1. Virginia vs 16. Coastal Carolina
Raleigh, 9:25pm Friday (TBS)
Virginia was the ACC regular season and conference tournament champions and play some absolutely suffocating defense. The Cavaliers aren't going to blow anyone out of the water, but they are a very solid all-around team that is reminiscent of Butler a few years ago when they made a run to the title game thanks to a lock-down defense and clutch shooting. The Cavaliers have bona fide stars in Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris but have a very good lineup all around from center Mike Tobey, a 7-footer with touch, forward Akil Mitchell (one of the best defenders in the nation) and point guard Logan Perrantes (3.5 assists-to-turnover ratio). Coastal Carolina won a wild Big South Tournament and is the second-lowest rated team in the field on KenPom.com (232nd). The Chanticleers do have one of the best nicknames in the nation and have 3 players averaging over 14 points per game in Elijah Wilson, Warren Gillis and Josh Cameron. On the inside, Coastal Carolina is led by two players from The Senegal - El Hadji Ndieguene and Badou Diagne along with Michael Enanga from Cameroon who all average over 5 rebounds and 20 minutes per game, combining to make the Chanticleers one of the top rebounding teams in the nation.
8. Memphis vs 9. George Washington
Raleigh, 6:55pm Friday (TBS)
Memphis and head coach Josh Pastner finally got over the elusive hump of not being able to beat a ranked team this season. The Tigers beat an Oklahoma State team ranked in the Top 5, Louisville twice, Gonzaga and Southern Methodist. Memphis isn't a very deep team, with only 6 players averaging over 15 minutes per game, but they are stacked with offensive talent in point guard Joe Jackson (14.3 PPG, 4.5 APG), Michael Dixon Jr (11.8 PPG) and Shaq Goodwin (11.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG). The Tigers share the ball incredibly well and rank 3rd in the nation at 17.4 assists per game while being aggressive defensively (8.7 steals per game, 7th in the nation). The Tigers are a good offensive team that could give Virginia problems in the second round as they shoot almost 48% from the field and average over 77 points per game, both marks in the top 35 in the nation. Their downfall will be from the free throw line, where they shoot just 64.9% as a team (326th out of 351 Division 1 teams). Jackson and Dixon Jr are the only players that make more than two-thirds of their free throw attempts. George Washington has been hovering around the middle of the pack for pretty much the whole season. They beat Creighton early in the season and pretty much carried that win through the rest of the year, adding in home victories against VCU and St Joe's in A-10 play to complete their resume. The Colonials present a very interesting matchup for Memphis in that they are also not a very deep team (6 players averaging over 25 minutes) and can score from anywhere on the floor (5 players averaging double-digits, led by Maurice Creek's 14.3 PPG). George Washington also struggles from the line (65.4%, 314th in the nation). The biggest factor in this game could be the referees - if they call a tight game and either team has to go to their bench, their chances of winning are greatly diminished.
5. Cincinnati vs 12. Harvard
Spokane, 2:10pm Thursday (TNT)
Cincinnati boasts one of the best defensive teams in the nation, holding opponents to just 58.3 points per game (6th in nation). The Bearcats also rank in the top 25 in steals (7.9 per game) and blocks (5.5 per game). Sean Kilpatrick has made a name for himself as one of the top scorers in the nation, averaging 20.7 points per game and hitting a number of clutch shots to earn victories for Cincinnati. Outside of Kilpatrick and forward Justin Jackson (11.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG), Cincinnati doesn't present much of an offensive threat, with no one else averaging more than 7.5 points per game. On the other side, Harvard is coming off their second Ivy League title and looking to pull another upset in the Big Dance after toppling #3 seed New Mexico last year. The Crimson return 5 of their top 6 players from last year's team and feature a roster loaded with scorers (5 players averaging over 10 points per game). This will be a matchup of strength on strength as Harvard's offense matches up against Cincinnati's defense. Ultimately, I think Cincinnati's length and athleticism will give Harvard problems on the perimeter, but don't be surprised if the Crimson hang tight in this one for a long time.
4. Michigan St vs 13. Delaware
Spokane, 4:40pm Thursday (TNT)
Everyone is picking Michigan State as the favorite to not only come out of this region but also to win the National Championship. That wouldn't be surprising as the Spartans were one of the best teams in the country when they had a healthy roster. After struggling through injuries and trading wins and losses through the second half of conference play, Michigan State finally got healthy at the end of the season and blew through the conference tournament, capturing the Big Ten crown. Get to know the names of guards Gary Harris (17.1 PPG) and Keith Appling (12.3 PPG, 4.6 APG) and forwards Adreian Payne (15.8 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Branden Dawson (10.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG) as you'll be hearing a lot from them as Tom Izzo aims for another deep run in the tournament. If you need a reason to root against Delaware, remember it's Joe Flacco's alma mater. Delaware was the best team in the CAA all season and won the conference tournament title over William & Mary (who is one of the 5 original Division 1 members that have never made the NCAA Tournament) on a go-ahead layup with under 10 seconds to go. The Blue Hens are led by the school's all-time leading scorer Devon Saddler (19.7 PPG), senior guard Davon Usher (19.4 PPG) and junior guard Jarvis Threatt (18.1 PPG). All 5 of Delaware's starters average in double figures with Carl Baptiste (11.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG) anchoring the interior. Delaware is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation at nearly 80 points per game, but they do not shoot incredibly well from the field, but are one of the fastest teams in the nation (10th in Tempo).
6. North Carolina vs 11. Providence
San Antonio, 7:20pm Friday (TNT)
Who is North Carolina this year? Are they the team that lost at home to Belmont and Miami and got blown out of the gates by Pitt in the first half of their first game in the ACC Tournament? Or are they the team that beat Duke by 8 on their home floor in the midst of a 12-game winning streak in ACC play and stormed back in the second half against Pitt to only lose by 5? Part of their enigma lies in Marcus Paige, who is one of the best closers in the nation. Paige scores about 65% of his points in the second half with about 64% of those coming in the final 10 minutes of games. All told, Paige scores 42% of his points in the final 10 minutes of the game after being mostly invisible for the first half. Tar Heel Blog did an excellent breakdown of the numbers. The Heels have struggled since the calendar turned to march, narrowly escaping upsets by ACC bottom feeders Virginia Tech and Notre Dame before getting stomped by Duke then losing to Pitt in the ACC Tournament. This is a team that is trending down, and catches Providence who is hot off a Big East Tournament Title. The Friars bubble hopes looked slim after losing 4 of 4 in early February and missing chances down the stretch against Villanova (who they took to double OT) and Creighton. They came back to pop St John's bubble in the first round of the Big East Tournament then got lucky when Seton Hall upset Villanova, paving their way to a rematch with Creighton. Just a week removed from a 15-point loss to the Jays, Providence went with a zone defense and held Creighton to just 58 points and got 23 points from leading scorer Bryce Cotton (21.4 PPG, 5.8 APG) to secure their spot in the field. Bryce Cotton vs Marcus Paige should be a heck of a battle, but don't count out the rest of the Friars offense - they have 3 players averaging between 11 and 14 points per contest.
3. Iowa St vs 14. NC Central
San Antonio, 9:50pm Friday (TNT)
If you haven't seen Iowa State play this season, make sure you tune in to catch the Cyclones in action. They are one of the most exciting up-and-down teams you'll see with NBA talent in the frontcourt in Melvin Ejim (18.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and in the backcourt in DeAndre Kane (17.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 5.8 APG). Add in sophomore forward Georges Niang (16.5 PPG) and point guard Monte Morris who leads the nation with a 5.4 assist-to-turnover ratio and you get a Cyclones team that averages nearly 83 points per game (6th in the nation), shares the ball incredibly well (18.5 APG, leads the nation), and crashes the boards (38.8 RPG, 23rd in nation). As is often the case with stellar offensive teams, Iowa State struggles on the defensive end, but they have enough offensive talent to take them on a deep run in this tournament. North Carolina Central is appearing in their first ever NCAA Tournament, giving Durham, NC more schools in the Big Dance (2) than the states of Indiana and Illinois combined (0). NC Central dominated the MEAC this season to the tune of an 18-1 conference record and carries a 20-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles are led by Jeremy Ingram (20.6 PPG), who is their only player averaging more than 11 points per contest. Their second-leading scorer (Jordan Parks, 10.2 PPG) averages just 19 minutes per game because of foul problems. Parks has racked up at least 4 fouls in 15 of his 33 games this season and fouled out 6 times.
7. UConn vs 10. St Joseph's
Buffalo, 6:55pm Thursday (TBS)
If you want proof that the Committee disrespected the American Athletic Conference, look no further than the seed given to UConn. The Huskies finished third in the AAC and had more Top 50 wins (7) than 2 of the other 7 seeds (Texas - 6, Oregon - 4), 2 of the 6-seeds (Ohio St - 6, UNC - 5) and 3 of the 5-seeds (Cincinnati - 6, St Louis - 5, VCU - 5). Nevertheless, the Committee gave us a heck of a game between UConn's Shabazz Napier who leads the team in most major categories (17.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.7 SPG) and St Joe's Langston Galloway (17.5 PPG). As usual, UConn has a very good defensive team that ranks 11th in defensive efficiency and 8th in blocks per game. St Joe's is coming off an A-10 Tournament title where they solved VCU's press for the second time this season. The Hawks don't have a very deep team and have 5 players that all average over 31 minutes per game, but 4 of those 5 are double-digit scorers, so they can get offense from anywhere on the court.
2. Villanova vs 15. Milwaukee
Buffalo, 9:25pm Thursday (TBS)
Villanova is one of the biggest unknowns of the NCAA Tournament field. They have an impressive resume that features wins over 7 NCAA Tournament teams (Mt St Mary's, Delaware, Kansas, Iowa, St Joe's, Providence and Xavier). Their only regular season losses came to Syracuse and a sweep by Creighton. However, the dud that the Wildcats laid in the opening round of the Big East Tournament against Seton Hall has caused some red flags to be raised. They are in the top 20 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency and feature a trio of scorers that all average 14 points per game in James Bell, Darrun Hillard and JayVaughn Pinkston. On the other side, Milwaukee took the hard road to the Horizon League title from the #5 seed, beating top-seeded Green Bay in overtime in the semi-finals and #3 seed Wright State for the Championship. The Panthers are not a very deep team as 4 of their 5 starters average more than 30 minutes per game and the fifth averages 27. The Panthers do have good scoring distribution with 4 players averaging double-figures, led by Jordan Aaron's 15 points per game.