To brackets, they’re inconsequential. To those with basic cable, they’re unwatchable. Yet for those who can’t wait until Thursday, the First Four present a nice appetizer to the main feast that is this great tournament we all love so much.
Yet for those who can’t wait until Thursday, the First Four present a nice appetizer to the main feast that is this great tournament we all love so much.
So, to get warmed up for the main event, let’s go through each of the opening games and make some picks against the spread. It’s never to early to get on a roll (or at least, get all of your bad picks out of the way).
If you’re looking to support the better “feel good story,” go with the New Orleans Privateers, who haven’t made the tournament in 20 years and were close to dropping the program to D-III due to financial problems caused by Hurricane Katrina. Yet they stuck around and now they’ll get a chance to potentially experience at least one tournament victory before they go home.
If you’re looking to support the better bet, though, that resides with Mount St. Mary’s. The Mountaineers spent most of their non-conference slate getting stomped by bigger schools, running up a 1-11 record before tearing through the Northeast Conference. Their numbers are lower than New Orleans as a result, but the one column where that favors the Mountaineers is turnovers: the Privateers are one of the worst teams at protecting the ball, giving it up almost 17 times a game.
Not only has Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Cristian coached in a play-in game before, but a few seniors remain from the team’s 2014 trip. Getting the experience edge, as well as a few points as an underdog, take the Mountaineers.
It’s the Big 12 vs ACC showdown everyone was asking for, right? Well it’s the only one you’re guaranteed, so enjoy it. The Demon Deacons are making their first tournament appearance in seven years while the Wildcats look for their first tournament win in five.
Neither team really wowed this season, with average performances in conference play and no really impressive non-conference wins. But strong RPIs helped both of them squeak in, and now one will get to move on in a game that’s a virtual toss up.
Wake Forest comes in as the faster, high-scoring team built around working the ball down low to forward John Collins. The big man ranks eighth in the nation in offensive rebounds, and the Wildcats allow opponents to grab nearly 10 a game. In a battle that figures to be close, the first team All-ACC Collins should make the difference.
The Aggies earned their first trip to the tournament this year, having spent most of their program’s history in D-II. To advance to the real deal, they’ll have to beat an Eagles team that returns to the tournament just three years after securing a 14-seed in 2014.
Statistically, the Eagles basic numbers dwarf the Aggies, averaging more points scored, fewer points allowed, greater rebounding and assist numbers, and a better field-goal percentage. North Carolina only has two players averaging in double figures, but forward Patrick Cole can be an absolute game-changer: he finished second in MEAC scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game and grabbing seven boards.
UC Davis had a strong finish to their season, taking six of the last seven, but flying across three time zones for a game is a difficult challenge for any team, especially one this inexperienced. On three instances this season, the Aggies flew east of the Pacific time zone: they lost all three games.
The headliner of Wednesday is a rematch of a 2016 second round game that the Friars won on Rodney Bullock’s last-second bucket. Just a year later, Providence returns only two starters from that victory as they try to overcome the Trojans once again.
Despite an improved record this season, USC barely squeaked into the tournament thanks to an unimpressive finish to the year, losing five of their last eight with the only wins coming over lowly Washington teams. Providence comes in much sharper, winners of six of their last seven, including four over tournament teams.
The Trojans play a quicker pace than the Friars, but are far less stingy on defense. Last year, Providence was able to keep it close by dominating the turnover battle and watching USC struggle to make free throws. This year’s Friars can employ a similar strategy, but they’re also a better shooting team than before, so it may not take late game heroics to put this one away.
Photo Credit: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire.
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