Last year, I wrote up a not-so-quick preview of the NCAA tournament play-in games, lovingly known as the “First Four.” If you want a little history and background on the four-game pre-tournament showing in Dayton, go ahead and check it out here. But this year, I’ll just cut to the chase. So without further ado, here is what to expect from this year’s slate.
North Carolina Central vs Texas Southern
Folks, this one… this one is bad. North Carolina Central isn’t just bad, they are the worst team to qualify for the NCAA tournament in the Kenpom era (since 2002) at 309th out of 351 teams. The best comparison I can find is 304th-ranked Mississippi Valley State in 2008—they lost their first-round game to 1-seed UCLA by 41 points. Texas Southern, on the other hand, is also bad, but at least they tried. The Tigers played the toughest non-conference strength of schedule in the nation by a long shot, and although they went 0-13, they ended the year on a 15-6 streak and are theoretically prepared for any opponent.
Prediction: Texas Southern
Up Next: 1-seed Xavier
Will they advance? There may be no 16-seed in the history of the tournament with as much experience against top-tier competition as Texas Southern does this year. Unfortunately, they’ve been consistently about 20-points behind that competition. Ranked a lowly 249th by Kenpom, Xavier is just too good to lose.
LIU-Brooklyn vs Radford
The Blackbirds vs the Highlanders feature two “small” teams with very different styles of offense. Neither team has a player taller than 6’8″, yet Radford took home the Big South tournament championship with a grind-it-out style of play that is among the slowest tempos in the nation. LIU-Brooklyn likes to push pace with their guard-heavy lineup, which could make for an interesting battle of wills before the Big Dance. As much as I love teams that push pace, Radford has done a better job of imposing their will all season.
Up Next: 1-seed Villanova
Will they advance? In short, no. Villanova is the defending champ and no 16-seed has (or probably will) upset a 1-seed. But don’t be surprised if Radford is able to bother the Wildcats, if only for a 10-minute stretch or so, as they’ve had success in the first half of games against Ohio State and Nevada earlier in the season.
St. Bonaventure vs UCLA
The Bonnies have become a bit of a fan-favorite as one of the few mid-major teams to grab an at-large bid. An experienced team with some high-powered offensive weapons and a stingy defense will be an interesting challenge for a UCLA team that has been a classic bubble team all season. Offense should be the name of the game in this one, with both teams shooting great beyond the arc and getting up the floor quickly. However, UCLA’s size and past tournament experience gives them the upper hand in this one.
Up Next: 6-seed Florida
Will they advance? With a potential barn-burner in Dayton, it’s hard to say whether the winner will use their momentum for an upset bid, or succumb to a well-rested Florida team. The Gators will be looking for vengeance after getting bounced in their first game of the SEC tournament, and their balanced offensive and defensive attack has been a tough out for many teams this year. This will be a popular upset pick, but I’d shy away.
Arizona State vs Syracuse
You feeling lucky? Well, Arizona State certainly hasn’t. The Sun Devils are the unluckiest team in the tournament according to Kenpom, and one of the unluckiest in the nation this season. After a 12-0 start with giant wins against Xavier and Kansas—both currently 1-seeds—the Sun Devils have since gone 8-11 with only one loss by double-digits or more. Syracuse, on the other hand, is just lucky to be here. Picked as the final at-large team in the field, the Orange were nearly left out altogether—and many think they should have been. After making their infamous Final Four run as a 10-seed in 2016, people are wondering if they have it in them again. Me? I think luck only lasts so long.
Prediction: Arizona State
Up Next: 6-seed TCU
Will they advance? One team always seems to break out of the play-in game and make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. If you’re putting your money on anyone, the winner of this game is a pretty good bet. Arizona State’s high-powered offense could prove too much for a TCU team with its own luck (and injury) problems for a chance to play Michigan State for a second weekend berth.