Two No. 12 seeds – Sun Belt champion Arkansas-Little Rock and Ivy League winner Yale – claimed victories in the early sessions at Thursday’s NCAA tournament sites. For those wondering if a topsy-turvy regular season would translate into some bracket instability, those games provided an early yes.
Friday offers the chance for more zaniness, including these teams (all seeded No. 10 or worse) plenty capable of making it to the weekend.
No. 10 Syracuse (vs. No. 7 Dayton, 12:15 p.m., CBS): No one is about to anoint the 10th-seeded Orange (19-13) as one of the tournament’s spunky little guys, and there’s a sound argument to be made it should have gone off to Dayton for a play-in game rather than sent to play Dayton in St. Louis.
For the Orange, it all comes down to whether outside shots are falling. When Michael Gbinije and (especially) Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson are reasonably efficient on the perimeter, Syracuse is capable of toppling a lot of teams. That would include Dayton, regardless of the Flyers’ exceptional play under Archie Miller. Dayton probably claims this rematch of the 2014 round of 32 (which the Flyers also won), but Syracuse shouldn’t be an easy out even after dropping five of its last six.
No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth (vs. No. 7 Oregon State, 1:30 p.m., TNT): This isn’t so much an affirmation of the Rams (24-10), a tournament regular best known for its 2011 run to the Final Four. Melvin Johnson is a quality scorer, and VCU still defends well under first-year coach Will Wade (though the days of Shaka Smart’s havoc-induced fits for opponents are over).
Instead, it’s an observation that Oregon State (19-12) is overseeded in its first NCAA tournament trip since 1990, and forward Tres Tinkle’s foot injury (which will sideline him through at least this week) doesn’t help matters. The Beavers aren’t especially accomplished away from home, and it adds up to VCU moving forward to likely face Oklahoma in the round of 32.
No. 10 Temple (vs. No. 7 Iowa, approx. 3:10 p.m., truTV): The Owls (21-11) are anything but a favorite of the analytics community. They rank a paltry No. 90 on KenPom.com’s ratings, but have won 10 of their last 13 behind senior guard Quenton DeCosey and senior forward Jaylen Bond.
It’s not the most inspiring team, but the thing going for Temple is that they might be playing one of the most uninspiring teams in the field. Iowa was tremendous into the first week of February, rolling up a 19-4 record and remaining a credible contender for a No. 1 seed. Since then? An ugly 2-6 mark that includes a loss at Penn State and a quick exit from the Big Ten tournament against Illinois. Maybe the Hawkeyes can turn it around, but no one should be stunned if they don’t.
No. 12 South Dakota State (vs. No. 5 Maryland, approx. 4:30 p.m., TBS): The Jackrabbits are the lone No. 12 seed in action Friday. Winners of the Summit League for the third time in five years, South Dakota State rolls out a four in/one out lineup that rolls into Spokane with 12 victories in its last 14 games.
The Jackrabbits also draw a Maryland team that sputtered in the season’s latter stages and, more importantly, usually relies on a conventional lineup with two big men and a 6-foot-9 small forward (Jake Layman). Far from home, the Terrapins might need to slog through this one to emerge with a victory, not unlike their tournament opener a year ago against Valparaiso. Maryland probably needs a decent game from at least one of Jaylen Brantley or Jared Nickens (if not both) to deal with the matchup issues the Jackrabbits present.
No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (vs. No. 3 West Virginia, 7:10 p.m., CBS): No one dominates their league quite like Stephen F. Austin, which is 59-1 against Southland Conference opposition over the last three years. This isn’t a low-major champion without options. In truth, Lumberjacks guard Thomas Walkup might be the best player on the court against more than half of the tournament field.
Stephen F. Austin’s problem is its matchup. It is a middle-of-the-pack team at avoiding turnovers, and it faces a West Virginia team that is better than everybody except for the Lumberjacks at forcing giveaways on a per-possession basis. The Mountaineers haven’t been dubbed “Press Virginia” for no reason, and they should create enough headaches to advance. Against any of the other No. 3 seeds, Stephen F. Austin would have been a better choice to spring an upset.
No. 11 Northern Iowa (vs. No. 6 Texas, approx. 9:50 p.m., TBS): It took the most generous of bounces, but Wes Washpun and Northern Iowa are back in the NCAA tournament after knocking off Evansville in the Missouri Valley title game. This comes after the Panthers defeated Wichita State (twice), Iowa State and North Carolina during the season.
The first day of the first round already revealed some vulnerability in the Big 12’s midpack teams, with both Baylor and Texas Tech going down in the afternoon games. Northern Iowa is unlikely to be intimidated by the Longhorns, and while its abysmal offensive rebounding is a bit of a concern, the Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 and figure to dictate a plodding tempo against Shaka Smart’s first Texas team.