It’s been less than 24 hours since the NCAA Tournament’s 68 teams were officially announced, and predictably, thousands of mock brackets are appearing on websites around the country.
For their part, many national pundits have already penciled in their picks for the Final Four in Indianapolis. The teams most often mentioned are no surprise – Kentucky, Duke, Villanova and Wisconsin. But while looking that far ahead can be fun, it overlooks some potential treats within the opening rounds of this season’s tournament.
There are plenty of contests that offer both high entertainment and subtle intrigue. From a Big 10 perspective, a pair of matchups are particularly interesting.
When Indiana and Wichita State meet in Omaha on Friday, expect three-point shots aplenty from a pair of teams that can run with the best of them. The Shockers put together another superb season in the Missouri Valley Conference, going 17-1 in the league and 28-4 overall. They carry one of the nation’s best backcourts in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, who combined for more than 27 points per game.
Baker is an especially difficult matchup at 6-foot-4. Capable of finishing at the rim, he also knocks down the three at a furious rate (39.4 percent on 193 attempts in 2014-15). The impending matchup between Baker and James Blackmon Jr. figures to be a fascinating one considering the Hoosier freshman averages 15.8 points per game (Baker scores at a 15.0 clip) and connects on 38.7 percent of his three-point shots.
Another great matchup looms between Yogi Ferrell and Van Vleet at the point guard spot. A scoring lead guard, Ferrell led Indiana with an average of 16.1 points per game while logging nearly 35 minutes per outing. Van Vleet meanwhile falls under the traditional role of a point guard. While capable of scoring when needed, the gifted playmaker dished out 170 assists during the season while running Gregg Marshall’s offense. Their matchup could ultimately dictate which side moves on to the round of 32.
Meanwhile, Ohio State‘s contest with VCU could provide enough entertainment to keep the patrons inside Portland’s Moda Center buzzing for hours afterward. Both outfits are filled with athleticism and skill, making their Thursday meeting one to watch.
Shaka Smart’s Rams, who average 72.5 points per outing, carry a strong one-two combination in Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson. Graham, who paced the Rams offensively with his 16.3 points per game average, is a gifted slasher who can also knock down the long-range jumper. Johnson, meanwhile, is a reliable three-point threat with his 12.3 scoring average and 36.7 percent accuracy from beyond the arc. The Rams also carry a deep bench with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and will attempt to utilize their speed and athleticism in transition.
The Buckeyes are no slouches either when it comes to speed and athleticism. After all, they have the high-flying Sam Thompson and freshman phenom D’Angelo Russell to carry the load. Russell has already proven to be one the nation’s best players with his team-leading average of 19.3 points per game. Considering the Buckeyes score more than 75 points per outing, expect the scoreboard operator to be busy once action tips off on Thursday.
One area the Buckeyes may be able to exploit is the glass. VCU’s tallest regulars, Terry Larrier and Jarred Guest, are only 6-foot-8. If Ohio State can take advantage of their size edge with 6-foot-11 Amir Williams in the middle, it will give them a good chance of advancing.
Regardless, both games should be highly entertaining affairs. NCAA tourney basketball often comes down to making the right play at the right time. Whichever teams ultimately do so should move on to the round of 32.