1. Florida vs 16. Albany/Mt St Mary's
Orlando, 4:10pm Thursday
The Gators are the top seed in the tournament and haven't lost since December 2. Their perfect run through the SEC was dominating, featuring 11 double-digit wins. In a league where no other team finished above .500 on the road, Florida swept through the road traps and rolled over bubble teams Missouri and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament before winning a nail-biter against Kentucky in the SEC Championship. A lot has been made about how this Florida team "lacks any NBA players" but Billy Donovan's team is well-rounded with 7 players averaging over 20 minutes per game and 4 averaging double figures. The Gators top three scorers shoot better than 40% from beyond the arc. If there is an area of concern for the Gators, it is at the free throw line where they shoot just 67% as a team (275th in the nation) and have only 2 players shooting over 70%. Albany and Mt St Mary's will kick off the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday night at 6:40 (on TruTV) is appearing in their 2nd straight NCAA Tournament after winning the America East Tournament and once again denying Stony Brook their first trip to the Big Dance. As an aside, poor Stony Brook. This was their 3rd trip to the America East Championship Game in the last 5 years and they've lost all three. Mount Saint Mary's won their way to the Big Dance from the #4 seed in the Northeast Conference, which started with a miracle comeback. The Mountaineers trailed St Francis by 19 with 10 minutes to play in their first round matchup and had cut the deficit to 5 with 42 seconds left. St Francis made just 1 of 4 free throws down the stretch and Rashad Whack hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Mt St Mary's the victory. The Mountaineers didn't look back and ran through the NEC Tournament to finish with a 16-16 record.
8. Colorado vs 9. Pittsburgh
Orlando, 1:40pm Thursday (TBS)
Colorado was given their highest seed ever despite playing more than half their season without leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie. The Buffaloes aren't a bad team without Dinwiddie but they aren't the worldbeaters that topped Harvard, Kansas and Oregon. Colorado has averaged just 64.6 points per game since Dinwiddie was injured after averaging 76.4 with him in the lineup. Colorado hasn't scored over 70 points in over a month, which is great news for a Pitt team that has had its struggles on the offensive end and is 125th in the nation in scoring. Pitt seemed to put things together in the ACC Tournament, crushing Wake Forest and storming out to a big lead over North Carolina and holding on down the stretch before falling to Virginia by just 3 points in a first-to-50 defensive struggle. Senior forward Talib Zanna played out of his mind in the ACC Tournament, averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds per game (including a 21-rebound performance against UNC). Pitt does not have a lot of scoring depth behind Zanna (12.9 PPG) and Lamar Patterson (17.6 PPG) and this could very well be a game that is played in the 50s between two teams without much depth.
5. VCU vs 12. Stephen F Austin
San Diego, 7:27pm Friday (truTV)
VCU's HAVOC defense will cause problems for teams without experienced ball-handlers. The Rams are 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency and play a style that has given Stephen F Austin troubles in the past. The Lumberjacks dominated the Southland Conference this year but struggled against nemesis Northwestern State - who plays an up-tempo game. As should be expected from a team named the Lumberjacks, Stephen F Austin plays at one of the slowest tempos in the nation, and will be a distinct contrast in style from VCU's up-tempo pressure. St Joe's beat VCU twice this year (including the A-10 Championship Game) by forcing VCU to defend in half-court sets. Stephen F Austin is one of top 50 teams in offensive efficiency, and could pull the traditional 12-5 upset here, but I'm wary to suggest that you pick them because of their struggles against up-tempo teams this year. Everyone is jumping on the SFA bandwagon because they have won 28 straight games and only lost twice all season, but it's hard to pick against Shaka Smart's defense in a matchup like this.
4. UCLA vs 13. Tulsa
San Diego, 9:57pm Friday (truTV)
UCLA won the Pac-12 tournament, topping Arizona in the title game thanks to 21 points from Kyle Anderson, 19 from Jordan Adams and 15 from Norman Powell. The Bruins are one of the highest scoring teams in the nation (81.8 PPG) but have virtually no inside presence as their top 5 scorers are all guards. UCLA is a dangerous team in transition, led by Anderson, a point guard with NBA potential. The worry about the Bruins are the absolute duds they have laid on the road in the regular season finale against Washington State (where they lost by 18) and against Oregon State. In conference play, UCLA was held under 70 points only 4 times in 21 games (including the conference tournament) and won just 1 of those 4 games. The bad news for UCLA is that Tulsa ranks 28th in the nation in defensive efficiency. The good news is that Tulsa also likes to play an up-tempo game, which favors the Bruins and their talent. Tulsa was one of 4 teams that finished tied for the Conference USA regular season title, largely due to their 8-game winning streak to close out the season. The Golden Hurricane woon two tough games against Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech to emerge with the automatic bid. Tulsa is not a good free throw shooting team (67.5% as a team, 253rd in the nation) which could haunt them in the Tournament.
6. Ohio St vs 11. Dayton
Buffalo, 12:15pm Thursday (CBS)
This game has gotten a lot of press as a "storyline" game that the Committee "Scripted" because of the close regional rivalry between the two schools. The Buckeyes have had an up and down year after starting 15-0, they finished just 8-8 in the second half of the season, but came back to win 2 close games in the Big 10 Tournament (including an 18-point comeback against Nebraska). Ohio State has talented players in Lenzelle Smith, LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft, but they aren't a very good shooting team (44.9% from the field, 138th in the nation). The Buckeyes do have one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking 4th in defensive efficiency and 12th in points against. This game will be a matchup of strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness as Dayton ranks in the top 30 in offensive efficiency but in the 100s in defensive efficiency. Dayton was a popular pick for the preseason A-10 Champion and looked the part with a 12-3 record in non-conference play. However, the Flyers fell flat to start their A-10 slate, going just 1-5 before rebounding for a 10-2 finish where their only losses came to eventual A-10 Tournament Champion St Joe's.
3. Syracuse vs 14. Western Michigan
Buffalo, 2:45pm Thursday (CBS)
The Orange are a hard team to project in the NCAA Tournament. For a large part of the season, they looked like the team to beat, starting the season with 25 straight wins before dropping 4 of 5, including home losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech and a 19-point loss at Maryland. In the ACC Tournament, the Orange were topped by a hot-shooting NC State team. The return of forward Jerami Grant to the lineup has been a boost for Syracuse as he went for 16 and 19 in two games after returning from injury. Syracuse is not a team that is going to blow anyone out and they have won a lot of games in the last minute this season. The Orange rank 253rd in the nation in scoring, but that is largely due to the slow-paced game that they play (ranking in the bottom 10 in the nation in tempo). Syracuse's matchup zone presents an incredibly difficult matchup for any team, especially in the second game of a weekend where there is only 1 day to prepare to attack it. This game should have a great matchup on the inside between Grant and Western Michigan big man Shayne Whittington (16.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG). The Broncos topped Toledo for the MAC title, led by senior guard David Brown's 32 points. Brown has averaged 19.4 points per game this season
7. New Mexico vs 10. Stanford
St Louis, 1:40pm Friday (TBS)
The Lobos generated a lot of buzz on the CBS Selection show as a team the analysts thought could go deep in the tournament. Everyone seems to be gushing over their Mountain West Tournament victory over San Diego State and thinks the Lobos have a chance to make a deep run in this tournament. What no one has mentioned is that New Mexico is one of the biggest historical chokers in the NCAA field (including last year's loss to 14-seeded Harvard) and has never reached the Sweet 16 in their entire history. The Lobos have good players like Cameron Baristow (20.3 PPG) but at the end of the day are really a poor man's Wisconsin (a bunch of giant gingers that can shoot from outside and rebound). This is a tough draw against a good Stanford team that features some absolute trees on the inside. Yes, that was a horrible pun. In all seriousness, Stanford's roster has 7 players listed as 6'9" or taller, including senior forwards Dwight Powell (14.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and Josh Huestis (11.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG). Stanford isn't a very deep team and has 4 players averaging over 30 minutes and no one else averaging more than 20.
2. Kansas vs 15. Eastern Kentucky
St Louis, 4:10pm Friday (TBS)
Kansas' ability to cut down the nets in 3 weeks will be determined by the health of freshman center Joel Embiid, but the Jayhawks are talented enough to run through the first weekend of the tournament without him. The Jayhawks have struggled defensively since Embiid was sat down, with losses to West Virginia and Iowa State where they gave up over 90 points and an overtime victory over Oklahoma State. The good news is that Andrew Wiggins is starting to play like the NBA lottery pick we know he will be, putting up 41, 30 and 22 in his last 3 outings. Kansas' offense is highly efficient and they rank in the top 40 in the nation in scoring, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. Eastern Kentucky has won their last 7 games, including hard-faught victories over Murray State and Belmont in the Ohio Valley Tournament. This one is going to be a high-scoring affair as the Colonels rank 28th in the nation in offense (79 PPG). Eastern Kentucky also ranks 17th in the nation in free throw percentage (75.1%, the 7th best amongst the 68 teams in the field). If a mid-major team is going to pull off a gigantic upset, hitting their foul shots is a key. Eastern Kentucky lacks the size inside to match up with Kansas and will have to win on the wings where the Colonels shoot 39% from downtown (24th in the nation) and 49% as a whole from the field (11th in the nation). Neither of these teams are very good defensively and while Eastern Kentucky has the scoring talent to give Kansas a run, it is hard to see them ultimately pulling the upset.