The theme of this college basketball season, from the opening tip in November all the way into mid-March, is the lack of a dominant team or teams.
Naturally, this has increased anticipation of outright bracket carnage this month and the possibility of upset after upset. Maybe “upset” isn’t the right term, but it does seem like a year when there isn’t much difference between some double-digit seeds and the teams on the No. 5 and No. 6 lines throughout the draw.
It is far too soon to peg such a long shot as a Final Four contender (besides perhaps ultra-experienced Wichita State), but with 16 games set for Thursday, it’s not hard to imagine any of these six teams advancing against well-regarded opposition.
No. 13 Iona (vs. No. 4 Iowa State, 2 p.m., TBS): This has all the makings of a first-to-100-wins sort of game. The 13th-seeded Gaels are responsible for relegating Monmouth to the NIT after knocking off the Hawks in the Metro Atlantic title game, and their A.J. English-led offense is unapologetically up-tempo and plenty proficient.
That’s a fascinating combination against many possible opponents, and none more so than Iowa State. The Cyclones have some postseason scars after falling to UAB last season in the round of 64 and have dropped seven of 12 entering the postseason. They, too, like to push the pace, and lean heavily on the likes of Monte Morris and Georges Niang to keep an efficient offense running. Even if Iowa State wins, this figures to be one of the day’s most entertaining games.
No. 12 Yale (vs. No. 5 Baylor, approx. 2:45 p.m., CBS): An Ivy League team has won an NCAA tournament game in three of the last six years (Cornell in 2010, Harvard in 2013 and 2014), and Justin Sears-led Yale is plenty capable of adding to that list in a game played right after Duke’s date with UNC Wilmington. After the misery of losing an Ivy playoff to Harvard last year, the Bulldogs earned their first NCAA bid since 1962 this winter.
In Baylor, Yale draws an opponent stung in the first round last year (by 14th-seeded Georgia State) and has dropped four of its last six. Of course, those setbacks were all against Kansas (twice), Oklahoma and West Virginia, and all 10 of the Bears’ losses this season came against teams seeded seventh or better in this tournament. Yale is a No. 12, and a feisty one, and playing relatively close to home could help the Bulldogs spring a surprise.
No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock (vs. No. 5 Purdue, approx. 4:30 p.m., TBS): One of the best stories in college basketball this season, the 12th-seeded Trojans completely remade their image after last season – first by hiring former Bob Knight assistant Chris Beard from Division II Angelo State, and then by emerging as a deliberate-tempo team intent on forcing plenty of turnovers.
The Sun Belt champions also take care of the ball and are efficient at both the foul line and on 3-pointers. It’s a great combination for tripping more established teams, as DePaul, San Diego State and Tulsa all learned in nonconference play. Arkansas-Little Rock isn’t as imposing inside as Purdue, but both teams will be comfortable at a slow pace that will amplify the importance of each possession.
No. 12 Chattanooga (vs. No. 5 Indiana, 7:10 p.m., CBS): The Mocs won the Southern Conference despite playing nearly the entire season without Casey Jones, their best player. They won at Georgia and Illinois before Jones went down and at Dayton shortly thereafter, and then proceeded to handle most comers when league play arrived.
As a No. 12 seed, Chattanooga almost automatically generates some buzz as an upset possibility. It also, according to KenPom.com, has a defense that forces opponents into longer possessions than all but six other teams in the tournament – household names like Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia, as well as Cincinnati and Tulsa. Indiana’s offense will be a tricky test for the Mocs, but it’s not difficult to envision Chattanooga claiming its opener.
No. 11 Wichita State (vs. No. 6 Arizona, approx. 9:20 p.m., TNT): The Shockers, who throttled Vanderbilt in the closing stages of a 70-50 victory in a Tuesday play-in game, probably don’t belong on this list. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two of the cornerstones of Wichita State’s 2013 Final Four team, remain in place and possess as much tournament experience as anyone in the field.
It’s not as if Arizona is mediocre, though it’s also reasonably clear these Wildcats aren’t quite as good as their immediate predecessors in Tucson. A No. 6 seed was a fair placement for Arizona, but this is an exceptionally difficult draw – a Shockers team that knows what it’s doing in March and has the benefit of already played a game in this tournament.
No. 11 Gonzaga (vs. No. 6 Seton Hall, approx. 9:57 p.m., truTV): Seton Hall just had its best week of the season, defeating Xavier and Villanova on back-to-back nights to claim the Big East tournament. Do Isaiah Whitehead and the Pirates, who turned in one of the season’s most impressive reversals after spiraling down the drain last season, build on that or sputter in their first NCAA appearance since 2006?
In Gonzaga, Seton Hall faces one of the biggest knowns in the field of 68. The Bulldogs have made every tournament since 1999 and routinely win at least one game once they get there. A No. 11 seed after claiming the West Coast Conference (again), Gonzaga has the pedigree and the talent to advance yet again this season. In truth, this is probably one of the best games of the first round.