They don’t play overwhelming defense and generally go with a small lineup that features do-everything guard Marcus Hatten. The Red Storm has capable players, but many of them did not play their best basketball this season.
Pick: St. John’s
(6) California vs. (11) Pennsylvania
The Golden Bears make a long trip to play the champion of the Ivy League, a strong Quaker team that could pull off an upset. The Golden Bears are solid defensively, while the Quakers are smaller and capable of running and are solid at the offensive end. California can run, but that is not their preferred style. The Quakers shoot over 48% from the field, including 39.7% on three-pointers. If the Golden Bears can establish the tempo and use their height advantage inside, and play good perimeter defense, they should come out on top in this one.
(7) Oklahoma State vs. (10) Kent State
Many figured that red-hot Kent State would be the top team to come out of the strong Mid-American Conference, though Ball State and Bowling Green made early runs at the top. The Golden Flashes enter the tournament having won 18 straight games behind an excellent perimeter trio of Trevor Huffman, Antonio Gates and Andrew Mitchell, all of whom score more than 15 points per game. They shoot the ball well, defend, and take care of the ball. Oklahoma State was everyone’s pick to challenge Kansas in the Big 12, but the Cowboys struggled after a good start before picking up their stride again late. After starting strong and looking like he’d live up to his preseason All-America hype, Maurice Baker was slowed by injuries and did not shoot the ball well later in the season. He also played limited minutes in the final games. That means that the Cowboys will need players like Victor Williams, Fredrik Jonzen and Andre Williams to step up.
Pick: Kent State.
(1) Kansas vs. (16) Holy Cross
This will not be the year a number 16 seed wins a game in the NCAA Tournament, but Holy Cross could make Kansas work harder than any of the others. The Crusaders nearly knocked off Kentucky last year and have returned with several key players from last season’s team. They did not win a game against an NCAA Tournament team, but they played several good non-league teams closely. Kansas has too many weapons not to come out on top, but don’t be surprised if Holy Cross makes this one interesting for a while.
(4) Illinois vs. (13) San Diego State
In the preseason, many figured Illinois would be among the teams battling for the number one seeds, but a slump early in conference play changed that. The Illini got their act together in time to finish the season strong before Ohio State knocked them off in the Big Ten semifinals. They are a battle-tested veteran team that plays physical basketball and has solid guards in Frank Williams and Cory Bradford, and Brian Cook finally took his immense talents and developed consistency. San Diego State makes their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985, and they match up well with the Illini. The Aztecs are a dangerous team in good and bad ways – mainly, they are a talented but unpredictable bunch. They are not tremendously deep, but they have four starters who together can give any team a hard time. This game could either be an Illinois blowout or a San Diego State upset win.
(6) Texas vs. (11) Boston College
This game is a matchup of two guard-oriented teams, though Texas has a clear edge in the frontcourt with James Thomas leading the way. The Longhorns have T.J. Ford, an excellent playmaker who led the nation in assists, running the show as well, and he got better as the season went along. He is complemented on the perimeter by sophomores Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey, both of who shoot the ball well and have improved markedly from their freshman season. The Eagles were one of the most inconsistent teams in the country, especially star point guard Troy Bell. Giving the Eagles a chance in this game is Bell’s ability to get hot and take over games, and the solid post play of Uka Agbai. The Eagles have also fared well against teams with big frontlines when they play good defense, and have fared well away from home this season.
(8) Western Kentucky vs. (9) Stanford
The highlight of this game will be the matchup of arguably the two best big men in the country, Chris Marcus of Western Kentucky and Curtis Borchardt of Stanford. Western Kentucky won 28 games, with Marcus missing many of them, showing that this team is more than Marcus. Patrick Sparks shoots the ball very well and was among the nation’s best freshmen. Stanford, meanwhile, looked solid at times and so-so at others. They were blown out in the quarterfinals of the Pac Ten Tournament by USC, so they don’t enter the NCAA Tournament on a good note. Western Kentucky should take this one, while Stanford waits until next year.
Pick: Western Kentucky.
(5) Miami vs. (12) Missouri
This game features two teams that may not get past the second round, as Missouri started strong before having to get the last at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, and Miami doesn’t enter with a lot of momentum as well after running through their soft non-conference schedule unscathed. The Hurricanes’ non-conference run was not a fluke; aside from depth concerns, this team is legitimate, with good veteran players. Where this matchup gets interesting is looking at depth and rebounding: the Hurricanes have a good front line, but they are not the world-beaters on the glass that they should be, and Missouri is deeper all around. If Missouri can play 40 minutes with some life, they should knock off Miami.
(7) Xavier vs. (10) Hawaii
This matchup may rival another 7-10 matchup for the best first-round game. Xavier consistently won all season long, beating no great teams but going 4-2 against NCAA Tournament teams and beating many above average teams en route to an RPI that ranked 14th. For all the good results, however, this team as a whole is not as dangerous as past Musketeer units. They are not as deep, though they feature a bona fide star in post player Dave West, and sophomore wing Romain Sato can shoot the lights out from long range and is a great athlete. The Rainbows are a good defensive team and take good care of the basketball. Predrag Savovic leads an excellent perimeter unit at the offensive end, and this team has become very good away from home. They also went 5-1 against NCAA Tournament teams, so don’t be surprised not only if the knock off Xavier, but even get to the Sweet 16.
(8) UCLA vs. (9) Mississippi
This has the makings of a sloppy, but interesting, basketball game. UCLA is another of many teams in the NCAA Tournament that can be summed up by the word “unpredictable”. They beat some of the nation’s best teams, while losing to bad teams. While they shoot the ball very well, especially from long range, they have had problems at the point all year as well as Dan Gadzuric not showing up consistently. Mississippi, meanwhile, likewise is turnover-prone at the offensive end and often wins ugly games. They have an edge at the point with one of the nation’s smallest players in 5’5″ Jason Harrison, who knows how to run a team and plays well in the clutch.