The 2014 NCAA tournament is up and running with the first round halfway in the books and just two play-in games left before the event begins in earnest.
While many are already looking ahead to the round of 64, it’s worth it to stop and look at Wednesday’s matchups; the results of these games could have lasting implications on the entire tourney.
Keep reading for the remaining first-round schedule, plus some predictions on how these contests will shake out.
|Wed, March 19||(16) Cal Poly vs. (16) Texas Southern||6:40 p.m.||truTV|
|Wed, March 19||(11) Iowa vs. (11) Tennessee||9:10 p.m.||truTV|
All games played in University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio. via ESPN
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Cal Poly (13-19) vs. Texas Southern (19-14)
The Cal Poly Mustangs are the worst team, in terms of record, of the 68 to make it into the NCAA tournament field, but that doesn’t mean the Texas Southern Tigers should underestimate them.
The Mustangs were crowned Big West champs after an improbable run that included tough victories over UCSB, UC-Irvine and Northridge to claim the conference’s automatic berth. They did that all despite a losing record in both overall and Big West play.
The NCAA noted that this is the first tournament berth for the program:
Cal Poly (13-19) is headed to its 1st NCAA tournament! Mustangs beat Cal State Northridge, 61-59, to win Big West. pic.twitter.com/XmCk5PbgH2— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 16, 2014
March Madness often comes down to teams getting hot at the right moment and that is exactly what Cal Poly has done. Despite losing three straight and five of the last six to end the regular season, this school rose to the occasion and now has a chance to advance past the Tigers with a fourth consecutive victory.
Oddsmakers have installed the Mustangs as a two-point favorite (via ScoresAndOdds.com), likely due to their strong surge and quality wins over opponents like Hawaii and Santa Clara.
This Cal Poly squad starts three seniors, including a leading scorer and rebounder in Chris Eversley. They have a lot of experience and realize that this is their best chance to make an impact before going into a meat-grinder game against Wichita State.
Factor in a strong bench that soaks up a ton of minutes (40.5 per game, according to Matt Norlander of CBS) and you are looking at one of the tournament’s most well-rounded teams from top to bottom.
Texas Southern is being sure not to overlook its opponent, with head coach Mike Davis noting that record does not matter in March, as per Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle:
"Once you go into the NCAA Tournament your record goes out the door. We have to make sure we stay focus [sic] and realize what got us to this point."
TSU’s best shot at avoiding a loss involves Aaric Murray, a 6’10” senior center from Philadelphia that is now with his third school. He seems to have finally found his calling with the Tigers and developed into a dominant force inside.
Tom Frey of The Mesa Press noted the credentials of the Tigers coach and pointed out that Murray is the team’s player to watch:
Texas Southern is led by Mike Davis, hes been to the Finals before. Aaric Murray is really good. Can't wait for that game.— Tom Frey (@TomFrey1st) March 16, 2014
Murray averages 21.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.2 assists per game, and shines when the spotlight is on. He racked up 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two assists in the SWAC championship against Prairie View A&M and will be tough for anyone on Cal Poly to stop.
The Mustangs lack size, with inconsistent sophomore contributors Zach Gordon (6’8”) and Brian Bennett (6’9”) registering as the biggest players on the roster.
If Murray has a good game, it’s hard to picture the Tigers losing. Cal Poly simply doesn’t have the personnel to keep him contained.
Prediction: Texas Southern over Cal Poly, 64-61
Iowa (20-12) vs. Tennessee (21-12)
The Hawkeyes and Volunteers are set to battle with a No. 11 seed on the line, which could result in a deep foray into the NCAA tournament for the victor. You can expect both of these major conference programs to push hard to win here, as it will undoubtedly help build momentum going into the next round.
The Vols are already on a hot streak, having won six of their last eight, and gave Florida a scare in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. The players also have to know that they are one game away from a very winnable matchup against a drastically overseeded No. 6 UMass squad in the round of 64.
Tennessee’s defense has been especially strong during the past five games, holding opponents to an average of 47.4 points in that span. It will be tough to keep the Hawkeyes to anything near that number, as they rank No. 10 in the nation in scoring at 82.0 points per game.
Iowa is lucky to even be in the Big Dance, however, after losing six of its last seven and three consecutive games leading up to the marquee event. It’s 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament showed how far this squad has fallen since mid-February, when the skid began.
Which team will win?
Prior to losing to No. 16 Wisconsin on Feb. 22, the team had yet to be held under 80 points. It has failed to hit that mark in four straight games and is no longer the scoring machine that terrorized defenses early on in its 2013-14 campaign.
In addition, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery may not be on the sidelines for this one. McCaffery will be by his 13-year-old son’s side when he undergoes surgery to remove a thyroid tumor on Wednesday morning, as per the Associated Press (via ESPN).
The coach informed the AP that he would attempt to be there, but noted that family comes first: "My hope is ... if I can, fly back for the surgery and then fly back for the game if I can work that out. We'll see, logistically, if we can pull all that together."
Expect the Hawkeyes to play tough for their coach regardless of his presence, but they just lack momentum. They're no longer a major threat to win a game against a quality Volunteers squad on a hot streak.
Prediction: Tennessee over Iowa, 78-70