Wow! What a start to the tournament it’s been! Twelfth-seeded Yale upset fifth-seeded Baylor for their first tournament win ever, Duke won a controversial game against upset-minded UNC Wilmington, Iona and Iowa State predictably lit up the scoreboard, and while Kansas and Virginia dominated their sixteenth-seeded opponents, a pair of nine seeds predictably advanced in great games. Oh, and Arkansas-Little Rock/Purdue was a classic.
As for the eight evening games, there’s quite a bit of intrigue as well. There’s a few lopsided games on schedule, but the final two games are potential upsets, and perennial mid-major contender Wichita State will try to prove their tournament prowess against Arizona, in a must-watch game.
Here are my picks for tonights evening games.
(14) Buffalo (20-14, 10-8 MAC) vs. (3) #10Miami (25-7, 13-5 ACC) (6:50/5:50c, TNT)
In the first evening game of the day, the Miami Hurricanes will take on MAC Tournament Buffalo. The Hurricanes finished second in the ACC, and went 8-3 against tournament opponents this year. They’ve beaten Duke, Virginia, Utah, Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville, Butler and others. They have had some road struggles, but this is a neutral site game, so they shouldn’t suffer too much.
The Hurricanes are led by former Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez (11.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.5 spg,) Sheldan McClellan (15.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.1 spg, 50 fg%) and Tonye Jakiri (8 ppg, 8.9 rpg.) Davon Reed and Ja’Quon Newton are also double-digit scorers, and when they’re on, they can beat anybody.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are 0-3 against current tournament teams, and this is the first time all year that they’ve been six games over .500. Lamonte Bearden (13.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.2 apg) is the team leader, one of four guys on the team to average double figures. I see them competing early, before Miami pulls away. Prediction: Buffalo 57, Miami 79.
(11) Wichita State (25-8, 16-2 MVC) vs. (6) #17Arizona (25-8, 12-6 Pac-12) (9:20/8:20c, TNT)
Looking for a hot upset pick? Look no further than this game.
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, Wichita State 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.
Meanwhile, Arizona is 6-7 against tournament opponents. They’re 3-3 in their last six, and have had ups and downs all season. Ryan Anderson (15.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 54.7 %fg,) Gabe York (15.2 ppg) and Allonso Trier all average at least 15 per game, and shoot about 48% from the floor as a team.
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. I won’t be surprised if Arizona turns up the jets, and wins by double-digits. However, I can’t bet against have Baker and VanVleet early in the tournament, and while Arizona has a few pro-caliber players, I still see the Shockers coming away with a win. Prediction: Wichita State 70, Arizona 66.
(12) Chattanooga (29-5, 15-3 Southern) vs. (5) #14Indiana (25-7, 15-3 Big Ten) (7:10/6:10c, CBS)
This game reminds me of Purdue/Little Rock. Indiana is the better team, and much more battle-tested. However, whenever a mid-major team has nearly 30 wins, they can’t be counted out.
Chattanooga was the Southern Conference regular season and tournament champion, and went 1-1 against tournament teams. They won at Dayton, lost at Iowa State, and have won 16 of their last 18 games. Tre Mc’Lean (12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg) is one of three players on the team who averages double figures, and if he struggles, it’s hard for them to do much.
Meanwhile, Indiana has been one of the season’s best surprises. Expected by many to be a potential tournament team, the Hoosiers stunned everyone by winning the Big Ten regular season title. Led by senior guard Yogi Ferrell (17 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.5 apg,) the squad includes six players that can score and rebound well. They average 82 points and 37 rebounds per game, and shoot a whopping 50% from the floor, as well as 41.5% from three-point land. They are 10-3 against tournament teams, and I see them beating Chattanooga by 15 tonight. Prediction: Chattanooga 68, Indiana 83.
(16) Florida Gulf Coast (21-13, 8-6 Atlantic Sun) vs. (1) #3North Carolina (28-6, 14-4 ACC) (7:20/6:20c, TBS)
So two 16 seeds played today, and both got dominated. Will Florida Gulf Coast turn the tide? 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, the ACC regular season and tournament champion Tar Heels are 10-6 against tournament opponents, including six straight wins against such opponents to close out their non-NCAA tournament season. Brice Johnson (16.6 ppg, 10.6rpg, 61% fg) leads the team in those three categories, and is one of six players that averages at least nine points-per-game for the team, including senior point guard Marcus Paige.
I think Gulf Coast can compete in this one, I really do. But, I see Carolina closing strong, en route to a coasting win. Prediction: FGC 66, North Carolina 83.
(13) Stony Brook (26-6, 14-2 AEC) vs. (4) Kentucky (26-8, 13-5 SEC) (9:40/8:40c, CBS)
Kentucky is finally rolling. Stony Brook has been rolling all year, and yet, nobody is expecting an upset.
Stony Brook won the American East regular season and conference tournament title, and while they lost to both their tournament-caliber opponents (Vanderbilt and Notre Dame,) they still possess one of the best players in college basketball. That man, Jameel Warney (19.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3 bpg, 63.7% fg) deserves to be in the pros. He is one of four high-caliber players on the team, alongside Carson Purefoy (15.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg,) Rayshaun McGrew (10.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 51% fg) and Ahmad Walker (10.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.2 apg) who can score and dominate the boards.
I honestly feel for the Seawolves, since I believe they had the potential to upset the teams. However, I don’t see them topping the surging Kentucky Wildcats, a team that’s been a perennial contender for decades, especially since Calipari took over the coaching ranks. The SEC tournament champs started off fast, had a few rough moments, and are 4-3 against tournament-caliber opponents, barring the snubbed South Carolina Gamecocks. They beat Duke early in the year, and almost upset overall #1 seed Kansas on the road last month. Jamal Murray (20.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 42% three-point fg) leads the team in scoring, but sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis (17.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.5 spg) is a prime Wooden award candidate. Add in senior guard Alex Poythress (10.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 61% fg,) along with Isiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Marcus Lee and highly-ranked freshman turned solid role player Skal Labissiere, and it’s hard to see the Wildcats losing anytime soon. I still see Stony Brook making it competitive. Prediction: Stony Brook 72, Kentucky 86
(9) Providence (23-10, 10-8 Big East) vs. (8) USC (21-12, 9-9 Pac 12) (9:50/8:50c, TBS)
What is it about the eight-seeds this year? It’s as if someone felt bad for average teams from major conferences that rarely make the tournament, and decided to throw them to the wolves! Colorado shouldn’t have been an eight seed, and they were predictably beaten by the tournament-savvy UConn Huskies. Texas Tech shouldn’t have been an eight seed, and they lost to the tournament-savvy Butler Bulldogs. Now, Providence doesn’t have much tournament experience, but they’re certainly better than USC. Sure, they floundered a bit in the Big East, but to be ranked below USC, a team with 12 losses, a 5-7 record against tournament teams minus the snubbed Monmouth squad, is just sad.
Sure, USC beat Arizona in a quadruple-0vertime classic, and gave Utah a scare. But, they are a fringe tournament team at best. They should’ve been in a play-in game, not an eight-seed. They do have some terrific players, such as Jordan McLaughlin (13.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1,5 spg, 42.3 3-point%,) Nikola Jovanovic (12.1 ppg, 7 rpg, 52.3 %fg, 53.8 3-point %,) Julian Jacobs (11.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.3 spg,) while Bennie Boatright, Katin Reinhardt and Elijah Stewart also average double figures.
However, Providence boasts the two best players in this game. Sophomore guard Kris Dunn (16 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 6.4 apg, 2.5 spg) has high NBA potential, and Ben Bentil (21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg) is a powerhouse. The problem for the team is their supporting cast. Rodney Bullock (11.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is a solid third option, but after him, nobody else is reliable. They went 4-7 against tournament teams, including a win against Villanova and Arizona. So, while they can soar, they can also go dry and sputter at times. Still, as I did with the other nine-seeds, I’m going to roll with Providence. Prediction: Providence 82, USC 76.
(14) Fresno State (25-9, 13-5 MWC) vs. (3) #13 Utah (25-8, 13-5 Pac 12) (8:20/7:20c, TRU TV)
Marvelle Harris (20.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.2 spg) is the leader of Fresno State, while Jakob Poetl (17.6 ppg, 9rpg, 65.6 %fg) leads the Utes. The teams are surrounded by skilled supporting casts, and while Fresno State won the Mountain West conference tournament, Utah got blown out in the Pac 12 final against Oregon.
Fresno State has nine lives, which is why they’re another prime upset pick. They’ve got more than ten wins this season in games where they were down by double digits. They went 0-2 against tournament teams, both being PAC 12 opponents, at Oregon, and then at Arizona. Utah is in the same realm as those teams, so this could be a loss for Fresno State in a close game. That’s exactly what I’ll predict. Prediction: Fresno State 64, Utah 70.
(11) Gonzaga (26-7, 15-3 WCC) vs. (6) Seton Hall (25-8, 12-6 Big East) (190:45/9:45c, TRU TV)
Two teams with two great players, and great conference tournament runs. Seton Hall shocked Villanova to win the Big East title, while Gonzaga upended St. Mary’s to win the WCC title.
Gonzaga is led by senior Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 49% fg, 42.4% three-point fg) and Domantas Sabonis (17.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 61.7% fg,) while Seton Hall’s elite duo consists of Isaiah Whitehead (18.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5 apg) and Khadeen Carrington (14.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg.) Meanwhile, Angel Delgado is a double-double machine, and Desi Rodriguez (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 50.7% fg) is a solid third option. That core has helped the team defeat the likes of Villanova, Wichita State, Xavier and Providence twice.
Honestly, Seton Hall is good enough to win this game. If they can subdue either Wiltjer or Sabonis, they should win. My head even thinks they’ll win. However, I can’t pick against Gonzaga so early in the tournament. I just hope it’s a great game.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82, Seton Hall 80