By Kevin Sweeney
Contrary to what some believe, the First Four is more than just a chance to find TruTV before the Round of 64 begins on Thursday.
The First Four has been one of my favorite events of the college basketball season since its inception in 2011. The games are played at UD Arena in Dayton, which is always loaded with fans both Tuesday and Wednesday. The matchups are usually juicy, with 2 games of teams who fought until the end to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, along with a pair of games pitting conference champions with either poor records or coming from weak conferences. Here’s a preview of the 4 games that will kick off the NCAA Tournament this weekend:
#16 New Orleans vs #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Tuesday, 6:40 pm)
This game pits a pair of teams that won both their regular season and conference tournament titles. New Orleans out of the Southland was picked 9th in the preseason, but came out of nowhere to punch their first-ever ticket to the Big Dance. The Privateers are a veteran squad that starts 3 seniors and 2 juniors and are led by Southland Conference Player of the Year Erik Thomas, a senior JUCO transfer who averages nearly 20 points per game. They’ve lost just 3 games by more than 10 points all season, to a trio of tournament teams in Oklahoma State, USC, and Northwestern, so expect them to be in the game from start to finish.
However, they face stiff competition in the form of Mount St. Mary’s, a much younger team that hails from the Northeast Conference. Their top 6 scorers have eligibility remaining after this season, led by sophomore shooting guard Elijah Long and junior point guard Junior Robinson, who stands just 5-5. Under head coach and former VCU assistant Jamion Christian, the Mountaineers deploy a pressing defense that forces almost 15 turnovers per game. New Orleans also likes to press, so this one should come down to which team takes care of the ball better.
My pick: Mount St. Mary’s 74, New Orleans 67
#11 Wake Forest vs #11 Kansas State (Tuesday, 9:10 pm)
These teams each had to go through the excruciating wait on Selection Sunday to see if they would sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest seemed to hang on the fringes of bubble consideration throughout the season due to a brutal schedule, but lacked the big wins to sit on the right side of the bubble. That all changed on March 1, when they knocked off Louisville behind 25 points from sophomore sensation John Collins, who has parlayed his outstanding season into first round draft status. That win, combined with a regular season-ending win over Virginia Tech and avoiding a letdown in the first round of the ACC Tournament allowed the Demon Deacons to hear their name called for the first time since 2010.
Kansas State appeared dead when it lost by 30 to a bad Oklahoma team to wrap up a stretch of 8 losses in 10 games. But Bruce Weber’s team stunned Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament and all the sudden found their way back into bubble contention. Many questioned their inclusion in the tournament considering their weak non-conference schedule, but wins over West Virginia, Baylor (2x) and Oklahoma State were enough for the Wildcats to warrant a bid. In my mind, the game comes down to the matchup between Collins and K-State big man DJ Johnson. Johnson must stay out of foul trouble and not allow Collins to go off. If he can, the Wildcats should advance to take on SMU
My Pick: Wake Forest 78, Kansas State 68
#16 UC Davis vs #16 North Carolina Central (Wednesday, 6:40 pm)
Head coach Jim Les has led a turnaround this season for UC Davis that has included doubling the team’s win total from a season ago. That turnaround has been rewarded with the program’s first-ever Division 1 NCAA Tournament berth and was embodied by beating UC Irvine, a team that had beaten them by 30 just a few games before, to punch their ticket. They are led by senior guard Brynton Lemar, a dynamic scorer who averaged over 20 points per game during the conference tournament, and big man Chima Moneke, who has thrived in his first season playing with the Aggies after redshirting his first season following a stop at junior college. However, they’ll face a stiff test from MEAC champs NC Central, who feature one of the best mid-major guards in the country in Patrick Cole. Cole, who is on his third D1 school, was named MEAC POY after 19.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game. The Eagles faced adversity late in the season after a pair of puzzling losses to close the regular season, but they dominated in the conference tournament to earn their 2nd NCAA Tournament under 8th year head coach LeVelle Moton.
My Pick: NC Central 83, UC Davis 69
#11 USC vs #11 Providence (Wednesday, 9:10 pm)
The final game of the First Four is a rematch of one of the best games of last season’s NCAA Tournament. If you don’t remember, the Friars won the game in the final seconds on a lay-up by Rodney Bullock.
However, this is a much different Providence team than the one from a year ago. Without Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, the Friars look to Bullock and Kyron Cartwright for much of the offense. To reach the NCAA Tournament in what was expected to be a rebuilding year says a lot about the program that Ed Cooley has built. This team won’t just be content to reach the Big Dance. They are looking to make a deep run, and if they play the way they did down the stretch, it’s certainly possible. On the other side is a USC team that started 14-0 but stumbled to a 10-9 finish and limped into the NCAA Tournament. Their resume was likely boosted by an early season win over SMU, a team that struggled early before finishing 30-4, and a win over UCLA when the Bruins were struggling. Nevertheless, the Trojans hope they can win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
My Pick: Providence 71, USC 69