March Madness tips off Thursday


By Brandon Little - AIM Media Midwest



March Madness kicks off on Thursday with the first four games. It’s interesting to see UCLA and Michigan State playing a first four game to get into the NCAA tournament, considering the history of the two teams. That will be a matchup to watch between the two 11 seeds, one of which will move on to play sixth-seeded BYU.

Ohio has three teams in the NCAA tournament. Ohio State was within minutes of winning the Big Ten Tournament, but fell short to one-seed Illinois. The Buckeyes are a two seed and will take on 15th seed Oral Roberts. Coach Jeff Boals led Ohio to a MAC championship and an NCAA Tournament birth. The 13th seeded Bobcats will take on an always tough Virginia team. Cleveland State saw a nice turnaround in just one year and won the Horizon League. Up first for the 15th seed is second-seeded Houston.

West

Top seeds path: Gonzaga is the number one overall seed for good reason, they just could not lose. A 26-0 record heading into the tournament is no easy ride, no matter who you play during the regular season. The Bulldogs are the first team to head into March Madness with an undefeated record since Kentucky in 2014-2015. Gonzaga will look to finish the job though, when Kentucky couldn’t,despite winning 38 games before a Final Four loss to Wisconsin.

Gonzaga has multiple players that can hurt you and that’s what makes them so tough. It isn’t normal for Gonzaga to post multiple NBA draft picks in the same year, but that’s what this year’s Bulldogs roster consists of.

Barring a historic loss to the 16th seeds (Norfolk State or Appalachian State), the Zags will take on the winner of Missouri and Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the favorite, but wasn’t great with a 15-10 record. The Sooners go as far as guard Austin Reaves takes them, which likely won’t be past the Bulldogs.

The Sweet 16 is where Gonzaga begins to get tested. A potential matchup with fourth seeded Virginia won’t be easy. Virginia normally is led by their defense, but this year it’s the three ball and their offense. Their hope in any matchup with Gonzaga is to play to the same offensive pace, to have any shot.

The path to the Final Four out of this region for Gonzaga could come down to a matchup with Iowa. The Hawkeyes are a very good team that finished third in college basketball’s best conference. Luka Garza will bring his 24 points a game and matchup well with Drew Timme of the Bulldogs. In the end you need guard play in the NCAA tourney and Gonzaga has one of the best in the country — freshman Jalen Suggs. Suggs could be the difference maker in pushing Gonzaga to the Final Four.

Lower seeded team to watch: VCU year in and year out plays some good basketball. The Rams have a good program with plenty of experience in March. VCU is consistently a tough out coming from the Atlantic 10. They’re well coached and ranked in the top 20 in defensive ratings, which favors them in tough games. Nah’Shon Hyland is good for nearly 20 points per game and can be the guard to step up and take over when needed. VCU isn’t your traditional Cinderella anymore with the noise they’ve made, but they’re still low-seeded and a team you can’t overlook.

First round matchups to watch: (8) Oklahoma vs (9) Missouri and (7) Oregon vs (10) VCU.

South

Top seeds path: Baylor opens with Hartford, a team in which they should run by without any issues. After that it gets a little tougher right away with either eighth-seeded North Carolina or ninth-seeded Wisconsin. It’s not a great UNC, team according to their rich history, but they’re still very capable. Armando Bacot is a big that can really hurt teams inside and freshman guard Caleb Love is a solid player. Baylor just has too many weapons that should get them to the Sweet 16.

After that is where we really start to see those fun March Madness matchups. Purdue and Villanova will likely match up if they can take care of business and the winner moves on to play Baylor. Purdue has been tough at times in the Big Ten, including a couple of wins over Ohio State. Villanova is well coached by Jay Wright. Either one of these teams could give Baylor fits as they both are Sweet 16 caliber teams.

With a chance to go to the Final Four it very well could be Baylor and Ohio State. It doesn’t always happen that one and two seeds matchup, but it could here. The Buckeyes are very good on offense, but struggle on defense at times. The two-headed monster of EJ Liddell and Duane Washington would have to have career nights to take down the Bears.

In the end, the trio of Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell could find themselves playing in the Final Four. The Big 12’s best team boasts solid guard play.

Lower seeded team to watch: Virginia Tech finished third in the ACC, but is only a 10th seed in the tournament. Missing quite a few games could be part of the reasoning as the Hokies played only 21 games.

Up first is the always entertaining 7 versus 10 matchup that features similar teams in Florida and Virginia Tech. Keve Aluma is the guy for Virginia Tech and they’ll need every bit of his scoring and rebounding in late March.

The Hokies had nice wins over Villanova and Virginia, even playing North Carolina close just recently. Virginia Tech doesn’t do anything special, they’re just a well rounded team. Hokies aren’t any better on offense than they are on defense. They aren’t deep but can matchup with teams and roll out three players that can score it. Joining Aluma as leaders are Tyrece Radford and Nahiem Alleyne, two guards that average double digits scoring.

Virginia Tech doesn’t have as much wear and tear as some teams this season due to playing less games, something that could work with them as March Madness fires up.

First round matchups to watch: (7) Florida vs (10) Virginia Tech

Midwest

Top seeds path: Illinois may be playing their best basketball at the right time. The Illini just captured a Big Ten Tournament championship and have a boat load of talent. First is a 16th seeded Drexel team for Illinois, who you can check in to the round of 32.

Loyola Chicago and Georgia Tech will play for a crack at the Illini, Loyola Chicago a some history of making noise in the tourney. In 2018 the Ramblers were a Cinderella team that made it to the Final Four. Ramblers bring a talented big in Cameron Krutwig, but he’ll be undersized in a matchup with Kofi Cockburn. Braden Norris is a talented, smart guard for Loyola who hails from the Columbus area. Expect him to play well, but Illinois should coast to the Sweet 16.

With the Elite 8 on the line, Illinois and Oklahoma State would be a very entertaining matchup. The top freshman in the country, Cade Cunningham, is going to give his team a shot against just about anybody. Ayo Dosunmu and Cunningham could be in for a nice duel at the guard position. As the season has gone on the Cowboys have improved, but they just don’t match up well inside with Illinois.

Second-seeded Houston or third-seeded West Virginia are favored to be in contention in the region. Either team will likely have to take down the Fighting Illini to get to the Final Four.

WVU has been tested much more than Houston and is a more complete team. Deuce McBride is a master guard that can score it at multiple levels, Mountaineers shoot the ball pretty well with multiple players that can stroke it. Derek Culver would have to be the guy against Cockburn of Illinois and he is capable. The Midwest region will offer ample opportunity for entertaining matchups and this could be another one.

Lower seeded team to watch: Syracuse hasn’t been what they once were. This year they’ve played some good basketball, rather inconsistent, though. They would look to have it together and then suffer a loss, which would set them back. Overall record of 16-9, the Orange finished eighth in the ACC.

Syracuse picked up nice wins over UNC and Clemson in the beginning of March that had them looking like they were playing their best basketball at the right time. If it wasn’t for a late three-pointer from Virginia, the Orange had a chance to defeat the Cavaliers in the ACC tournament.

Buddy Boeheim is, of course, the son of Jim Boeheim and leads the Orange in scoring and shoots the ball pretty well. Boeheim is joined by Alan Griffin and Quincy Guerrier as the attacking trio that carries Syracuse. Syracuse is good enough offensively to get a first round upset over San Diego State, but they’ll have to step up defensively.

San Diego State’s competition may be questionable at times, but they still post as one of the better defensive teams in the country and aren’t to shabby on offense. This matchup on opening week will be one to have your eyes on.

First round matchups to watch: (6) San Diego State vs (11) Syracuse.

East

Top seeds path: Michigan is a top seed, but their chances of running the table took a hit when they lost Isaiah Livers to a broken foot just a couple of days ago. Livers was the teams second leading scorer, behind freshman center Hunter Dickinson.

It’s either Mt. Saint Mary’s or Texas Southern for the Wolverines in a warm up first round game. To get to the Sweet 16 Michigan will need to take down LSU, a team that finished third in the SEC. The Tigers are solid offensively and could give the maize and blue fits. Three players average more than 15 points per game: Cameron Thomas, Trenton Watford, and Javonte Smart can really score the basketball. This one serves as a game that the Wolverines will need Franz Wagner and Eli Brooks to step up.

Fourth seeded Florida State stands a chance against Michigan in the Sweet 16. The Seminoles were a good team in the ACC and finished second. Guard duo of M.J. Walker and freshman Scottie Barnes are as good as you will find and both can do more than just score the ball.

Alabama is a two seed, but just may be the best two seed in the entire tournament. SEC’s top team was the Crimson Tide with a 23-6 record. Alabama has four players scoring in double-figures and has quality depth. Jaden Shackelford is the leading scorer and freshman Jahvon Quinerly may be the most talented player on the floor in this matchup. It’s not often you see a one seed as an underdog in Las Vegas, but it could happen with the Final Four on the line and Michigan down one of their better players. If Michigan can avoid upset and make it to the Elite 8, their last step to the Final Four is as tough as it gets.

Lower seeded team to watch: Michigan State has to play in the first four to even get a crack at the field of 64, but they cannot be taken lightly. The Spartans finished eighth in the Big Ten, which was a deep conference that put nine teams into the tournament.

At 15-12 the Spartans were rather inconsistent, although they did get wins over Ohio State, Illinois, and Duke this season. It’s a down year for Tom Izzo’s team, though they can still be a threat.

Aaron Henry is the go-to scoring threat for Michigan State at 15.3 points per game. Josh Langford, Joey Hauser, and Rocket Watts are all capable of stepping up on any given night for the Spartans. First up for Michigan State would be defeating UCLA to get a date with BYU.

BYU had Gonzaga on the ropes just last week, but fell off near the end of that one. A 20-win team is what you can find in the Cougars, a team that shoots the three ball well and is sound offensively. If Michigan State wants to advance they will need to slow down Alex Barcelona, the guard can really shoot it from deep at nearly 50% from behind the arc.

It’s different to see Michigan State as an 11 seed. With a legendary coach and ample talent, the Spartans can’t be overlooked.

First round matchups to watch: (5) Colorado vs (12) Georgetown and (6) BYU vs (11) Michigan State/UCLA.

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By Brandon Little

AIM Media Midwest

Follow @BrandonLittleSI on Twitter.

Follow @BrandonLittleSI on Twitter.