2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament logo2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

NCAA Bracket 2011: Ranking the 5 Best First-Round Games To Watch

No NameContributor IIIMarch 16, 2011

NCAA Bracket 2011: Ranking the 5 Best First-Round Games To Watch

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    As if the excitement for this year's NCAA tournament wasn't already brewing, UNC Asheville kicked things off on Tuesday night with a memorable OT win over Arkansas-Little Rock, giving them a shot to match up against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon.

    This year's first round is sure to be full of close games, surprise upsets and a few casual steamrolling wins as well.

    But from all of Thursday and Friday's action, be sure to catch these five games.

5. (12) Richmond vs. (5) Vanderbilt

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    I smell upset, sort of.

    Coming in with a 27-7 overall record, Richmond suffers from playing in the mediocre Atlantic 10, which they steamrolled through with a 13-3 conference record.

    The Spiders play tough basketball and can knock off big-time opponents, such as their decisive win over No. 8 Purdue back in November. And if hot streaks are what bracketologists these days look for, Richmond is coming into the tournament winners of seven straight with their latest victory being...oh yeah, the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship.

    Vandy, on the other hand, has the reverse effect going. They're a mediocre team in an above-average conference. Yeah, sure, they beat UNC and Kentucky this year, but they also went 9-7 in a very average SEC.

    As far as streaks go, they're just 3-4 down the stretch following a February 19th win at Auburn.

    Pick: Richmond.

4. (11) Gonzaga vs. (6) St. John's

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Despite a second-half meltdown against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament, we all know that St. John's is a hot team coming into this year's NCAA tournament. They've proven themselves this year to be a powerful threat in college basketball's most dominant conference, as first-year coach Steve Lavin has rallied his senior-led squad, which looks poised to make a deep run in this year's tournament.

    Only problem is, well, you see, they play this school called Gonzaga. Ever heard of it?

    Because of their mediocre year in the mid-major WCC, many folks were worried we wouldn't see a Gonzaga team in this year's NCAA tournament if they didn't win their conference tournament. Well, they took care of business against a formidable St. Mary's team and have managed a No. 11 seed in this year's tournament.

    There's no doubt this team is weaker than some of the past Gonzaga squads we've seen over the last decade and a half, but regardless, these guys always come to play and that might prove to be the key factor against a very inexperienced St. John's team.

    Pick: St. John's, barely.

3. (10) Michigan State vs. (7) UCLA

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    A clash of the titans matchup in the NCAA tournament is bound to happen every year, but in the first round?

    Each team had seasons worthy of their seeding, but there's no doubt that this first-round matchup will prove to be an electric affair.

    UCLA is a dangerous team on the fast break and they have the ability to run their opponents out of the building. Problem is, they're very streaky and could either show up strong like they did against both BYU and Arizona this year or come out flat and crumble against Tom Izzo's strategy.

    Oh yeah, Tom Izzo, I've heard of that guy before. He's a proven winner and knows what it takes to keep his team advancing.

    The Spartans got to the NCAA tournament this year by the skin of their teeth in some regards, but Izzo and Co. know that just getting here was half the battle. These guys definitely have what it takes to make a run, depending on who they draw in a potential second-round game.

    Pick: Michigan State

2. (10) Penn State vs. (7) Temple

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Penn State's invitation to the Big Dance was definitely a feel-good story. Most people watching probably didn't even know Penn State fielded a D-1 basketball team.

    Well, here are the Nittany Lions, and now, hear them roar.

    In the Big 10 Tournament, they were winners of three straight, advancing to the final, where they lost to Ohio State, 71-60. Had it not been for their conference tournament run, the Nittany Lions probably wouldn't have made it through, but that's all yesterday's news, because on Thursday, they take on the Temple Owls.

    Temple is a strong squad at 25-7 overall, but their only win against a ranked opponent came back in December when they knocked off Georgetown. Their No. 25 AP ranking is perhaps justified, but it's not an indicator as to how this game will go.

    Pick: Temple, but Penn State puts up one hell of a fight.

1. (11) Marquette vs. (6) Xavier

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    Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    Once again, to call this an upset would be a reasonable stretch.

    Xavier is a top-flight team that suffers greatly from playing in the Atlantic 10. Hypothetically, a Big East or another power-conference tag on Xavier would yield a much higher seeding. But this is reality, and if you look at Xavier's schedule, they really haven't beat anyone worthwhile.

    In the first round, they go up against the Marquette Golden Eagles, who will be looking to do some serious damage. Marquette is a familiar face in the Big Dance, and they have played the type of competition this year that Xavier knows nothing about.

    The Musketeers will play them tough, but look for Marquette to run away with this one in this so-called "upset."

    Pick: Marquette.

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