10 Things to Watch on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament
It's the most wonderful time of the year!
No, it's not Christmas, but these next few days create more pure excitement than perhaps any other time on the American sports calendar. Upsets, Cinderellas, bracket busters -- the Round of 64 is mere moments from getting into full swing.
There are so many interesting matchups and storylines to choose from on opening day of March Madness that it's a daunting task to narrow down exactly what to focus on over 12 hours of sheer sports-spectating bliss. But here are 10 things to watch closely on day one of the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
1. Which could-be Cinderella will strike first?
The NCAA and its broadcast partners know exactly what they are doing when they set the schedule for Thursday's afternoon games. Doesn't it always seem like there's some massive upset that happens while you're stuck at work on Thursday, which sends your mind racing toward grabbing your car keys and bolting to the closest TV? Thursday afternoon is where Loyola Chicago started its Cinderella run in 2018, Middle Tennessee won as a 12 seed in 2017, Yale and Little Rock won as 12 seeds in 2016, and UAB and Georgia State toppled two Big 12 teams as 14 seeds in 2015.
According to the average spread of each of the games, Thursday's early window (tipping off at 12:15 p.m. EST) is expected to be the second-most closely contested quartet of games in the entire tournament (trailing only -- you guessed it -- the earliest window of games on Friday).
Do you need any more of an excuse to call out sick Thursday with a case of the sniffles?
Among the first eight games, six feature teams seeded 11 or lower are underdogs of nine points or fewer -- Yale, New Mexico State, Vermont, Belmont, Northeastern, and Murray State. Which one will grab the first headlines of the day? I know I speak for everyone when I say we can't wait to find out.
2. Can Richard Pitino's Gophers triumph over the Cardinals?
In one of those classic "made for TV" matchups, Richard Pitino faces the school where his legendary father, Rick, coached for many years until -- well, there are plenty of court documents to explain what happened there. The junior Pitino was, himself, an assistant coach over two stints at Louisville before landing the head coaching job at Minnesota in 2013. He'll get a chance to go head-to-head with Chris Mack, the first full-time head coach to take over following his father's firing.
With Mack at the helm, Louisville may not run the patented Pitino press any more, but they are still one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking 16th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to Kenpom. Minnesota, meanwhile, is one of the more unspectacular shooting teams in the field. So easy win for Louisville, right? Not so fast. Louisville dropped 8 of its final 12 games heading into the tournament, including a three-game losing streak in February where it failed to crack 60 points.
Where this game could be won is the free throw line. Louisville is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, and Minnesota gets to the line as often as almost any team in the tournament. Sounds like an apt setting for the drama shaping up in this matchup, steeped heavily in familiarity.
3. With Will Wade banished from the sideline, can Yale knock off LSU?
I don't want this whole rundown of Thursday games to feature a backdrop of scandal (no offense, Kansas and Auburn), but it's impossible to ignore the fact that the SEC regular season champion, LSU, will be without its head coach for the foreseeable future. Will Wade has been suspended by the university for his role in an ongoing FBI investigation and will not coach the team in the NCAA Tournament. Without Wade, LSU got bounced from its first SEC Tournament game against Florida.
So, does Ivy League champ Yale have what it takes to catch a depleted LSU squad?
As one of the games we highlighted earlier this week in a look at the most likely upsets in the first round, yes, there's reason to believe in this 14 seed. Only six teams in the entire tournament field have a better Effective Field Goal Percentage than Yale, while LSU's ranks outside the top 100 nationally. While Yale's defense doesn't generate many turnovers, it is good at keeping teams off the offensive glass for second chance opportunities, where LSU excels.
Our nERD metric -- which is the amount of points a team would be expected to beat an average team by on a neutral court -- only has LSU favored by about eight points, and the spread is down to LSU by 7.5. The Tigers are still the favorite by a decent margin -- just enough of a margin to make them a great candidate for our first shocker of the day.
4. Auburn is red hot, but could New Mexico State give them problems?
Auburn enters the NCAA Tournament on a tear -- winners of eight straight, punctuated by a 20-point statement victory in the SEC championship game over Tennessee. So, naturally, there seems to be growing sentiment that Auburn could be a Final Four sleeper candidate.
But New Mexico State, within just six points of Auburn in our nERD metric, might have something to say about that. New Mexico State lost its first game in WAC regular season play, but has reeled off 19 wins in a row since. They're top-10 in the country in both two-point field goal percentage and offensive rebound rate. Auburn's defense, while being the top unit in the country at generating turnovers, is prone to fouling, and struggles to keep teams off the offensive glass.
There is such a thing as "the team that looked a little too good" the round before. Is Auburn the team we've seen the last three weeks? Or are they the one that started 7-7 in SEC play?
5. Can Belmont be yet another First Four team to reach the Round of 32?
Since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field to 68 teams in 2011, a First Four winner has advanced past the first round in every single tournament. From one of the very last teams in the field to the short list of 32 teams fighting to win it all, just like that!
The advanced metrics see the Bruins of Belmont as a cut above the rest of its First Four brethren, and after their win against Temple on Tuesday night, they could be well positioned for their second-ever NCAA Tournament victory when they travel to Jacksonville to take on Maryland. nERD has these teams just 4.5 points apart, and Vegas has this line down to Maryland by three.
While Maryland boasts a couple of potent big men in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, there's reason to believe for Belmont. The Bruins are third in the country in Effective Field Goal Percentage, second in the nation in two-point shooting percentage, and one of the very best teams in the country at taking care of the basketball. Maryland is the second-worst team in the country at generating turnovers, and its offense is the fourth-worst in the tournament at giving the ball away.
If Belmont can win the turnover battle in convincing fashion and knock down its shots, we could be looking at nine straight years of a First Four team marching on.
6. Does Northeastern have what it takes to knock out a blue blood?
Kansas failed to win at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title for the first time in 15 years. While that's certainly a credit to Kansas State and Texas Tech, this year's Kansas squad has proven time and again to not be on par with other recent editions.
So, can 13-seeded Northeastern pounce on the opportunity?
Northeastern can flat out shoot. It ranks fifth in the country in Effective Field Goal Percentage, and is top-15 in Division I in both two-point and three-point percentage. While Northeastern's defense is middle of the pack nationally, and particularly susceptible to inside scoring, Kansas' offense has been up-and-down all year. The Jayhawks rank well behind Northeastern's shooting percentages and are significantly more prone to turnovers. Plus, Northeastern plays one of the slower offensive tempos in the country, which can be a factor in adding variability to an otherwise seemingly predictable outcome.
Northeastern is a disciplined, slow-tempo, well-shooting team, going against an opponent lacking many of those same characteristics. Unless Kansas plays with superior effort and focus on defense, this could be just the recipe we need for a major upset.
7. Ja Morant versus Markus Howard is must-see TV.
This year's tournament selection committee has blessed us with a 5-12 matchup that features two 25-point per game scorers and National Player of the Year candidates going toe-to-toe. Long live March.
It's easy to see why Marquette versus Murray State has emerged as a popular pick for the "must see" game of round one (naturally, it will tip off around 4:30 Eastern, when many of us are still at work, so you may want to hurry home!) Ja Morant is one of the most highly touted NBA draft prospects out there this year, and backs up his elite scoring with a nation-leading 10 assists per game. Markus Howard put the Golden Eagles back in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since the Big East realigned, and was his conference's player of the year.
The individual matchup should be electrifying, and the game could prove be super close, as well. Murray State's defense has what it takes to ice Marquette's shooters on the perimeter, holding opponents this season to a woeful 28.5% from deep. Meanwhile, Marquette's been sputtering to close the season, having lost five of six. This game seems to have all the makings of appointment television.
8. What will Nevada do for an encore?
Coach Eric Musselman, his eight-year-old daughter Mariah, and the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) captured the hearts of America last year, as the Wolf Pack rode an insane 22-point comeback in the Round of 32 over second-seeded Cincinnati to a Sweet 16 appearance. Nevada rode that goodwill, and the return of its key components, to a 2018-19 season where it spent most of the year in the Associated Press' Top 10.
Does Nevada have what it takes to reach a Final Four?
It would seem to add up that this is Nevada's year, but there appear to be some signs of trouble. Nevada is just 5-3 over its last eight games, and bowed out of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in the semifinals without injured swingman Jordan Caroline. And despite its lofty AP ranking, Nevada played just two games against Quad 1 opponents this year, so its lofty 29-4 regular season record only warranted another 7 seed from the selection committee. Its resume was rewarded with a matchup against Florida, a game that our nERD rankings expect to be virtually dead even.
Florida struggles to score, but has one of the top defenses in the country, according to Kenpom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric. With an offense that plays a slow tempo, if the Gators can drag Nevada into a slow, low-scoring grind of a game, don't be surprised if the familiar faces of Nevada are among this tournament's one-and-dones.
9. Will Jay Wright conjure up some March magic?
In a South region that doesn't feature the marquee names of Marches past up top (Virginia, Tennessee, Purdue) it could be tempting to pick Villanova -- the winner of two of the last three National Championships with a likely soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach -- as a sleeper candidate to reach the Final Four. Are the reigning champs worth a long-shot pick? I'm not sure even Jay Wright knows the answer to that.
At times this season, Villanova has flourished. It started the Big East regular season 10-0, and ended its season with a third-straight Big East Tournament title. But the Wildcats also lost five of their final eight Big East regular season games, and suffered some tough losses in non-conference play as they struggled to adapt to life without NBA draftees Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman.
Wright, and returning champions Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, still give Villanova plenty of hope to make a run. But Saint Mary's excels at taking away what Villanova does most: shoot the three. Villanova shoots threes more often than any team in the tournament. Meanwhile, Saint Mary's limits three-point attempts better than any team in the tournament than Michigan, and Michigan crushed Villanova in an early-season matchup. With its up-and-down season, and key holdovers with a championship pedigree, Villanova may have as wide a range of outcomes as any team in the tournament.
10. Is Wofford this year's Final Four sleeper?
Of all the small schools and mid-majors in this year's bracket, your time is well spent getting to know Wofford. The Terriers have ripped off 20 straight wins to win the Southern Conference this year, and made a late-season surge into the AP Top 25. Their 29-4 record isn't full of fluff, either. Wofford ranks 13th in the NCAA's NET metric, 19th in Kenpom's rankings, and 25th in our nERD rankings.
Wofford is the best three-point shooting team in the tournament, hitting a whopping 41.6% from distance. That's almost 10 percentage points better than its first round opponent, Seton Hall. Wofford also takes care of the basketball, and belies the usual mid-major stereotype on defense, where it ranks just several notches lower than Seton Hall, according to Kenpom's efficiency rankings.
If Wofford can get past Seton Hall, which is no easy task given the way the Pirates closed the season, Kentucky could be next on the docket. And while no one necessarily wants to run into a potent Kentucky squad in this year's tournament, the Wildcats are quite susceptible to giving up three-pointers. Wofford's road is not easy, but that's exactly what could make for a Cinderella run you won't want to miss.