2017 NCAA Tournament: Thursday First Round Preview and Predictions

March Madness goes into full gear with a loaded opening day, including Josh Hart and defending national champion Villanova in action

State and federal governments may not recognize the first two days of the NCAA Tournament, but we know the truth: A holiday weekend tips off on a Thursday every year in the middle of March.

 

The greatest of days for basketball hard-core and casual fans alike is here, and as usual, the first day of the NCAA Tournament features numerous intriguing matchups – including a few of the most high-profile upset opportunities.

 

A couple of No. 5 seeds out of the ACC need be on upset watch to open Thursday's action, while the day winds down with 2013 Cinderella story, Florida Gulf Coast, looking to shock the world once more.

 

Gonzaga begins its quest for the program's first Final Four on Thursday, boasting arguably the best lineup of Mark Few's career. A crash course with Arizona could be in store for the Zags and the Elite Eight – assuming both make it to that point unscathed.

 

If there's no other lesson to take from the NCAA Tournament, it's to assume nothing. Oh, and also, that these two days should be state and federal holidays.

 

NCAA Tournament Thursday First Round Games

Note: All times Eastern, some start times approximate. 

 

No. 12 Princeton vs. No. 5 Notre Dame

TV: 12:15 p.m., CBS

Site: Buffalo (West Region)

 

Preview: The 12-over-5 upset is as ubiquitous to March as St. Patrick's Day and spring training baseball. Bracketeers looking for this year's inevitable No. 12 seed stunner could do worse than picking Princeton. The Ivy League champions play a vexing style, combining stifling defense – No. 43 in the nation in efficiency, per Kenpom.com – with methodical offense. A talent-rich Notre Dame lineup must push the tempo early to avoid falling into the Tigers' trap.

 

The Fighting Irish have the pieces to make a Final Four run – not surprising, considering Mike Brey's last two teams reached the Elite Eight. This is arguably Brey's most talented of the three teams, featuring versatile Bonzie Colson, interior presence V.J. Beachem and sharp-shooting Matt Farrell. Notre Dame nearly lost to a Stephen F. Austin team that played a style quite similar to Princeton last year, using back-cuts to buy space for outside shooters Devin Cannady and Steven Cook. But the Irish's length and athleticism should keep Princeton at arm's length.

 

Prediction: Notre Dame 74, Princeton 60

 

No. 12 UNC Wilmington vs. No. 5 Virginia

TV: 12:40 p.m., truTV

Site: Orlando (East Region)

 

Preview: Colonial Athletic Association champion UNC Wilmington faces an ACC heavyweight in the First Round for the second time in as many seasons. This year, the Seahawks draw a true styles clash, pitting their high-scoring brand of basketball against the defense-first approach of Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers.

 

Virginia thrives with the same hard-nosed approach Bennett's legendary father, Dick Bennett, used at Wisconsin. The Cavaliers slow down the tempo on both sides of the ball, but mostly on defense, where they rank No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Virginia will use that tactic to counter UNC Wilmington's quartet of C.J. Bryce, Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and Devontae Cacok. The four combine to average 60 points per game – just six fewer than Virginia's team output on the campaign.

 

The Cavaliers may not score a lot, but they are efficient. London Perrantes is a reliable shooter, and spark plug Kyle Guy could be the breakout star Virginia needs to go far in this NCAA Tournament.

 

Prediction: Virginia 61, UNC Wilmington 58

 

Related: UNC Wilmington Seahawks vs. Virginia Cavaliers Preview and Prediction

 

No. 13 Winthrop vs. No. 4 Butler

TV: 1:30 p.m., TNT

Site: Milwaukee (South Region)

 

Preview: Just a few weeks ago, Butler scored a Big East Conference win over defending national champion and 2017 No. 1 overall seed Villanova. The Bulldogs looked to be in contention for a No. 2, perhaps even No. 1 seed with a strong finish. But losing back-to-back games to close out the Big East season left Chris Holtmann's team faced with a daunting First Round matchup against Big South champion Winthrop.

 

A decade after upsetting Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, Winthrop arrives in Milwaukee with a club equipped to win another March shocker. Diminutive (5-7) guard Keon Johnson is one of the most exciting players in the Tournament, and one of its most effective scorers at 22.5 points per game. Swing-man Xavier Cooks adds a secondary scorer of equal significance. Against the nation's No. 16-ranked offensive efficiency in Butler, this one has the making of a track meet.

 

The Bulldogs rely less on one or two explosive playmakers – though Kelan Martin's certainly capable of big, individual numbers – instead spreading the points among a corps of seven players. That versatility makes Butler difficult to defend. The question for Butler comes down to its defense of Winthrop. Johnson looks poised to make an impact on the NCAA Tournament, fresh off averaging 28 points per game in the Big South Tournament.

 

Prediction: Winthrop 84, Butler 80

 

No. 16 South Dakota State vs. No. 1 Gonzaga

TV: 2 p.m., TBS

Site: Salt Lake City (West Region)

 

Preview: When Gonzaga last earned a No. 1 seed, in 2013, SWAC champion Southern took the Zags down to the wire. Don't expect a repeat against Summit League representative South Dakota State.

 

The Jackrabbits return to the NCAA Tournament after putting up an impressive fight last March against Maryland. They feature Mike Daum, whose heroics in the Summit League Tournament were among the most individually impressive of Championship Week. Daum will find points difficult to come by against an outstanding Gonzaga defense, led by space-eating post players Johnathan Williams and Przemek Karnowski.

 

Naismith Award contender Nigel Williams-Goss controls the game like few in college basketball. Backcourt mate Jordan Mathews provides scoring punch, and Zach Collins is a star-in-the-making off the bench.

 

Prediction: Gonzaga 86, South Dakota 60

 

Related: South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs Preview and Prediction

 

No. 13 Bucknell vs. No. 4 West Virginia

TV: 2:45 p.m., CBS

Site: Buffalo (West Region)

 

Preview: West Virginia's Final Four hopes were cut down in the Round of 64 a season ago by the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin. Motivation and focus should not be lacking this time around, as the Mountaineers square off against Bucknell out of the Patriot League.

 

The Patriot League's produced numerous high-profile Cinderellas in recent years, including 2012 Lehigh, which knocked off Duke; and a Bucknell squad that stunned Kansas in '05. This year's Bison are no easy out: They rank in the top 100 of adjusted efficiency metrics both on offense and defense. Zach Thomas is an effective scoring threat West Virginia must limit to stave off the upset.

 

The Mountaineer press will be critical to taking Bucknell out of its rhythm. West Virginia's at its best when it holds opponents in the 60s, so to that end, look for Bob Huggins to cycle through his rotation early to keep players fresh and the pressure on.

 

Prediction: West Virginia 76, Bucknell 58

 

No. 13 East Tennessee State vs. No. 4 Florida

TV: 3:10 p.m., truTV

Site: Orlando (East Region)

 

Preview: Two of the best defensive teams this NCAA Tournament has to offer square off in the Sunshine State. SEC representative Florida showed Final Four potential at times in 2017, but the Gators stumbled to a No. 4 seed – and thus a dangerous, First Round matchup -- by virtue of losing three of its last four.

 

The constant in all three of those late-season losses: Florida opponents hit the 70-point mark. With the nation's No. 4 defensive efficiency, the Gators thrive when they are feasting defensively. Florida's critical assignment is ETSU guard T.J. Cromer, a nearly 41 percent 3-point shooter who bombs early and often.

 

Losing big man John Egbunu hurt Florida down the stretch, and his absence takes away one of the Gators' greatest advantages against a comparatively smaller ETSU side. Florida's perimeter players will have to work doubly hard to keep the Buccaneers from getting hot from 3-point range. Playing a virtual home game helps the Gators, but they'll have to sweat a competitive contest.

 

Prediction: Florida 62, ETSU 55

 

No. 12 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 5 Minnesota

TV: 4 p.m., TNT

Site: Milwaukee (South Region)

 

Preview: Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee drew a Big Ten opponent a season ago in the NCAA Tournament, and shocked the world when it took down Michigan State. The Blue Raiders no longer sport a No. 15 seed, this year climbing to a No. 12, and they no longer have the element of surprise on their side. No matter – Kermit Davis' squad is significantly improved from 2016.

 

Last season's stars Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw are back, but this time, they're bringing 17.3-point per game scorer JaCorey Williams with them. Williams adds an explosive element to this already dangerous team, making MTSU the strongest of the upset-minded No. 12 seeds in this Tournament.

 

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino won Big Ten Coach of the Year, using a stout defense to lead the Golden Gophers to 24 wins. Minnesota needs big games from youngsters Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy. Otherwise, the more experienced Blue Raiders will advance at the Big Ten's expense once again.

 

Prediction: MTSU 72, Minnesota 66

 

Related: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview and Prediction

 

No. 9 Vanderbilt vs. No. 8 Northwestern

TV: 4:30 p.m., TBS

Site: Salt Lake City (West Region)

 

Preview: For the first time in 78 years, Northwestern is in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats aren't content just being in the Field of 68, though; Chris Collins' team has the pieces necessary to stay beyond the First Round. But they will have their hands full against a Vanderbilt squad that has beaten some of the nation's best – and lost to some of its worst.

 

Vanderbilt is very much an up-and-down squad, looking like it was bound for the NIT when it lost a 20-point decision to dreadful Missouri just one month ago. In the weeks since, the Commodores scored two upsets of Florida, beat Arkansas and South Carolina and took Kentucky down to the wire in Lexington. Vanderbilt rolls with one of the bigger lineups in the Tournament, featuring 7-foot-1 big man Luke Kornet, and a starting rotation of wings who range from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7. Matthew Fisher-Davis' 3-point trigger is the key to Vanderbilt's offensive potency.

 

While Northwestern is a statistical mirror to Vanderbilt, the Wildcats employ a smaller, quicker lineup. Northwestern's athleticism may be its most defining trait, with versatile players like Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey powering the Wildcats' 71-point per game output. Guard Bryant McIntosh effectively captains the ship, both as a scorer and distributor.

 

The Wildcats' speed – and a partisan crowd of Northwestern fans, eager to see their first NCAA Tournament – should buoy NU to a historic win.

 

Prediction: Northwestern 70, Vanderbilt 64

 

Related: Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview and Prediction

 

No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 6 Maryland

TV: 6:50 p.m., TNT

Site: Orlando (West Region)

 

Preview: A trendy Final Four pick before the season, Xavier faded badly in the home stretch. The Musketeers dropped six straight in Big East play, seemingly submarining any chance they had of the NCAA Tournament. However, a win over Butler in Madison Square Garden salvaged the postseason for Chris Mack's club, which is built to take advantage of its new lease on basketball life.

 

Xavier validated its preseason plaudits with a 13-2 start, and it's no coincidence things spiraled downward after Edward Sumner's injury. In Sumner's place, Trevon Bluiett has developed into a top-tier scorer. He broke the 40-point barrier in one game this season, and has similar capacity to go off at any time.

 

Bluiett and Maryland star Melo Trimble should provide one of the most exciting two-man matchups of the First Round. Trimble's an explosive scorer in his own right, averaging 17 points per game. His uncanny ability to get into the lane often yields free throws. Expect Maryland to attack with plenty of Trimble off the dribble to test Xavier's defense.

 

In that same vein, XU's defense needs to be its saving grace. Giving up 70-plus doomed the Musketeers in their losing skid. Conversely, Maryland's struggled to hit that mark recently against opponents not named Rutgers.

 

Prediction: Xavier 72, Maryland 64

 

Related: Xavier Musketeers vs. Maryland Terrapins Preview and Prediction

 

No. 16 Mount St. Mary's vs. No. 1 Villanova

TV: 7:10 p.m., CBS

Site: Buffalo (East Region)

 

Preview: Defending national champion Villanova aims to become the first back-to-back title-winner since Florida accomplished the feat a decade ago. The Wildcats are built to do exactly that, featuring a lineup that is every bit as good as last year's. With Jay Wright still at the helm as head coach, Villanova's also one of the best-coached teams in college basketball.

 

Mount St. Mary's has its own up-and-comer on the sidelines in Jamion Christian. The former Shaka Smart assistant scored a marquee win Tuesday when the Mountaineers beat New Orleans in the First Four to advance to Thursday's First Round matchup. Five-foot-five guard Junior Robinson made a splash on the national stage in the First Four, but he and his Mount St. Mary's teammates will be hard-pressed to hang with Josh Hart and Villanova.

 

The title-holders are playing their best basketball right now, as evidenced in the Big East Tournament. Jalen Brunson is fast becoming a dynamic No. 2 to player of the year candidate Hart. The Mount's Havoc defense will struggle to keep up with Villanova's versatility and discipline.

 

Prediction: Villanova 88, Mount St. Mary's 51

 

Related: Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers vs. Villanova Wildcats Preview and Prediction

 

No. 10 VCU vs. No. 7 Saint Mary's

TV: 7:20 p.m., TBS

Site: Salt Lake City (West Region)

 

Preview: Two of the nation's preeminent mid-major programs of the last decade square off in what promises to be a defensive slug-fest. VCU head coach Will Wade inherited a program known for its defensive intensity under Shaka Smart, and the Rams have maintained that identity in the last two seasons.

 

This year, VCU is holding opponents to an average of 66.4 points per game and is ranked 35th in defensive efficiency. When you look at a Ram roster that includes NFL prospect Mo Alie-Cox (seriously, NFL), it's no wonder VCU defends with such physicality and tenacity. Guard JeQuan Lewis also is one of the nation's greediest pick-pockets, averaging 1.7 steals per game.

 

Saint Mary's comes into Thursday's allowing just 56.5 points per game. Head coach Randy Bennett's Gaels play a methodical style on both ends of the floor, keyed on each side by forward Jock Landale. Landale is arguably the most improved player in the nation, and his play on the interior will determine Thursday's contest – that, and how guards Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon handle VCU's perimeter pressure.

 

Prediction: Saint Mary's 55, VCU 53

 

No. 13 Vermont vs. No. 4 Purdue

TV: 7:27 p.m., truTV

Site: Milwaukee (Midwest Region)

 

Preview: Perhaps the best player in the NCAA Tournament, Caleb Swanigan, leads a Purdue team out for redemption into a trap game with America East champion Vermont. Swanigan was still finding his way as a freshman on the Boilers' 2016 team, which bowed out after a Round 1 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock. The Big Ten regular-season champion Boilermakers get another crack at the program's first Final Four since 1980 behind a more refined Swanigan and Co.

 

Swanigan averages 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. He dominates the lane on both sides of the ball, but also strokes the jump shot with surprising finesse. He's established himself as the best Purdue player since 1994 Player of the Year Glenn Robinson. Swanigan can one-up the Big Dog with the milestone that eluded Robinson, a Final Four. With fellow interior players Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards around him, Swanigan and Purdue's poised to do just that.

 

Vermont's a dangerous Round 1 matchup, ranking No. 61 in offensive efficiency and No. 67 in defensive efficiency. The Catamounts ride the nation's longest winning streak into Milwaukee, last losing on Dec. 21 at Butler. They rely on a balanced scoring effort, keyed primarily from the perimeter by Anthony Lamb and Trae Bell-Haynes. Forward Payton Henson is Vermont's key interior player, but he'll have his hands full with Purdue's size inside.

 

Prediction: Purdue 78, Vermont 60

 

No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 3 Florida State

TV: 9:20 p.m., TNT

Site: Orlando (West Region)

 

Preview: Expect a raucous crowd when two programs not far from Thursday's host site in Orlando meet for an intriguing First Rounder. Florida Gulf Coast made history in 2013 as the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, and the Eagles returned to the Big Dance each of the last two seasons. They were a No. 16 seed last year, relegated to the First Four, but in 2017 they return to make another Cinderella run.

 

Despite losing head coach Andy Enfield after its surprising Tournament run in 2013, FGCU retains some of the exciting qualities that made it Dunk City four years ago. The Eagles rank in the top 40 nationally in scoring offense, putting up close to 80 points per game. They've recorded more dunks this season than in 2013, and they rank more than 50 spots higher in the KenPom.com efficiency metrics. Guard Brandon Goodwin paces FGCU's up-tempo offense – an offense designed to give a team like Florida State trouble.

 

The Seminoles were in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in February, employing their own brand of high-scoring basketball. Florida State averages a healthy 82 points per game, but Leonard Hamilton's team also is vulnerable to allowing big totals. Opponents score 82.7 points per game on the Seminoles when FSU loses.

 

Thursday comes down to Florida State's defensive motivation. While Dwayne Bacon can score with anyone in the country, Hamilton doesn't want to put that onus on his star player. The Seminoles have the firepower to escape, but it could be a tough one.

 

Prediction: Florida State 79, FGCU 77

 

Related: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles vs. Florida State Seminoles Preview and Prediction

 

No. 9 Virginia Tech vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

TV: 9:40 p.m., CBS

Site: Buffalo (East Region)

 

Preview: Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams knows Wisconsin well. Before surprising the basketball world when he left for Blacksburg, Williams coached UW non-conference rival Marquette. Williams' familiarity with Wisconsin and its stifling defensive style makes for an interesting chess match, as Virginia Tech brings a potent offense to the table against the always-stingy Badgers.

 

The Hokies rank No. 21 nationally in offensive efficiency, keyed by the trio of Zach LeDay, Seth Allen and Ahmed Hill. The loss of Chris Clarke to injury took away one of Virginia Tech's key offensive pieces, but Allen's stepped up nicely in his absence.

 

Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard employs a defensive-oriented approach similar to predecessor Bo Ryan. The Badgers rank eighth nationally in defensive efficiency, featuring outstanding defenders at all positions: Ethan Happ on the interior, Nigel Hayes on the wing and Bronson Koenig on the perimeter. Wisconsin's issue is it sometimes goes cold offensively. To beat Virginia Tech, the Badgers need to establish Happ consistently early, and hope Koenig's 3-point shot – which was falling last March during a surprise Sweet 16 run – falls with consistency.

 

Prediction: Wisconsin 65, Virginia Tech 61

 

No. 15 North Dakota vs. No. 2 Arizona

TV: 9:50 p.m., TBS

Site: Salt Lake City (West Region)

 

Preview: For just the second time since the Pac-12 Tournament returned in 2002, Arizona won both the conference's regular-season championship and tournament title. The Wildcats also accomplished this feat in 2015, but are hoping to go at least one step farther than that team. Arizona has not reached the Final Four since 2001, bowing out in the Elite Eight on five different occasions, including '15. With the championship round emanating from nearby Glendale this season, the Wildcats have particular motivation to get head coach Sean Miller there for the first time, and for Arizona to represent after a 16-year drought.

 

The road to the Final Four is long, and if any program should be aware not to overlook a No. 2 vs. No. 15 matchup, it's this one. Arizona became just the second No. 2 seed ever to lose to a No. 15 in 1993, falling to a Steve Nash-led Santa Clara. That historic defeat happened in the very same city in which the Wildcats face North Dakota on Thursday.

 

This Arizona team is Sean Miller's most effective on offense, thanks in large part to 7-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen. The Finnish phenom's outside touch and ability to create off the dribble make him a unique threat. Allonzo Trier's return from suspension midway through the season added another element to the Wildcat offense, which North Dakota must try to solve.

 

The Fighting Hawks are in their first NCAA Tournament, winning the Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles behind some hot 3-point shooting. UND must find a way to connect on the nation's No. 12-ranked defense against the long ball.

 

Prediction: Arizona 92, North Dakota 64

 

No. 12 Nevada vs. No. 5 Iowa State

TV: 9:57 p.m., truTV

Site: Milwaukee (Midwest Region)

 

Preview: Big 12 Tournament champion Iowa State rides a wave of momentum into the NCAA Tournament. The Cyclones pack plenty of firepower behind guard Monte Morris, one of the most exciting players in all of college basketball. Morris is equal parts scorer (16.3 points per game) and distributor (6.1 assists per game), making him one of the most intriguing prospects who could boost his NBA draft stock with a big NCAA Tournament.

 

Before focusing on the pros, however, Morris must lead Iowa State against an opponent red hot in its own right, Nevada. The Mountain West Conference champions completed one of the nation's most remarkable turnarounds in just two years under Eric Musselman, going from nine wins before his arrival, to 28 in his second campaign.

 

The Wolf Pack are as dangerous shooting the 3-pointer as just about any team in the Tournament, featuring three players – Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver and Jordan Caroline – equally capable of getting hot: Past NCAA Tournaments prove an underdog need only start to cook from behind the arc to score an upset, and that's one key reason Nevada is an en vogue pick.

 

Iowa State needs x-factor Deonte Burton to come on. In the Cyclones' key wins over Baylor, Kansas and during the Big 12 Tournament, Burton was the key contributor. Expect him to do exactly that, helping Iowa State survive against an outstanding opponent, as Thursday closes with a fittingly torrid finish.

 

Prediction: Iowa State 82, Nevada 78

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

Event Date: 
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 13:57

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