The 2014 NCAA tournament is finally here, getting underway shortly with four first-round play-in games spread out over Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
While many see these as an appetizer for the much more popular Round of 64, they are important contests in their own right. Some teams have made runs stemming from the momentum gained during the first round, including VCU’s Final Four foray in 2011.
Keep reading to find out when you can catch each one of these thrilling contests, check out some odds for each, make some predictions on the final scores and take a closer look at a couple of the more intriguing matchups on tap.
|Tue, March 18||(16) Albany vs. (16) Mt. St. Mary's||6:40 p.m.||truTV||ALBY -2||ALBY 71 - MSM 67|
|Tue, March 18||(12) N.C. State vs. (12) Xavier||9:10 p.m.||truTV||XAV -3.5||XAV 74 - NCST 69|
|Wed, March 19||(16) Cal Poly vs. (16) Texas Southern||6:40 p.m.||truTV||CP -4||TSU 64 - CP 61|
|Wed, March 19||(11) Iowa vs. (11) Tennessee||9:10 p.m.||truTV||IOWA -2.5||TENN 78 - IOWA 70|
All games played at University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio. ESPN and ScoresAndOdds.com
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NC State vs. Xavier for No. 12 Seed
The Wolfpack and Musketeers are all set to do battle over the No. 12 seed and the right to advance into the Round of 64 for a date with Saint Louis.
Which team will win?
One of the most interesting wrinkles surrounding this contest is the location, as the University of Dayton Arena is less than an hour drive away from the Xavier campus. While that lack of travel may be an advantage for the Musketeers and their fans, it may not be a packed house in support of the Cincinnati-based program.
Before defecting from the Atlantic 10 and joining the Big East, Xavier fostered a major rivalry with the Dayton Flyers, many of whom are likely to be in attendance for this play-in game and vehemently supporting N.C. State.
Musketeers head coach Chris Mack acknowledged as much, but embraced the challenges of an electric, divisive crowd, as per Joe Kay of the Associated Press:
I'm sure it will be a bit of oil-and-vinegar tomorrow night…I think it's going to make for a great environment. I'd rather play in a supercharged atmosphere than a hollow one, and we're going to have that tomorrow night.
If his team can remain focused and block out the rowdies cheering on the Wolfpack, it should be able to advance through to the next round.
The Musketeers put together a better season than their foe and is stronger on both ends of the floor. The program averaged 72.2 points per game offensively, while conceding a mere 67.9 points to opponents during the 2013-14 campaign.
N.C. State scored 70.8 points and gave up 69.5 points per game in that span, while shooting collectively worse as a team. The Wolfpack connect on 45.9 percent of their shots from the field and 30.3 percent from beyond the arc, while Xavier hits on 47.1 percent of its field goals and 45.9 percent of its triples.
One not-so-secret weapon that could swing the game in favor of N.C. State is T.J. Warren, the team’s star sophomore forward that put up crazy numbers this past season. The big man averaged 24.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and is capable of completely taking over.
ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla believes he could throw the Wolfpack on his back and carry them to the Sweet 16 by himself:
Factor in Matt Stainbrook, Xavier’s junior big and one of the team’s top offensive options, is still attempting to shake off a sprained MCL and will not likely be 100 percent at tip-off, and you are looking at an unfavorable matchup down low for the Muskies.
Regardless, the team still has Semaj Christon locked in and ready to go. The sophomore guard is more than capable of trading blows with Warren and the rest of the Musketeers should score at a higher clip than N.C. State.
It’s going to be close and come down to the wire, but ultimately Xavier prevails.
Prediction: Xavier over N.C. State, 74-69
Iowa vs. Tennessee for No. 11 Seed
If any program participating in the first round is going to make a deep run this year, odds are that it will be one of these two. This is arguably the best position a play-in team could get, as the winner of this matchup will advance to take on No. 6 UMass in the second round.
Matt Hayes of Sporting News believes it was a mistake to have these squads play one another to get into the Round of 64:
So Iowa and Tennessee, clearly 2 of top 50 teams, put in a play-in game? Bad system rewarding mid-majors for beating other mid-majors.— Matt Hayes (@Matt_HayesSN) March 16, 2014
The Minutemen are drastically overseeded and are likely to be a heavy underdog when they take on either the Hawkeyes or Volunteers. Tennessee is an especially dangerous team right now and could make a run if it is able to navigate past Iowa on Wednesday.
The Vols have won six of their last eight games, with one of those losses coming against top-seeded Florida in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. Tennessee still gave the Gators a run for their money and proved that it could hang with the heavy-hitters in the Big Dance.
Credit the Volunteers’ renewed commitment to defense for this late-season turnaround, as they have clamped down and are allowing just 47.4 points per game over the last five contests.
If they can keep the Hawkeyes from running up the score quickly, anything could happen. Remember, Iowa is No. 10 in the nation in terms of scoring and averaged 82.0 points during the 2013-14 campaign, but currently resemble a shell of that fast-paced, high-scoring squad.
Prior to a 79-74 loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 22, the Hawkeyes had not been held below 80 points all season long. Since then, they’ve failed to reach that mark on four occasions, all happening in the last four games.
Which team will win?
Not coincidentally, these have all been losses, including an ugly defeat to Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament. This is appears to be the case of a team that peaked too early and was not able to keep its successes going into the most important part of the year.
Because of these ongoing shortcomings, it is downright impossible to pick Iowa to turn things around on Wednesday. It might not be as big a blowout as some will expect, but the Vols are going to take care of business here to score the No. 11 seed.
Prediction: Tennessee over Iowa, 78-70