Now that the First Four is in the past, the “real” NCAA tournament games will begin on Thursday afternoon with the first set of second round games. Thursday will feature 16 games, starting with Michigan State vs. Valparaiso at 12:15 p.m. ET. Here are my picks for these 16 matchups, organized by region:
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Valparaiso, 12:15 p.m. ET on CBS
Valparaiso is a dangerous No. 14 seed, but the Crusaders have a tough matchup with Michigan State. Tom Izzo’s teams, especially his good ones, rarely go down this early in March. The last time Michigan State finished in the top three in the Big Ten and lost in its first NCAA tournament game was 2004.
Valpo has a very good frontcourt with Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk, but they will be overmatched by Adrian Payne and Derrick Nix.
I can see Valparaiso sticking with the Spartans for as long as 30 minutes, but in the end they don’t have the talent to compete for a full 40.
My pick: Michigan State 73, Valparaiso 58
No. 4 Saint Louis vs. No. 13 New Mexico State, 2:10 p.m. ET on TNT
I have seen Saint Louis four times this season in person, and every time I have come away thinking, “Wow, this team actually has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four.”
The Billikens are one of the best defensive teams in Division I, and they are very experienced. They start a fifth-year senior, three juniors and a sophomore, and give a lot of bench minutes to two more seniors and juniors. They are too smart and too tough a team to go down this early.
New Mexico State freshman Sim Bhullar, who stands at 7-foot-5, could cause a mismatch problem. Bhullar has been playing many more minutes recently, but the Saint Louis defense could tire him out a bit more and cause him to see something closer to his average of 24.3 minutes per game. The Billikens know how to wear down their opponents.
My pick: Saint Louis 64, New Mexico State 54
No. 6 Memphis vs. No. 11 St. Mary’s, 2:40 p.m. ET on CBS
Both St. Mary’s and Memphis amassed a lot of wins while playing in a conference that lacked challenging opponents, but in the end St. Mary’s has been tested more. Aside from three meetings with Southern Miss, which is not in the NCAA tournament, Memphis has played an extremely easy schedule. At least St. Mary’s had to face Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed, three times in addition to BYU (twice) and Creighton. Then, on Tuesday the Gaels beat a good Middle Tennessee team in the First Four.
This will be Memphis’ biggest challenge in a long time, but St. Mary’s has had plenty of tests in the last month to get them ready for a game like this.
My pick: St. Mary’s 73, Memphis 71
No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon, 4:40 p.m. ET on TNT
I’ve heard a lot of people taking Oregon in this one just because Oregon was under-seeded. But even if Oregon was a No. 7 seed and, say, these teams met in the Elite Eight, I would still take Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys are very athletic and very tough defensively. The Ducks already struggle taking care of the ball (freshman point guard Dominic Artis’ turnover rate is above 25%), so expect Marcus Smart, Phil Forte and Markel Brown to cause some trouble.
Oregon simply hasn’t been the same since Artis hurt his foot, and with the way it finished the Pac-12 season I don’t see them beating a team as talented as Oklahoma State.
My pick: Oklahoma State 67, Oregon 61
No. 1 Louisville vs. North Carolina A&T, 6:50 p.m. ET on TBS
There’s not much to say about this game. Louisville’s pressure and overall talent will be too much for the MEAC champions, who defeated Liberty in a close, First Four game on Tuesday night.
My pick: Louisville 77, NC A&T 54
No. 8 Colorado State vs. No. 9 Missouri, 9:20 p.m. ET on TBS
Colorado State and Missouri should provide one of Thursday’s more entertaining games. The two clubs both rank in the top-15 in adjust defensive efficiency on KenPom, and they aren’t afraid to push the tempo. (Colorado State will not push it nearly as often as Missouri, though.)
Colorado State, the best rebounding team in college basketball, has struggled to defend some point guards this year, namely New Mexico’s Kendall Williams, and Missouri has a great point guard in Phil Pressey. But Pressey is only good when he is under control. At various points, he becomes reckless and shoots poorly from the field while also turning over the ball. If he is on his game and the rest of the Tigers give some good support, the Tigers could be ready for a minor upset.
One stat that should worry Missouri is that Colorado State forces opponents to beat them with three-pointers. The Rams’ opponents this year have scored fewer than 48% of their points from inside the arc it 31.5% from beyond it. Missouri is not a terrible three-point shooting team, but it does a lot of damage from two-point range. They rank No. 84 in the nation with 55% coming inside of the arc.
My pick: Colorado State 79, Missouri 76
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State, 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS
South Dakota State makes me think of a less talented, less athletic version of Michigan in some ways. South Dakota State has Nate Wolters, and Michigan has Trey Burke. South Dakota State has Chad White, and Michigan has Nik Stauskas. Although it’s a bit of a stretch, Brayden Carlson’s game, when he is reaching his potential, can be compared to Tim Hardaway Jr.’s. Both are versatile scorers who can also step up as a distributor in the offense.
Last year, South Dakota State was overwhelmed by Baylor’s athleticism and talent level, but the Jackrabbits still remained within four points of the Bears in the final minute—and that was with Wolters in foul trouble for a large portion of the first half. With the way Michigan has been playing recently, especially away from home, this could be the Jacks’ chance to get their first-ever NCAA tournament win.
My pick: South Dakota State 75, Michigan 74
No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Akron, 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS
So Akron will have to go up against Havoc without its point guard, Alex Abreu, who was arrested for marijuana trafficking near the end of the regular season. In his absence, the Zips have given freshman Carmelo Betancourt a big boost in playing time. Good luck against Havoc, my friend.
VCU’s pressure defense should make it very tough for Akron to stay in the game. The Zips’ only real chance will be if 7-footer Zeke Marshall has a monster game and tears up the Rams’ thin frontcourt.
My pick: VCU 73, Akron 56
No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Bucknell, 12:40 p.m. ET on TruTV
This will be a grind-it-out, defensive battle between Butler and Bucknell. Watching Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala face 6-foot-11 center Andrew should be a lot of fun. And the backcourt play could turn into a three-point shootout with Bucknell’s Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers and Butler’s Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham.
Although Butler has this great reputation on defense, they have not been stellar on defense this year. Meanwhile, Bucknell is highly ranked in the nation in effective field-goal percentage defense and defensive rebounding percentage.
Put this baby on upset alert.
My pick: Bucknell 57, Butler 55
No. 3 Marquette vs. No. 14 Davidson, 3:10 p.m. ET on TruTV
Generally, I expect this year’s tournament to lack the craziness we have seen in some recent years, such as double-digit seeds making big runs and No. 1 seeds going down early. But this sub-regional pod could provide some chaos because Bucknell and Davidson are both teams capable of pulling off upsets.
Davidson, which probably deserved a No. 13 seed over Montana, played well in non-conference games against Duke and Gonzaga and then dominated the SoCon. The Wildcats have a great frontcourt with Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks and a superb shooter in Nik Cochran (48.5 3P%).
But Marquette can counter with Davante Garnder, Jamil Wilson and Chris Otule up front, and Junior Cadougan, Vander Blue and Trent Lockett in the backcourt.
My pick: Marquette 67, Davidson 63
No. 5 UNLV vs. No. 12 California, 7:27 p.m. ET on TruTV
UNLV and California met in the regular season, and UNLV needed a put-back at the buzzer to knock off the Golden Bears. Since then, both teams have made lots of improvements, but the Rebels are still the better team.
Anthony Bennett is a frontrunner for Freshman of the Year, and Bryce Dejean-Jones is a valuable scorer on the wing.
Even though California was really hot in February, it finished its Pac-12 season with losses to Stanford and Utah, which is very disconcerting.
My pick: UNLV 70, California 65
No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Montana, 9:57 ET on TruTV
I put this game as a potential upset, but I’m expecting Syracuse to win this one, possibly even with some east. The Orange, who went 5-7 in their final 12 regular season games, started looking like more of a contender once again with a run to the Big East title game, where they collapsed in the second half and lost to Louisville.
As long as James Southerland plays well, Syracuse should be in good shape.
But the backcourt duo of Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry for Montana could still lead the way to an upset.
My pick: Syracuse 73, Montana 60
No. 8 Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 Wichita State, 1:40 p.m. ET on TBS
You may have heard the myth that Pittsburgh can’t score, but it’s not true. The Panthers have had a few ugly games, but they still score close to 70 points per game and rank in the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.
Although Wichita State was a top-15 team at one point this year, the Shockers finished the regular season playing poorly. They lost games to Southern Illinois and Evansville in February, and they did not capitalize on a pair of opportunities to beat Creighton in early March.
My pick: Pittsburgh 57, Wichita State 52
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Southern, 4:10 p.m. ET on TBS
There won’t be any No. 16 seeds beating No. 1 seeds on Thursday. Even in the WCC, the Zags’ worst competition was better than SWAC champion Southern. They will easily advance to the Round of 32.
My pick: Gonzaga 80, Southern 59
No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 Belmont, 7:20 p.m. ET on TNT
Belmont is due to finally win a NCAA tournament game. This is the Bruins’ third straight appearance in the Big Dance, and they were also on this stage in 2006, 2007 and 2008—yet they are 0-5 in five appearances.
This is probably the best team Rick Byrd has had, and it also has a favorable matchup with Arizona.
Belmont is a talented three-point shooting team, and Arizona has one of the worst perimeter defenses in all of Division I.
And as talented as Arizona’s individual players are, the Wildcats have simply not been a good team this year. That’s why they wound up as a No. 6 seed instead of the possible No. 1 we thought they could be in October.
Belmont plays like a team and should be able to pick apart the more talented Wildcats for an upset victory.
My pick: Belmont 76, Arizona 71
No. 3 New Mexico vs. No. 14 Harvard, 9:50 p.m. ET on TNT
Here’s the deal with New Mexico. The Lobos are vulnerable, but only against really good defensive teams. Of their five losses this season, three came to teams with top-15 adjusted defensive efficiencies on KenPom. Of the other two losses, one came to South Dakota State in a game where Nate Wolters dominated and Steve Alford kept Kendall Williams on the bench for the start of the game. The other was at Air Force on Senior Night, and the Falcons needed a buzzer-beater to get the win.
Harvard is not a great defensive, and it does not have a player like Wolters or Air Force’s Michael Lyons who can take over a game and create an upset.
My pick: New Mexico 70, Harvard 56