Over the next 24 hours, as the play-in games are over and the brackets are officially set, we weight on on first round winners and losers.
While everyone is either clamoring, complaining or crazy about the Midwest, it is the South region that may have the tournament’s biggest group of Final Four threats. UCLA, Ohio State, Syracuse, New Mexico and of course Florida and Kansas, are all more than capable of winning four straight games. You may even sneak a peak at your buddy’s bracket and see that he has VCU penned in the Arlington section.
The point is the South will be no slouch for the team tough and lucky enough to escape it. It all starts Thursday (no disrespect to Albany and Mount St. Mary’s who were in Dayton, Tuesday).
(6) Ohio State (25-9) vs. (11) Dayton (23-10)
Thursday, March 20, 12:15PM, Buffalo, NY; CBS.
Background: A battle for Ohio and between the Atlantic 10 and the Big Ten. Dayton has lost just two games in their last 12, both to St. Joseph’s, most recently in Brooklyn in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals. The Buckeyes have won three of their last four since back-to-back losses at Penn State and at Indiana.
Difference Maker: Thad Matta. Matta has an NCAA Tournament record of 23-11, has been to two Final Fours and 6 Sweet 16s.
Ohio State wins if: they can keep the game in the 60s and hold Dayton to well under their season average of 73.4ppg.
Dayton wins if: Ohio State has a poor shooting night and Dayton shoots a high percentage from 3pt range.
Prediction: Ohio State
(8) Colorado (23-11) vs. (9) Pittsburgh (25-9)
Thursday, March 20, 1:40PM, Orlando, FL; TBS
Background: This is a classic 8/9 match-up of solid teams who have been inconsistent and underwhelming throughout the season. Both teams are 5-5 in their last 10 games. Pittsburgh’s win versus North Carolina in the ACC Tournament was only the Panther’s second top 50 win.
Difference Maker: Spencer Dinwiddie. Prior to Dinwiddie’s season ending torn ACL injury, the Buffaloes were 14-2 and had beaten Kansas. Since his absence, Colorado has been a shell of its former self, but to their credit, remained solid enough to gain an NCAA Tournament bid.
Colorado wins if: they shoot a high percentage. Colorado is shooting under 40% in their last 5 games as well as in their neutral site games this year.
Pittsburgh wins if: they control the backboards. Both teams are solid rebounding the ball on the offensive and defensive ends. Pittsburgh will force Colorado into tough shots, the key will be to keep them off the offensive boards.
(3) Syracuse (27-5) vs. (14) Western Michigan (22-9)
Thursday, March 20, 2:45PM, Buffalo, NY; CBS
Background: The Cuse stay close to home to face the MAC champions. However, the Orange come in to the game having lost 5 of 7. Western Michigan has won 12 of 13, including 6 wins over top 100 RPI teams.
Difference Maker: David Brown. Brown leads the Broncos in scoring (19.4ppg) and dropped 32 on Toledo in the MAC championship game.
Syracuse wins if: they get off to a fast start and get solid offensive performances from C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis.
Western Michigan wins if: Brown can have a repeat of his MAC championship performance, particularly from 3-point range where he was 5-11, and if the Broncos can somehow hold their own on the backboards.
(1) Florida (32-2) vs. (16) Albany (18-4)/Mt. St. Mary’s (16-16) Thursday, March 20, 4:10PM, Orlando, FL; TBS
Background: The #1 overall seed, winners of 26 straight games, takes on one of the worst teams in the field.
Difference Maker: Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin (13.0ppg, 3.8apg) is the senior leader of the Gators and will not let his team lose to a 16 seed.
Florida wins if: two starters avoid tearing a major ligament while exiting the team bus.
Florida loses if: see above.
(7) New Mexico (27-6) vs. (10) Stanford (21-12) Friday, March 21, 1:40PM, St. Louis, MO; TBS
Background: The Lobos are one of the hottest teams in the country, having won 15 of 17 and coming off a Mountain West tournament championship. Johnny Dawkins finally has Stanford back in the big dance, but has been inconsistent, with big wins and bad losses.
Difference Maker: Cameron Bairstow. If you don’t know this name, you better get familiar. Bairstow has been the beast for the Lobos, averaging 20.3ppg and 7.4rpg while shooting 56% at Power Forward. Stanford will have to coral him to have a chance.
New Mexico wins if: Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk get their averages and are able to control the game.
Stanford wins if: they tighten up their defense and get an A game from leading scorer Chasson Randle (18.7ppg).
Prediction: New Mexico
(2) Kansas (24-9) vs. Eastern Kentucky (22-9) Friday, March 21, 4:10PM, St. Louis, MO; TBS
Background: Kansas has had a solid season versus the country’s strongest schedule, but come into this game without the services of highly touted freshman big man, Joel Embiid. However, they do still have Andrew Wiggins. The underrated Eastern Kentucky squad is on a 7-game winning streak, including a win versus NCAA Tournament stalwart, Belmont.
Difference Maker: Andrew Wiggins. The freshman phenom has been on a tear lately and he may just use this big stage to take his game to yet another level.
Kansas wins if: Wiggins & company don’t tighten up under the pressure and they play their normal game, as well as limit their turnovers.
Eastern Kentucky wins if: Kansas has an off day and Eastern Kentucky remains hot from behind the arc, where they have been at a plus 40% clip over their past 5 games.
(5) VCU (26-8) vs. (12) Stephen F. Austin (29-2) Friday, March 21, 7:27PM, San Diego, CA; Tru TV
Background: VCU turned it on at the end of the season, but then lost 6th-man Melvin Johnson to a season ending knee injury and subsequently lost in the Atlantic 10 final to St. Joseph’s. Stephen F. Austin has won 27 straight games playing at a slow, deliberate pace, quite the opposite of VCU.
Difference Maker: Desmond Haymon. The Lumberjacks’ senior guard must have a big game, similar to the 27-point game he had in the semifinals of the Southland tournament.
VCU wins if: they can speed up Stephen F. Austin and turn them over with their vaunted “havoc” pressure defense.
Stephen F. Austin wins if: they can handle VCU’s pressure and play at their own pace. The Lumberjacks have four starters who average double figures and they will need all four to step up in a balanced fashion.
Prediction: Stephen F. Austin
(4) UCLA (26-8) vs. (13) Tulsa (21-12) Friday, March 21, 9:57PM, San Diego, CA; Tru TV
Background: UCLA come in on a high note, after winning the PAC-12 tournament with an inspired performance against top seed Arizona. However, they also lost at lowly Washington State less than two weeks ago. Tulsa coach Danny Manning has his team on an 11-game winning streak and is back in the tournament that made him legendary.
Difference Maker: Norman Powell. We know Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams will show up for the Bruins, but they will need Powell to play the way he did during the Pac-12 tournament in order to be successful moving forward.
UCLA will win if: they get offensive production from Powell and Zach LaVine and hold their own defensively and on the boards.
Tulsa will win if: their improved defense can slow down UCLA’s offense and they can win the rebound battle.