No. 16 UMBC vs. No. 1 Virginia
By almost every metric, Virginia grades out as the best defensive team in the country. Tony Bennett’s team’s suffocating style of play is rooted in discipline, fundamentals, and considerable intelligence. This isn’t good news for the 24-10 Retrievers — a squad garnering admittance into the tournament based upon an upset of Vermont in the America East title game.
UMBC does average 74 points per contest, as well as shooting a combined 38.7-percent from three as a team. With that said, Virginia is a different animal entirely. The Retrievers will have not seen a team to date with Virginia’s respective ‘smothering’ ability. Bennett’s bunch should coast to a relatively easy victory.
No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Kansas State
This will be a fascinating game. While an above-average offensive team, Creighton has struggled immensely on the defensive side of the floor. The Bluejays have allowed at least 80 points in four of its last six games (which corresponds with a 2-4 record during this time span). Kansas State has gone 3-3 over this period. Duly, its top-two leading scores (Dean Wade, Barry Brown) missed last week’s loss in the Big 12 Tournament to Kansas with injuries (Brown was injured one minute into the game).
Though Wade and Brown likely will be available to play, this game has a pick-em feel to it. K-State is undoubtedly a better defensive team. Creighton has more weapons on the offensive end. It could be a case where the team with the last possession wins the contest. In such a situation, we’ll go with the team featuring the better coach — as well as the one shooting a better collective percentage from beyond the arc (37.6-percent).
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson
This is a dangerous game for Kentucky. John Calipari’s young team grew up in a hurry during the SEC Tournament — as the Wildcats steamrolled over Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee en route to the conference title crown. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as the go-to player for Kentucky — averaging 19.4 PPG and 6.8 APG over his last five games.
With that said, Davidson has won 11 of its last 13 games, including a 58-57 victory over a ranked Rhode Island team in their conference title game. The Wildcats feature one of the nation’s most underrated big men in senior Peyton Aldridge — as well as freshman guard Kellan Grady (averaging 18.0 PPG). Davidson as a team shoots 39.3-percent from beyond the arc. Though UK will have the decided advantage athletically, the Wildcats are a deep and exceptionally well-coached team. Bob McKillop will likely pack the paint with the idea of forcing Kentucky to beat them from three.
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 13 Buffalo
Arizona will enter this tournament with a chip on its proverbial shoulder. In the wake of the news surrounding head coach Sean Miller, the Wildcats won the Pac-12 tournament. Aside from the minor three-game slip-up earlier this year in the Bahamas, Arizona has resembled a team many thought would be competitive for a potential National Championship.
DeAndre Ayton is the best player in the country. His ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor is special. Duly, the three-headed trio of Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, and Dusan Ristic has given the team some much-needed balance. Arizona should have no trouble being motivated for this contest against a lesser opponent.
No. 11 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 6 Miami
We’re smelling an upset in this contest.
Loyola-Chicago has won 17 of its last 18 contests. The Ramblers don’t have a ton of quality wins on their schedule — though they did beat the then-ranked No. 5 team in the country, the Florida Gators, in Gainesville. With five players averaging in double-figures, Loyola-Chicago is a balanced offensive team (in addition to one shooting 39.8-percent from three). Defensively, the Ramblers allow only 62 points per contest — good for fourth-best in the country.
Miami will be without lead guard Bruce Brown Jr. after suffering a foot injury earlier this month. As such, freshman guard Lonnie Walker IV will be asked to pick up the scoring load even further. This is a tall task for a first-year player going up against a veteran squad.
No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Wright State
Tennessee shocked the entire SEC with a 25-win season this year. The three-pronged attack led by Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, and Grant Williams buoyed a share of the regular season conference title. The Vols are hard-nosed in nature, and have shocked opponents with their three-point shooting ability.
This will be a big test for a team entering with newfound expectations. On paper, Wright State pales in comparison to Tennessee. With that said, Rick Barnes’ team is exceptionally young. The last thing Tennessee will want is for Wright State to hang around with the chance to steal the contest late.
No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Texas
The 7 vs. 10 games are usually toss-ups, and this one is no exception. Texas’ respective strength lies within its frontcourt duo of Mo Bamba and Dylan Ostekowski. The two combine for over 27 PPG, 17 RPG and nearly four blocks per contest. The Longhorns aren’t exceptionally deep — nor are they efficient on the offensive end. However, the mere presence of Bamba in the paint makes them dangerous.
As for Nevada, the Wolf Pack like to push the basketball. Possessing a bevy of 6’7″ athletes, former NBA head coach Eric Musselman stresses the importance of attacking the basket early in the shot clock before the opponent can set up defensively. Brothers Cody and Caleb Martin lead the way offensively along with 6’7″ guard Jordan Caroline.
Though Texas has an advantage size-wise, it struggles to score. This game will solely come down to tempo. If Bamba can anchor down in the paint, Nevada may struggle. However, if this contest resembles an up-and-down affair, the Wolf Pack should be considered favorites.
No. 2 Cincinnati vs. No. 15 Georgia State
The Bearcats will have no problem with this contest. Mick Cronin has built an experienced team chock-full of grit and improved offensive capabilities. Cincinnati routinely attempts to exert its will upon opponents. A deep team, it also looks to wear down the opposition.
While Georgia State’s D’Marcus Simonds does average 21.1 points per game, one can assume that Cincinnati will put the clamps down on the talented guard. This will be the first step in what many of the Bearcats’ faithful hope to be Cronin’s first Final Four appearance.
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