The NCAA Tournament is back, and not a second too soon.
After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 edition, 2021 brings March Madness back — with a twist. All games will be played in an Indiana "bubble," including the First Four. The Big Dance's initial round, which began with one game in 2001 and expanded to four a decade later, has always called Dayton home prior to this year.
The 20th anniversary of this round includes a showdown of Sun Belt and MEAC champions for the right to face No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday.
First Four: No. 16 Appalachian State (17-11) vs. No. 16 Norfolk State (16-7)
Time: Thursday, March 18 at 8:40 p.m. ET
Where: Assembly Hall (Bloomington, Ind.)
Spread: Appalachian State -3.0
Keys for Appalachian State
Though this trip marks the first of coach Dustin Kerns' head-coaching career, the second-year Appalachian State leader has impacted the NCAA Tournament in recent years. He recruited Fletcher Magee to Wofford while an assistant with the Terriers, and Magee shot Wofford to a First Round win over Seton Hall in 2019. Kerns also has postseason success to his credit, that same 2019 campaign coaching Presbyterian to a pair of CIT wins.
Appalachian State earned its way into the program's first NCAA Tournament since 2000 with a four-wins-in-four-days performance at the Sun Belt Tournament. Adrian Delph, the Mountaineers' leader among four double-figure-per-game scorers, made multiple 3-pointers in each of Appalachian State's tournament wins. Continuing that hot shooting against a Norfolk State defense that held opponents below 32 percent shooting from beyond the arc will be a key subplot of Thursday's matchup.
Defensively, Appalachian State has been one of the most effective steal-creating teams in the country. The Mountaineers force steals on 11.1 percent of defensive possessions per KenPom.com metrics, and their 8.0 steals per game rank No. 44 nationally.
Keys for Norfolk State
In 2019, Norfolk State was the top team in the MEAC all season — until the conference tournament. A championship-game loss to North Carolina Central denied the Spartans their second all-time NCAA Tournament bid, but they made up for it with an NIT win at Alabama.
In a bizarre 2021 season, Norfolk State rebounded to claim the MEAC title and return to the Dance for the first time since upsetting Missouri in 2012. Kyle O'Quinn has no more eligibility, but Devante Carter is a worthy leader of this Spartans bunch. The All-MEAC honoree is an all-around difference-maker who can score (he's hit double-figures in every game but one this season), distribute the ball, and hit the boards. He came one assist shy of a triple-double in Norfolk State's MEAC semifinal defeat of North Carolina Central.
Guard Joe Bryant Jr. had an excellent MEAC Tournament, scoring 30 and 17 points in the semis and finals. At 42.3 percent for the season, Bryant's a dangerous 3-point shooter. If he can get hot, Norfolk State will be tough to beat.
The Spartans' true calling card is their defense, however. They rank in the top 100 nationally for a variety of defensive metrics, including both 2-and-3-point field-goal defense and turnovers forced.
Appalachian State's scoring balance opposite an aggressive and disciplined Norfolk State defense makes for an interesting contrast. A common denominator in the Spartans' losses has been opponents being able to hit more than 70 points; the Mountaineers' average is just under 71. A higher-scoring game is to Appalachian State's benefit, but the question becomes then if it can avoid turnovers and connect from outside more effectively than most Norfolk State opponents have been able to.
Prediction: Norfolk State 65, Appalachian State 59
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.