Let the madness begin!



Kansas State’s Mason Schoen, left, and Kade Kinnamon (40) leave the court after a regional final NCAA college basketball tournament game against Loyola-Chicago, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Atlanta. Loyola-Chicago won 78-62. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Let the madness begin!

March Madness is here. The field of 68 has been selected, and teams are now beginning to prepare for their first-round matchups. Seedings aside, all showdowns in the opening round are expected to entertain from the opening tip until the final buzzer. Which teams will pull off improbable upsets? How many brackets will be busted? All questions will be answered in the coming days, as the first round begins on Thursday afternoon. Here are a few of the most intriguing matchups fans of “The Big Dance” will be treated to this week. 


South Region

(8) Maryland vs (9) West Virginia (Thursday @ 12:15 P.M. on CBS)

What a game this is to kick off the opening round of March Madness. A top-tier defensive team, Maryland, gets to take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. Maryland defeated Minnesota before falling to Indiana in the Big 10 Tournament. West Virginia beat Texas Tech before losing to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. Both of these teams missed the tournament last year, after second-round exits in the 2021 campaign. With a trip back to the second round on the line, the biggest key to prevailing in this game will be the play of the defenses. Maryland’s defense allowed just over 63 points per game so far, while West Virginia’s defense has not been as successful, allowing 71 points per game. Offensively, Maryland has been outscored by West Virginia, but given how tough the Terrapins’ defense is, that will be the balancing factor. Coaching, however, is a major factor in every NCAA tournament. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is one of the best coaches in the tournament, and knocking out his team is going to be a challenge. However, with the overall play of their team on both sides of the ball, I expect Maryland to come out on top in this opening game.


(4) Virginia vs (13) Furman (Thursday @ 12:40 P.M. on truTV)

Coming off an ACC Championship Game loss to Duke, Virginia received a difficult draw to begin their March Madness campaign. Southern Conference Tournament champion Furman enters this game riding a six-game winning streak, scoring at least 70 points in every matchup. They face their toughest test this season, however, facing a Cavalier defense that finished sixth-best in the country, allowing slightly more than 60 points per game. The vulnerability of Virginia’s defense is the three-point shot, as opponents shoot greater than 34% against them. Furman’s offense relies heavily on long-distance shots, as 46% of their field goal attempts this season were from three-point range. Converting almost 35% of those shot attempts, the Paladins will need that same production in order to pull off an upset against this Virginia team. Looking to bounce back after a year they missed the tournament, Virginia faces off against a Furman team that has qualified for the tournament for the first time in 43 years. In a game many think Virginia could dominate, I believe that the Paladins will bring a lot of energy into this game and pull off an impressive upset win over the Cavaliers. 


(3) Baylor vs (14) UCSB (Friday @ 1:30 P.M. on TNT)

Just two years after winning the National Championship, Baylor finds themselves back in the tournament again, matching up against the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara. Entering the tournament on a seven-game winning streak, UCSB is in search of their first NCAA tournament win since 1990. The Gauchos defeated Cal State Fullerton in the Big West final to secure a berth in the bracket. Baylor was defeated by Iowa State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, but still earned a three-seed in the tournament. Going up against an offense that averaged over 77 points per game will not be easy, but the defense for UCSB has proven that they are built for the challenge. On the other side of the ball, the offense for the Gauchos is going to have to step up their game to keep pace with Baylor’s offense. The top six scorers for UCSB all shot over 45% from the floor during the regular season, and will have to put up similar numbers to have a shot at pulling off what would be a major first-round upset. If the Gauchos can contain Baylor’s Keyonte George and Adam Flagler, this game will be theirs to lose. In a game many believe the Bears will come out on top, I’m taking UCSB to pull off the big upset.


East Region

(8) Memphis vs (9) Florida Atlantic (Friday @ 9:20 P.M. on TNT)

Coming off an American Athletic Conference championship, Memphis comes in as one of the tournament’s hottest teams. Their opponent, the Florida Atlantic Owls, who are fresh off a Conference USA title, are also playing very solid basketball. This game may wind up being one of the best games played in the first round, and should be a close game throughout. With the possibility of a second round game against Purdue, these two squads will have to play their best basketball to make a run in this tournament. Fueled by their offense, Memphis averages almost 80 points per game and will present a difficult challenge to any team having to defend them. Led by Kendric Davis and Deandre Williams, the Tigers are one of the best teams in the country when it comes to fastbreak points, and will look to push the tempo to gain an edge in this one. A main factor to watch for here will be the rebounds. Memphis hasn’t been the greatest when it comes to rebounding, but FAU has done well on the glass, especially the defensive side. Aside from rebounding, Memphis will have to look to take advantage of an Owls squad that has only two players taller than 6’4. If this game turns into a shootout, I don’t see FAU being able to keep up with this Tigers squad that loves to put pressure on the opposing team to force turnovers that lead to fastbreaks. Playing the Owls in the first round won’t be easy, but I still believe that Memphis will prevail in the end, and get the chance to battle Purdue in the second round.


(5) Duke vs (12) Oral Roberts (Thursday @ 7:10 P.M. on CBS)

It was a fantastic run to yet another ACC Championship for the Duke Blue Devils. Now, they face the 2021 bracket busters, Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles enter the tournament on a 17-game winning streak, and will look to spoil brackets yet again. Returning to the tournament for Oral Roberts again is guard Max Abmas, who was outstanding in the team’s run to the Sweet Sixteen two years ago. Abmas leads the team with 22 points per game, and rarely turns the ball over. They now get to face a Duke squad that has played its best basketball over the course of the past couple weeks. Leading the way for the Blue Devils is freshman Kyle Filipowski, who averages almost a double-double a game, and shoots about 45% from the floor. Coming off his phenomenal performance in the ACC Tournament, Filipowski will have to continue to dominate on both sides of the basketball in order for Duke to make another run to the Final Four. First-year head coach Jon Scheyer has done a great job this year with this Blue Devils team, and I don’t see their season coming to an end anytime soon. Their defense allowed less than 64 points per game, and will have to slow the pace of this game to shut down a Golden Eagles offense that scored over 84 points per game. Duke also had a great deal of success with forcing turnovers during the conference tournament, and will have to pressure the Golden Eagles’ offense to force them into mistakes. Getting fast breaks will give Duke a major advantage in this game. Coming in on a hot streak and playing great defense, I see Duke coming out on top in this entertaining first-round battle. 


(6) Kentucky vs (11) Providence (Friday @ 7:10 P.M. on CBS)

After a shocking loss in the opening round to Saint Peter’s last tournament, Kentucky is back in “The Big Dance” looking for a revenge tour. They get to take on 11-seeded Providence in the first round. The Friars were eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen last year by eventual champion Kansas. Both teams enter this game after tough losses within their conference tournaments. Kentucky fell to Vanderbilt and Providence lost to Big East Champion Marquette. These two teams come in very evenly matched on paper. Both teams averaged about 7 more points per game than their opponents, and finished with similar records against top 25 teams and against their respective conference rivals. Players to keep an eye on for this game include the Friars’  forward Bryce Hopkins and the Wildcats’ Oscar Tshiebwe. Hopkins led Providence with over 16 points and 8 rebounds per game, and provided a major spark to a Friars offense that was one of the best in the country at second-chance points. Having that same success offensively will be very difficult, however, as Tshiebwe and Kentucky are one of the top rebounding teams in the nation. This isn’t a great stat for the Friars, given that they are 1-5 this season when they have lost the rebounding battle. The size and physicality of Kentucky seem too much to handle for Providence, and with the upper hand down low I see the Wildcats securing the win in this game.


Midwest Region

(8) Iowa vs (9) Auburn (Thursday @ 6:50 P.M. on TNT)

Another highly anticipated matchup awaits as Iowa gets set to take on Auburn. Led by their defense, Auburn will look to slow down an Iowa offense that scored over 80 points per game during the regular season, and was twelfth-best in the country in turnovers. Leading the way for the Hawkeyes’ offense is forward Kris Murray, who averaged over 20 points per game so far. Coming off a disappointing performance in the Big 10 Tournament, Iowa is going to be fired up for this game and will come out with tons of energy from the start. To counter this, Auburn’s defense is going to look to contain Iowa’s offense and slow down the pace of the game. If Auburn is going to win this game, they have to slow the tempo down and not let Iowa get out in transition. The Tigers, however, have not played their best basketball as of late, going 3-8 over their last 11 games, including a loss to Arkansas in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Defeating a team that is in the top 20 in the country in both offensive efficiency and turnovers is a very challenging task, and one that Auburn is going to have to overcome to get a chance to possibly battle Houston in the second round. Given the strength of the Hawkeyes’ offense, I don’t see Auburn being able to pull off a gritty win in this game. 


(3) Xavier vs (14) Kennesaw State (Friday @ 12:40 P.M. on truTV)

A high-scoring showdown is expected as the Xavier Musketeers will face off against the Kennesaw State Owls. Xavier was the eleventh-best offense in the country, averaging over 81 points per game during the regular season, and Kennesaw State scored over 75 points per game. Xavier’s offense was sixth-best in the country in field goal percentage, shooting 49.4% from the floor during the regular season. Kennesaw State overall has one of the shortest teams in the tournament and struggles a lot from the free throw line. In a game where they will have to put up a lot of points, that isn’t the best scenario for the Owls. Their defense was solid during the regular season, but now faces its toughest challenge in the Musketeers. The Owls’ only chance at winning this game and pulling off a major upset is if their defense plays way better than they have. I think Kennesaw State has to hold Xavier to less than 70 points in order to have a shot at winning this game. The big concern for the Owls still is the free throw shooting. If this game is close down the stretch, it is going to be difficult to trust Kennesaw State to come up with clutch free throws given the struggles they’ve had at the line. I don’t see Kennesaw State’s defense being able to contain Xavier’s offense enough, and the Musketeers will begin to score and won’t let up. In a game that could be close in the first half, I see Xavier pulling away in the second half and earning a trip to the second round. 


(7) Texas A&M vs (10) Penn State (Thursday @ 9:55 P.M. on TBS)

Featuring two teams that made impressive runs through their conference tournaments, this evening showdown on Thursday is set up to be a classic. The Aggies made it to the SEC title game and fell to top-seeded Alabama, while Penn State made an improbable run to the Big Ten title game, where they lost to top-seeded Purdue. Even though both teams lost in the championship games, they have picked up a large amount of momentum as they head into this first-round matchup. Both squads had similar stats in points per game and opponent points per game, but certain categories stand out for both sides. For Texas A&M, they finished 25th in the country in offensive rebounds, which is going to be a major factor in this game. Penn State thrives on transition fastbreaks, and these offensive rebounds can limit their transition game. A key issue for the Nittany Lions is their lack of ability to force turnovers, as they were the second-worst team in the nation in takeaways. The inability to take the basketball away I believe will be very costly for Penn State and can dramatically slow the pace of the game, which favors the Aggies. With all the momentum the Nittany Lions have been riding as of late, I think there is too much they need help with defeating this Texas A&M squad. Beating the Aggies isn’t impossible, but I believe Penn State won’t have enough left in the tank to take down the SEC runner-ups. 


West Region

(5) Saint Mary’s vs (12) VCU (Friday @ 2:00 P.M. on TBS)

Twelve seeds against five seeds are always entertaining matchups in March Madness. This year, all four games are fantastic matchups. This one, however, may finish as the closest one. Saint Mary’s finished as the runner-up in the West Coast Conference Tournament, while VCU was the champion in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The two teams scored the same number of points per game, and Saint Mary’s allowed almost three points per game less than VCU. Don’t sleep on the Rams, however, as they are a sneaky talented team that can make some noise during the course of this tournament. VCU finished in the top 20 in the nation in steals per game, and thrives on scoring off fast-breaks in transition. Saint Mary’s, however, did a very good job of protecting the basketball and not turning it over. The biggest factor in this game is going to be how fast the pace of the game is. A faster-paced game will lean more in favor of the Rams, while the Gaels will look to play strong defense and slow down the tempo. Controlling the pace of the game is going to be very difficult for Saint Mary’s, as VCU will put a lot of pressure on the Gaels offense and will push tempo up the court all game. Given the style of play by VCU, I think they quickly wear down this Saint Mary’s squad and pull off another twelve-over-five upset in the NCAA Tournament. 


(3) Gonzaga vs (14) Grand Canyon (Friday @ 7:35 P.M on truTV)

Gonzaga is back in the NCAA Tournament, again. This time around, though, they find themselves in a spot which is not common for them as of late. The Bulldogs have been a one-seed in each of the last three tournaments, but now sit as a three-seed. This may be a better position for them, as there is a lot less pressure. Gonzaga has flown under the radar this college basketball season, and hasn’t been the dominant, consensus number one team we’ve seen in the past few years. They enter this year’s tournament as the top team in the nation on offense, averaging over 87 points per game during the regular season. Grand Canyon allowed less than 67 points per game during the regular season, but hasn’t faced an offense like Gonzaga’s yet. Led by forward Drew Timme, Gonzaga is riding a nine-game winning streak, while Grand Canyon and sophomore guard Rayshon Harrison come in on a six-game winning streak. Coming off a regular season in which there were a few tough non-conference games for the Zags, the Bulldogs are fully prepared for another March Madness tournament. They also have experience, which is a big factor for making a run. Having the success they have had this season, I believe this game could be a runaway for Gonzaga, and just the start of a deep tournament run for Mark Few’s team. 


(7) Northwestern vs (10) Boise State (Thursday @ 7:35 P.M on truTV)

Two of the better defensive teams in the bracket will square off in Sacramento with a spot in the Round of 32 on the line. Boise State and Northwestern both allowed fewer than 65 points per game, and will need their defense to be strong in this battle. On the offensive side, the edge goes to the Broncos, as Northwestern has stretched where they really struggle from the floor and it has cost them. Their defense won’t be the reason they lose if they lose during the tournament, it’ll be because of their offensive struggles. Both teams come in on a not-so-great streak. Boise State has lost three of their last five, while Northwestern has lost four of their last five. In this matchup, a big factor to pay attention to is the stamina of the Broncos’ starting lineup. Boise State is a team that doesn’t utilize the bench much, so slowing down the pace of this game may be the strategy for the Broncos to get the job done. Expect this game to be a very low-scoring game where the winner scores less than 65 points. Both teams are coming off of frustrating losses in their conference tournaments, and are going to bring a lot of energy to this battle. In what will be a big defensive game, I expect the Boise State offense to step up and help the Broncos advance into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.