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NCAA Bracket 2011: Top 10 First Round Matchups To Watch

Tom LoughreyAnalyst IIIMarch 15, 2011

NCAA Bracket 2011: Top 10 First Round Matchups To Watch

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The most exciting part of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is the first round—that is, if you watch the right games. The NCAA Tournament kicks off today with the play-in games. The real must-see TV begins on Thursday as the 64-team field is decided and action is abundant.

    Sixteen games are played on both Thursday, March 17 and Friday, March 18. College basketball leaks into offices and schools worldwide. People can spend hours watching as teams they may have never seen play risk everything to get one step closer to an NCAA Championship.

    Scores are checked every minute and brackets are either circled or crossed out—with some even thrown out. The first round of the Big Dance provides the most excitement due to pure quantity, and sometimes quality. With 32 games to be played, there are bound to be exciting endings.

    Unfortunately, there are only so many networks that carry the tournament and unless someone shells out money, not all games are available. For the average basketball fan, they are in the dark about the closely contested games in favor of watching Duke trounce someone by 50 points.

    Here are 10 games one shouldn't miss in the first round if given the chance to watch them.

10. No. 8 Butler Vs. No. 9 Old Dominion

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    This game is one of six from the Southeast region that made my list. Just goes to show you how wide open that region really is.

    Thanks to Matt Howard and Sheldon Mack, Butler was able to follow up a trip to National Championship game with a respectable season. Despite the loss of Gordon Hayward, the Bulldogs cruised to a 23-9 record and a Horizon Tournament title.

    The Bulldogs will bring their disciplined offense into a matchup with the Old Dominion Monarchs. A slim, three-point loss to the Georgetown Hoyas in the season's opening game set the standard for a great season for the Monarchs.

    Wins over Clemson, Xavier and George Mason helped Old Dominion get a No. 9 seed in the tournament.

    Old Dominion is seventh in the nation in rebounding with over 40 per contest. They also held seven opponents under 50 points, which shows their strength on defense.

    My pick: Old Dominion

9. No. 7 Washington Vs. No. 10 Georgia

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    Isaiah Thomas serves as the point guard of one of the most exciting teams in college basketball. Is it weird to hear that again?

    The Washington Huskies guard was named after Isiah Thomas, a former member of the Indiana Hoosiers and Detroit Pistons. Washington has the third-best offense in the nation at 83.5 points a game, and have scored over 100 points five times.

    Two wins over Arizona highlight the Huskies resume, but the Huskies only have one six-game win streak. It takes six-straight victories to be champ and the Huskies have already won three straight.

    The Georgia Bulldogs are led by juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. The in-state products are first in second and points and rebounds. The inside-outside combination combined for 40 of the team's 77 points in a mid-season win over Kentucky.

    The Bulldogs don't score enough to keep up with the Huskies late in the game, so the Huskies will pull away at the end.

    My pick: Washington

8. No. 6 St. John's Vs. No. 11 Gonzaga

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    Dwight Hardy leads the St. John's Red Storm into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. The Red Storm went 12-6 in the Big East, which is the toughest conference in the nation.

    Hardy averaged 18 points per game throughout the season. He scored 153 points during a six-game win streak in February. The streak included victories over Connecticut, Cincinnati, Marquette, Pittsburgh and Villanova—all of which are in the NCAA Tournament.

    St. John's proved its ability to beat the best in consecutive games by being successful in the Big East.

    Gonzaga sported two nine-game winning streaks over the course of the season. The Bulldogs have bolstered their non-conference schedule, and they have suffered more losses.

    This year's team is known for the trio of Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris. They play a deep rotation that can confuse the Red Storm. Gonzaga also shoots the ball extremely well from the field. They are 10th in the country at 47.9 percent per game.

    St. John's is the more battle-tested team and that will shine through on March 17.

    My pick: St. John's

7. No. 6 Cincinnati Vs. No. 11 Missouri

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Cincinnati did not lose a non-conference game all season. All of their losses came at the hands of Big East opponents.

    Only two players on the Bearcats average more than 10 points a game. Yancy Gates leads the team with 11.8 points per contest, while also grabbing almost seven boards per game. The Bearcats are a very physical team, but ended the season with a 38-point loss in the Big East Tournament.

    Missouri is a high-scoring, high-pace offensive squad. Marcus Denmon is an incredible shooter, cashing in on 45.5 percent of his attempts from distance. Five players on the Tigers average double-digit points.

    If the Tigers can match the physicality of the Bearcats, they could run away with this one.

    My pick: Missouri

6. No. 7 UCLA Vs. No. 10 Michigan State

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    The UCLA Bruins have played at the level that Reeves Nelson has been at almost all season.

    If Nelson is on, the Bruins are tough to beat. The problem is that—as a sophomore—Nelson hasn't quite developed dependable consistency yet. The Bruins have had two six-game winning streaks this season, showing that they can win in bunches.

    The biggest moment of the season for the Bruins was a 22-point massacre of the Arizona Wildcats in late February. Nelson had 27 points and 16 boards on that night.

    Michigan State started off the year ranked No. 2 in the nation and looking ready to follow up last season's trip to the Final Four. Early losses to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas sent the Spartans spiraling down the standings.

    Like the Bruins, the Spartans rely heavily on Kalin Lucas. Their results depend on how well Lucas plays.

    Fortunately for the Spartans, Lucas trumps Nelson and he has the slightly better supporting cast.

    My pick: Michigan State

5. No. 8 Michigan Vs. No. 9 Tennessee

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Michigan Wolverines made it to the NCAA Tournament without a true marquee win during their season. Two wins against in-state rival Michigan State are probably the highlight of the Wolverines' season.

    Led by the back-court of Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines can dominate around the perimeter. If their front-court can get more active on the boards and put pressure on Tennessee, they can pull what I believe to be an upset.

    The Tennessee Volunteers are the lower-ranked team in the matchup, but the favorite to many. Tobias Harris will be the x-factor in this game if the Volunteers win. He is a freshman forward that's having a stellar year for Tennessee.

    If team-leader Scotty Hopson is struggling, Harris will have to pick up the slack for the Volunteers. The game will be decided in the post, and that' where Tennessee holds the advantage.

    My pick: Tennessee

4. No. 5 Kansas State Vs. No. 12 Utah State

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    If the Kansas State Wildcats come into the NCAA Tournament playing like they did from Feb. 14 to March 5, they have the potential to win it all. If they play like they do against the Colorado Buffaloes, they will lose in the first round.

    The Wildcats are a perfect example of a team that may or may not show up. Jacob Pullen leads the group with just under 20 points per contest. He has the talent to control a game and he showed that in the aforementioned stretch.

    During the time period, the Wildcats beat the No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks, No. 21 Missouri Tigers and the No. 8 Texas Longhorns. Needless to say, Pullen was on fire. He had 82 points in the three wins.

    On the other side of things, Utah State is one of the No. 12 seeds people can't stop talking about. The Aggies only lost three games this season, and two were to conference opponents. They are led by senior Tai Wesley, who is a top-notch rebounder. He struggled mightily in a loss to Georgetown, which might concern some people.

    In the end, the Wildcats probably won't bring their 'A' game to the first round and will be challenged by an inferior opponent. Expect a shot at the buzzer to decide the winner in this one.

    My pick: Kansas State

3. No. 3 Brigham Young Vs. No. 14 Wofford

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    The Brigham Young Cougars aren't the same team without Brandon Davies.

    Since Davies was suspended for the season, the Cougars are 2-3. Before that, they were 30-1. BYU still has Jimmer Fredette, who is a lead candidate for Player of the Year. He's leading the nation in points per game, averaging 28.5 on the year.

    In Davies' absence, has been relied on even more. He has scored 177 points in their last five games, with 52 in one win.

    The Wofford Terriers are more of a three-man show. The trio of Noah Dahlman, Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs score over 46 of the Terrier's 73 points per game. They are also three of four players that see over 30 minutes each time Wofford hits the floor.

    This is a problem in the tournament because it appears that Wofford has no depth. Surprisingly, the Terriers' reserves have been extremely productive in limited minutes.

    If the Terriers starters aren't getting the job done, they may have to turn to their bench earlier than usual.

    My pick: Wofford

2. No. 4 Wisconsin Vs. No. 13 Belmont

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    If the Wisconsin Badgers' last two games reflect on how they'll play in the NCAA Tournament, they will be out in the first round.

    After being crushed by Ohio State in their last regular season game, they could only muster 33 points in a loss to Penn State. The Badgers are one of two teams this season to knock off Ohio State, but the Buckeyes turned the next matchup into a beat-down.

    Wisconsin is primarily a defensive team that sees most of its production from an inside-outside combination of Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer. Both players average over 18 points a game, but the drop-off after them is steep.

    The Badgers will need a third option if they plan to compete in the Big Dance.

    Belmont is just outside the top 10 when it comes to team scoring in college basketball. The crazy thing about the Bruins is that their highest scorer is barely in double digits. The Bruins have an 11-man rotation, and no one averages more than 25 minutes per contest.

    Substitutions will be aplenty in this game, and the Bruins have already used their rotation to frustrate Tennessee in two close losses.

    Consider Wisconsin next.

    My pick: Belmont

1. No. 8 George Mason Vs. No. 9 Villanova

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    Surprising as it is, George Mason is 5 years removed from its appearance in the NCAA Final Four.

    It seems like yesterday the Patriots were destroying everyone's brackets as a No. 11 seed without angering a soul. The Patriots have finally returned to the NCAA Tournament as a No.8 seed after a 26-6 finish.

    The Patriots went on a 16-game tear before losing to tournament-bound VCU in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. The Patriots have shot the ball well all season, with a six-man rotation seeing most of the minutes.

    Villanova got off to yet another hot start before crashing toward the end of the season.

    A 16-1 start was followed by a 5-10 finish, including a 5-game skid to end the year. The Wildcats are the first team in history to make the tournament after losing their last five games. The back-court of senior Corey's (Fisher and Stokes) head Villanova coming into the tournament.

    Stokes has one of the finest shots in any conference and Fisher can take over a game at any point.

    This game will be decided by the play of the Villanova back-court.

    My pick: Villanova

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