Now that the Opening Round is behind us and the March Madness has officially set in, it is time to go through each game with a fine-tooth comb to try to tease out a winner. This is always a fool’s errand, so instead of some long and mostly useless set of predictions, I will just be providing them for each day’s games. So, with tip-off less than three hours away, you can use this guide to help make any last minute bracket changes you need, but remember that this is March and nothing is given. Take these picks with a shaker of salt.
SOUTH REGION: (6) Ohio State vs. (11) Dayton
This intrastate rivalry will bring the Big Ten’s Buckeyes and the A-10’s Flyers together in Buffalo for the first matchup of the Round of 64. Dayton was one of the final at-large teams selected for the tournament, finishing with a 10-6 conference record from a league that sent six teams to the Big Dance – the same amount as the powerhouse Big Ten. Ohio State finished fifth in their league, sporting a 10-8 record. Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. highlight a six-man rotation comprised entirely of upperclassmen for OSU. Seniors Devin Oliver and Vee Sanders provide leadership for Dayton, as well as junior leading scorer Jordan Sibert. Dayton outrebounds Ohio State, has more assists per game, and scores more. Ohio State turns the ball over fewer times per outing, and takes it away from their opponent more often than the Flyers do. In the end, the Buckeyes’ defense will be the deciding factor in this game. Though Thad Matta’s crew have been slightly underwhelming, I look for them to move past Dayton and onto the Round of 32.
PREDICTION: (6) Ohio State over (11) Dayton, 77-65
WEST REGION: (2) Wisconsin vs. (15) American
The Badgers of UW had a great February, going 6-1 in the month and losing only to Ohio State on February 1. March has been somewhat trickier for Wisconsin, as they ended an eight-game winning streak in a loss to Nebraska ten days ago. After demolishing Minnesota – dashing all the hopes the Gophers had to be in the field of 68 – Bo Ryan’s club fell to Michigan State. Still, the Badgers earned their #2 seed by virtue of a 16-0 run to start the year, as well as the aforementioned eight-game tear. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker will look to start a new streak against the Eagles of American, who crushed regular season league champs Boston University in the Patriot League final to reach the Tournament. A trip to Milwaukee to face Wisconsin hardly seems like a fitting prize for Jesse Reed, Tony Wroblicky, and the rest of the Eagles. It should be noted that Badgers received a huge advantage for their first two matchups by being sent so close to home. The winner of the Oregon-BYU game will have to overcome this as well, barring a miracle upset from American. I wouldn’t bet on that, though.
PREDICTION: (2) Wisconsin beats (15) American, 84-55
SOUTH REGION: (8) Colorado vs. (9) Pittsburgh
This is an intriguing matchup to see who will get Florida in the second round (more on the Gators below). The Buffaloes raced to a 14-2 start, notching victories over Kansas and Oregon, but lost top player Spencer Dinwiddie in a January 12loss to Washington and were never the same. Colorado went 9-9 in their remaining games, being swept UCLA and Arizona on their way to 23 wins, a 10-8 conference record, and a trip to the Pac-12 semifinals. Pittsburgh had an even hotter start, gliding to an 18-2 mark before their own cold spell, a span in which they lost five of seven. They’ve reversed course again, winning five of their last seven games to finish 25-9. A three-point loss to 1-seed Virginia knocked the Panthers out of the ACC Tournament, but their worst loss of the season was to Florida State. Don’t forget that the Seminoles are a top seed in the NIT. All of Pittsburgh’s other losses came to teams in the NCAA Tournament field. Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna ought to bring their toughness to the table against the Buffs, while Askia Booker and Josh Scott will try to fend Pitt off. I think the Panthers, who are playing better ball at the moment, will have too much for Colorado to handle without Dinwiddie.
PREDICTION: (9) Pittsburgh over (8) Colorado, 77-70
EAST REGION: (5) Cincinnati vs. (12) Harvard
This seems to be one of the more popular upset picks out there this season, with folks eager to jump on the perennial 12-seed upstart. While Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers make for a formidable duo, the Bearcats’ Sean Kilpatrick has the skills to take over the entire game. Justin Jackson has been a huge help for Cincy as well, leading the team in rebounding. The Bearcats don’t have a lot of depth, don’t shoot very well (from anywhere), but they do outrebound the Ivy League champions. This game will likely turn on whether Kilpatrick can turn on the jets and have a solid outing. If he falters, Cincinnati may be in big trouble. The Crimson have six players averaging more than nine points (compared to the Bearcats’ two), and wins over Green Bay and Vermont are nothing to sneeze at, but in the end, I think that Harvard will have trouble adjusting from having played exclusively Ivy League teams since January 11th. There is every indication that it will be close, though.
PREDICTION: (5) Cincinnati over (12) Harvard, 59-54
SOUTH REGION: (3) Syracuse vs. (14) Western Michigan
Jim Boeheim coached his team to a 25-0 start, finally losing at home to the lowly Eagles of Boston College on February 19. After some Tyler Ennis heroics saved Syracuse from defeat in the two games prior to the BC upset, the Orange have run into some trouble, dropping five of seven to end the season. The last loss came to North Carolina State in the ACC quarterfinals, which is one reason why this team who once looked like a dead lock for a #1 seed has fallen to the 3 line. The Broncos from Kalamazoo, MI stayed neck and neck with Toledo all season long, eventually toppling the Rockets to secure the Mid-American’s automatic bid. Led by seniors David Brown and Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan could be a dangerous matchup for the Orange, who are no strangers to early exits. C.J. Fair needs to be on point, as do Ennis and Jerami Grant, because if they stumble out of the blocks, the Broncos could run over them. Look for one more close win for Syracuse. Will Tyler Ennis have to hit another last second shot?
PREDICTION: (3) Syracuse over (14) Western Michigan, 74-73
WEST REGION: (7) Oregon vs. (10) Brigham Young
Leading scorer Joseph Young and transfer Mike Moser have the Ducks positioned to make a little noise in this tournament. The Cougars have the nation’s sixth-leading scorer in Tyler Haws, who has seven 30-point games on the year, including one in the first meeting of Oregon and BYU back in December. Dana Altman’s Ducks waked away winners that day, outlasting the Cougars in a 100-96 overtime game in Eugene. Sophomore Kyle Collinsworth is in the top three in rebounds, assists, and steals in the West Coast Conference. Brigham Young matches up with Oregon very well, and this could be another barnburner like the one from their first matchup. If Haws can find his shooting touch and the Cougars pull down rebounds like they have all season (sixth in the nation at 41.2 per game), then I believe BYU can pull the upset over the Ducks. However, the Ducks have returned to their form from the start of the year, when they jumped out to a 13-0 start. They had won eight straight prior to falling to Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals, but that 19-point margin of victory probably says more about Arizona than Oregon. All of that said, this could be the most exciting game of the first round. I’m feeling an upset here.
PREDICTION: (10) Brigham Young over (7) Oregon, 86-81
SOUTH REGION: (1) Florida vs. (16) Albany
The Gators are the top overall seed in the Big Dance, looking poised to bring home a third national championship for head coach Billy Donovan. Florida hasn’t lost since December 2, a streak of 26 games that includes a perfect 18-0 mark in the SEC and the conference tournament title. Perhaps it is fair to note that the SEC was relatively weak this season, with only Kentucky and Tennessee joining UF in the field – and with the Volunteers featured in the First Four round, there’s a chance that only two SEC teams will make the Round of 64. Speaking of the First Four, D.J. Evans and the Great Danes won the first game of the tournament, holding on against Mount St. Mary’s after squandering a huge lead. Don’t expect that the festivities will continue for Albany, though. The Gators are talented, deep, and consistent. With four seniors in their rotation – Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete – these guys are poised to go deep into the Tournament. This one shouldn’t cause them any issue.
PREDICTION: (1) Florida over (16) Albany, 77-54
EAST REGION: (4) Michigan State vs. (13) Delaware
As of January 21, the Spartans had an 18-1 overall record and had coasted to a 7-0 Big Ten mark. Michigan State lost six of 11 down the stretch, including being swept by Michigan in their first two meetings. Tom Izzo and Co. got the last laugh, however, subduing the Wolverines on Sunday to win the Big Ten Tournament. Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and Branden Dawson lead Sparty, a team with some depth and a penchant for passing the ball (their 17.1 assists per game rank sixth in the nation). The Fightin’ Blue Hens of Delaware survived the Colonial Athletic to reach the Field of 68, edging William & Mary by a point in the CAA final. They have a trio of real scoring threats in Devon Saddler, Davon Usher, and Jarvis Threatt, not to mention that their other two starters average in double figures, too. Threatt is an all-around player, averaging 18.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. While Delaware did play Villanova closely earlier this year, Michigan State seems to be regaining their early form at the right time.
PREDICTION: (4) Michigan State over (13) Delaware, 79-65
EAST REGION: (7) Connecticut vs. (10) Saint Joseph’s
Despite being ineligible for the postseason a year ago, Kevin Ollie took every opportunity to impress last season, securing a contract for the 2014-15 year. His Huskies haven’t lost a step, led by Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, and Ryan Boatright. This is a UConn team that sports three wins over Memphis on its résumé, but also a total of five losses combined to Louisville and Tourney snub Southern Methodist. St. Joe’s, on the other hand, has a few more glaring dings on their body of work. Losses to Philly rivals Temple and LaSalle don’t look great – and the Hawks benefitted from only playing Saint Louis once – but they did beat VCU in both meetings this year. Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts Jr., and Halil Kanacevic provide the motor for St. Joseph’s, a team that has five players averaging upwards of 32 minutes per game. The relative depth of Connecticut could end up being a big factor in this game, but Napier and Boatright have both been streaky (combining to shoot just over 40% from the floor all year). This should be an interesting matchup, but I think UConn pulls away late.
PREDICTION: (7) Connecticut over (10) Saint Joseph’s, 71-61
MIDWEST REGION: (2) Michigan vs. (15) Wofford
Already dealing with the loss of NBAers Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., the Wolverines could have done without losing big man Mitch McGary eight games into the season. However, in his absence, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III have stepped up in big ways. Big Blue is a deep squad this year, with eight players in the rotation averaging over 14 minutes per game. They had a streak of seven straight wins before stumbling against Michigan State on Sunday in the Big Ten Championship. This is a team that sports a few big wins – four total over Michigan State and Ohio State – but also some perplexing losses (Charlotte, anyone?). Wofford, on the other hand, won 13 of 15 to end the year, but lucked out when Western Carolina upset Davidson in the SoCon semis – the same Davidson team that swept Wofford in the regular season. In fact, Karl Cochran and the Terriers have no big wins and got smashed by the quality foes they did face. They dropped four games versus teams from the major conferences by a combined margin of 71 points (17.8 PPG). That won’t get it done against the Wolverines. Even with their handful of losses, Michigan is a very strong team with a lot of experience from last year’s deep run. Look for Stauskas to pick up where he left off last season.
PREDICTION: (2) Michigan over (15) Wofford, 86-64
MIDWEST REGION: (5) Saint Louis vs. (12) North Carolina State
North Carolina State was one of the last teams to make the tournament, but they did not disappoint in their matchup on Tuesday against Xavier, riding T.J. Warren’s 25-point performance to a 74-59 victory in Dayton. Despite questionable losses to Clemson on the road by 17 and Miami (FL) at home by 15, the Wolfpack seem to be playing quality basketball at the moment. Saint Louis, on the other hand, has been faltering of late, dropping four of their last five games, including a home loss to Duquesne and an opening round upset at the hands of St. Bonaventure. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett led the Billikens to a regular season A-10 crown, but that might not be enough to fend off N.C. State. Big man Rob Loe provides extra size for Saint Louis, but NCSU’s Jordan Vandenberg, a 7-foot Aussie, may have enough size of his own to cancel things out. The way the Wolfpack are playing right now, as well as SLU’s rough recent run, it is hard for me to pick anything but the 12-5 upset here.
PREDICTION: (12) North Carolina State over (5) Saint Louis, 74-69
WEST REGION: (5) Oklahoma vs. (12) North Dakota State
In yet another intriguing 5-12 matchup, the Sooners from Norman, OK will meet the Summit League champions, North Dakota State, in the Round of 64. Despite a second-place regular season finish in the Big 12, Oklahoma stumbled a little bit down the stretch, dropping games to West Virginia and Texas Tech in February. Outside of those two games, though, OU has beaten who they should have beaten, with the exception of an overtime loss to Louisiana Tech at home. Tech is a 27-win team, though, so don’t put too much stock in that loss, which came all the way back on December 30. The Bison, led by seniors Taylor Braun, Marshall Bjorklund, and TrayVonn Wright, have every right to be seeded where they are. This team beat Notre Dame in South Bend, as well as two other Tourney teams in Western Michigan and Delaware. Braun is a threat from all over the floor, while the big man Bjorklund could provide the size needed to counter Oklahoma’s frontcourt of Ryan Spangler and Cameron Clark. This game will likely turn on what kind of game Buddy Hield has for the Sooners, who leads Oklahoma’s scoring charge. I think the Sooners escape the Bison, but just barely.
PREDICTION: (5) Oklahoma over (12) North Dakota State, 76-72
EAST REGION: (2) Villanova vs. (15) Milwaukee
The Wildcats of Villanova are 28-4, with a Creighton providing two of the losses. Before the pair of defeats from the Blue Jays, Villanova had lost only to former Big East rival Syracuse, another top seed from this year’s bracket. Unfortunately for Jay Wright and his club, a one-point ouster in their Big East tournament opener is likely what kept the Cats from the 1-line. Going 16-2 in this new Big East is not quite as impressive as it used to be, especially when you consider that Villanova was swept by the only other team in the conference who was a lock for the tournament when March began. Milwaukee did not dominate their conference. In fact, they finished 7-9 in the Horizon League. This is still a 21-win team, though, with a solid starting five led by Jordan Aaron. Depth is going to be the big issue for the Panthers, as Ryan Arcidiacono, James Bell, and Jayvaugh Pinkston will be too much for UWM.
PREDICTION: (2) Villanova over (15) Milwaukee, 83-60
MIDWEST REGION: (7) Texas vs. (10) Arizona State
Neither one of these team is playing their best basketball at the moment, but this should be one heck of a game regardless. The Longhorns have a deep cast, headlined by Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley in the frontcourt. Behind Holmes and Ridley, Texas is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Jordan Bachysnki and the Sun Devils will certainly have their hands full trying to keep the Longhorns from getting too many second chance points. Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall must make up for the rebounding differential with controlled and effective play in the backcourt. Texas lost five of eight to end the year, while ASU dropped their last three and five of seven to wrap things up. This should be an exciting game to see who takes on Michigan in the next round. I see the Longhorns’ size and rebounding as the deciding factor here, with Holmes and Ridley giving Bachynski fits inside.
PREDICTION: (7) Texas over (10) Arizona State, 76-69
MIDWEST REGION: (4) Louisville vs. (13) Manhattan
I’m not sure that anyone can quite explain how Louisville ended up as a 4-seed in this tournament. While there could be worse draws – yes, I’m talking about sharing a pod with Wichita State and Saint Louis – but the Cardinals deserved better for their season. They have a 29-5 record, won 12 of their last 13 to end the season, and have wins over Connecticut and Cincinnati. Perhaps the reason for the fall from grace (remember, these are your defending champions) is that they were swept by Memphis in conference and beaten by North Carolina and Kentucky in the only two true tests of the nonconference schedule. Add in the dismissal of Chane Behanan and the loss of Kevin Ware, and Russ Smith’s Cardinals suddenly look a lot less like the team that cut down the nets a year ago. Manhattan, led by George Beamon (19.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG), has also only lost once since the beginning of February. The Jaspers are a fine team, but they got the short end of the seeding stick on this one. Louisville struggles out of the gate, but coasts to a comfortable win.
PREDICTION: (4) Louisville over (13) Manhattan, 81-68
WEST REGION: (4) San Diego State vs. (13) New Mexico State
The last of Thursday’s games comes out west in Spokane, as the Aztecs and Aggies face off. Xavier Thames has been the catalystfor much of SDSU’s success this season, receiving quiet but consistent support from a long list of contributors, including Winston Shepard and Josh Davis. New Mexico State may actually have the deeper squad, though, with a rotation of no less than seven or eight talented players. Daniel Mullings and Tshilidzi Nephawe will try to pull off the upset of the Mountain West’s regular season champs. San Diego State may become disenchanted with the Land of Enchantment, as the Lobos of UNM outlasted the Aztecs in the Mountain West finals just five days ago. In fact, both the Aggies and SDSU have wins (and losses) against New Mexico this year. While NMSU does have a lot of skill, I think Steve Fisher’s boys will be moving on in this one.
PREDICTION: (4) San Diego State over (13) New Mexico State, 78-71
Well, there you have it, folks. Enjoy today’s games and look back for Friday predictions later!