On March 19-20, the first round of the NCAA Tournament will take place. The number one seeds are Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville, and North Carolina. There are some good teams who could make runs like Florida State, Washington, West Virginia, and others. But who will win the first round games - in the Midwest and West?
(1) Louisville vs. (16) Alabama State/Morehead State: These games seldom result in any excitement. The No. 1 team comes out and punishes the underdog. I see no exception here. While I think a team like Louisville isn't as deserving of a No. 1 seed as a team like Memphis, I can't Louisville has been phenomenal this year. The Cardinals are 28-5, going 16-2 in a tough Big East and 7-1 against top 25 teams. The Cards have a very stingy defense and have better bench depth than both Alabama State and Morehead State and regardless of their opponent, the Cardinals shouldn't have too much difficulty. Louisville 78, Alabama State 48.
(8) Ohio State vs. (9) Siena: The Siena Saints are a team that gets snubbed in my mind. They finished 37th in the final AP ranking, with a 26-7 record, 16-2 in their Metro Atlantic Athletic division. Siena is led by guard Kenny Hasbrouck, who averaged 14.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. While Ohio State is led by a fantastic coach in Thad Matta, they have a lackluster offense, averaging just 66.87 points per game while Siena averages 77.67. The Saints should pull off a minor upset here and go on to face the Louisville Cardinals. Siena 74, Ohio State 65.
(5) Utah vs. (12) Arizona: This year, the Utah Utes were very good, finishing 24-9 and winning the Mountain West Conference. Led by center Luke Nevill, the Utes earned a No. 5 seed in the Midwest. They average to beat teams by a score of 71-63, and we're 29th in the final AP ranking. The Utes even beat the 16th best team in the nation, Gonzaga, 66-65. Their only obstacle? The 12th seeded Arizona Wildcats. Arizona was less than sharp, finishing 19-13 (9-9), good for fifth in the Pacific 10. The Utes definitely have an early advantage, due to just numbers. The Wildcats also come in cold, losing five of their last six. Utah 67, Arizona 49.
(4) Wake Forest vs. (13) Cleveland State: Despite falling to Maryland in the ACC Tournament, Wake Forest earned a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region. The Demon Deacons rank eighth in the country, with a 24-6 record and 11-5 record within the conference. The Deacons were 5-1 against top 25 teams and had a dynamic offense, averaging 81.37 points per game, while averaging to win by eleven points each night. The Cleveland State Vikings finished third in the Horizon League, posting a 25-10 record. The Vikings are an unflashy, but sound team. They score just 66 points per, but allow just 58. You know what they say. Cleveland State 69, Wake Forest 64.
(6) West Virginia vs. (11) Dayton: West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins led the team to a 23-11 finish in 2008-09, including 10-8 within a stingy Big East Conference. The Mountaineers are led by guard Alex Ruoff, who averages 15.9 points and 3.5 assists per game. The big presence the Mountaineers possess could take them deep in the Tournament - Devin Ebanks. Ebanks, a 6'9" freshman forward, averaging 10.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in his first year in college. The Dayton Flyers, however, are a team everyone is sleeping on. But, they finished 26-7 and were an impressive 2-1 against AP Top 25 teams. They allowed just 61.52 points a game, 0.10 less than the Mountaineers. Upset alert. Dayton 72, West Virginia 62.
(3) Kansas vs. (14) North Dakota State: While head coach Bob Self doesn't have the same team he had last year with Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur, the Jayhawks still managed to win 25 games, including 14 in the Big 12 conference. The leaders for the Hawks are Sherron Collins (guard) and Cole Aldrich (center). The Hawks don't field a National Championship caliber team...or so we think. I think the Jayhawks will easily take on North Dakota State in a game no one will be watching too closely. Kansas 81, North Dakota State 50.
(7) Boston College vs. (10) USC: One of the more intriguing first-round matchups in any region is Boston College/USC. Both the Eagles (Boston College) and Trojans (USC) finished fifth in the ACC and Pacific 10, respectively. The Trojans, led by forward Taj Gibson, finished 21-12. Despite being one of the most talented teams in all of college basketball, they never lived up to expectations for a long period of time. They are starting to hit their stride, though...at the right time. They have beaten Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, UCLA and Arizona State (all in a row) to win the Pac-10 Championship. Boston College is an erratic team and with the way USC is playing, they will seize their opportunity. USC 80, Boston College 69.
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Robert Morris: In 2008-09, the Michigan State Spartans were impressive. Led by Raymar Morgan, they finished 26-6. Morgan, a junior, averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game and assisted the Spartans throughout the season. Michigan State will have to beat Robert Morris to advance and play (10) USC. The Robert Morris Colonials will be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991-92. The Colonials won the Northeast Division, finishing 24-10 (15-3). The Spartans have a huge edge on the Colonials. Despite a devastating loss to Ohio State on March 14, the Spartans are a much more dominant team. Michigan State 84, Robert Morris 59.
(1) Connecticut vs. (16) Chattanooga: Led by monstrous center Hasheem Thabeet, the Connecticut Huskies have had another dominant season. The seven foot tall center has incredible ball skills and can rebound over anybody in college basketball. The Huskies finished 27-4 (15-3) and take on the rather unintimidating Chattanooga Mocs, who were a less than stellar 18-16 in the Southern Division, but were able to win the weak class. Thabeet should make a comedy skit out of the Mocs. He averaged 13.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and almost five blocks a game, primarily against Big East competition. This game should be a laugher. Connecticut 84, Chattanooga 38.
(8) BYU vs. (9) Texas A&M: Texas A&M is not a school known for its basketball program. But, in 2008-09, they had a very god year and are a team to be taken seriously. They finished 23-9 (9-7) and even won two games against Top 25 competition. They will face a tough Brigham Young team who was 25-7 (12-4) in 2008-09. Both teams are rather equal, so I expect defense and momentum to be the deciding factor. Coming into this game, BYU has won five of six, and the loss was a two-point nailbiter to a 23-9 San Diego State team. BYU also has a slightly better defense than A&M, so I expect BYU to win this one, but not by much. BYU 67, Texas A&M 64.
(5) Purdue vs. (12) Northern Iowa: Purdue was a very underrated team in 2008-09. Despite finishing 24-9 and having a consistently tough defense all year long, they finished just 24th in the nation. They were led by guard E'Twaun Moore, who averages 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. They will face a small-market Northern Iowa team who have a 23-10 record and rose from the middle-tier of the Missouri Valley teams to win the conference unexpectedly. Purdue is a heavy favorite, but don't sleep on Northern Iowa. I expect Purdue to win the basketball game, but watch out for NIU...they'll put up a fight. Purdue 72, Northern Iowa 61.
(4) Washington vs. (13) Mississippi State: The 13th ranked Washington Huskies were consistent all year long, finishing 25-8 (14-4). They were led by young guard Isaiah Thomas and another guard in Justin Dentmon. But, they better watch out for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won their only game against Top 25 competition, a 67-57 victory over No. 20 Louisiana State. MSU even had a shocking 64-61 victory over Tennessee in which their defense was all over the court, blocking shots, stealing errant passes and dominating the boards. With Washington going into this game likely in a complacent state, I think the Bulldogs will take it. Mississippi State 64, Washington 62.
(6) Marquette vs. (11) Utah State: The Marquette Golden Eagles are a team trying to find itself. They finished 24-9, but lost Dominic James, which subtracted leadership and sound defense. They still have their scorers, in Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Lazar Hayward, but a part of their defense is missing. Utah State marches in with a 30-4 record and coming off a first place finish in the Western Athletic Conference. They have been dominant all year long, but will meet their first true test in Marquette. Marquette has a better offense, but Utah State has better defense. And with James out, USU looks to improve on the boards. Upset. Utah State 71, Marquette 67.
(3) Missouri vs. (14) Cornell: In just his third year, Mike Anderson has coached the Missouri Tigers to a 28-6 record and a third seed in the West Region. The Tigers are led by forward Demare Carroll, who averaged 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds during the regular season and the great thing about Missouri is: it isn't just one guy. The Tigers have had guys step up all season, not just Carroll. The Tigers boast a stingy defense that allows 66.47 points per game and Cornell doesn't pose a huge threat. They do need to watch out for guard Ryan Wittman, who has netted nearly 42 percent of three pointers. He won't do it alone. Missouri 84, Cornell 71.
(7) California vs. (10) Maryland: If I'm a college basketball fan, which I am, I am looking forward to watching this game. Any true fan would. This game will boast great guard play, with Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher for California and Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes at Maryland. The Terrapins are just 20-13, but have been playing for something the last three games and have come up big against NC State and Wake Forest and fell just six points short against Duke. Maryland has gotten good play from Adrian Bowie and Landon Milbourne recently and that supporting cast will give them a win. Maryland 71, California 68.
(2) Memphis vs. (15) California-Northridge: In an interview with ESPN News yesterday, Memphis head coach John Calipari claimed his defense this year is better than it was last year. Crazily enough, I believe him. This Memphis team, led by freshman Tyreke Evans, were 31-3 this year. Evans averaged 17 points, six rebounds and four assists per game. The Tigers also have a good supporting cast with Antonio Anderson, Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier.The CSU Northridge Matadors were just 17-13 in the Big West this year, and I'm sure that quickly, the Tigers will turn this into a comedy skit. Memphis 75, CSU Northridge 38.
If you enjoyed these predictions, look for my first round predictions of the East and South regions tomorrow!