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Let it begin, 68 teams and 36 games ...
Mount St. Maryâ€™s vs. New Orleans:Â The Mountaineers started the season 1-11, and their second leading scorer is Junior Robinson, whoâ€™s 5-foot-5 in his shoes. Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped out the New Orleans program. School officials announced they were dropping from Division I six years ago, then changed their minds. The Privateers lost 20 games last season, were picked to finish ninth in the Southland, and their coach, Mark Slessinger has been known to dress up in a crustacean costume for the annual Crawfish Mambo. Really, can you think of a better way to start the tournament?
Kansas State vs. Wake Forest:Â Kansas State survived a 2-8 spin into the wall at midseason. Wake Forest trailed Pittsburgh by 19, Louisville by 14 and Virginia Tech by 13, and won all three, at a time late in the season it couldnâ€™t afford to lose any. Maybe itâ€™s the Arnold Palmer patches the Demon Deacons are wearing to honor their late alum, because that was sinking a lot of long putts.
North Carolina Central vs. UC Davis:Â You think the North Carolina Tar Heels are close to Duke? North Carolina Central is just 2 Â½ miles down the road from Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Eagles get a wee bit less notoriety than their neighbors, but coach LeVelle Moton is still NCCU's all-time leader in 3-pointers, so we're thinking he can outshoot Mike Krzyzewski. Not to mention his players, who are 224th in the nation in 3-point percentage. UC Davis is ranked No. 1 (in veterinary medicine). The Aggies got here by beating UC Irvine 50-47 in the Big West title game. Seven days earlier, they had lost to the same team 79-49.
Providence vs. USC:Â Providence was ninth in the Big East preseason poll, which is not too encouraging in a 10-team league. Six consecutive wins at the end did wonders. USCâ€™s 14-0 start was its best in 46 years. Then the Trojans went 10-9 the rest of the way.
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FIRST ROUND EAST
Villanova vs. Mount St. Maryâ€™s-New Orleans winner:Â Might as well get the annual update out of the way. No. 16 seeds are now 0-128 against No. 1s. Any danger to the Wildcats' title defense seems minimal in this one. They ended No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday, but this might not be the best time for that sort of thing. Only two top-ranked teams have ended up national champions in the past 21 years.
Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech:Â If the Hokies donâ€™t get the Badgers in the first 40 minutes, they might not get them at all. Wisconsin has won eight overtime games in a row, seven of them on the road. The problem for the Badgers has not been overtime, but shooting. As in, lots of nights, they just canâ€™t do it, and Virginia Tech knows defense. Curious thing about the Hokiesâ€™ stat sheet. The two leading scorers, Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, have started only five games each.
Virginia vs. UNC Wilmington:Â UNC Wilmington scores 85 points a game. Virginia usually gives up that much in a week. But the Cavaliers are no doubt aware that the Seahawks played Duke to within eight points last March, and have won 18 of their last 21. It would not be good for Virginia to have one of its clanking shooting days. This is the team that in February scored 55, 41 and 48 for its lowest three-game output since 1951.
Florida vs. East Tennessee State:Â With four senior starters and winners of 13 of its last 15, and T.J. Cromer 40-plus percent from the 3-point line and 80-plus percent from the free-throw line, East Tennessee State is dangerous. It could be worse for Florida. Could be Vanderbilt. The Gators went 0-3 this season against Vandy, 14-2 against everybody else in the SEC.
SMU vs. Providence-USC winner:Â The Mustangs donâ€™t get much buzz, considering they're 30-4. Nor have they been recognized for another lofty achievement; ending up fourth on the list of what menâ€™s teams were doing while the UConn women were busy winning 100 consecutive games. SMU went 72-14 in that time, behind only Villanova, Gonzaga and Kentucky.
Baylor vs. New Mexico State:Â Baylor has won 11 games this season after trailing in the second half, so the Bears are not prone to panic. Maybe thatâ€™s what happens when all five starters are in their fourth or fifth years. New Mexico State has 28 victories. Last time the Aggies had that many was 1970, and they ended up in the Final Four.
South Carolina vs. Marquette:Â South Carolinaâ€™s Sindarius Thornwell once scored 44 points with 21 rebounds against Alabama. You might not be surprised to learn that earned him SEC Player of the Week. And probably helped earn him the conference's Player of the Year, for the matter. Marquetteâ€™s Katin Reinhardt will become only the second man to ever play for three different schools in the NCAA tournament. He's already been there with USC and UNLV. This is his last chance to actually win a game.
Duke vs. Troy:Â From No. 1 ranking in the nation to No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils have taken the scenic route to March. Ten different lineups were used to get here, but the results have improved. And so has Krzyzewskiâ€™s back. One of Troyâ€™s top players is Wesley Person, whose father Wesley and uncle Chuck played in the NBA.
FIRST ROUND WEST
Gonzaga vs. South Dakota State:Â This just in from the history department. Five teams have previously started 29-0, like the Zags did this season. Four went to the Final Four. If that doesnâ€™t inspire confidence in Gonzaga, maybe this will: The Zags have been behind in the second half three times all year. Do we throw a blanket over South Dakota State now? Well, Mike Daum is the nationâ€™s second leading scorer and went off for 51 points one night, and the Jackrabbits showed up in this tournament last year and lost to Maryland by only five points. So, no blanket yet.
Northwestern at Vanderbilt:Â Ah yes, the day Northwestern waited 78 years for. Maybe the Wildcats and Vandy can exchange stories on what itâ€™s like to be the small fry in conferences of mega-schools. Northwestern has 23 wins, but lost seven of its last 12. Vanderbilt has 15 losses, but won seven of its last nine.
Notre Dame at Princeton:Â The Ivy League has produced five NCAA tournament upsets in seven years, and hereâ€™s Princeton with a 19-game winning streak. If coach Mitch Henderson wants to have anyone give a pep talk to his Tigers with stories about Princetonâ€™s past tournament heroics, he can always call on ... well, himself. He was a guard the night Princeton knocked out UCLA in 1996. The Irish might need that nationâ€™s-best 79.9 free-throw percentage.
West Virginia vs. Bucknell:Â Bob Huggins no doubt will give his Mountaineers a history lesson this week. How Bucknell once beat Kansas in this tournament, and Arkansas, and Arizona in the NIT. The Bison are the proverbial hard out. But then, so are these Mountaineers, whose eight defeats were by an average of 4.4 points. Itâ€™s the first time since 1961 West Virginia had no losses by double-digits.
Maryland vs. Xavier:Â Has Xavier cured the post-Edmond Sumner injury blues? The Musketeers lost their point guard and promptly dropped six in a row. Things have been looking up lately, which might be trouble for Maryland. Melo Trimble & Co. have dropped four of their past six. The problem is usually not with the Trimble part, but the & Co. part. Still, the Terrapins have won 12 consecutive first-round games.
Florida State vs. Florida Gulf Coast:Â Committee: really? In Orlando? You guys just having some fun? The Seminoles beat five ACC ranked opponents in 22 days, but occasionally have had wobbles. The Eagles have 157 dunks. Their famous predecessors, who came to be known as lovable Dunk City in the Sweet 16 march of 2013, had 148. These two have met only once before, in the 2014 NIT, with Florida State a 58-53 winner.
Saint Maryâ€™s vs. VCU:Â Saint Maryâ€™s is in the top 10 in the nation in seven important categories; scoring defense, rebound margin, assist-turnover ratio, 3-point defense, scoring margin, shooting and lousy timing, being so good in the West Coast Conference in the Year of Gonzaga. They also are one of the few teams that used one starting lineup all season. The Rams needed some timely whistles to build their resume. They won one game his season when St Bonaventure was hit with a last-second technical for premature celebration, and another when a foul was called on George Washington on an inbounds play with 0.4 seconds left.
Arizona vs. North Dakota:Â Arizona is 9-1 since Allonzo Trier got in the starting lineup. The Wildcatsâ€™ four losses this season came against Gonzaga, Butler, UCLA and Oregon â€“ combined record of 113-18. North Dakota could not be called the hotbed of basketball recruiting â€“ or hot in anything else during the winter â€“ so itâ€™s probably no shocker that nobody from North Dakota is on the roster.
Kansas vs. North Carolina Central/UC Davis winner:Â During Kansasâ€™ glorious 13-year run as Big 12 champions, the Jayhawks have been ousted by a 14th, 13th, 11th, 10th and 9th seed. They won the Big 12 again this season -- just like the sun rose in the east in Lawrence this morning -- but 10 of their league wins were by six points or less. That shows a lot of will. And it might show some vulnerability. Pick them for a long ride if you will -- itâ€™s certainly reasonable with Frank Mason III on the floor -- but youâ€™ve been warned.
Miami vs. Michigan State:Â Miami made it here with only nine scholarship players and lots of defense, holding North Carolina to 62, Duke to 50 and Virginia to 48. It hasnâ€™t always been pretty with the young, 14-loss Spartans. Tom Izzo, who has his PhD in March, has been trying to make them understand this is not the time for mistakes. â€œEvery player in America says, `My bad,â€™â€™â€™ he said. â€œYou say `my badâ€™ in this tournament, youâ€™re usually going home.â€ The Michigan State players must have said â€œmy badâ€ a lot last March against Middle Tennessee.
Iowa State vs. Nevada:Â Iowa State just blew through the Big 12 Tournament, has won nine of 10 and is led by a point guard, Monte Morris, whose assist-turnover ratio is a lap ahead of anyone else in the country. But the Cyclones can never sleep against Nevada, who pulled off the comeback of the year against New Mexico, roaring from 18 points behind with five minutes left to win in overtime, hitting seven 3-pointers in the last 1:48 of regulation. Eric Mussleman is the Wolfpack coach. He once coached the Golden State Warriors, before the Warriors were cool.
RELATED: Interactive March Madness bracket
Purdue vs. Vermont: The ghosts of Marches past peer over the Boilermakersâ€™ shoulders. Little Rock last season, when they led by 13 with 3 Â½ minutes to go. Cincinnati in 2015, when they were up by seven with 48.5 seconds left. Both overtime losses. Purdue hasnâ€™t won an NCAA tournament game since 2012. With the double-double machine that is Caleb Swanigan, the dry spell should end, youâ€™d think. But would now be a good time to mention Vermont has won 21 in a row? Before John Becker made the Catamounts an America East power, he coached basketball and tennis at Gallaudet, the nationâ€™s top school for the deaf.
Creighton vs. Rhode Island:Â Creighton was building Final Four contender steam before its adoring home audience -- fifth in the nation in average attendance -- until guard Maurice Watson Jr.â€™s season was lost. The Bluejays are 8-7 since. Rhode Island charged off the bubble to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, getting here for the first time in 18 years. Letâ€™s see what happens when Creighton 7-foot freshman Justin Patton. second in the nation with a 69.4 field-goal percentage, ventures inside against Rhode Islandâ€™s Hassan Martin, who might be a mere 6-foot-7 but has led the league in blocked shots four years running.
Oregon vs. Iona:Â It's never good news when the tournament is starting and everyone is talking about who you don't have. In the Ducks' case, that's main shot-blocker Chris Boucher, out with an ACL injury. Dillon Brooks, the guy who won two games with buzzer-beater 3-pointers is still around, though. Oregon won the first national championship in 1939, and hasnâ€™t been back to the Final Four since. Jordan Washington is Ionaâ€™s leading scorer but is sixth in time on the floor. Heâ€™s scoring his 17.9 points in 21.6 minutes a game.
Michigan vs. Oklahoma State:Â One minute your airplane is skidding off the tarmac. The next, youâ€™re Big Ten Tournament champions, with four wins in four days. â€œTeam of destiny,â€ is the phrase you might be searching for. Besides being quick out the emergency exit, the Wolverines also lead the nation in fewest turnovers. Oklahoma State went from 0-6 in the Big 12 to turning up the defense and getting a a tournament bid, but comes in on a three-game losing streak. The Cowboysâ€™ Phil Forte III has taken 85 free throws this season and missed four of them. Hence, the nation-leading 95.3 percentage.
Louisville vs. Jacksonville State:Â Louisville beat champions from four different conferences during the season, usually with a lot of defense. That list of victims, as every person with a drop of Cardinal blood knows, included Kentucky. Minus last seasonâ€™s self-imposed tournament ban, know the last time Louisville didnâ€™t get to the Sweet 16? Try 2011. And now the Cardinals aim to rain on the Cinderella parade of Jacksonville State, which is in Alabama, not the northeast corner of Florida. The Gamecocks were picked to finish 12th in the Ohio Valley Conference and went from 8-23 to 20-14 in one year.
FIRST ROUND SOUTH
North Carolina vs. Texas Southern:Â OK Tar Heels, time to start doing something about deleting the Kris Jenkinsâ€™ shot from the memory banks. Theyâ€™ve broken 90 points 15 times and do a lot of damage from the outside with Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, the first time in 26 years two perimeter-oriented players led North Carolina in scoring. Texas Southernâ€™s schedule included trips to Arizona, Baylor, Cincinnati and Louisville. The record sagged, with eight consecutive losses, but the budget did great with all the guarantees. And the Tigers recovered to win 19 of their last 21. It was 15 years ago that Texas Southernâ€™s Mike Davis coached post-Bob Knight Indiana to the national championship game.
Arkansas vs. Seton Hall:Â Remember Arkansasâ€™ â€œ40 minutes of hellâ€ when Nolan Richardson was coach? Well, amend that to 20. The Razorbacks have been outscored by six points in the first this season, but outscored their opponents by 203 in the second. Seton Hallâ€™s Angel Delgado gulps down more rebounds a game â€“ 13.1 â€“ than anyone in the country, and matched Swanigan with 26 double-doubles. The Pirates went from losing to Villanova by 32 and 22 during the season to being edged by two in the Big East tournament.
Minnesota vs. Middle Tennessee:Â In one year, the Gophers zoomed from 8-23 to 24-9 for the nationâ€™s biggest turnaround, and have openly rallied around the we-get-no-respect campfire. They'll probably get plenty of fuel for their fire when Middle Tennessee â€“ winner of 20 of 21, conqueror of Michigan State last March, and possibly woefully under-seeded at No. 12 â€“ becomes one of the most popular upset picks of the bracket.
Butler vs. Winthrop:Â This tells you all you need to know about Butler's Bulldogs. They are responsible for 66.7 percent of Villanovaâ€™s losses. They swept the Wildcats; thatâ€™s like sweeping the Roman army. But they also lost six Big East games, and their opener in the league tournament, so they can be had. Winthrop is the little guy in this match, and thatâ€™s meant literally, since the Eaglesâ€™ big scorer, at 22.5 points a game, is 5-foot-7 Keon Johnson.
Cincinnati vs. Kansas/Wake Forest winner:Â Want to see 12 states from one place? Just look at the Cincinnati roster. Mick Cronin roams to bring in Bearcats, and it must work. This is their seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. That 29-5 record, including a 15-game winning streak and a victory over Iowa State, has been one of the nationâ€™s quietest.
UCLA vs. Kent State:Â Oh, can the Bruins do things with the basketball. Six players average in double figures, and then thereâ€™s the 90 points and 21.5 assists a game, and the 52 percent shooting, all tops in the nation. But the other team gets the ball sometimes, too, and thatâ€™s when the trouble can start. The Bruins coughed up an average of 89 points in their four defeats. Speaking of scoring, Kent State came from 17 points behind to beat Central Michigan 116-106 in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Then the Flashes went through the top three seeds in the league, winning by an average of 3.3 points a game. A plucky bunch, and theyâ€™ll need to be when the UCLA attack comes at them.
Dayton vs. Wichita State:Â The Flyers start four seniors, are adept at winning close games -- 34-14 the last four seasons in contests decided by five points or under -- and have the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in Archie Miller, who will be rumored to be in line to fill the vacancy at (fill in the blank with a bigger fish). And now they must share the stage with the most controversial seeding in the tournament, No. 10 Wichita State, with its 30-4 record, its 21 wins in 22 games, and its 19.4 average victory margin, second only to Gonzaga. The Shockers didnâ€™t play a lot of highly regarded teams. That changes now.
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky:Â They are separated by 69 miles on a map but a couple of light years in basketball stature. This will be the first NCAA tournament for the Norse. This will be the Wildcatsâ€™ 174th. This is Northern Kentuckyâ€™s first season to even be eligible for the tournament, so while Northwestern waited 78 years, the Norse waited one. But what to do about Malik Monk and all the other of John Calipariâ€™s gifted youngsters, who have had to rally from double-digit deficits in four of the past six games? Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen will think of something. He was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
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