Before the NCAA Tournament can officially get underway, the First Four matchups will have to be decided.
They may not be the most exciting matchups of the tournament, but there’s no doubt these eight teams deserve spots in the 64-team field. In fact, four of these teams got here by way of winning their respective conference’s tournament title.
Needless to say, each matchup should fuel the hunger for high-stakes basketball ahead of the opening tip of Thursday’s NCAA tournament action.
But before we take a closer look at these matchups, let’s take a glimpse at the bracket.
All Your Bracket Essentials
South: No. 16 Albany (18-14) vs. No. 16 Mount Saint Mary’s (16-16)
Odds: Albany (-2), 140.5
These two will battle it out on Tuesday to see which team will get the opportunity to face the hottest team in the country, Florida, in the first round of the NCAA tournament later this week.
“If you win, you go up against a monster like Florida,” said the Mountaineers' Julian Norfleet, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com. “But you’ve got to win the first game. That’s all our focus is on right now.”
After entering the Northeast Conference tournament with a losing record, Mount Saint Mary’s pulled it together to capture the title. The team’s path included victories over the top two seeds in the conference.
Led by Norfleet (17.5 PPG) and Rashad Whack (17.7 PPG), the Mountaineers can score with just about anyone. The team is ranked No. 50 in the nation in scoring (76.3 PPG).
However, the defense—No. 334 in the nation in points allowed (78.0 PPG)—could be Mount Saint Mary’s downfall.
The Great Danes are pretty much the opposite. They boast a solid defense (No. 39) but have trouble scoring (No. 287). In fact, Albany has topped 75 points only three times this season.
Fortunately, guard Peter Hooley seems to be getting hot at the right time. The sophomore has averaged 19.1 points over the last eight games. If he can keep it up, the Great Danes should have no problem in this one.
Midwest: No. 16 Cal Poly (13-19) vs. No. 16 Texas Southern (19-14)
Odds: Cal Poly (-2.5), 129.5
The Mustangs got a head start on their Cinderella story with their triumph in the Big West tournament.
Heading into the tournament, the team had lost nine of its last 11. Furthermore, Cal Poly had recorded a string of consecutive victories just three times all season.
But led by an overall team effort, the Mustangs knocked off the top two teams in the conference in the first two rounds before topping Cal State Northridge in the finals.
Meanwhile, the Tigers haven’t lost a game in over a month. The team has won nine straight games, scoring 73 points or more in seven of them.
Led by senior center Aaric Murray (21.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG), Texas Southern is out to prove it belongs in the NCAA tournament.
Cal Poly’s run to this point was certainly fun to watch, but don’t expect the team’s luck and good fortune to continue in this matchup.
Pick: Texas Southern
Midwest: No. 12 North Carolina State (21-13) vs. No. 12 Xavier (21-12)
Odds: Xavier (-2), 141
These two teams are on opposite sides of the track.
On one hand, you have the Wolfpack, who have won five of their last six games. That includes besting Syracuse in the ACC tournament before coming up short against Duke.
Led by ACC player of the year T.J. Warren (24.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG), North Carolina State is a tough out for any opponent.
That’s something Musketeers head coach Chris Mack knows very well.
“We have a huge challenge in NC State. They’re playing their best basketball of the year down the stretch,” he told the media, via Pack Pride. “T.J. Warren is a scoring machine and we’re going to have to do a great job not only on T.J. but the rest of their team.”
On the other hand, Mack’s team has somewhat stumbled down the stretch. After a 15-4 start, Xavier closed out the season 6-8.
Fortunately, guard Semaj Christon has been playing lights-out basketball. The sophomore has averaged 20.6 points over the team’s last five games.
Christon should help the Musketeers keep it close, but with nearly everyone on the Wolfpack clicking, this one could get out of hand fast.
Pick: North Carolina State
Midwest: No. 11 Tennessee (21-12) vs. No. 11 Iowa (20-12)
Odds: Iowa (-1.5), 142.5
The matchup between the Vols and the Hawkeyes is easily the most interesting of the First Four contests.
Furthermore, according to USA Today’s Dan Wolken, whoever wins this matchup might actually have the advantage in the next round:
Tennessee comes in having won of five of its last six. Most recently, the Vols made a trip to the SEC tournament semifinals before falling to Florida 56-49.
But although the team went 0-5 against top-25 opponents this season, Tennessee poses a formidable threat. Defensively, this is one of the best squads in the country, as the Vols rank No. 16 in points allowed (61.1 PPG).
Throw in the play of senior guard Jordan McRae (18.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.5 APG), and Tennessee has the potential to make a surprising run in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Iowa will be looking to turn things around.
The team has lost six of seven heading into the matchup with the Vols. That includes an embarrassing defeat at the hands of lowly Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament.
Still, as long as senior guard Roy Devyn Marble has the hot hand—20.5 points per game over last seven games—the Hawkeyes have a chance.
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