March Madness Bracket 2019: Predictions for Toughest 1st-Round Games

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2019

RICHMOND, KY - FEBRUARY 16: Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers shoots a free throw during the game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels at CFSB Center on February 16, 2019 in Murray, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Even the most informed bracketologists have difficulty picking winners for games in the middle of each region.

Oftentimes, analysts look for programs seeded between Nos. 9-12 to pull off upsets. Beware of the potential pitfalls. Some may feel inclined to pick an overachieving lower seed because bracket-busting surprises happen every year, especially in the first round.

Choose wisely. Last year, three out of four No. 9 seeds won their first contest while the same number of No. 7 seeds earned victories in the opening round. Before the heavy favorites take over late in tournament, you can take a few gambles Thursday and Friday. 

Where should you look for a mini-upset this year? We'll take a look at the toughest first-round matchups and then predict the winner and score of each game.


South Region: No. 8 Mississippi vs. No. 9 Oklahoma 

EVANSTON, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 21: Aaron Calixte #2 and Christian James #0 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrate a victory over the Northwestern Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena on December 21, 2018 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The 8-9 matchup requires heavy thought. The pairing pits two programs with similar resumes against each other, and the winner faces stiff competition in the second round, presumably vs. the No. 1 seed—unless it's Virginia from 2018.

Mississippi and Oklahoma took early exits in their respective conference tournaments. The Rebels have lost five of their last seven games. The Sooners had a big win over Kansas in their penultimate regular-season contest but couldn't maintain their momentum. 

Oklahoma should have success shooting from beyond the arc against Mississippi, which ranks 323rd among Division I programs in three-point field-goal percentage allowed (37 percent). Senior guard Christian James and sophomore forward Brady Manek could have strong performances. They're the Sooners' lead scorers with range on their jump shots. 

Oklahoma can also dominate the glass; three of their primary starters average at least 6.1 rebounds per game. The Rebels have 7-footer Dominik Olejniczak in the middle, but the roster doesn't have multiple big men capable of challenging Oklahoma on the interior for 40 minutes.

Prediction: Oklahoma 74, Ole Miss 71


West Region: No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State

RICHMOND, KY - FEBRUARY 16: Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers shoots a free throw during the game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels at CFSB Center on February 16, 2019 in Murray, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

At the XL Center, in Hartford, Connecticut, spectators could see two of the best collegiate scorers go head-to-head as they lead their respective teams in a must-watch 5-12 matchup.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Marquette's Markus Howard and Murray State's Ja Morant lead the country in points per game:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Highest-scoring players in this year's NCAA Tournament: Markus Howard (25.0 PPG) Ja Morant (24.6 PPG) They will play each other in the 1st Round.

Averaging 10 assists per contest, Morant profiles as a dynamic guard who creates opportunities for teammates. Howard also leads his team in the category with four dimes per outing, but the junior guard isn't an elite passer like the star player on the other side of the court. 

Nonetheless, it's not a one-on-one matchup. Sam and Joey Hauser round out the top scorers in the Golden Eagles' starting lineup; the former is the only other player on the roster averaging more than 10 points per game.

The Racers have more consistent help around their collegiate star. Morant can defer to three talents on the Murray State roster averaging double figures. Guard Tevin Brown shoots 37 percent from the three-point land. Leroy Buchanan and Darnell Cowart convert 47 and 57 percent from the field, respectively.

Howard and the Hauser brothers will keep the scores close, but Murray State's efficiency leads to an upset in the West Region.

Prediction: Murray State 85, Marquette 81


West Region: No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Florida

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 15:  Caleb Martin #10 and Cody Martin #11 of the Nevada Wolf Pack walk up court during a semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center on March
David Becker/Getty Images

No. 10 Florida generated some buzz after two wins in the SEC tournament—one over Louisiana State, who's seeded third in the East Region. Senior guard Jalen Hudson has turned heads with his recent play, scoring a season-high 33 points against LSU in the Gators' last home regular-season game.

Florida ranks 282nd across the nation in scoring (68.3 ppg), and KeVaughn Allen is the only player on the roster averaging double figures in points (12 ppg). Typically, the Gators must resort to a methodical tempo. Head coach Michael's White's group also exerts maximum effort on the defensive end.

In tournament play, a stagnant offensive attack doesn't usually bode well against top-notch competition. Florida's grinder pace won't fare well against Nevada. Wolfpack guard Caleb Martin averages 3.2 triples per contest. He's not the most efficient, converting 42 percent from the field, but the senior forward will shoot through in-game slumps. Jazz Johnson scores on 45 percent of his attempts beyond the arc.

Nevada head coach Eric Musselman provided good news, via Nevada Sports Net, pertaining to forward Jordan Caroline, the team's second-leading scorer (17.3 ppg). He missed the last outing because of an Achilles injury.

"Our doctors and trainers feel he'll be 100 percent," Musselman said. 

With all hands on deck for the Wolfpack, it's hard to envision the Gators pulling off a victory.

Prediction: Nevada 79, Florida 74


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