With apologies to the First Four combatants, the Tournament begins TODAY. And, as if the tourney NEEDED any extra oomph to get it going, the schedule makers are tipping things off with one of the biggest marquee brands in all of the sport with Duke taking on UNC Wilmington. I know Duke has gotten picked off early a few times recently (they’ve also won two national titles recently) but I don’t think this is the year. With the exception of Iona, this year’s crop of 13-16’s are weaker than normal thanks to all the massive conference tourney upsets that sent San Diego State, Monmouth, Valpo, Hofstra and a few other potentially meddlesome 13’s to the NIT. Also, if those guys got in, you slide down Little Rock, Yale, Chattanooga and South Dakota State a seed line and the first day gets real nervy for a lot of big conference giants.
But alas, someone, somewhere we least expect it WILL fall over the next two days despite all the metrics and logic that make it unlikely. The big question is, can we be there to profit from the Madness?
Let’s dive in with my TWO FAVORITE PLAYS on the board for the opening afternoon of the Tournament.
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Today’s Free Picks:
#9 UConn Huskies -3 vs. #8 Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffs are 140th in the country in offensive efficiency and were the only at large team in the field with a negative per possession point differential. I get that the committee liked the Pac 12, a lot, but this is one of the weaker teams in the draw that no one has seemed to notice. Colorado has a few good wins, splitting with Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, and Arizona. But every big time non-conference game was a loss; SMU and Iowa State and they were swept by Utah.
It’s just not a real impressive team.
Meanwhile, UConn enters with great momentum having won the AAC Tournament (in miraculous fashion in the quarterfinal 4OT thriller). They have wins over Cincinnati, Tulsa, SMU, Michigan and Texas and seem to be a team peaking at a good time. I think they journey ends with Kansas, but I also think they’ll make relatively easy work of Colorado.
I’ll lay the three and take the better team who is playing better basketball.
#13 Iona Gaels vs. #4 Iowa State Cyclones -8
We’ve seen Iowa State take early exits several times in recent memory, highlighted by last year’s first year flame out despite a #3 seed. The biggest problem is they just don’t defend very well. This game today will be a track meet, as evidenced by the huge 167 over/under. It will also be a nice chance for many people to see AJ English play for the first time. The Iona star can flat-out score and is a legit NBA prospect. I have already nominated him to be this year’s RJ Hunter, and I imagine Iowa State’s defense will allow plenty of opportunities to shine.
Iowa State has a staggering 11 losses, and not all are to elite Big Twelve teams. Losing at Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Baylor – all excusable. Losses to Northern Iowa and Texas Tech indicate a close game today could be possible.
Iowa State’s losses are ALL against tourney teams, which is impressive, and they have good wins as well; Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Iowa, Colorado, Texas Tech. They also have a propensity to play close games. Only one of their marquee wins or losses was by more than eight points, a ten point loss at Texas A&M.
Iona doesn’t have the total firepower to beat Iowa State in a seven game series, but they don’t have to. They just have to shoot it well one afternoon.
I’ll bank on AJ English having a big day with some lax defense and quick tempo and for Iowa State’s propensity to keep games close to keep the Gaels in covering range.