The NCAA Tournament bracket is finally and officially here, and that means folks are anxiously researching various programs they haven’t watched all year. That includes the 8 teams that fill out this year’s First Four games in Dayton, Ohio.
From March 19-20, the following matchups will take place:
- Fairleigh Dickinson versus Prairie View A&M for the No. 16 seed in the West Regional
- North Dakota State versus North Carolina Central for the No. 16 seed in the East Regional
- Arizona State versus St. John’s for the No. 11 seed in the West Regional
- Belmont versus Temple for the No. 11 seed in the East Regional
Here are the set dates and tip times.
Let’s do a quick preview of these four contests, starting with the East Regional play-in games. Also, just for fun, here are the odds each team wins the national title (per OddsShark.)
Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Prairie View A&M Play-In Preview and Pick
The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights (20-13) ripped off 8 straight victories in the Northeast Conference. Some pretty mediocre power conference teams routed them, such as Rutgers and Providence (both by double-digits).
Meanwhile, the Panthers (22-12) went just 2-11 in the non-conference, but dominated the SWAC to punch their ticket to the Big Dance. Despite the poor mark early in the season, they fought with fellow tournament teams such as Baylor and Winthrop in double-digit but competitive losses.
Prairie View A&M is coached by Byron Smith, who calls for his team to play at an extremely high-tempo. The Panthers force turnovers on a quarter of opponent possessions. Greg Herenda’s Knights will have problems, as they rank well outside the top-200 in protecting the rock.
Expect Smith and company to advance to face Gonzaga in the Round of 64.
Arizona State vs. St. John’s Play-In Preview and Pick
Former Duke guard Bobby Hurley now runs the show for the Sun Devils. This will be their second-straight appearance in Dayton, as Arizona State dropped a close game to Syracuse.
The Sun Devils sport a 22-10 record out of the Pac-12, but built their resume in the non-conference. They topped Kansas in Tempe, as well as Mountain West co-champion Utah State. Guard Luguentz Dort, a possible first-round NBA prospect, leads the show with 16.1 points per game, including a 33-point outburst versus the Aggies.
Former Johnnie great Chris Mullin has resurrected a once dormant program, leading them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. They remained on the bubble with a late lull in the Big East, which included losses to conference bottom-dwellers in Providence and DePaul.
Shamorie Ponds is a decent offensive player, averaging 19.5 points per game on very high usage. However, St. John’s boasts a porous defense outside the top-100 nationally per Ken Pomeroy.
The Sun Devils, and particularly Dort should temper the Red Storm and advance. Hurley’s old team in the Buffalo Bulls awaits as the No. 6 seed.
Belmont vs. Temple Play-In Preview and Pick
Rick Byrd and the Belmont Bruins have been very close to pulling off massive tournament upsets in the past, including a buzzer-beater defeat to Duke in 2008.
This year, they tied for the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title with Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers. After losing to them in the conference tournament, the Bruins finished 26-5.
Forwards Dylan Windler and Nick Muszynski spearhead the No. 20 efficiency offense in America per Pomeroy. The highlight of the year so far was a thrilling 74-72 win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
The Owls snuck into March Madness after a 23-9 campaign out of the American Athletic Conference. Frank Dunphy and his team’s resume relied on a 4-point upset over No. 3 seed Houston.
They protect the ball, but rank outside the top-200 in effective field goal percentage. The Bruins should be able to outgun them to set up a Round of 64 tilt with Bruno Fernando and the Maryland Terrapins.
North Dakota State vs. North Carolina Central Play-In Preview and Picks
The winner here gets the unenviable task of facing Zion Williamson and Duke in the next round.
The Bison finished 18-15 and fourth in the Summit League, but played their way in with a 73-63 win in the conference tournament title over Nebraska-Omaha. In the non-conference, they couldn’t stay within 20 points of either Gonzaga or Iowa State (the former a 102-60 thrashing).
Junior point guard Vinnie Shahid was the star of the tournament, scoring 22 points in the finale while dishing out 3 assists. He facilitates a squad that cans nearly 37 percent of its 3’s.
North Carolina Central is making its third-straight appearance in the tournament, as LeVelle Moton’s Eagles lost in Dayton last March to Texas Southern.
They needed a run in the MEAC Tournament to punch their ticket, while finished 18-15 and third during the regular-season.
NC Central makes up for bad shooting by crashing the boards on offense. The Eagles rank No. 22 in offensive rebounding rate.
That suggests a team that scraps and claws its way through opposition, so here’s a pick for NC Central to earn a beating from the Blue Devils.