10 Things to Watch on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament
What else is there left to say about the 2017 NCAA Tournament?
Wait, I've got it -- it's here! Day one of the NCAA Tournament is finally here!
Whether you're a college basketball diehard or casual follower who just gets swept up by how amazing and perfect the bracket is, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is pure sports nirvana.
Here are 10 interesting, important, and intriguing things to watch for on the first of two consecutive days of wall-to-wall bracket busting, buzzer beating bliss. Remind me -- why aren't these national holidays again?
1. Luck of the Irish vs. Poison Ivy
I'm guessing you might have seen Princeton as a 12 seed on Selection Sunday and thought "oooh..."
Well, there's some strong recent history supporting all the fascination with the Ivy Leaguers. In 2013, Harvard took down New Mexico. In 2014, the Crimson followed that up with a win over Cincinnati. In 2015, they lost to mighty North Carolina by a mere two points. And in 2016, Yale beat Baylor.
So yes, the Ivy League has been really successful in ousting first round favorites the last few years. Now it's Princeton's turn to represent the conference after winning 19 straight heading into this year's tourney, including the first ever Ivy League conference tournament.
But Mike Brey's Notre Dame squad is unflappable, experienced, and very talented. So while it may be appealing to pick a 12 seed Ivy League team as a smart upset pick, the Irish don't seem like a 5 seed that's ripe for a let down. Notre Dame only lost to a team with a nERD rating (which is our measure of how many points a team would be expected to defeat an average team by on a neutral court) worse than 20th one time all year -- a two point loss to Georgia Tech. The Fighting Irish take care of business in games they "should" win.
This contest should serve as an appealing way to start the day of basketball shortly after noon Eastern. Both teams take care of the basketball, don't draw many fouls, shoot a bunch of threes, and make plenty of them. It should be a fast and fun opener. But after Brey led his team to the Elite Eight last year, proceed with caution if you want to ride with the Ivy Leaguers.
2. UNC Wilmington Can Score -- But Against Virginia?
Virginia enters the 2017 NCAA Tournament as a 5 seed, after earning a 1 or 2 seed under coach Tony Bennett in each of the last three years. So while this may seem like a "down" year for Virginia, one thing is for sure -- this team can still defend.
The Cavaliers are easily the number-one team in College Basketball Reference's adjusted defensive efficiency rating. They are good on-ball defenders, limit second chances, and create plenty of turnovers. Plus, they play the slowest pace in college basketball. They will grind an opponent down.
The key for Virginia is really whether or not they can score enough to make their defensive efforts stand up, and their offense will have to show up at least a little bit against UNC Wilmington.
The Seahawks are inside the top 10 in the nation in both two-point shooting percentage and avoiding turnovers. They play a good offensive game and feature four double-digit scorers. But the best team they've faced in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency to date is East Tennessee State, who ranks 64th overall.
Facing Virginia will clearly be unlike anything this talented UNC Wilmington offense has seen all year. Unless the Seahawks can find some cracks in the tough Virginia defense and limit Virginia's perimeter offense, we'll likely see a quick 0-for-2 on 12-over-5 upsets on Thursday afternoon.
3. Which Version of Butler Traveled to Milwaukee?
Butler is about as mercurial of a team as we have on one of the top four seed lines in this year's tournament. Few teams can boast the type of wins Butler has been able to rack up this year. But 13-seeded Winthrop is hoping they're in the right place at the right time to catch Butler on a bad day.
Butler is a well-rounded team but often lacks the grace and fluidity on offense of many of the other top teams in the country. That's one of the reasons why Butler's got such a wide range of outcomes.
Winthrop played the third-weakest schedule of any of the NCAA Tournament teams, which means they may not be prepared for this level of competition. And the Eagles shoot of a ton of threes, which plays into Butler's strengths defensively. But after what we've seen from the Bulldogs this season, you should be keeping an eye on all of their NCAA Tournament games because almost anything is possible.
4. Can 5 Seed Minnesota Pull the Upset? Wait, What?
So, you're picking Middle Tennessee as your big 12-over-5 upset this year? That's great, but I hate to break it to you -- Middle Tennessee, those scrappy 12 seeds waiting to ride to the Round of 32 and beyond in that pumpkin-turned-carriage, are favorites on Thursday.
There are a lot of reasons to like Middle Tennessee. The memory of them thrashing Michigan State last year in an incredible 15-over-2 upset is still fresh in everyone's minds, and the Blue Raiders are even better this year. At 30-4, they could have been in the mix to earn an at-large bid if they didn't win Conference USA. Middle Tennessee scores a lot of their baskets inside, is a great two-point shooting team, and takes great care to avoid turnovers.
Meanwhile, Richard Pitino has led a very nice turnaround story in Minnesota, joining Northwestern in the ranks of feel good stories from the high-major conferences in 2017. Minnesota defends well, particularly inside, but certainly lacks luster on offense and doesn't shoot many three-pointers. And although they hail from a power conference, the Big Ten, Minnesota cedes the experience edge to Middle Tennessee.
It's easy to see why lots of people like Middle Tennessee in this matchup, and Vegas certainly isn't being shy in setting the line accordingly.
So, all in all, maybe you should pick Minnesota you can feel unique and outside-the-box again.
5. Northwestern Finally Made It. Now What?
Northwestern finally completed their long-anticipated journey to the NCAA Tournament, marking the first time ever that the program has qualified for the Big Dance. On Sunday's Selection Show, the players celebrated like they were from the tiniest of mid-majors, and the CBS studio crew paused to give the Wildcats their well-deserved moment.
But now, they've got a game to play, and while Northwestern fans may have been dancing like Elaine Benes on Sunday, the bar has officially been raised as the Wildcats look to add another "first" to their storybook season.
Our nERD ratings for Northwestern and their Thursday opponent, Vanderbilt, are about as close as can be.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, also made history, as the first NCAA Tournament qualifer with 15 or more losses.
This will be a compelling style mismatch. Northwestern, like many of their Big Ten brethren, can hold their own on defense, particularly on the interior, but aren't particularly strong anywhere on offense. Meanwhile, Vandy shoots a ton of threes and avoids going inside much. This game could all ride on Vanderbilt's ability to knock down threes and Northwestern's ability to be more than just happy to be here.
6. Maryland vs. Xavier: Yes, You Have to Pick One
Ever have that feeling of disappointment on Selection Sunday when the bracket comes out and two lower-seeded teams you really wanted to pick as sleepers are stuck playing each other and you can only pick one? Like say, this year's game between Michigan and Oklahoma State? Or, maybe, Dayton and Wichita State?
Well, Maryland-Xavier is pretty much the opposite of that. Maryland, losers of six of its last 10 entering the tournament, will take on Xavier, which is 6-7 since star point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season and nearly went an entire month without a win down the stretch. And one of them gets to advance in this year's tournament.
Better yet, the winner of this game will likely play Florida State, who's in the tournament for the first time in five years and only won five games away from home this year. So one of these teams might even make the Sweet 16!
Negativity aside about the sometimes lackluster play of these two, this could be one of the most exciting games of the Round of 64. Our nERD rankings have these teams dead even, and Vegas only favors Maryland by two points, despite the 6-11 seed gap.
Maryland's won a ton of close games, led by their junior floor general, Melo Trimble. Xavier is led by Trevon Bluiett, who dropped 40 points on crosstown rival Cincinnati this season. We may feel it's unfair that one of these teams will advance, while others will fall too early, this matchup has late-game drama written all over it.
7. Can Saint Mary's Emerge From Gonzaga's Shadow?
Gonzaga had a powerhouse year from a metrics standpoint but always get doubted because they play in the WCC. So it's fair to say that if plenty of people still doubt Gonzaga, the jury is plenty out on a Gaels team that's 28-4 but couldn't stay within single digits of the Zags even once in three tries.
But there's a lot to like about Saint Mary's. They're 24th in our nERD power rankings and 14th in KenPom's overall efficiency ratings. They're number one nationally in offensive rebounding rate, defend twos and threes equally well, and really keep teams off the perimeter. The Gaels are led by Jock Landale, a hyper-efficient big man who shoots over 60 percent and averages over 16 points and 9 boards a game, despite Saint Mary's playing the second-slowest adjusted tempo in the country, according to KenPom.
VCU is tough defensively, but this is a winnable matchup for the Gaels. Unfortunately, for teams from the little-seen West Coast Conference, a lot hinges on one day in March. Lose, and it's an indictment of the entire conference. Win, and it suddenly wouldn't be surprising to see some calling for the Gaels to upset Arizona in a possible second round West Region matchup.
8. Is "Dunk City" Ready to Claim Florida Bragging Rights?
After electrifying the NCAA Tournament in 2013 with their highly-entertaining run to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed, Florida Gulf Coast is back in the bracket for the second straight season under coach Joe Dooley. The Eagles only earned a 16 seed last year and came and went quickly. But as the 14 seed across from in-state rival Florida State, a team that, as mentioned earlier, has plenty to prove on the big stage, we may be ready for the team that popularized "Dunk City" to return to the spotlight.
Gulf Coast can hold their own inside. They shoot over 55 percent from two-point range (top-15 in the country), are an above-average rebounding team, and defend the perimeter well. But Florida State has size and star power rivaled by few teams in the nation, led by freshman big Jonathan Isaac. The Seminoles are particularly good interior defenders and shot blockers.
So while this year's version of Florida Gulf Coast may not be able to posterize a big and long Florida State team, they will have to prove they can win some battles on the interior if they want to pull off the in-state upset in Orlando.
9. Can Wisconsin Win Playing "Big Ten Ugly?"
It's no secret that many teams in the Big Ten haven't played the most appealing style of basketball the last few years. Low-scoring affairs have become the norm for many Big Ten teams, and with "down" years being experienced by Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State, there's not a whole lot of hype surrounding the conference's seven entrants into this year's bracket.
Still, you don't always need to play aesthetically-appealing basketball in order to play winning basketball. Wisconsin proved that themselves last year, beating Pittsburgh 47-43 in a game so ugly it should have come with a free bowl of soup. Still, if it weren't for that awful rock fight of an NCAA Tournament game, we would have never gotten Bronson Koenig's heroic second-round buzzer beater to knock off 2 seed Xavier.
Now, Wisconsin comes into their 8-9 matchup with Virginia Tech, another ACC opponent, looking to make this game as ugly as possible. Virginia Tech is a top-10 team in terms of effective field goal percentage and shoots over 40 percent from three. Wisconsin will look to put the brakes on Buzz Williams' high-powered offense in one of the starker style mismatches we'll see in the Round of 64.
So maybe we'll look back and say Wisconsin won the game but that it wasn't pretty. Still, if it gets them a shot a knocking off overall number one seed Villanova, they'll gladly take it.
10. Can Nevada Do Enough Damage From Distance to Cool Down Iowa State?
Nevada won the Mountain West Conference and 10 games against RPI top 100 opponents this year, largely by controlling the perimeter. Eric Musselman's group shoots over 38 percent from three and holds opponents to under 31 percent a game. Getting that type of margin on three-point percentage will be critical against an Iowa State team that appears to be peaking at the right time.
The Cyclones, led by Monte Morris, one of the nation's top point guards, has won 9 of 10, securing the Big 12 Tournament championship along the way. After scoring just 65 points in a loss at Texas on February 7, Iowa State has averaged over 82 points per game. For the season, they've shot over 40 percent from three and are also one of the absolute best teams in the country at limiting turnovers, thanks to Morris.
If Iowa State can avoid falling victim to a 12-over-5 upset, they could be well on their way to an oddly-bracketed -- but potentially very compelling -- Sweet 16 showdown with Big 12 rival Kansas.