10 Things to Watch on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament
The greatest day on the sports calendar is finally here.
The NCAA Tournament brings out the very best of the American sports experience. What we consume when we tune the TV to sports coverage seems to be ever decreasingly about the actual games being played. Instead, we spend much of the sports year watching and listening to news about off-field incidents, hot takes on athletes' legacies, and updates from outside of court rooms.
Last time I checked, those things aren't the reasons why any of us fell in love with sports.
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is a wall-to-wall, immersive event that, refreshingly, is all about the games. And those games feature buzzer beaters, upsets, overwhelming pride in schools you've never heard of, crazy mascots, and about as much heart and hustle as you'll find in sports.
It's here, everyone. While you enjoy the Madness, here are 10 things to keep an eye out for in some of Thursday's biggest games.
1. Madness Comes Early
Last year, it was UAB over Iowa State and Georgia State over Baylor. In 2014, it was Dayton over Ohio State and Harvard over Cincinnati. In 2011, it was Morehead State over Louisville. All those games were big, first-round upsets that happened early in the afternoon on Thursday. This time slot seems built for upsets that set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Probably because most of us are at work and end up kicking ourselves over missing great games. For that reason, make sure you're able to keep an eye on the two early 4/13 matchups on Thursday -- Duke-UNC Wilmington and Iowa State-Iona.
2. Baylor in Enemy Territory
A week ago, we took a look at the role that distance plays in helping facilitate upsets in the NCAA Tournament (not to mention some unlucky bracketing). The most glaring example of a lower seed going to play a higher seed in a virtual road game will be Baylor taking the 1,800 mile trek to Providence, where there should be plenty of Yale fans happy to make the short, 100-mile trip to see their team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962. Baylor had too good a season to have to face such an uphill battle in their first-round game, but they're simply the latest team disadvantaged by the quirks of the bracketing process.
3. Will a Little Rock Take Down Goliath?
Purdue's lineup, led by 6'8" Vince Edwards, 6'9" Caleb Swanigan, 7'0" A.J. Hammons, and 7'2" Isaac Haas, is massive. According to KenPom's average height measure, Purdue features one of the biggest lineups in the country. Can Arkansas Little Rock, which ranks in the bottom quartile of the same measure, hang in this game despite the size differential?
Their secret weapon, as is the case with many smaller, mid-major teams, could be the three-point line.
But Little Rock may have the formula to really make it work in their favor. They're one of the best teams in the country both at shooting and defending the three (they make almost 39 percent of their shots, while allowing only 30 percent of opponents' shots) and are also a strong ball control team. Add to that Purdue's deficiency in creating turnovers, and Little Rock may get plenty of opportunities to trade twos for threes, which could help them overcome the nine-point deficit projected by our nERD metric (which measures how many points a team would be expected to beat an average opponent by on a neutral court).
4. Kentucky Frontcourt, Meet Jameel Warney
Stony Brook senior Jameel Warney put himself on the map as one of the must-see mid-major players in this year's tournament when he made 18 of 22 shots en route to 43 points in the America East Tournament championship. Warney averages just under 20 points a game on 64 percent shooting from the field while grabbing just under 11 boards a game. He will be an absolute handful for an up-and-down frontcourt for Kentucky, a unit that could hold the key for how far the Wildcats go in this tournament.
5. Can Chattanooga Slow Down the Jimmy Chitwood-Inspired Hoosiers?
Indiana's Big Ten regular season championship this season was a product of their incredible shooting numbers. According to KenPom, the Hoosiers are second in the nation in Effective Field Goal Percentage, which is backed up by top 10 shooting ability from both inside and outside the perimeter.
Matt McCall's Chattanooga Mocs play some of the longest possessions on defense in the country, per KenPom. If Chattanooga can lengthen Indiana's offensive possessions, they can both limit the Hoosiers' looks at the basket and increase the likelihood for generating turnovers, the latter being the bug-a-boo of the Hoosiers' offense this season.
6. Can 6 Seed Seton Hall Upset 11 Seed Gonzaga?
Both our nERD metric and the Vegas odds actually make Gonzaga, the 11 seed, slight favorites in this late-night matchup in Denver. From a pedigree standpoint, this may not be too surprising, since Gonzaga is a name we fill out annually in the brackets, while Seton Hall is not. Still, the Pirates are coming into this matchup with a ton of buzz after knocking off both Xavier and Villanova to claim the Big East Tournament championship.
Seton Hall's sophomore-laden, perimeter-oriented team can, however, sometimes play erratically and make poor decisions that belies their talent and the incredible scoring knack of Isaiah Whitehead. The Hall will be helped by Gonzaga's inability to generate many turnovers this season, but their sophs will need to grow quickly to maintain the discipline and focus necessary to attack Gonzaga bigs Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis on the defensive end.
7. Wichita State and the Turnover Battle
Wichita State looked great on Tuesday in turning away a talented Vanderbilt squad by 20. If the magic is set to continue, the answer lies in Wichita's ability to own the turnover battle against Arizona. The Shockers are our number-one team in terms of Defensive Efficiency, and top five in the nation in terms of both Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed and turnovers generated, per KenPom. Arizona lacks a true stand-out at the point guard position, so it will be critical for Fred VanVleet and the Shockers' backcourt to impose their will and pace on the Wildcats, with hopes of generating some easy buckets in transition.
8. Dunn, Bentil, and...
Despite having the Big East Player of the Year, junior guard Kris Dunn, and the conference's most improved player, sophomore forward Ben Bentil, Providence's roster has appeared pretty, well, lackluster at times this season. That's because of the major inconsistency of any supporting cast to those two star players. Basketball is a game of stars, and with Dunn and Bentil, Providence could have the two best players on the floor in many given matchups. But the lack of depth and consistency is a big reason why Providence ascended into the top 10 this season, but began to regress closer to its analytics ranks (our power rankings rate the Friars as only the 54th best team in the nation).
But the Providence bench managed 24 points in their semifinal loss to Villanova in the Big East Tournament, a game where neither Dunn nor Bentil were significant scoring factors. They'll need their role players to continue making contributions like that to play like the kind of team that could give North Carolina a game in the second round.
9. Iona's All About That Pace
Iowa State and Iona are two of the faster offensive teams in this tournament, as both teams rank inside the top 65 of our Pace metric. With underdogs looking to slow the pace, so as to increase variability over a 40-minute game, it will be interesting to see if Iona looks to go against-type and slow the Cyclones down, if even just a bit. Iona's got offensive firepower, but few teams in the country can match Iowa State's arsenal. Iona could, theoretically, go toe-to-toe with Iowa State if they are having a red-hot shooting day. But it will be fascinating to see if Iona sees a bigger, better version of themselves in the mirror, and decides to alter their own approach to pace right out of the gate.
10. Is UConn Ready to Run?
Connecticut's latest attention-grabbing rally through a conference tournament turned the Huskies from a bubble team on shaky ground to a team no one wanted to see in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While some were ready to call Daniel Hamilton the heir apparent to Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier after the epic four overtime game with Cincinnati, the composition of this Huskies team would seem to call for more of a team effort this time around. UConn has excellent scoring balance between Hamilton and their other three top scorers, Shonn Miller, Rodney Purvis, and Sterling Gibbs.
The plethora of perimeter options the Huskies employ could make them tough to handle for a Colorado team that struggles at generating turnovers or defending the three. If UConn gets through this round, they should be in a much better position to make a run at Kansas than a typical 9 seed would be. Our power rankings would consider them more of a typical 7 seed -- the same seed they were when they won the 2014 National Championship.