The time is finally here. As much fun as the the first “real” days of the NCAA Tournament are, the First Four has not disappointed since it was introduced in the 2010-11 season. That year, UNC-Asheville defeated Arkansas-Little Rock in a thriller, and VCU began it’s magical run to the Final Four with a victory against USC.
The last two First Fours each produced No. 16 seed games that game down to the final play and at-large games that came down to the final minutes. This year’s First Four shouldn’t be much different.
Here’s some info on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s First Four games, including my picks for each one.
No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s vs. No. 16 Albany
Mount St. Mary’s played in the NEC Tournament final for the second straight season, and this time the Mountaineers came out on top. They are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 and just the fourth time overall.
Albany is also on this stage for only the fourth time, but this particular group knows the ropes since one of those times was last season. The Great Danes were a No. 15 seed last year and lost a fairly close game to No. 2 seed Duke in the Round of 64.
Albany’s strength lies on the defensive end while Mount St. Mary’s is all offense. The Great Danes are a disciplined defensive team that forces long possessions.
That being said, the Great Danes also have some capable scorers. If there’s one name you want to remember for Tuesday night, it’s Peter Hooley. The Australian sophomore averages 15.7 points and 2.6 assists, and he shoots 40.1% on 3-pointers. He recorded 13 points, eight boards and five dimes in the NCAA Tournament game against Duke last year.
5’9″ senior DJ Evans runs the show in Albany’s backcourt, and Australian junior Sam Rowley is the leader among its frontcourt.
The Mount sports a dynamic trio in the backcourt of seniors Rashad Whack, Julian Norfleet and Sam Prescott. Whack and Norfleet were two of the top scorers in the NEC this season, each with at least 17.5 points per game.
My pick: Albany 70, Mount St. Mary’s 60
No. 12 NC State vs. No. 12 Xavier
How the heck is NC State in the field? I tweeted Saturday that somehow it would happen, and unfortunately I was correct.
Every year there seems to be one big surprise in the field. This year, my gut says it’ll be NC State, but I’m not putting that in my bracket
— The Catch and Shoot (@Catch_N_Shoot) March 16, 2014
The Wolfpack did have a strong finish to the season that included wins over Pittsburgh and Syracuse, but ultimately their résumé was weak: 3-9 against Top 50 RPI, three sub-100 losses, and a mediocre 8-7 road/neutral record. Yet somehow, they snuck into the First Four.
Not only does NC State not belong, but this matchup is not fair to Xavier. Although the Musketeers technically were on the bubble when Selection Sunday arrived, they had a very good chance of making the field thanks to wins over Creighton, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Providence.
Now, the Musketeers must face a team that did not prove its worth over the course of the season but has been playing great basketball this month.
The good thing about having NC State in the tournament is now we have a chance to see T.J. Warren perform on a big stage. The sophomore forward won ACC Player of the Year after leading the league with 24.8 points per game. He has scored at least 20 points in every game he has played since Jan. 15. In March, he is averaging 29.3 points through six games.
The Wolfpack have a couple of other threats in 3-point shooter Ralston Turner and point guard Anthony Barber. But most of their success has to do with Warren’s scoring.
Xavier does not have one scorer as good as Warren, but its top four players can all put in major contributions. Leading the way is sophomore point guard Semaj Christon, who averages 17.1 points and 4.2 assists per game. Christon is a playmaker and has the ability to carve up NC State’s defense, which ranks No. 144 on KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Although Christon gets most of the attention, junior guard Dee Davis is actually the Musketeers’ best distributor with 4.7 dimes per game and a 2.45 to 1 assist-turnover ratio.
Matt Stainbrook, Justin Martin and Isaiah Philmore serve as a three-headed monster in the frontcourt, all averaging at least 9.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Stainbrook, who earned All-Big East honorable mention, is the best among the group, averaging 10.4 points and 7.3 boards.
My pick: Xavier 79, NC State 72
No. 16 Texas Southern vs. No. 16 Cal Poly
Cal Poly’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament is exactly why many people have spoke out against the conference tournament system among one-bid leagues. The Mustangs nine of their last 11 regular season games and was the No. 7 seed in the Big West Tournament. Even after winning three games in three days to capture a Big Dance berth, their record stands at just 13-19.
Cal Poly has clearly put the pieces together since the start of the Big West Tournament, but this First Four game with Texas Southern could be the end of the line. The Mustangs do not have much size, and the Tigers have a phenomenal big man in West Virginia transfer Aaric Murray.
Murray, who played two years at La Salle and then one year at West Virginia, has been a dominant force at the mid-major level. He averages 21.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. At 6’10” and 245 pounds, he will have a major size advantage on Cal Poly’s frontcourt.
Cal Poly sophomore Brian Bennett is the only player who really compares to Murray at 6’9′ and 253 pounds, but he plays only 18.9 minutes per game. The Mustangs only chance will be to get Murray in foul trouble.
My pick: Texas Southern 65, Cal Poly 54
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Iowa
Tennessee did not have the overall body of work to avoid the First Four play-in games, but the Volunteers have been playing inspired basketball down the stretch. Also, they get the benefit of playing a team that has been exactly the opposite. Iowa has lost six of its last seven games, including a Big Ten Tournament loss to 14-19 Northwestern.
Tennessee has built its reputation, and the Volunteers are amazingly efficient in that department for a team slated for a play-in game. Tennessee ranks No. 16 on KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 94.1 points per 100 possessions.
Iowa has a potent offense, ranked fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, but the Hawkeyes simply cannot defend.
Tennessee is not a great offensive team, although it is still very solid at No. 29 on KenPom. (Amazingly, the Volunteers rank No. 13 overall on KenPom!) But if Northwestern’s offense, one of the worst in the nation, just posted 1.14 points per possession on the Hawkeyes last week, the Volunteers could potentially breeze by to the Round of 64.
My pick: Tennessee 74, Iowa 63