On Thursday and Friday I’ll be punching holes in my wall because I picked every 8/9 game wrong. I’ll get a text from some friend telling me how badly I gauged a particular 7/10 matchup. I’ll nail a couple upsets and all the 1s and 2s, but it’s the 7/8/9/10 lines that keep me up at night. They shouldn’t, but I like to think of those opening round games as the 10th grade vocabulary quiz.
You forgot about the quiz. Dammit, you forgot about the quiz. AGAIN. The teacher walks around, handing out the assessment on chapter 7 from your vocabulary workshop book. You hate yourself because in the shower last night, you remembered that before going to bed, you had to look at your vocab book because you had that quiz first period the next day. Alas, post-shower was spent lying on your bed watching Scotty Reynolds highlights, and the quiz slipped through the cracks. You get a 0, and wonder why you even try in life. You contemplate dropping out and getting a job at your local grocery store. You consider just chalking up the entire day as an L and going home. This feeling only lasts about 8 minutes and by the time 2nd period is halfway over, you forget that the failed vocab quiz even happened. At the end of the semester, you look and see that that “0/10” on that quiz was worth .006% of your semester grade. You get a 94 for the class and enjoy your summer.
The 8/9 and 7/10 games are the vocab quiz. They mean nothing.
This is the hardest thing to remember while filling out and rooting for a bracket. The Round of 64, as a whole, is largely meaningless in most bracket pools. Unless you’re operating on some scoring system from Jupiter, it’s really just important to nail the Sweet 16 and beyond. That’s where the bread is buttered and the bracket is consecrated.
All that being said, the first round is a sporting spectacle, and here are the five first round games I have my eye on.
5) (8) Miami vs. (9) Michigan State
Neither one of these teams has a prayer at beating Kansas. It’s not happening. But, this is definitely one of those games where if you pick the wrong side, you’ll spend the next 15 minutes banging your head against the wall.
Sparty has been an enigma all year. The biggest thing that stood out when I saw them lose to Penn State a few months ago at the Palestra is that their guard play is subpar, at best. I love Tum Tum Nairn as much as the next guy, but as a unit, they’re really underwhelming, especially for an Izzo team. I think the Miami backcourt dominates the pace. Expect a big game from Ja’Quan Newton.
Intriguing because Bridges could elevate his game and keep Michigan State in the game, or disappear and turn toward the NBA while the Canes run away with it.
4) (4) Purdue vs. (13) Vermont
I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve been watching Vermont play all year and I have season tickets and I actually played with their point guard back when he played in high school and I met their coach one time and an AAU event and blah blah blah. I know nothing about Vermont other than they didn’t lose in conference play and I watched them sneak past Albany in the American East Final on Saturday morning.
But, I will tell you that I’m picking them to beat Purdue. I love Swanigan. Amazing story, amazing player, and he’s really put the Boilermakers on his back all year. But, as much as I love Biggie, I hate literally everyone else on their team.
No one is really picking Vermont. I think it’s because they expect Biggie to go for 30/20 and Haas to grab another 15 boards. And, I can’t say that Vermont has anyone on the roster who can even come close to matching Biggie inside. But, it feels like the Yale/Baylor first round matchup from last year where most people thought Baylor could just totally overwhelm Yale with their size, but Yale came out with a classic “nothing to lose” attitude and stunned the Bears. I see something along those lines happening here. Biggie presses, Purdue gets cold from three, and Vermont beats Purdue.
Intriguing because Swanigan could absolutely overwhelm Vermont, or press and crumble under expectations once again.
3) (5) Virginia vs (12) UNC Wilmington
UNCW is mostly just a collection of combo guards who are simultaneously freakishly athletic and helplessly undisciplined. They can score a hell of a lot of points because they’re a matchup problem for anyone in the country. But, for as athletic as they are, they don’t really defend too well. According to Kenpom, UNCW ranks 18th in offensive efficiency, but 189th in defensive. They play in a whole lot of shootouts.
Virginia, is, well, exactly the opposite. They hate scoring, love defending, and ooze discipline. It’s a Tony Bennett staple. Watching Virginia is similar to viewing grass as it grows, or paint as it slowly hardens on the desired surface.
Intriguing because there are two totally opposite styles and who knows which one dominates the pace.
2) (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) South Dakota State
Gonzaga is really good. I’ve made that known. They won’t lose this game.
But, SDSU has Mike Daum. He’s 2nd in Division I in scoring at 25.3 points per game only to the human cannonball himself, Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene. I don’t really have the stats to back this up, but I’m pretty sure 16 seeds don’t usually have those sort of dudes. Daum is a stretch 4 (I’m speaking only from the one game I watched him play this year), and Gonzaga should be able to handle him, because they have two dynamic stretch fours themselves in Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins.
But, the last time Gonzaga grabbed a one seed in 2013, they struggled mightily in the first round with sixteenth-seeded Southern. I saw them grapple with lowly Pacific in the WCC quarterfinals – they won by 30+, but the first half was back and forth. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Jack Rabbits hang in, led by Daum, and make it a game in the first half. Gonzaga will win, but I’m interested to see how.
Intriguing because Daum could play with a “nothing to lose” attitude and shoot SDSU to an early lead.
1) (7) Michigan vs (10) Oklahoma State
It goes down at 12:15 on Friday afternoon. Skip work. Call a babysitter. Well, it’s a school day I guess so your kids will probably be there. Whatever you do, don’t miss this game.
Michigan is coming off a plane crash, four wins, and a Big Ten Championship. Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 quarters.
Michigan ranks 5th in offensive efficiency on Kenpom, Oklahoma State ranks first. Jawun Evans vs. Derrick Walton. There. Will. Be. Buckets.
Intriguing because Jawun Evans could take over, put the Cowboys on his back, and outscore Michigan for the chance to play Louisville. Or, Michigan builds off their Big Ten Tournament run, neutralizes Evans, and runs past a suspect Cowboy defense.