NCAA Championship Tournament Preview
The madness officially gets underway on Thursday with four games at the KeyBank Center
The NCAA Tournament has returned to KeyBank Center once again for the first and second rounds.
What matchup will provide the best drama? That is always the first question I ask when dissecting the field of 68 following Selection Sunday. If history is any indication, we are in for another wild ride of upsets and buzzer beaters.
Buffalo has never really been cheated in the five previous times that the NCAA Tournament has come to town. We were spoiled when upset-minded Pepperdine throttled the Indiana in what would turn out to be Bob Knight’s last game as the Hoosiers’ head coach. Four years later the eventual national champions would begin their run at HSBC Arena. The UConn Huskies rolled through town, while St. Joseph’s narrowly escaped downtown with a pair of wins as they tried to remain undefeated.
Three years later VCU stunned Duke and turned the majority inside of the arena its Rams fans for one night. It marked just the third time in Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure that the Blue Devils failed to make it out of the opening round of March Madness. Syracuse provided the theatrics in 2010 as many from Central New York made the two-and-a-half hour ride down the 90 to watch the Orange dispatch Vermont and Gonzaga. But four years later it was Dayton that stole the show, upsetting Ohio State in the second round, while dumping the Orange two days later as an eleven seed.
The dance’s first round officially gets underway when Notre Dame and Princeton tip-off in a classic 5 vs. 12 seed matchup. Mike Brey’s team rattled off eleven straight wins to start the season, before losing to Villanova in December. The Fighting Irish made it to the ACC Championship against Duke, while Princeton capped off a perfect 14-0 Ivy League conference schedule by winning the league’s first-ever tournament. They also boast the best current winning streak of the season with 19 straight wins. The tournament selection committee knows what they are doing, and I expect this game to set the tone for the rest of the tournament’s first day.
Whoever advances Thursday afternoon should be ready for the up tempo, in your face style that West Virginia brings out of the Big XII. The Mountaineers like to press and force their opponents go the length of the court to earn their points. Bucknell will have the first chance to knock off WVU in the 4-13 matchup in the West Region. The Bison earned the automatic bid out of the Patriot League after winning both the regular season and league tournament championships.
After winning last year’s thrilling National Championship, the spotlight and pressure will be on Villanova. Jay Wright’s club didn’t get the easiest of regions either. I like Wisconsin to beat Virginia Tech and if Nova would have to play one of the best fundamental and defensive teams in round two, there is a chance getting out of Buffalo may be a bigger challenge than what most top-overall seeds have to do in other seasons. I still think the Wildcats will be on to the Sweet 16, but if Wisconsin wins over Virginia Tech, I can bet than the Badgers will give them all they can handle trying to slow down Villanova’s thoughts on playing an up-tempo game.
Beyond the Buffalo games, a meeting that all would love is a Villanova-Duke meeting in the East regional final. I think Duke is playing as good as anyone in the country, and in my opinion, the best of all the 2-seeds. I think the committee did Villanova no favors here either.
Team to Watch
Michigan is such an interesting team to watch this tournament. If you haven’t heard the scary story about their team plane before the Big 10 tournament, it’s worth reading about.
Luckily coach John Beilein’s team or any of the 109 passengers and seven crew members aboard the aircraft suffered serious injuries, but a few people suffered bumps and bruises. One Michigan player, Derrick Walton Jr., required stitches, but the incident didn't slow him or the rest of the team down, as they upset top-seed Purdue and went on to beat Minnesota and Wisconsin and win the Big 10 tourney. Walton, Jr, received the Most Outstanding Player award for the Big 10 Tournament. They come in playing hot and are super fun to watch with their up-tempo style and desire to shoot the 3-ball. The Wolverines are a 7-seed in the loaded Midwest region and have their hands full. Oklahoma State in round one will be a test and if they advance, Louisville likely awaits. Getting to the second week of the tournament looks tough, but their story will get more and more attention as long as they keep winning.
Gonzaga is the most interesting team to me in the field of 68. Mark Few has turned the Jesuit college in Spokane, WA into a national college basketball brand since taking over the program in 1999. In fact, they have made the NCAA Tournament every season out of the West Coast Conference. However, they have never made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Much like the stigma that Jay Wright carried around as a coach that could not win “ the big one,” the ‘Zags every year find themselves dealing with the whispers that they cannot take the next step and make a Final Four. I think this is the year the Bulldogs finally break through. It won’t be easy, none of the four regions are, but I think the road to Phoenix could be worse. I am looking forward to a Gonzaga-Arizona Elite Eight meeting in San Jose almost as much as I want to see Villanova-Duke like Brian.
Buffalo Game Predictions