The selection committee may not have locked them into the field of 64, but the Boise State Broncos and La Salle Explorers will get an opportunity to play their way into the West Region with a win in Wednesday’s first-round action in Dayton.
Being a part of the NCAA’s relatively new first-four format is a double-edged sword. Sure, Boise State and La Salle get to bathe in the holy waters of March Madness but they both risk exiting the national lexicon before the tournament even gets started. And even for the winner, a matchup against Big 12 conference tournament runner-up Kansas State awaits the No. 13 seed victor.
Despite the small detriments of being a first-four team, the Explorers and Broncos had to be nothing short of thrilled to hear their named called on Selection Sunday. Both placed themselves firmly on the bubble by missing out on resume-defining win down the stretch and were surprisingly chosen over a bevy of other bubble squads. (Sorry, SEC.)
La Salle heads into the Big Dance with a 21-9 record for the season, finishing fourth in a loaded Atlantic 10 Conference. Boise State matched the Explorers’ standing in their conference (Mountain West) and come in with a 21-10 record.
With both sides having the potential to bust brackets across the world, this is a must-watch matchup for anyone waiting until midweek to make their selections. For that reason, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about Wednesday’s matchup.
Where: Dayton, Ohio
When: Wednesday, March 20, at 9:10 p.m. ET
Watch: Tru TV
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Betting Line: PK (via Vegas Insider)
Boise State Injuries (via USA Today): None.
La Salle Injuries (via USA Today): C Steve Zack, Foot, Out
What's at Stake?
You mean other than the losing team's season ending in heartbreak? Nothing at all. Obviously, I'm being facetious here, but both of these two sides know how their season could end on Wednesday as little more than a whimper on the overall 2013 tournament landscape.
Teams that lose in the first four aren’t remembered. Teams that come away victorious have a chance to mirror Virginia Commonwealth’s run from 2011 and become a national darling.
Who ya got?
For the winner of Wednesday’s contest in particular, a matchup against fourth-seeded Kansas State waits in the wings. The Wildcats, led by first-year coach Bruce Weber, have been one of the nation’s most pleasant surprises this season after barely receiving any mentions in the preseason rankings.
Though whoever wins this opening-round game will come in as a heavy underdog—as they should—Kansas State is not immune to upsets. It’s a very middling defensive squad, ranking 64th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and the Wildcats have an effective field-goal percentage of just 49.2, per Ken Pomeroy.
So what either Boise State or La Salle wins is an opportunity—and that’s all you need in the NCAA tournament.
Players to Watch
Boise State: G-F Anthony Drmic
If the Mountain West had a postseason award for the most improved player, the conference may have well named it the Anthony Drmic Award in 2012-13. The sophomore guard-forward heads into the Big Dance as the Broncos’ leading scorer at 17.3 points per game and has showed massive improvement over his freshman experience.
During his first season in Boise, Drmic was little more than an inefficient volume shooter. He made just 38.1 percent of his shots for the season, including 31.7 from beyond the arc, and was arguably a net-negative for Boise State when on the floor.
This season, he’s developed into Boise State’s most important offensive weapon. The shooting percentages have skyrocketed (46.1 field goal, 38.7 three-point), which led to him scoring over five more points per game than his first season while taking just over two shots more per game. Drmic and Jeff Elorriaga are the overarching reasons Boise State ranks 13th in the nation in three-point percentage and 30th in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.
What’s absolutely vital is that Drmic does not regress into freshman-year form under the bright lights. He shot just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc versus San Diego State in the Broncos’ conference tournament loss and has more than a few game-long misfires under his belt this season.
La Salle is no peach defensively overall, but it does protect well against the three-ball. Pomeroy’s metrics note that the Explorers are a top-20 team in opponent three-point percentage and only Weber State is better than them overall at preventing the shot. While anything is possible, this seems like the worst possible matchup for the Boise State guard.
La Salle: G Ramon Galloway
There may be no player in the nation who wanted a do-over more than Galloway after conference tournament play. La Salle’s most important offensive player, the senior guard ended his Atlantic 10 career scoring four points on 1-of-10 shooting against Butler. It was a game where, had he scored his season average of 17 points, the Explorers would have won by a possession.
Galloway’s struggles versus Butler followed dreadful 3-of-13 performance against Saint Louis in his regular-season finale. Hanging on the bubble, the Explorers and Galloway were given two opportunities for a resume-defining win and blew them both. Left up to the whims of the selection committee, they now have a third opportunity to shine on a national stage.
If Galloway’s season sample is any indication, he’s not going to blow it. A transfer from South Carolina, Galloway was the third-most prolific scorer in the Atlantic 10 and La Salle’s offensive spark plug. He scored 31 points in the Explorers’ upset of Virginia Commonwealth, dropped 26 in a win over Villanova and very nearly put up a triple-double versus Iona earlier this year.
The problem, of course, is reliability. Galloway has the ability to single-handedly take the game over, but he also leaves open the very real possibility of a clunker. It’s like following musician Lupe Fiasco’s career trajectory through a basketball player. One night you’re convinced he can do no wrong, and the next the album Lasers comes out and your faith in humanity is lost.
Related: Galloway is an awfully fun player to watch and could make this game worthwhile by himself—in either direction.
Key Matchup: Battle of the "Big" Men
The lack of big men for mid-major schools is a clichéd misnomer for the most part (see: Olynyk, Kelly), but it rings true for both La Salle and Boise State.
Neither has a healthy rotation player listed above 6’9”, and (as expected) struggle in large part to grab rebounds. Both are among the weakest offensive rebounding teams in the country, per Ken Pomeroy, with La Salle ranking 241st and Boise State lapping the field at a stellar 233rd.
With both sides struggling on the boards, it’s hard to see which side has an advantage. That’s where the importance of the teams’ “big” men comes into play. Someone is going to have to grab missed shots—unless they just plan on being polite and letting the ball roll out of bounds on misses.
For La Salle, that someone is forward Jerrell Wright.
A 6’8” sophomore out of Philadelphia, Wright has had his responsibilities down low explode since Steve Zack went down with injury. Wright is averaging a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game this season but he’s grabbed nine a night since Zack’s injury and 10 per contest in his last five games. Anything less than those recent averages could spell doom for the Explorers.
Wright will be battling for boards with Broncos forward Ryan Watkins. At 6’9” and 229 pounds, Watkins is a bit of a beanpole in the strength department, but he makes up for it with a voracious tenacity and consistent effort.
Whichever one of these two players winds up corralling more misses may hold the key to the contest.
Prediction: La Salle Wins
The DNA of these two teams is remarkably similar. They are both mediocre at best defensively and on the boards, while scoring at an exceedingly efficient clip. In a college basketball landscape that emphasizes slowed-down defensive play, Boise State and La Salle remain outliers.
So with that—and the two teams’ respectively similar struggles down the stretch—expect a close game. Neither side stands out as especially dominant in any area metrically or with counting stats, so this may well be the best “first four” game.
In close contests, it almost never fails to go with the best individual player—and that’s Galloway. Look for La Salle to pull away with a late second-half run to get a thrilling win in Dayton.
Score Prediction: La Salle 76, Boise State 71