That thing called the First Four will soon be in the past, and then we can move on to the real Madness. (Don’t get me wrong. The First Four was very entertaining. It’s just not the same as what is about to happen Thursday and Friday.)
The Round of 64 begins Thursday afternoon (late Thursday morning here in the Midwest) with 16 games going throughout the day. Ohio State and Dayton begin the action with an intra-Ohio matchup, and that will continue all the way through what should be a great game between San Diego State and New Mexico State.
Here are my picks for Thursday’s games, and remember to check back tomorrow for my Friday picks.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Dayton, 11:15 a.m. CT on CBS, South Region
Ohio State got trapped into this “well, now you have to play us” game. Ohio State, the king of all intra-Ohio battles, will face Dayton, which they have not played since the 2008 NIT.
The Buckeyes began the season at 15-0 but are only 10-9 since then. They made a run to the Big Ten semifinals, where they lost to Michigan, but their overall Big Ten Tournament performance was nothing special. Ohio State nearly lost to Purdue in the first round, and then needed a large comeback to defeat Nebraska in the quarterfinals.
Dayton fell off the national scope after starting Atlantic 10 play 1-5, but since then they are 10-2, including an Atlantic 10 quarterfinal loss to eventual champion St. Joseph’s.
The Flyers match up well enough with the Buckeyes to barely pull of an opening round upset. Their veteran backcourt of Jordan Sibert and Vee Sanford will go blow for blow with Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith.
Ohio State does not have a ton of size, but it still has the largest player on the floor in 6’11” center Amir Williams. The Buckeyes’ other forward, LaQuinton Ross, is not a traditional forward, preferring to face up or shoot from the outside.
The Flyers’ best big men are undersized with Devin Oliver at 6’7″ and Dyshawn Pierre at 6’6. But, their front line is deep, and the reserves give them greater size. Matt Kavanaugh, Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott have BCS-level size, all standing above 6’9″.
My pick: Dayton 65, Ohio State 64
No 2. Wisconsin vs. No. 15 American, 11:40 a.m. CT on truTV, West Region
Wisconsin will win this game, but American will be able to keep this relatively close. Wisconsin’s offense has been extremely efficient this season, but it has been worse defensively compared to the past. American struggles to score, but the Eagles have a top-50 defense according to KenPom. Not that Boston University is anywhere near as good as Wisconsin, but the Eagles held the Terriers 0.64 points per possession in the Patriot League finals.
The big challenge for American will be controlling Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky, an All-Big Ten First team member, is one of the most improved players in the country, developing into a star for the Badgers. The junior is averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, and he shoots 38.8% from the field.
My pick: Wisconsin 67, American 52
No. 8 Colorado vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh, 12:40 p.m. CT on TBS, South Region
The numbers point to Pittsburgh in this one. The Panthers rank in the top 20 on KenPom while Colorado sits humbly at No. 64. Ever since star guard Spencer Dinwiddie got hurt for the season, the Buffaloes have not been nearly as good. But, they have enough playmakers to pull off this first-round upset.
Colorado has a solid point guard in Askia Booker and a loaded frontcourt with Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon. Scott struggled in the Pac-12 Tournament, but this season he is averaging 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 51% percent from the field. Gordon gives the Buffaloes another solid option down low. And Johnson can score in a variety of ways, including from beyond the arc.
However, Pittsburgh finally seemed to be putting the pieces together during the final weeks of the season. The Panthers survived a tough game at Clemson to close the regular season and then made a run in the ACC Tournament. The Panthers impressively defeated North Carolina and then took eventual champion Virginia to the wire.
Senior forward Lamar Patterson deserves All-American consideration and center Talib Zanna has developed into a high-quality big man.
My pick: Colorado 72, Pittsburgh 66
No. 5 Cincinnati vs. No. 12 Harvard, 1:10 p.m. CT on TNT, East Region
The forever popular No. 12 over No. 5 upset pick remains trendy in this year’s East Region. Harvard, which upset New Mexico last season as a No. 14 seed, has essentially everyone from last year’s team. Plus, the Crimson added seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, former co-captains who temporarily left the team last season after a cheating scandal at school. Casey and Curry add extra depth to this roster, and they also have NCAA Tournament experience from going dancing in 2012.
Cincinnati is a phenomenal defensive team that has the ability to shut Harvard down. But the Crimson simply have too many weapons.
Harvard junior Wesley Saunders is a do-it-all type of player who can score, rebound and distribute. Sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers is one of the most underrated facilitators in the nation, and Curry, his backup, would start for most mid-major programs. Senior Laurent Rivard is a deadeye shooter. And the starting frontcourt of Kyle Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi, though undersized, is very talented.
Cincinnati has one of the country’s best scorers in senior Sean Kilpatrick, who averages 20.7 points per game. The Bearcats will need big performances from players aside from Kilpatrick, though, to avoid an upset.
My pick: Harvard 60, Cincinnati 55
No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 14 Western Michigan, 1:45 p.m. CT on CBS, South Region
I’ve heard Western Michigan mentioned as a possible upset pick, but I don’t see the Broncos coming close. Syracuse is a mid-major slayer with its length and athleticism, and Western Michigan simply cannot match up with its size. The Broncos have 6’11” center Shayne Whittington, but no one else who receives significant minutes stands taller than 6’5″.
That being said, the inside-outside duo of seniors David Brown and Whittington could give the Orange some trouble if the cards fall right.
But it would be the upset of the tournament if Western Michigan pulls out a win.
Syracuse has two of the best players in the ACC in senior C.J. Fair and freshman Tyler Ennis, and sophomore Trevor Cooney is a sharpshooter than changes games when he gets hot. The Orange’s front line of Jerami Grant and Rakeem Christmas shouldn’t have much trouble keeping pace with Whittington.
My pick: Syracuse 74, Western Michigan 58
No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 BYU, 2:10 p.m. CT on truTV, West Region
Somehow, BYU is a No. 10 seed. The Cougars are a questionable inclusion in the field although perfectly reasonable because of their résumé. But then you have to add in that they just lost starting guard Kyle Collinsworth to a season-ending injury.
This game is a rematch from December, when Oregon defeated BYU at home in overtime. Although this game now moves to a neutral site in Milwaukee, it is still Oregon’s to lose. BYU is weaker due to the Collinsworth injury, and Oregon has been playing great basketball recently. The Ducks won eight straight games before falling to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Even without Collinsworth, BYU has a pair of terrific guards in juniors Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws. Haws is one of the nation’s best scorers. Carlino is also a very good scorer, but his main role on this team is as a facilitator, averaging 4.3 assists per outing.
Up front, freshman Eric Mika gives the Cougars a BCS-level big man at 6’10”. Mika has posted five double-doubles this season.
But even with those three, BYU will be short-handed against Oregon. The Ducks have an experienced group with four seniors leading the way. Seniors Joseph Young and Jason Calliste have been great scorers and outside shooters all season long while 5’8″ senior point guard Johnathan Loyd finished fifth in the Pac-12 with 4.7 assists per game.
UNLV transfer Mike Moser anchors the Ducks’ frontcourt, averaging 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds.
My pick: Oregon 86, BYU 74
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 16 Albany, 3:10 p.m. CT on TBS, South Region
Florida will have no problem in this one. The Gators have not lost when senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is in the lineup. Their only losses came when he was suspended (at Wisconsin) and hurt for the final minutes (at Connecticut). That streak will not end before the Sweet 16.
The Gators are a senior-laden group that is also loaded with talent. This one should not even be close.
My pick: Florida 73, Albany 54
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 13 Delaware, 3:40 p.m. CT on TNT, East Region
Michigan State finally seemed to be piecing the puzzle back together with a Big Ten Tournament title, but the Spartans better not be looking past this game against Delaware. The Blue Hens were dominant in the CAA, and they have five players who can score in quantity. Three players average more than 18 points per game, and two others post at least 11.0.
Devon Saddler, Devon Usher and Jarvis Threatt are the main trio. Saddler and Usher ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in scoring in the CAA, respectively, each averaging more than 19 points per game. Usher, a 6’6″ wing with length, also averaged 6.1 rebounds per game and was an accurate 3-point shooter. Threatt is not far behind with 18.1 points per contest. The 6’2″ guard also averages 5.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.5 steals. Threatt also gets to the foul line 10 times per game.
The Blue Hens have another sharpshooter in junior Kyle Anderson and a talented big man in senior Carl Baptiste. Baptiste played a pair of unmemorable seasons with St. Joseph’s and was a role player last year at Delaware. This year, he has broken out to average 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks.
The only question now is if these five Blue Hens have enough to take down a Michigan State team that is finally getting healthy. Sophomore guard Gary Harris is one of the most underrated scorers in the country. He and senior forward Adreian Payne are both projected to be first-round picks in June’s NBA draft.
Senior point guard Keith Appling’s wrist still is not 100% recovered, but he has adapted. Once again, he looked like a high-quality point guard during Michigan State’s Big Ten Tournament run.
Add in a healthy Branden Dawson, a junior forward with tons of athleticism, under-appreciated guards Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice, and stretch-four Kenny Kaminski. Now the Spartans are once again a national title contender.
My pick: Michigan State 84, Delaware 72
No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 10 St. Joseph’s, 5:55 p.m. CT on TBS, East Region
Man, would it be great so see St. Joseph’s win this game. A Hawks victory would likely set up a third round matchup with Big 5 rival Villanova with a Sweet 16 spot on the line. But I’d say it’s probably not going to happen.
Connecticut has an All-American point guard in senior Shabazz Napier, and great point guard play will be enough to get the Huskies past this tough St. Joe’s team and possibly even into the Sweet 16.
Napier is a stud who will not let his team lose. Once Kemba Walker’s backup, Napier averaged 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists this season. He also shot 39% from beyond the arc. And if there’s any spot where St. Joe’s struggles, it’s point guard play.
Among guards, junior Chris Wilson leads the Hawks with 2.8 dimes per game, and his assist-turnover ratio is 1.49 to 1. Solid, but not great. Senior guard Langston Galloway is a great talent, but he is a pure scorer and shooter.
Most of the Hawks’ facilitating comes by the hands of senior forward Halil Kanacevic, a former Hofstra transfer. Kanacevic is the team’s best all-around player with 10.7 points, 8.8 boards and 4.4 assists per contest. He can do some work down low and also knock down the occasional 3-pointer. The Hawks will need a huge game from him if they are going to pull off the Round of 64 upset.
My pick: Connecticut 65, St. Joseph’s 61
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Wofford, 6:10 p.m. CT on CBS, Midwest Region
Wofford is back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence, but it draws a tough-matchup with Big Ten regular season champion Michigan. The Wolverines have been one of the hottest teams in the country since Christmas time, and they have the potential to reach the Final Four in Dallas.
Michigan head coach John Beilein possesses the Big Ten Player of the Year in sophomore Nik Stauskas, an undervalued freshman point guard in Derrick Walton Jr., and a pair of great wings in sophomores Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III. There is no spectacular individual in the Wolverines’ frontcourt, but as a whole they have been solid for the last couple of months.
Wofford is a tough defensive team, but it does not have the length to give Michigan any significant problems. The Terriers have only one rotation player taller than 6’6″, and he is only 6’7″. To put that in perspective, all of Michigan’s players except for Walton and reserve guard Spike Albrecht are 6’6″ or taller.
Still, watch out for Wofford juniors Karl Cochran and Lee Skinner. Cochran can light up a scoreboard and fill a stat sheet, and Skinner is a double-double threat.
My pick: Michigan 70, Wofford 54
No. 5 St. Louis vs. No. 12 NC State, 6:20 p.m. CT on TNT, Midwest Region
NC State has looked like a new team recently and the Wolfpack had an impressive win over Xavier in the First Four. But now they have to face St. Louis, one of the nation’s top defensive teams.
Billikens point guard Jordair Jett will have a size advantage against NC State’s backcourt, and stretch-four Rob Loe could present a mismatch.
If the Wolfpack is going to pull off the upset and advance to the third round, it is going to need an extra special performance from ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. We’ll see if the sophomore forward is up for the task against KenPom’s eighth-best defense.
My pick: St. Louis 67, NC State 63
No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State, 6:27 p.m. CT on truTV, West Region
Oklahoma has some great players, and I think the Sooners have a strong chance at getting to the Sweet 16 if they get past this game with North Dakota State. But what is troubling about Oklahoma is that it doesn’t have any standout victories away from home. The Sooners best road win is at Baylor in the middle of the Bears’ five-game losing streak in January. Their next-best is at a Marcus-Smart-less Oklahoma State.
Meanwhile, North Dakota State won at Notre Dame in December, back when the Fighting Irish still had Jerian Grant. They also defeated MAC champion Western Michigan on the road. In the Summit League, their only losses were on the road to IPFW and Denver, which they then avenged with neutral-site victories against both teams in the Summit League Tournament.
North Dakota State is also a veteran squad hungry for a tournament victory. The Bison start three seniors, a junior and a sophomore. Their two main bench players are also seniors.
The Bison have one of the best players many people have never heard of in senior Taylor Braun, the Summit League Player of the Year. Braun averages 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists, and he makes more than 44% of his 3-pointers. Senior Mike Felt and junior Lawrence Alexander join Braun as the team’s other sharpshooters.
Senior forward TrayVonn Wright can also make an occasional triple, but more importantly he is a lockdown defender. Also, don’t let the Summit League label fool you — Wright is one of the most athletic players in this tournament. He is really good at dunking.
Senior forward Marshall Bjorklund is among the nation’s leaders in field-goal percentage once again at 63.6%. The big man has the post moves to go up against any forward in the country.
Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark are great scorers for Oklahoma, but they might not be enough to avoid an early exit.
My pick: North Dakota State 79, Oklahoma 77
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Milwaukee, 8:25 p.m. CT on TBS, East Region
Milwaukee is already a Cinderella story even without yet playing a NCAA Tournament game. The Panthers were picked to finish dead last in the Horizon League, and even after actually finishing fifth they were not considered much of a threat to win the Horizon League Tournament. After beating Detroit at home and Valparaiso on a neutral site, the Panthers won road games against first-place Green Bay and third-place Wright State to earn a bid to the Big Dance.
The Cinderella streak will likely not carry over into the NCAA Tournament, though. The Panthers have not been consistent enough to go against Villanova for a full 40 minutes. They’ll need all five of their starters to be on their game if they are going to have any shot.
One thing Milwaukee does have that many mid-majors do not is good size with 6’9″ senior Kyle Kelm and 6’8″ sophomore Matt Tiby. And if Villanova has weak spots, they are in the Wildcats’ frontcourt.
My pick: Villanova 80, Milwaukee 64
No. 7 Texas vs. No. 10 Arizona State, 8:40 p.m. CT on CBS, Midwest Region
This 7/10 game has the potential to be one of Thursday’s most thrilling games. Both Texas and Arizona State get up and down the floor and have some exciting players to watch. Plus, the storylines are fun.
Rick Barnes’ seat was burning at the start of the season and Herb Sendek’s was getting warm. Barnes started quieting the critics with a 10-1 start for Texas, including a win at North Carolina. That turned into an 18-4 start before the Longhorns went 5-6 down the stretch. Sendek has Arizona State back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, when James Harden was a Sun Devil.
Arizona State is fun to watch simply because of its personnel. 5’10” guard Jahii Carson averages 18.6 points and 4.5 assists while shooting 39.1% from long range. Jermaine Marshall complements him in the backcourt, posting 15 points per game with 40% 3-point shooting.
7’2″ senior Jordan Bachynski is one of the nation’s better defensive big man. Of course Bachynski has a unique advantage with his size, but he uses his size well to produce more than four blocks per outing.
Texas’ deep frontcourt will have its hands full with Bachynski. 6’8″ junior Jonathan Holmes leads the Longhorns in scoring with 13 points per game, and he also pulls in 7.2 boards. Sophomore Cameron Ridley is another double-double threat, and sophomore Connor Lammert usually provides solid production off the bench.
My pick: Arizona State 73, Texas 72
No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 13 Manhattan, 8:50 p.m. CT on TNT, Midwest Region
I’m a firm believer that all conspiracy theories about the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee are false, but this matchup sure gives the conspiracists some clues. Louisville meets Manhattan in a classic Teacher vs. Student matchup between Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello. Masiello was a New York Knicks ball boy when Pitino was the team’s head coach. Then Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky in the 1990s. Then Masiello was an assistant on Pitino’s staff at Louisville.
Masiello was far from thrilled when Manhattan drew Louisville, but not only because of the pain of facing his mentor. The Cardinals also pose a tough matchup for the Jaspers, as they play a similar style and are essentially the bigger, better version of the Jaspers.
Louisville has a dynamic scorer in Russ Smith while Manhattan has George Beamon. Smith is an All-American whereas Beamon is only All-MAAC.
Louisville has big men like Montrezl Harrell and Mangok Mathiang while Manhattan has Rhamel Brown and Ashton Pankey. Though the two Jasper big men can hold their own, Harrell and Mathiang will have a size and athleticism advantage.
Manhattan’s upset chances are slim, but with their depth and a healthy roster they could shock this national title contender Thursday. But to do so, it will take a near-perfect game.
My pick: Manhattan 72, Louisville 70
No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 13 New Mexico State, 8:57 p.m. CT on truTV, West Region
If you have to choose only one No. 13 seed to beat one No. 4 seed, take New Mexico State. San Diego State was very close to dropping to a No. 5 seed, and the Aggies are better than a No. 13 seed, even though that’s what their résumé deserves.
Presumably, one of the reasons New Mexico State was is a No. 13 and not a No. 12 seed is because of five losses to teams ranked No. 150 or lower in RPI. But two of those losses came without star center Sim Bhullar, and one came in a very tough road environment at Colorado State. And the Aggies countered those bad losses with a great win at New Mexico in December.
San Diego State has not lost often and the Aztecs do have some great wins. But they have not done enough lately to convince me they can avoid this upset. They went 1-2 against New Mexico, and haven’t had another eye-catching win since they beat Kansas in early January. In addition to beating the Jayhawks, they did also defeat Creighton in November.
Xavier Thames is a heck of a point guard and San Diego State’s frontcourt is deep and talented, but New Mexico State has unique size and athleticism for a mid-major. The Aggies have Bhullar, a 7’5″ center who causes mismatches against every team in the country — and he’s not even the team’s best post player. That would be 6’10” center Tshilidzi Nephawe. The Aztecs will need great games defensively out of forwards Skylar Spencer and Josh Davis to stop that inside duo.
Although Bhullar and Nephawe cause most of the mismatch problems, neither is New Mexico State’s best player. Junior guard Daniel Mullings, who leads the team in scoring, was the WAC Player of the Year. He averages 16.8 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals and has shown the ability to consistently create his own shot. DK Eldridge gives the Aggies another scoring option in the backcourt.
My pick: New Mexico State 67, San Diego State 62
Check back tomorrow for picks for Friday’s Round of 64 games.