Six games to March Madness glory

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There were complaints. There always are. 

But the grievances were relatively few, and the selection committee mostly got this year’s NCAA Tournament field right. This tournament looks ripe for chaos in the first two rounds to be replaced by calm in the Sweet 16 and beyond. 

Like upsets? Who doesn’t? There are plenty of prospective bracket killers on Thursday and Friday. 

Liberty, which had wins over UCLA and Sun Belt champion Georgia State, takes on Mississippi State in an ever-popular 5-12 matchup in the East Region on Friday in Jacksonville. Ja Morant and the 12th-seeded Murray State Racers face fellow soon-to-be NBA player Markus Howard and Marquette on Thursday in the West Region. 

In the South, the 5-12 game between Wisconsin and Oregon is close to even on the odds board, and Kansas State, the 4-seed, and No. 6 Villanova face tricky first-round games with 30-win UC Irvine and West Coast Conference Tournament champ Saint Mary’s, respectively. 

The Midwest might be the toughest region. Auburn comes in hot after its SEC title but faces a deep and athletic New Mexico State on Thursday in Salt Lake City. The leading contender for belle of this ball is Wofford. But the seventh-seeded Terriers, winners of 21 straight games, aren’t underdogs in their Thursday meeting with Seton Hall. 

Buffalo is back and better than the Bulls team that routed Arizona in the tournament a year ago. The Bulls, 31-3, will face the winner of Arizona State and St. John’s, the last team selected for the field. The Sun Devils and Red Storm play in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. 

The other First Four matchup of 11-seeds features Belmont and Temple. Either the Bruins or Owls would have a legitimate shot at making it through the weekend. 

Nevada is seeded seventh in the West after losing in the Mountain West Conference semifinals. But after returning the key pieces of last season’s Sweet 16 team and beginning the season in the Top 10, the Wolf Pack won’t sneak up on anyone if it survives Thursday’s game against Florida in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Want to go farther out on a limb? 

How about Yale over LSU? The Bulldogs, No. 14 in the East, have experience and can score. Vermont, the 13 seed in the West, is athletic and physical, which the Catamounts would need to be to take down No. 4 Florida State. The Catamounts’ best player, 6-foot-6 junior Anthony Lamb, is averaging better than 21 points per game. 

And what about No. 14 Georgia State over Houston in the Midwest? Head coach Ron Hunter led the Panthers to a win over Baylor as a 14 seed in 2015. The bracket picker who loves madness has plenty of options. But once the Sweet 16 arrives, look for order to be restored. 

The four No. 1 seeds — Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Gonzaga — are the only teams with single-digit odds to win it all. Throw in the No. 2’s — Michigan State, Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan — and it seems much more than likely the eventual national champion will come from this octet. 

Houston, Kansas and Auburn, the 3-5 seeds in the loaded Midwest, will have some adherents. Texas Tech, No. 3 in the West, has the nation’s best defense and an offense that has improved markedly over the past month. And Villanova, seeded sixth in the South despite winning the Big East regular-season and tournament crowns, could prove a tough out if the long-range-shooting-dependent Wildcats can make enough 3-pointers against a Saint Mary’s team that excels at forcing its opponents off the arc. 

A team seeded fifth or worse has made the Final Four every year since 2009. But that streak could be in jeopardy. 

Duke and Michigan State appear to be on a collision course for the East Regional final in Washington. 

Virginia will get a chance to exorcise its UMBC demons against first-time tournament team Gardner-Webb in the South Region first round. To join the Cavaliers in Louisville, Tennessee could have to contend with under-seeded Cincinnati in Columbus, Ohio, likely followed by either Purdue or Villanova. 

The Midwest might not go as smoothly. 

After taking care of Iona in Round 1, top-seeded North Carolina would have two days to prepare for either Sam Merrill and underrated Utah State or Washington and Jim Boeheim disciple Mike Hopkins’ zone defense. Auburn or Kansas could present a difficult Sweet 16 for the Tar Heels. 

If Kentucky faces Wofford in the second round on Saturday, the Wildcats will probably be looking at the NCAA’s all-time 3-point shooter. Terriers senior Fletcher Magee needs three more to surpass the 504 made by Travis Bader of Oakland. If it gets past Wofford, Kentucky would likely face Houston and its 32 wins, or Iowa State, fresh off its Big 12 crown, in the Sweet 16. 

If you like an underdog run to the Final Four, the Midwest is the region for you. But the smart money suggests Minneapolis will be chalky on the first Saturday of April. 

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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