Selection Sunday is in the books. The Church of Bracketology has observed its most important holiday, and now March Madness will begin. While the first games of the tournament will be played throughout the week, the first “real” round of NCAA basketball starts on March 20. Why don’t those other games count? They do — sort of. They’re what’s referred to as the “First Four,” the four games that’ll determine the last four teams entered into the tournament proper.
This year, those games are concentrated in the South (one game) and the Midwest (the other three.) In the South, the Albany Great Danes will be facing off against the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers to take on first seeded Florida Gators. For the Midwest, the North Carolina State Wolfpack will duel the Xavier Musketeers — the winner will play the Saint Louis Billikens — while the Cal Poly Mustangs go up against the Texas Southern Tigers to see which one will be matched up against the Wichita State Shockers. Lastly, the Tennessee Volunteers and the Iowa Hawkeyes will compete to play the Massachusetts Minutemen. Whew.
So, technically, that’s the first round of March Madness. But it’s not, really — if a team is playing a game in order to get into the brackets, it’s still a play-in game, even if the NCAA doesn’t call these games that anymore. So here’s five “real” first round matchups that you’re going to want to set aside time to watch. Be sure to rope your boss in, too, ’cause everyone loves March Madness.
1. Florida Gators (#1 Seed) vs. Albany/Mount St. Mary’s (#16 Seed)
Gametime: 3/20, 4:11 p.m.
Okay, so maybe you should watch the Albany/MSt.M game just to see who’s going to lose to the Gators. As the top seed in the South, it’s no mean feat in a grouping that includes Andrew Wiggins and the rest of Kansas, the UCLA Bruins, and Syracuse (not as good as people think but still pretty good), the Gators haven’t lost a game since January. A defense-heavy squad full of experienced players — in this era of one-and-done prospects — the Gators are starting three seniors who have been to the Elite Eight.
Coached by Billy Donovan, the Gators haven’t made it to the Final Four since 2007 when they went all the way, defeating Ohio State for the championship. That squad featured future NBA players Maurice Speights, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Al Horford. While this Florida squad arguably doesn’t feature anyone as talented as the ’06-’07 team, they’ve carved out a deep 7-man rotation and they’re entering the tournament at full health, a factor that some of the other top teams can’t rely on (just ask Joel Embiid.)
Get on the Florida bandwagon early — they’re one of the favorites to make it all the way through to at least the Elite Eight, since they should only really be challenged by UCLA before then. As for their prospective opponent, the Albany Great Danes are a better rebounding team that struggles to score, while the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers are 50th overall in the NCAA in points-per-game but struggle almost everywhere else.
2. Creighton Blue Jays (#3 Seed) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (# 14 Seed)
Gametime: 3/21, 3:10 p.m.
Any tournament game featuring the Creighton Blue Jays is going to be a must watch game this year. Quite simply, they’ve gone after the new-school NBA model (shoot lots of threes) and taken it so far away from the deep end that they’re not even playing in the same pool anymore. Consider that Creighton averaged 24 three pointers a game over their 33 games last season. In a particularly memorable game against Villanova, the Blue Jays fired up 35 threes — in a 40 minute game. That’s nuts. Between Jahenns Manigat, Doug McDermott, and Ethan Wragge, Creighton’s mission to shoot all of the threes forever results in an incredibly entertaining brand of hoops.
On the other side of the court, Louisiana-Lafayette don’t score too shabbily themselves, finishing in the top 13 of the NCAA according to ESPN. That’s about all they do of note, though, and their record against top-tier competition this year is more or less non-existent.
For the fans who watch college basketball for the defense and the fundamentals, this might be a skippable contest. You can probably pencil in a Creighton victory. For a fan that wants to see a high scoring game, though, this is a must see contest. Also, you might get to see an assist like this one.
3. Duke Blue Devils (#3 Seed) vs. Mercer Bears (#14 Seed)
Gametime: 3/21, 12:15 p.m.
Two words: Jabari Parker (that’s him up there in the photograph.) Not to discredit his teammates or anyone on the Mercer Bears, but Parker, who has earned flattering Carmelo Anthony comparisons, is going to have to play at his peak in order to follow in ‘Melo’s footsteps as an NCAA champion. The forward is expected to go in the top 3 of this year’s NBA draft, and his one-and-done college career will hinge on his team’s success in the tournament.
Averaging a team-best 8.8 rebounds and 19.3 points on 43 percent shooting, Parker is the fulcrum for the Blue Devils’ success. Coached by the venerable Coach K, Duke finished the 2014 season with a 28-8 record. So did their opponents, the Mercer Bears. The Bears, who defeated NCAA fan favorite Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun title game for their NCAA spot, did not play many teams that were expected to seriously contend for an NCAA title this season.
You know, they don’t have Jabari Parker. He’s pretty good.
4. Kansas Jayhawks (#2 Seed) vs. Eastern Kentucky Colonels (#15 Seed)
Gametime: 3/21, 4:10 p.m.
Unless you’re really into labor scams or rooting for an alma mater, most March Madness fans watch the tournament to get a handle on the newest crop of NBA rookies, a majority of whom who will come from the NCAA. Sorry, it’s true — and Kansas has a pair of excellent NBA recruits in Andrew Wiggins, a small forward, and Joel Embiid, a center.
Unfortunately, Embiid is unlikely to appear in the tournament, having succumbed to a series of knee and back injuries accumulated throughout the season. That’s a bummer, since the sure-footed center has displayed the flashes of brilliance that will make him a high lottery pick in June. In his absence, the load has fallen on Maple Jordan, Canadian Andrew Wiggins, who has responded to Embiid’s late season bench-riding with aplomb.
As for Eastern Kentucky, well, they’re a basketball team. They were 28th in scoring and 55th in assists for the NCAA. They were able to corral a 24-9 record over the 2013-2014 season. They’re probably going to be crushed. All hail Maple Jordan.
5. University of Kentucky Wildcats (#8 Seed) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (#9 Seed)
Gametime: 3/21 9:4o p.m.
This year’s Kentucky Wildcat squad loves cleaning up the glass. With a 20-12 record at the end of the ’13-’14 season, John Calipari’s Finishing School for NBA Talents has built a team around Julius Randle and James Young — a pair of future lottery picks, and like many teams at the amateur level obviously built around a couple of disparate parts, has struggled to play as a unit over the season.
Kansas State’s Wildcats, meanwhile, is not a great rebounding team. Their best aspect, far and away, is in their unselfish play, finishing in the top 15 for assists/game with 15.5. The (Kansas) Wildcats have never won an NCAA championship. All March Madness games are broadcast on CBS.