The NCAA Tournament is finally here after four and a half months of basketball, and it will provide us with the three most exciting weeks on the sports calendar.
To get you ready for the tournament, here are region-by-region breakdowns of every first-round matchup. We'll be back before the start of every round, but if you need help projecting beyond the opening round, here are projections for the only teams that can win the national title and a handful of contenders that don't have the makeup to win a championship, along with the most likely upsets and potential Cinderella candidates. Here is a preview & predictions for every single first-round matchup:
#1 Virginia vs. #16 UMBC - Fri, 9:20 p.m. ET, TNT
UVA was dealt a blow that could be crushing to their Final Four hopes when they announced that ACC Sixth Man of the Year De'Andre Hunter will miss the entire tournament with a broken wrist. However, whatever long-term effects that injury has on their tournament run won't show themselves here.
The Cavaliers have the best defense of the analytics era (since 2002) and that, once again, will carry them to an easy win over a much lesser opponent in UMBC.
#8 Creighton vs. #9 Kansas State - Fri, 6:50 p.m. ET, TNT
There is a great underlying story to this game in the form of Marcus Foster, who played the first two seasons of his career at K-State but was dismissed from the program in 2015. He now leads Creighton's high-powered offensive attack, which ranks 22nd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and seventh in effective field goal percentage.
On the flip side, Kansas State is a solid all-around team. They excel at forcing turnovers, which they do on 21.4 percent of possessions, but they're simply middle-of-the-road in everything else. Because Creighton takes care of the ball (19th in turnover percentage), they'll ride their offense to a victory.
#5 Kentucky vs. #12 Davidson - Thurs, 7:10 p.m. ET, CBS
There's a lot of hype for a potential upset in this one, and rightfully so. Davidson is red-hot after winning the A-10 Tournament, have a plethora of quality shooters, and one of the best coaches in the entire country in Bob McKillop. What they don't have is an answer for Kentucky's size and athleticism. Throw in the fact that the Wildcats are also playing their best basketball of the season (6-1 in their last seven games) and Kentucky will win this game rather comfortably.
#4 Arizona vs. #13 Buffalo - Thurs, 9:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Buffalo is a very good team but they got stuck with a terrible matchup in this one. They are one of the smallest team in the country while Arizona is one of the biggest along with having speed/athleticism to match up with the Bulls. Arizona also has Deandre Ayton, who is the best player in the country and may very well go for 30 points and 20 rebounds in this game.
#3 Tennessee vs. #14 Wright State - Thurs, 12:40 p.m. ET, TruTV
The Volunteers are a deep, talented, tough team that has the nation's fourth-most efficient defense. That's bad news for Wright State, a terrible offensive team that ranks 246th in AdjO and 252nd in effective field goal percentage. This one smells like a blowout.
#6 Miami (FL) vs. #11 Loyola (IL) - Thurs, 3:10 p.m. ET, TruTV
I break down this game in more detail when discussing my five most likely upsets, but here's the main rationale - Loyola is one of the more efficient teams in the entire country while Miami hasn't won a game by more than three points since Feb. 7. That means this will likely be a close game and efficient teams usually win close games.
#7 Nevada vs. #10 Texas - Fri, 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS
Texas has a top 10 defense and Mo Bamba, a projected top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, is back after missing time with a toe injury. However, outside of him, the Longhorns are vastly shorthanded with Andrew Jones battling leukemia and Eric Davis being held out due to his connection to the FBI investigation. Furthermore, their offense has been terrible all season, ranking 211th in effective field goal percentage and 328th (out of 351 teams) in three-point percentage.
Nevada has no problem scoring the ball and has three players (Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline) that are capable of taking over a game offensively. I think they'll win this game fairly convincingly.
#2 Cincinnati vs. #15 Georgia State - Fri, 2 p.m. ET, TBS
For as good as the Bearcats are defensively (second in the country), they can struggle to score at times. That may hurt them later on in the tournament, but it won't against a Georgia State team that is severely overmatched at every position. Expect Cincinnati to take away D'Marcus Simonds, Georgia State's best player and leading scorer, and force other players to beat them - which they won't be able to do.
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#1 Villanova vs. #16 Radford - Thurs, 6:50 p.m. ET, TNT
Spoiler: Villanova is my pick to win the national championship. They're the best team in the country when healthy due to their combination of talent, experience, guard play, and versatility. Radford beat LIU-Brooklyn in the First Four to get to this game and play a slower defensive style, but that's not going to make too much of a difference.
#8 Virginia Tech vs. #9 Alabama - Thurs, 9:20 p.m. ET, TNT
Alabama has been the most maddening team in the country. The Tide have the talent to beat anyone - which they've shown several times this season - but are also capable of losing to anyone, which we've also seen several times this year. Why? Their offensive isn't great (117th in AdjO) and they struggle to shoot from deep.
The Hokies have been much more consistent and have wins over both Virginia and Duke on their resume, showing their ability to be giant-killers thanks to their balanced play.
That said, Alabama seemed to find their stride in the SEC Tournament with Collin Sexton, a projected top 10 pick in the draft, leading the way. I expect him to carry Alabama again in this one.
#5 West Virginia vs. #12 Murray State - Fri, 4 p.m. ET, TNT
This is another upset that many people are picking (5-12 matchups have a way of doing that), but I don't see that happening. Despite West Virginia's offensive struggles, their press will really bother Murray State. The Racers rank 100th in the country in turnover percentage, which is not ideal when you're facing a WVU team that forces a turnover a nearly a fourth of all possessions.
Plus, WVU seniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles are too good to let this team lose in the first round.
Prediction: West Virginia
#4 Wichita State vs. #13 Marshall - Fri, 1:30 p.m. ET, TNT
Marshall is coached by Dan D'Antoni, Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni's older brother. As such, it's no surprise that Marshall plays the same way - extremely fast with a focus on shooting as many three-pointers as possible. The problem is that they don't shoot them that well (139th in the country) and are a terrible rebounding team.
This Wichita State team doesn't play the quality defense we're accustomed to seeing from the Shockers, but they're very efficient offensively and are extremely experienced. They'll win this game pretty easily.
Prediction: Wichita State
#3 Texas Tech vs. #14 Stephen F. Austin - Thurs, 7:27 p.m. ET, TruTV
Both of these teams from Texas are fairly identical in terms of style of play. They play excellent defense and rely on that to win them games. The difference here is Keenan Evans, Texas Tech's starting point guard, who is capable of winning a game by himself offensively (something he has already done a few times this season). With him fully healthy, the Red Raiders will win rather easily.
Prediction: Texas Tech
#6 Florida vs. #11 St. Bonaventure - Thurs, 9:57 p.m. ET, TruTV
This game has a chance to be one of the best games of the first round. A pair of star point guards will be going at it in Florida's Chris Chiozza and St. Bonaventure's Jaylen Adams, and that matchup will certainly be key. Both teams can score with ease, which should make this a high-scoring shootout. Florida gets the nod because they have more reliable secondary weapons.
#7 Arkansas vs. #10 Butler - Fri, 3:10 p.m. ET, TruTV
Arkansas plays fast and works to turn you over on defense while Butler is a bit more methodical. Both teams have had their ups and downs, but Butler is really reeling coming into the tournament having lost six of their last nine games. It's been the exact opposite for the Razorbacks who have found their stride since a rough January, going 8-3 in their last 11 games. Expect Arkansas' pressure and athleticism to be the difference as they keep up their hot streak.
#2 Purdue vs. #15 Cal State Fullerton - Fri, 12:40 p.m. ET, TruTV
Purdue is a two seed that has their problems - they struggle to defend athletic teams - but are an incredible offensive team with plenty of shooters (second nationally in three-point shooting) and size in 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms. Simply put, Cal State Fullerton doesn't have the personnel to match up with the Boilermakers to exploit their weaknesses.
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#1 Kansas vs. #16 Pennsylvania - Thurs, 2 p.m. ET, TBS
Penn is one of the best 16-seeds there has been in some time, and for those who think that a 16-seed will finally be able to upset a one-seed, this is the game they're pointing too. The Quakers are a sound defensive team that ranks second in the country in three-point defense but they struggle to score - they've reached 80 points only four times in the calendar year.
They're certainly capable to challenging Kansas but I have a hard time believing they're good enough to win. After all, the Jayhawks have one of the best backcourts in the country and are incredibly efficient on offense. KU will win by a comfortable margin even if Penn makes them sweat in the first half.
#8 Seton Hall vs. #9 NC State - Thurs, 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS
This is one of the matchups I'm most looking forward to seeing. Seton Hall had top 25 expectations this season and, while they had a solid year, largely underperformed in Big East play due to their short bench. The quartet of Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Khadeem Carrington, and Myles Powell combine to average 61.4 of Seton Hall's 79 points per game and have been relied on to do everything for the Pirates.
As for NC State, they're a deep team (nine players average at least 13.6 minutes per game) that plays incredibly hard and incredibly fast on both ends of the court. Head coach Kevin Keatts got his start at the college level as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville, and they play a similar style of pressure defense.
We've seen the Wolfpack beat the likes of Arizona, Duke, and North Carolina when they're at their best. I think they'll show up in this game and win a close one thanks to that depth.
Prediction: NC State
#5 Clemson vs. #12 New Mexico State - Fri, 9:57 p.m. ET, TruTV
This is the upset pick I have the most confidence in, and you can find out why here. New Mexico State has one of the best defenses in the country thanks to their pressure man-to-man, and Clemson has struggled with turnovers against pressure this year.
Prediction: New Mexico State
#4 Auburn vs. #13 Charleston - Fri, 7:27 p.m. ET, TruTV
Auburn is a very vulnerable team, having lost four of their last six games since Anfernee McLemore, the SEC's leading shot-blocker, suffered a Gordon Hayward-like injury. The Tigers were already extremely small and now have virtually no big men.
That makes Charleston perhaps the best draw they could've gotten. CofC is a guard-dominant team that struggles on the glass. They won't be bothered much by Auburn's pressure but the Tigers simply have the better players. In a matchup between teams with similar roster, talent will win.
#3 Michigan State vs. #14 Bucknell - Fri, 7:10 p.m. ET, CBS
Bucknell is a quality, experienced team that plays a smart brand of basketball - but Michigan State is a beast they haven't faced yet. The Spartans have superior advantages in size, length, athleticism, and skill. They should win this one fairly easily.
Prediction: Michigan State
#6 TCU vs. #11 Syracuse - Fri, 9:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Another upset pick! I originally picked Arizona State to win this game, but since they lost to Syracuse, the Orange will be the team pulling the upset. I have a full breakdown of that matchup here.
#7 Rhode Island vs. #10 Oklahoma - Thurs, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
I was really looking forward to seeing Oklahoma's Trae Young go up against a non-Big 12 team again to see what he could do against a team that wasn't used to playing him. However, the Sooners got stuck with Rhode Island - an excellent defensive team with great guards. They'll make Young an inefficient scorer and, as we've seen over the past month, the Sooners don't have the talent around him to pick up the slack. Rhode Island should also have a ton of success against Oklahoma's atrocious defense.
Prediction: Rhode Island
#2 Duke vs. #15 Iona - Thurs, 2:45 p.m. ET, CBS
This should be the highest-scoring game of the first round. Iona loves to play at a blistering pace and wants to get out in transition, but they're not going to out-score a Duke team that's this talented. The Gaels also rank just 214th in the country in AdjD...which means they don't play very much defense at all. This game may very well be a 110-90 win for the Blue Devils.
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#1 Xavier vs. #16 Texas Southern - Fri. 7:20 p.m. ET, TBS
The good news for Texas Southern is that they won their First Four game against NC Central. The bad news is that's all they're going to get. Xavier is too big, too skilled, too good to really be tested in this game.
#8 Missouri vs. #9 Florida State - Fri, 9:50 p.m. ET, TBS
Florida State's defense has struggled this year and they've been inconsistent as a result, going 4-6 in their last 10 games. Missouri hasn't been much better but have the edge on the defensive end, as they rank 15th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense.
Projected top-five pick Michael Porter Jr. will also be playing in his second game after back surgery, and while he's still shaking off the rust, he will clearly be the best player on the court. I think he'll be the difference down the stretch in a close game.
#5 Ohio State vs. #12 South Dakota State - Thurs, 4 p.m. ET, TNT
Ohio State has lost three of their last five games and hasn't played in nearly two weeks, while South Dakota State has won 19 of their last 20 games and actually has more tournament experience than the Buckeyes. The full breakdown of why I think the Jackrabbits will win can be found here.
Prediction: South Dakota State
#4 Gonzaga vs. #13 UNC Greensboro - Thurs, 1:30 p.m. ET, TNT
This is honestly the pick I'm the least sure about. First, I'll tell you why I'm picking Gonzaga. They're extremely well-balanced, being one of only three teams that rank in the top 20 in both AdjO and AdjD, have a roster full of tournament experience, and one of the best coaches in the game in Mark Few.
Why am I not confident in that pick? All of the intangibles. There's usually an upset or two in the early window of these Thursday games as the tournament gets going, and this will be the third game that tips off. It's also an early start time, so there's a solid chance that it takes the Zags a while to get going. Furthermore, UNCG has one of the sport's best young coaches in Wes Miller, and I think there's a real chance this is a breakout game for him.
So, Gonzaga wins because of their obvious advantages on paper and through the eye test. But, if you want to go the "things happen in March for no apparent reason" route, this could be an upset.
#3 Michigan vs. #14 Montana - Thurs, 9:50 p.m. ET, TBS
Michigan was playing as well as anyone when they won the Big Ten Tournament. The problem is they haven't played in a week and a half. I think that will lead to a slow start but, ultimately, they're too good.
They present obvious matchup problems for Montana with their five-out offense and have been playing the best defense of the John Beilein era, ranking fifth nationally in AdjD. I think the Wolverines will win comfortably.
#6 Houston vs. #11 San Diego State - Thurs, 7:20 p.m. ET, TBS
Houston is 10-2 since the start of February with wins over both Cincinnati and Wichita State. Led by star Rob Gray, the Cougars are a talented team with a top 30 offense and a top 20 defense. They can beat you playing fast or they can beat you playing slow. Honestly, if they weren't in the American, you would've heard a lot more about the Cougars.
But they'll face arguably the hottest team in the country in San Diego State, who has won nine games in a row to punch their ticket into the NCAA Tournament. They're long, play excellent defense, and a pro prospect in Malik Pope, but really struggle to shoot the ball from three. That will be their downfall in this game.
#7 Texas A&M vs. #10 Providence - Fri, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
This is another easy pick for me. Texas A&M has lacked the toughness and grit needed to consistently beat quality teams, which is why they struggled in SEC play. Providence is the exact opposite. Full breakdown here.
#2 North Carolina vs. #15 Lipscomb - Fri, 2:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Lipscomb is a lot of fun to watch. They play at the country's fifth-fastest pace and want to get up as many shots as possible. UNC also loves playing fast, meaning this should be another high-scoring affair. But, really, do you think Lipscomb has the talent to hang with Carolina for 40 minutes?
Prediction: North Carolina
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