The first round of the NCAA tournament is sure to offer up some exciting matchups that should come down to the wire.
During this time of the month, close contests and buzzer-beaters are pretty much expected. No matter what seed it is, no team is immune to facing a challenge in the opening round.
That just so happens to be the case with these three matchups.
But before we get into it, let’s check out the bracket.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
West: No. 8 Gonzaga (28-6) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (21-12)
The Bulldogs were supposed to be a strong sleeper pick for this year’s tournament.
However, that was before they drew the Cowboys in the first round.
It wasn’t too long ago that Oklahoma State was considered a Top-10 team in the country. However, sloppy play and injuries led to a disastrous seven-game losing streak that nearly saw the Cowboys left on the outside looking in.
Still, Gonzaga should have its hands full on Friday.
Between Marcus Smart (17.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.7 APG) and Markel Brown (17.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.9 APG), Oklahoma State has plenty of talent to go around. The team has also has won five of its last seven games, with only two losses to Top-10 opponents in overtime slowing it down.
But don’t count out the Bulldogs. Winners of 14 of its last 17, the team packs a punch of its own.
Junior guard Kevin Pangos (14.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.7 APG) offers up some firepower in the backcourt while senior forward/center Sam Dower (15.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG) has solid range for a big man—33.3 percent from three-point range.
This could easily be one of the most thrilling matches of the first round.
In the end, look for the Cowboys' experience playing in the battle-tested Big 12 to make all the difference. In comparison, Gonzaga lost its only meeting with a Top-25 opponent.
Prediction: 76-69 OSU
South: No. 7 New Mexico (27-6) vs. No. 10 Stanford (21-12)
Many were surprised when the Lobos dropped to a No. 7 seed. But don’t expect too many to feel the same way if the team is ousted in the first round by the Cardinal.
As ESPN Stats and Info notes, this matchup is a little too close for comfort:
Despite its low seeding and the fact that it lost four of its last seven, Stanford is very solid. The team has recorded three victories over Top-25 opponents and played both Michigan and Arizona tough.
Behind the duo of Chasson Randle (18.7 PPG, 48.5 FG%) and Dwight Powell (14.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG), the Cardinal have the playmakers to make a deep run in the tournament. It also has the size that matches up well with New Mexico.
On the other side of the court, the Lobos will respond with Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Cameron Bairstow (20.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.6 APG) and senior guard Kendall Williams (16.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.9 APG).
New Mexico will look to use its presence down low to intimidate Stanford. The team ranks No. 8 in defensive rebounds (27.5 RPG) and No. 32 in blocks (5.2 BPG).
Winners of nine of their last 10, the Lobos just have the momentum that should carry them past the Cardinal in what should be a close game.
Prediction: 82-78 UNM
West: No. 6 Baylor (24-11) vs. No. 11 Nebraska (19-12)
This is a matchup that pits two teams riding a late-season surge against one another.
The Bears have won 10 of their last 12, most recently appearing in the finals of the Big 12 tournament. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers have won eight of 10, including upsets of a pair of Top-10 opponents in Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew believes the late run in Big 12 play is an advantage, per Baylorbears.com:
I think having our backs against the wall (has helped). It’s basically been do-or-die and playoff basketball for a while. I think that prepares you for the NCAA tournament, because you have to be sharp each day in practice and each game.
Having senior forward Cory Jefferson get hot at the right time certainly helps too—16.0 points and 8.7 rebounds over the last six games.
On the other hand, Nebraska is powered by swingman Terran Petteway (18.1 PPG). The sophomore has poured in 46 points in his last two games.
Both teams will come out focused, but look for the Bears’ size and athleticism to make all the difference.
Prediction: 74-67 BU
Unless otherwise noted, all stats, rankings and other information are courtesy of ESPN.com.