March Madness is officially here! Okay, so maybe it actually began a week ago, when craziness shrouded a lot of conference tournaments. Well, the field is set, but before the major festivities get underway, four play-in games must take place first.
Tonight, a pair of 16 seeds will duke it out for the right to play the East region’s top seed North Carolina on Thursday, followed by a truly intriguing battle amongst #11 seeds Vanderbilt and Wichita State, with the winner facing the South’s sixth-seed Arizona on Thursday. Without further ado, here are my picks for tonight’s games.
Florida Gulf Coast (20-13) vs. Farleigh-Dickinson (18-14)
If “Dunk City” rings a bell in anyone’s mind, it’s because that was the nickname of Florida Gulf Coast’s team when it made a deep and stunning tournament run a few years ago, back in 2013. Now, the team isn’t such anymore, none of today’s players had any impact on that team, and then-head coach Andy Enfield is currently coaching another tournament team, the USC Trojans.
Still, FGC had a pretty unique, albeit roller-coaster season. They started off a rough 6-7, went on a seven-game winning streak, before losing four straight. Since then, they’ve gone 7-2, and are the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament champions. Junior forward Marc Eddy Norelia leads the team in scoring (17.2 ppg,) rebounding (9.2 rpg,) and minutes (32 mpg.) Christian Terrell and Zach Johnson are the only other players who average double figures in scoring, but the team goes 7-8 players deep.
Meanwhile, Farleigh Dickinson started the season 2-6, and were 13-14 before winning five straight to claim the Northeast Conference Tournament title. They have four players that average double figures, with Mike Holloway (9.6) not far behind.
All in all, I have to pick Gulf Coast. Not only do they have recent history in the tournament, but they also have the better resume. Farleigh Dickinson had one of the easiest schedules in the country, and won the tournament of a weak conference. I can’t forget what Gulf Coast did a few years back, and I see them topping Farleigh Dickinson tonight.
Prediction: Florida Gulf Coast 79, Farleigh Dickinson 68
Wichita State (24-8) vs. Vanderbilt (19-13)
The first game was tough to analyze. This one, however, isn’t so hard.
Vanderbilt finished tied for third in the SEC in the regular season, garnering an 11-7 seven record against said competition. They were viewed as a shoe-in to the tournament, unless they were to stumble early in the conference tournament. Go figure, they lost by two point to a sub-.500 Tennessee squad, which was playing without its star player, and everything was put into a tailspin for the Commodores. Luckily for them, the selection committee gave them a chance here, and they are, technically, in tournament purgatory.
Vanderbilt owns wins over ranked conference opponents Kentucky and Texas A&M, current tournament teams Austin Peay and Stony Brook, and played highly-ranked Kansas, Baylor, Texas and Purdue in a tough manner. Add in conference wins against NIT teams, and they’ve earned their spot. The team shoots nearly 40-percent from three-point land, and is led by a pair of 14-plus ppg scorers in Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson, Luke Kornet and Riley LaChance are key role players, and when they’re on, the team can take the toughest squads to the brink.
However, Vanderbilt is no Wichita State. A few years removed from an epic season where the team entered the tournament with a 34-0 mark, earned a top-seed in the tournament, and lost by a single possession against longtime powerhouse Kentucky, the team still has two of the key pieces from that team in Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet averages over 12 points, nearly four rebounds and six assists per game while shooting 41-percent from downtown, while Baker averages over 14 points, nearly five rebounds and over three assists per game. All in all, the team can go ten-deep when necessary. However, they played a few tournament teams this year, and went a combined 2-8 against said teams. Their wins came against Northern Iowa and Utah at home, and since Vandy is a questionable tournament team, there’s a good chance they win.
In all honesty, this isn’t the same Wichita State team that it was over the past few years. They were a great team in 2013-14, and last year, they made the Sweet Sixteen. They aren’t nearly as loaded as they were then, or even last year. Still, they do have Baker and VanVleet, and while Vanderbilt has a few pro-caliber players, I still see the Shockers coming away with a win.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 76, Wichita State 82.