Rather than do a bracket-by-bracket breakdown that would probably mainly repeat everything else you can find on other websites with contributors who don’t have day jobs, we’re going to try to be somewhat different. To that end please enjoy the following list of the 8 Best First Round games.
First a few notes:
- No 8-9 games need apply. These games almost universally stink every year because they usually feature two mediocre teams from major conferences that probably don’t even belong in the tournament. Yeah, these games are usually tight. Let’s not pretend tight games are always good games, though. Also, definitionally these games are between evenly matched teams so I’m going to work a little harder to find good games than that.
- I’m not including the Dayton-Syracuse game on this list even though I fully expect it to be very close and competitive (see, also, the above note). I also expect the total final score to be below 125. I’ll be watching while curled up in the fetal position on the floor, rocking back and forth, while begging for it to be over. I’m not going to suggest you do the same.
- 16 vs 1 games are also exempt for the exact opposite reason. Someday one of these 16 seeds will win a game and nobody will see it coming. Maybe it’ll be this year. I hope it is, but honestly don’t watch these games if you have a better option.
- I’m also not including the Notre Dame game against whichever undeserving team wins tonight. I don’t feel like I have to justify this.
- Some of the games below may well not end up being competitive. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be fun to watch.
- These games are arranged by when they will be played. I can barely pick one team to win each game. I’m not going to try to accurately rank the top 8 out of 32 (22 eligible) games.
- All times Central.
#4 Duke vs. #13 UNC-Wilmington – West
Time & TV: Thursday, 11 a.m. on CBS
Spread: Duke -10.5
Why it’s One of the Best: This is an in-state rivalry game, at least from UNC-Wilmington’s perspective. You just know all these kids wanted to play at Duke and couldn’t for whatever reason (lack of talent, refusal to petulantly trip opponents) and that winning this game would give them a story to tell for the rest of their lives. Plus it’s not like Duke hasn’t lost one or two of these kinds of games (hello, Belmont). All that being said, you’re also going to enjoy this game because Duke – whatever you may think of them – is a fun team to watch. Ditto Grayson Allen who is actually a pretty impressive player, which makes his spoiled brat routine that occasionally bubbles up all the more baffling. I’m expecting this to be closer than the experts think!
#4 Iowa State vs. #13 Iona – Midwest
Time & TV: Thursday, 1 p.m. on TBS
Spread: Iowa State -8
Why it’s One of the Best: The over/under in this game is 167, the highest number of all of the first round games. The biggest complaint people have about college basketball in general is a lack of shot-making. That should definitely not be a complaint in this game. Add in two of the best players in the tournament in Georges Niang (ISU) and A.J. English (Iona) and you have an eminently watchable game. On top of all of this, Iona has been a very popular upset pick. If this ends up being an Iona buzzer-beater for a 92-91 final it’ll be the best game of the whole tournament.
#5 Baylor vs. #12 Yale – West
Time & TV: Thursday, 1:45 p.m. on CBS
Spread: Baylor -5
Why it’s One of the Best: A lot of smart people are picking Yale to knock off Baylor in this one both because Yale had to basically walk across the street to show up (a wildly overrated factor) but Baylor is unlike any team Yale has had to play this year in terms of size and strength even if they’re probably inferior to a lot of teams Yale has played in terms of offensive talent. Regardless, there’s usually one 12 seed that advances and it seems like the GroupThink has determined it’s this one. Worth keeping an eye on.
#6 Arizona vs. #11 Wichita State – South
Time & TV: Thursday, 8:20 p.m. on TNT
Why it’s One of the Best: If you’re in to the KenPom rankings, and the committee certainly is, then this is the game for you in the first round. Wichita State comes in as the #9 (!) team in the rankings and Arizona comes in at #16, indicating that both of these teams were handed two of the more raw deals in terms of seeding. Both teams did have significant injury issues all season that are mostly resolved, suggesting they both may actually be significantly better now than their respective records indicate. Sadly, someone’s got to lose this game.
#6 Seton Hall vs. #11 Gonzaga – Midwest
Time & TV: Thursday, 8:57 p.m. on TruTV
Why it’s One of the Best: Two very talented teams coming in riding hot streaks capped by conference tournament titles. Gonzaga relies almost exclusively on their versatile frontcourt led by Domantas Sabonis and assisted ably by flex “big” Kyle Wiltjer. Seton Hall will counter with the hottest player in the country not named “Buddy” in Isaiah Whitehead, who is a must-watch at this point all by himself. An awful lot of talking heads are taking Seton Hall in this game because they’re paying more attention to the last week than the rest of the season and then making exactly the opposite mistake by discounting Gonzaga’s recent hot streak of its own. Vegas sees through that nonsense and…doesn’t know which team to favor. Neither do I. Should be fun.
#4 California vs. #13 Hawaii – South
Time & TV: Friday, 1 p.m. on TBS
Spread: Cal -7
Why it’s One of the Best: Hawaii has showed up all year against other teams in the tournament. They only lost by 8 at Texas Tech, only lost by 3 (!) to Oklahoma, and beat Northern Iowa by 16 (!) which is somewhat understandable given just how strange UNI is. They also lost to Long Beach State twice. Cal has some very serious sounding sexual harassment allegations swirling around the program, which can’t help, but they’ve been a strong team all year. They were floating under the radar for much of the year thanks to a 3-game road losing streak in conference play, but they finished strong and boast some of the best talent of any team in the tournament. If that talent is clicking, this team is frightening. If it’s not and they are looking ahead to the NBA at all (see Vandy’s performance last night) this could be Cal’s only game in the tournament. This one has a chance to be very fun.
#3 West Virginia vs. #14 Stephen F. Austin – East
Time & TV: Friday, 6:10 p.m. on CBS
Spread: WVU -7.5
Why it’s One of the Best: Nate already addressed the upset potential here. I can’t do better. I’m not in agreement at all with Stone Cold winning this game, but Nate thinks it’ll be a good game and he’s been a whole lot better at picking games than I have.
#6 Texas vs. #11 Northern Iowa – West
Time & TV: Friday, 8:50 p.m. on TBS
Spread: Texas -4.5
Why it’s One of the Best: Northern Iowa is the biggest wild card in the country much less this tournament. They might win this game by 20. They might fail to score 45 points. No matter what, it’ll be strange. Texas is typically a fun team to watch because of Shaka’s extremely active defense even if they’re frequently a barrel of struggles on offense when they’re not in transition. I’m betting on the stars aligning with both teams bringing their “A” games and this turning into an enormously entertaining back-and-forth game. If they don’t, this could be an unwatchable rock fight.