Allow me to begin by saying that I really dislike the new format that we are now subjected to, with eight teams playing in what the NCAA officially calls the "First Round" but what are really play-in games. I suppose that there's a little less stigma than formerly, when the two lowest-rated 16-seeds had to meet Tuesday in Dayton for the right to get creamed two or three days later by Duke or Kansas or UCLA or Kentucky or whoever. There was no reason to watch, because there was no way that the game was going to affect anyone's bracket.
Now, of course, there are Tuesday games that DO affect everyone's bracket, something that Virginia Commonwealth proved emphatically last year. I do believe that as long as the NCAA was going to expand this way, better to throw the worst at-large teams into this field than to force all eight candidates for the four 16-seeds to play. Those teams are just happy to be there, and at the end of the day don't really mind getting hosed by a top seed, because it's exciting just to play in the tournament. So how will this year's games go? Let's start with the 16/16 games:
16 Lamar vs. 16 Vermont - Perhaps the most entertaining part about watching this game will be Lamar coach Pat Knight, who rather famously called out his six-strong senior class less than a month ago at a post-game press conference (where did he learn that trick from, I wonder?). For all the hype about that particular stunt, it worked; the Cardinals have won ever since, including the Southland Conference tournament. Lamar relies on its guards (Mike James and Anthony Miles) but is not a terribly good three-point shooting team (Bobby Knight never learned to embrace the three; maybe that's another trait he passed on to his son). They also feature Devon Lamb, who is essentially a 6'2" power forward who scores off of offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, the Catamounts, who may seem familiar to some readers because of a certain shot by former guard T. J. Sorrentine, are a low-scoring group whose best offensive weapon, Patrick "Four" McGlynn (he goes by the IV that follows his name), comes off the bench. Brian Voelkel is a point forward of sorts for them, averaging over five assists (and close to nine rebounds) a game while not scoring much on his own. The call here is that Knight's unconventional motivation continues to work its magic, and the Cardinals earn themselves a date with North Carolina on Friday.
16 Mississippi Valley State vs. 16 Western Kentucky - The most exciting part of this matchup might just be the mascots; Mississippi Valley State boasts one of the best nicknames in college sports (the Delta Devils), while Western Kentucky's Big Red is maybe the most hilarious mascot costume in the country. The Delta Devils are coached by Sean Woods, who was one of Kentucky's "Unforgettables" when they played in the greatest college basketball game of all time (apologies to all Wildcat fans out there). They take a lot of perimeter shots, but their frequent use of a 2-3 zone actually allows their opponents to make a higher percentage (39% vs. 33%). Well-traveled guard Terrence Joyner and forward Paul Murphy both average over thirteen points a game to lead the SWAC champions. Western Kentucky, on the other hand, won the Sun Belt conference tournament despite a losing record (15-18). The Hilltoppers are not your average 16-seed. They have an 18-22 record in the tournament and made the Final Four in 1971. More recently, they were on the winning end of one of the most entertaining 12-5 upsets in the tournament, back in 2008. This year's team has really turned a corner since head coach Ken McDonald was fired just over two months ago and replaced with Ray Harper, who has two won two national titles in Division II and two more in NAIA. Then 5-11, the Hilltoppers responded to the change with a 10-4 run. There is talent on the roster, and young talent at that. Three freshmen (leading scorers Derrick Gordon and George Fant, plusT. J. Price) start, and two more come off the bench. They have height in Sudanese center Teeng Akol, a transfer from Oklahoma State, an excellent complement to the bruising Fant around the basket. Big Red should be dancing in celebration tomorrow, even if the win means that they get to play some other team from the state of Kentucky on Thursday.
14 BYU vs. 14 Iona - These two programs may look a little out of place with a "14" next to their names, but you can thank BYU's no-Sunday games rule for that, as the committee apparently didn't have anywhere else to slot them. Much of Jimmer's supporting cast is back, including big man Brandon Davies, whom you may remember as the guy that cost the Cougars a potential Final Four run with some premarital nookie. Davies (6'9", 245) is an athletic big man who averages 15 and 7. Fellow forward Noah Hartsock has seen his outside shooting dip without Jimmer, but still led BYU with over 16 points a game. The third key member of the team is point guard (and UCLA transfer) Matt Carlino, and Charles Abuou does plenty of dirty work and provides additional scoring. The Cougars are a running team, which will happily suit the Gaels of Iona as well. You may want to catch this one, as it is not improbable for both teams to score more than 80 or even 90 points. Point guard Scott Machado leads the nation in assists with just a hair under ten a game, and is also a threat to score (13.6 ppg). But he is not the only pro prospect that the MAAC regular-season champs have in their holster. Tournament fans may remember guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones from last year, when he was an Arizona Wildcat shredding Duke's defense throughout the second half. Additionally, the Gaels have 6'7", 215-pound forward Mike Glover (spectacularly nicknamed "Optimus Prime"), who averages 18 and 9 while shooting close to 65% from the floor. Iona likes to press, and so this game could turn into a track meet. In the end, though, I think that the Gaels will advance to face Marquette on Thursday, especially considering Hartsock's current knee issues that will slow him down.
12 Cal vs. 12 South Florida - Ugh. South Florida is one of the slowest teams in the tournament, averaging a mere 59 points a game and lacking a double-figure scorer (although seven players average more than 6.5). They will walk the ball up and chew clock, and they will bore you to tears. Coach Stan Heath is a Tom Izzo protege who took Antonio Gates and Kent State to the 2002 Elite 8, eventually landing at USF after failing to return Arkansas to national prominence. About the only excitement they will generate is if forward Victor Rudd Jr. gets out on the break. The Golden Bears are the only at-large team from this year's sad-sack Pac-12 (seriously, Colorado won this league's tournament?), and also have good March coaching experience on their bench, in the form of Mike Montgomery. Cal features Pac-12 Defensive MVP Jorge Gutierrez and three other starters who average double figures in scoring (guard Justin Cobbs and forwards Allen Crabbe and Harper Kamp). They do score a tick over 70 points per game, but without much in the way of perimeter shooters or guys who can create for themselves, they are vulnerable to tough defense. But the turnover-prone Bulls are also an easy target for a strong defense, and I like the Golden Bears to prevail and meet Temple on Friday. For your own sanity, don't watch.
Tomorrow will bring a run-through of the South and West regions, and Wednesday the East and Midwest. Stay tuned!