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College Basketball: Previewing Opening Weekend's Best Games

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Mon Mar 29 2021

|

6 min read

College Basketball: Previewing Opening Weekend's Best Games

It's that time again! March Madness returns after a two-year hiatus, and fans across the nation are itching to see the world's greatest playoff tournament in action once again. A regular season that many thought would never be completed has given us 68 teams that all have a shot of raising a banner, albeit some more than others. While opening weekend won't present much of a challenge for most top seeds, there are plenty of matchups that will have amateur bracketologists scratching their heads. Here are five games to keep your eyes on this weekend.

*Rankings and statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CBB and KenPom.com


(8) Loyola-Chicago v. (9) Georgia Tech (Friday, 4:00 PM)

Good luck picking this one. Porter Moser's tenacious Loyola-Chicago squad faces off against the ACC Tournament champions in Georgia Tech. The Ramblers come into the tourney as KenPom's ninth-rated team, anchored by the nation's top adjusted defensive efficiency. We've written about Loyola Chicago before, and wouldn't be surprised to see them go on a deep run.

The Yellow Jackets entered the ACC Tourney as a #4 seed but came out on top with a terrific second-half comeback versus Florida State in the title game. ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright is a matchup nightmare for every team in the country, averaging 17.4 PPG and 8.4 rebounds. Scrappy guard Jose Alvarado and sharpshooter Michael Devoe round out a gritty Josh Pastner-led crew.

Need another reason to get excited? These are two of the most experienced teams in the country; four of the top five scorers on both sides are seniors. On paper, Loyola-Chicago is the better team, but Georgia Tech is on a hot streak, and have played much more difficult opponents all season. This one has the potential for an ugly, grind-it-out classic.


(6) San Diego State v. (11) Syracuse (Friday, 9:40 PM)

San Diego State is a trendy darkhorse pick in this tournament, and it isn't hard to see why. Ending the season ranked #16 in the AP Poll, the 23-4 Aztecs have one of the best duos in the nation with Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel. While their offense ranks outside the top 40 in adjusted efficiency, their defense sits at 11th. They ended their season on a high note, defeating rival Utah State in the Mountain West championship game.

In typical Syracuse fashion, Jim Boeheim's team spent all season on the bubble. After two wins to close out the regular season against fellow tourney teams in North Carolina and Clemson, 'Cuse beat NC State in the ACC Tournament before losing a heartbreaker to Virginia. The Orangemen have a reputation for making deep runs as double seeds; they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as an 11 seed in 2018 and the Final Four as a 10 seed in 2016.

The key for this matchup will be SDSU's ability to beat Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. Three-point opportunities should be there; if Schakel can shoot well from beyond the arc (46.7 3P

), the Aztecs have a great shot at advancing. If 'Cuse is able to stifle the opposition into contested shots and clog the paint, then it may be the start of another Boeheim miracle. Look for Buddy Boeheim, Jim's son, to play a major role in this one; the junior averaged 28 points per game in the ACC Tournament.


(5) Villanova v. (12) Winthrop (Friday, 9:57 PM)

These are two teams going in opposite directions heading into the tournament. Villanova came into the season as media favorites to reach the Final Four, and delivered with an 11-1 start to the season. Since then, the Cats have gone 5-5, capped off with a Big East tourney upset at the hands of Georgetown. The loss of Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL injury has left the team exposed at point guard, forcing Jeramiah Robinson-Earl to carry the load offensively.

On the other side, Big South champion Winthrop is a popular upset pick. While a large part of that is due to Villanova's recent struggles, the Eagles are a tough out for anyone. Although they played weak competition, Winthrop went 23-1 during the regular season. While triple-double threat Chandler Vaudrin is the headliner, don't sleep on his supporting cast. Winthrop goes twelve-deep, which could be trouble for an already weakened 'Nova.

It seems like everyone has counted out Villanova; the team has looked shaky of late and has lost arguably their best player. Still, Jay Wright has faced adversity plenty of times before, and his teams have shown up in March during recent seasons. Robinson-Earl is a bonafide star who can still power his team to a win. Winthrop has all the makings of a fun bracket-buster; they play at the 11th fastest tempo in the nation according to KenPom, and have enough depth to run teams off the court. Expect a war of attrition on Friday night.


(5) Colorado v. (12) Georgetown (Saturday, 12:15 PM)

Colorado is as close to a sure thing in the murky Pac-12. Going 22-8, the Buffaloes sit at 17th in KenPom's Adjusted Efficiency Margin, with both their offense and defense ranked within the top thirty in efficiency. Despite a close loss in the Pac-12 title game to Oregon State, the Buffs secured a 5 seed, their highest placement in the tournament since 1969. CU is anchored by McKinley Wright IV, one of the best all-around guards in the game, and a collection of big men: four of their five leading scorers are 6'7 or taller.

Just two weeks ago, it seemed like another lost season for Georgetown. The Hoyas sat at eight in the Big East, complete with a losing record and the possibility that this would be Patrick Ewing's last season as head coach. Then, Georgetown reeled off four straight wins to capture the Big East Tournament and an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. What was so impressive about their run was that the team got better every game; two days after eeking out a one-point win over Villanova, they absolutely massacred Creighton in the title game.

This one, like Nova-Winthrop, is a popular upset pick. The Hoyas are on a roll while the Buffs are coming off an upset loss of their own. One notable factor to keep an eye on: Colorado plays much better at home than they do on the road. This may have something to do with the altitude in Boulder. Georgetown's personal statistics don't jump off the page, but they do have a size advantage on the inside with 6'11 Qudus Wahab. It will be up to their solid backcourt of Jahvon Blair and Dante Harris to slow down McKinley IV and the Buffaloes on the defensive end.


(8) LSU v. (9) St. Bonaventure (Saturday, 1:45 PM)

The LSU Tigers ended their regular season on a high note, winning four straight before losing by a point to Alabama in the SEC title game. During that run, the nation's eighth highest-scoring offense absolutely blitzed fellow tourney teams in Missouri and Arkansas, proving they have the ability to go far. Freshman guard Cameron Thomas is absolutely dynamic, dropping 22.6 points per game as LSU's leading scorer. While the offense is 5th in efficiency according to KenPom, the defense is not stellar, sitting at a mediocre 125th in the country.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, who play a physical, defense-oriented brand of basketball. The Bonnies ran away with the A10 title, going 16-4 and winning each game of the conference tournament by an average of over 17 points. Mark Schmidt's team prides itself on stifling the opposition, holding teams to a paltry 60.4 points per game, 5th best in the nation. While KenPom isn't quite as high on their D (17th in efficiency), they also believe that St. Bonaventure is more well-rounded than LSU, thanks to their 38th rated offense.

Questions abound in this fascinating Saturday afternoon pick 'em. In this battle of an unstoppable force and an immovable object, expect one team's style of play to win out. Will LSU find itself stuck in a rock fight, or can they force St. Bonaventure to play an up-tempo shootout? LSU's top four players average over eleven points per game, but nobody else on the roster goes over four. Will that lack of depth hurt them down the stretch? Or will a balanced Bonnies squad find itself unable to go toe-to-toe with Thomas and Trendon Watford without a superstar of their own? Stay tuned for this one; the winner may be in prime position to knock off a weakened Michigan team in the Round of 32.

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