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The NCAA Tournament has officially begun!
Texas Southern and Indiana punched their tickets to the Round of 64 by winning their play-in games Tuesday night. The remaining First Four teams will play Wednesday.
Hopefully, you’ve made plans to either *ahem* miss work or avoid your boss on Thursday. And if you are going to work, remember to take your tablet, personal computer or another device to stream the non-stop action.
As we inch closer to the whirlwind of college hoops that’s about to ensue, here are my top-5 storylines…
Intriguing First Four Matchup
Rutgers/Notre Dame play-in game for the 11-seed
Usually, the First Four play-in games get ignored by the casual fan. Most people consider Thursday (when the 64-team field is set) as the “real” start to the NCAA Tournament.
I understand why most fans disregard watching these initial games, but there’s one I’m keeping an eye on this year.
The Rutgers vs. Notre Dame game for the 11-seed in the West region is an intriguing match-up for two reasons.
1) Rutgers is battle-tested this season. Proven by the stretch of games when the Scarlet Knights won 4-straight games against ranked opponents. Notre Dame isn’t a slouch either. They spent most of the season at the top of the ACC rankings and knocked off the Kentucky Wildcats in non-conference play.
2) The winner of this particular play-in game a season ago, UCLA, advanced all the way to the Final Four. It’s not crazy to think the winner of this game could do the same…or maybe it is crazy…madness!
Finally! The moment Memphis fans have been waiting for since 2014. The Tigers are back in the Big Dance, and Penny Hardaway makes his NCAA Tournament debut…as a coach.
When Coach Hardaway was hired in 2018, fans were expecting immediate results. “Coach Penny, the hometown hero. Back at his alma mater.” It seemed like a recipe for instant success.
But after consecutive NIT Bids (including an NIT championship) and failure to reach the NCAA Tournament, media members began questioning if Hardaway was the right man for the job.
After dropping three straight games in late January, Hardaway went on a postgame rant that ignited his team. Led by the freshman Jalen Duren, Memphis has won 12 of their last 14 games and looks primed for a memorable run.
Another side note here: The former 5-star phenom and Memphis freshman, Emoni Bates, traveled with the team to Portland on Tuesday. However, it is not confirmed whether or not he will be playing.
The Longwood Lancers and Bryant Bulldogs are also making their NCAA Tournament debuts. Both teams won their conference tournaments and will enter the tourney as a 14-seed and a 16-seed, respectively.
Well, the Bulldogs got shafted as they are forced to play in a First Four game against Wright State tonight (Wednesday at 5:40 p.m. CT).
The Midwest Region appears to be flooded with potential upsets. In March, everything is unpredictable, but the Midwest Region looks dangerous for the top seeds.
I’ve got four upsets coming out of that region. Yes, four! See for yourself…
(9) Creighton over (8) San Diego State
Does the 8/9 game even count as a potential upset? I don’t know, but I’ve got Creighton winning this game by a handful.
(12) Richmond over (5) Iowa
I’m the least confident in this pick. Both teams are riding the wave of winning their conference tournaments, and both teams are terrific offensively. But I like Richmond getting the win in a close game. Unless, of course, Iowa’s Keegan Murray takes the game over.
(13) South Dakota State over (4) Providence
I’ll dive into South Dakota State later in this article. Honestly, I teetered on whether or not I should put them in my Final Four! Don’t worry, I didn’t.
(11) Iowa State over (6) LSU
LSU is a mess, surrounded by drama. Will Wade is no longer the coach. The allegations from several years ago finally came back to haunt him. Iowa State, on the other hand, is a sneaky good 11-seed. I’ve got the Cyclones winning comfortably.
(15) Jacksonville State over (2) Au…PSYCH!
Haha, I’m definitely NOT picking JSU to upset Auburn. However, I’d like to note that the coaching match-up has a little history. Bruce Pearl and Ray Harper were rival coaches in the late 90s.
Pearl coached at Southern Indiana when Harper was at Kentucky Wesleyan, both schools just 45-minutes away from each other. And according to this tweet, Harper had his way with Pearl tallying a 13-4 record in head-to-head match-ups.
Mid-Major Winning Streaks
South Dakota State enters the Big Dance boasting a 21-game winning streak. This is an exciting team that I nearly put in my bracket’s Final Four (as mentioned above).
Seriously, if this is one of those years where a low seeded mid-major makes a deep run, keep an eye on SDSU.
The Jackrabbits have two players shooting over 50% from three and two shooting 47%. The team’s overall three-point percentage is 45%.
Steph Curry’s best career three-point percentage is 45.5%; need I say more? As I’ve stated, keep an eye out for this team to make some serious noise this weekend.
Murray State is riding a 20-game win streak into the tournament and will look to make the Sweet-16 for the first time in school history.
The Racers are the higher seed in their first-round match-up with San Francisco but likely will face #2 seed Kentucky in the Round of 32.
Coach K’s Last Dance
I’ve already written my tribute to Coach K. I have the utmost respect for him as a coach and leader of men.
As much as it pains me to say this, I’m glad he finally decided to hang up his whistle.
He sure seems to be putting off “grumpy old man” vibes lately, so I hope he finds enjoyment in his retirement.
He doesn’t appear to enjoy coaching anymore. Or maybe the losses just sting harder as you get older.
Either way, this is the last time we’ll see Coach Mike Krzyzewski grace the sidelines during an NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, I feel Duke will be going home early…like as early as the first weekend.
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