Four play-in games - kindly hooked with the moniker "First Four" by the NCAA spin-masters - will usher in the 2012 NCAA tournament, and while many bracket contests don't require actual picks for these games, some do, and, let's not forget that one of the play-in teams from last season - VCU - made it all the way to the Final Four, so these games could be important.
Game 1 (March 13, 6:40 pm ET): Mississippi Valley Delta Devils (21-12) vs. Western Kentucky (15-18) - Both teams are long shots to win anything other than this game because the winner faces #1 Kentucky in the South region in the next round. Current betting line has the Hilltoppers by three points over the Delta Devils, who have a wealth of NCAA experience behind them with 22 NCAA appearances dating back to 1940. Conversely, Mississippi Valley State will be playing in just their fifth tourney, the most recent appearance in 2006. They are 0-4 all-time in the NCAAs.
However, the Delta Devils are a red hot team at this juncture, having won the SWAC outright with a 15-1 record and then taking the conference tourney with three straight wins. After a 1-11 start, nobody gave these guys much attention, but they played avery tough non-conference schedule with losses to Notre Dame, North Carolina, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Florida and Iowa State among others. Their 22-1 record against their SWAC foes has them ready for this match-up and they should prevail.
Game 2 (March 13, 9:10 pm ET): BYU Cougars (25-8) vs. Iona Gaels (25-7) - BYU is a 2-point favorite here with the winning moving on to face Marquette in the West region. The Gaels were something of a surprise selection, having been bounced from their conference tourney by Fairfield after winning the regular season with a 15-3 record, though they are the #1 team in the field in scoring (83.3 ppg), assists (19.3), third in field goal percentage (.567) and sixth in 3-point shooting (.393).
BYU is a solid opponent, finishing third in the WCC behind St. Mary's and Gonzaga, though their only quality win was an 83-73 win over Gonzaga on February 2. If Iona plays their game and point guard Scott Machado distributed the ball well, the Gaels will be a tough out, not only for the Cougars, but for Marquette, next up.
Game 3 (March 14, 6:30 pm ET): Vermont Catamounts (23-11) vs. Lamar Cardinals (23-11) - A 3 1/2 point favorite, Lamar is one of the less-well-known teams in the tourney, coming out as the Southland conference champions. Neither of these teams can expect much with a win, except to be bludgeoned by North Carolina in the Midwest conference. Lamar is pretty shaky with an 8-9 road record and their longest win streak of the season capped at four. The Catamounts will give them plenty to handle, especially from one-man-gang, Brian Voelkel, who leads the team in rebounds, assists and steals.
Vermont won 10 in a row down the stretch and 13 of their last 14, took the America East Tourney with a win over regular season champ, Stony Brook and appear as poised as any 16 could be.
Game 4 (March 14, 9:10 pm ET): South Florida Bulls (20-13) vs. California Golden Bears (24-9) - This will be a solid game, as it is for a #12 seed in the Midwest and the winner could advance past a shaky Temple team in the next round. While Cal is the designer pick as a 2 1/2 point favorite, South Florida has the kind of team that could produce multiple upsets in the tourney. The Bulls are not flashy, but they do play great defense, whereas Cal played in the shadowy PAC-12, finishing second behind Washington and losing in the conference final to Colorado, their second straight double-digit loss to the Buffs, the only other PAC-12 team in the tourney.
Looks like a quick exit for the dancing Bears, who may not get their offense untracked against the raging Bulls.
Road Map to the Final Four
Of all the #1 seeds - Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State and North Carolina - the Tar Heels seem to have the easiest path to reach New Orleans unscathed, especially if they have big John Henson back from the wrist injury that sidelined him in the ACC tournament. All indications that the big swatter will be a go when they toss it up on Friday night in Greensboro, practically a home game for the Carolinians.
Taking a look at the other regions before getting back to North Carolina, there are potential minefields for the three other #1s. In the East, where Syracuse got the top nod, the Orange could find trouble as early as their second game, presumably against a very physical and strong-rebounding Kansas State squad. Further along they may have either Vanderbilt, a real trouble-maker, or Wisconsin, with three-point shooters that can nullify the Orange zone defense. If they get to their regional final, take your pick from Cincinnati (who beat them in the Big East tourney), Ohio State, Florida State or Gonzaga. Any of them could pull off an upset.
In the West, #1 Michigan should get past LIU-Brooklyn, but then may run into Memphis, the Conference-USA champion and a very overlooked entity. After that, maybe Louisville or New Mexico, also an unknown quantity. But, if the Spartans reach their regional final, they could face Florida, Marquette or most likely, Missouri, who can beat anyone in the field, as they proved throughout the season. Good luck with Michigan State getting to New Orleans.
Down South, Kentucky will probably have to defeat a rugged Iowa State squad, who may surprise the overrated Huskies from UConn. Even if UConn beats the Cyclones, they too could prove a tough out. On the other side of the sub-regional draw is #12 VCU, #5 Wichita State, #4 Indiana and #13 New Mexico State. The Hooisers beat Kentucky earlier in the season and the match-up is a natural rivalry. VCU may have the best defensive five in the tournament and they lead all entrants in steals at 10.68 per game. The regional final may actually be easier for Kentucky, though either Baylor or Duke should emerge from that side. Baylor is as good as it gets, and Duke, well, they're Duke.
That leads us back to the Midwest and North Carolina. First, two of the spots in their sub-region will be occupied by winners of the "First Four" play-in games, and there's no real competition outside of Creighton on their side of the draw. Other the opposite side of the region are Purdue, North Carolina State, #2 Kansas and Georgetown, but the sleeper is that the Jayhawks have a very tough Detroit squad in their opening game, and could be upset. If Kansas does get through, the Tar Heels should win with superior depth and talent. They appear to be the one team with a road map that doesn't include a lot of dead ends, potholes and road-blocks.
Tomorrow: Some select picks for opening round games, now called the second round by the tourney people. Please. How do they come up with this stuff? The play-in games should be called "play-in games" and the opening round for 64 teams, the first round. Get it?