The second day of the 2019 NCAA Tournament is upon us, and if the first day of March Madness was any indication, we should be in for quite a treat. Who are the prime candidates for an upset? What games will go down to the wire? Who will be moving on? Sit back, relax, and enjoy the action for another twelve hours. Here are the five “Must Watch” on Day 2 of the Big Dance.
Must Watch Games
1. (W11) Arizona State vs. (6W) Buffalo
These two teams have much more in common than meets the eye. Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley led the Bulls for two seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15, guiding Buffalo to a tournament appearance in 2015. Now, Hurley will face his former team after lifting the Sun Devils to their first NCAA tournament victory in a 74–65 triumph over St. John’s on Wednesday night.
Buffalo is an experienced team, led by the trio of CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, and Jeremy Harris. It’s the same group that upset No. 1-seed Arizona in last year’s tournament. The Bulls can score the ball, averaging over 113 points per 100 possessions. They get up and down the court fast (16th in the country in pace, per Sports-Reference), and the Sun Devils are not too far behind (49th). This should be a back-and-forth affair. Both teams stack up similar in rebounding, but Buffalo takes much better care of the basketball, turning the ball over on just 13.5% of their possessions. And they also force opponents into turnovers with an 18.3% opp. TO rate.
Arizona State has tremendous size and strength, but they have been marred by inconsistency all season. The Bulls should win the turnover battle and advanced to the Round of 32.
2. (S12) Oregon vs. (S5) Wisconsin
Oregon comes in playing its best basketball of the season, having upended the only other two NCAA tournament teams in the Pac-12 (Arizona State and Washington) in the Pac-12 tournament last week. As such, the Ducks are playing with house money.
Oregon is an excellent defensive team (17th in Adjusted Defensive efficiency per KenPom). They can rebound well and are among the best shot-blocking teams in the nation. But the Badgers also play defense (3rd defensively per KenPom) and turn the ball over less than all but nine teams in Division I. Senior Ethan Happ is a superstar, and he should have a big game. This one will be back and forth, but I’ll go with the experienced Badgers over a surprising Oregon team.
3. (E12) Liberty vs. (E5) Mississippi State
This game is ripe for an upset. At least, many fans seem to think this way: a modest 26% of brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge have the Flames advancing to the Round of 32. Liberty is here by virtue of a bruising 74–68 victory over Lipscomb in the A-Sun Championship Game. The Flames are led by forward Scottie James, who is first on the team in scoring (13.1 PPG) and rebounds (8.8 RPG). Liberty plays a pack-line defense under head coach Richie McKay, a former assistant under Tony Bennett at Virginia. Not surprisingly, they rank 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions (93.0) and play at the 333rd-fastest pace among 353 Division I teams. They will try to wear Mississippi State down.
But the Bulldogs have playmakers. Quinndary Weatherspoon averages 18.6 points per game and, combined with Lamar Peters, is part of one of the SEC’s best backcourts. MSU rebounds very well offensively (21st nationally in offensive rebound percentage), and are 37th in effective FG% (.546). Liberty will try their best to control the tempo, but Mississippi State has enough firepower to get past the offensively-challenged Flames.
Pick: Mississippi State
4. (E9) UCF vs. (E8) VCU
The winner of this game may be seen as nothing more than fodder for Zion Williamson and Duke in the Round of 32, but this is a very intriguing matchup. Many college basketball fans know about UCF’s 7’6 center Tacko Fall, but the Knights have excellent guard play in B.J. Taylor (16.0 PPG) and Aubrey Dawkins (15.2 PPG). UCF is among the nation’s best at getting to the foul line, as they are 2nd in Division I in Free Throw rate. The problem: they don’t shoot free throws well (64.5 FT%, 334th in DI). This will be critical, especially down the stretch. However, despite the presence of Fall, the Knights are little more than a pedestrian rebounding team.
VCU, meanwhile, is led by junior transfer Marcus Evans, who came from Rice along with head coach Mike Rhoades. He’s in his second season at the helm of Ram basketball. VCU is not particularly special offensively, though they do rebound well offensively. Instead, the Rams thrive on their defense: they are the 7th-best defensive team per KenPom, and allow fewer points per 100 possessions (88.6) than any other school besides Texas Tech. This is mostly because of their stellar shooting defense (3rd in opp. eFG%) and high forced turnover rate (20%, 17th in Division I). This game will be a dogfight, and I can see the Rams forcing UCF into miscues. Rebounding is a question mark, but I’ll take the better defensive team.
5. (E13) St. Louis vs. (E4) Virginia Tech
The final matchup of the Round of 64 features two teams that meet in 2017-18, with St. Louis grinding out a 77–71 victory over the Hokies in Madison Square Garden. But the two teams have changed quite a bit since then.
St. Louis comes in having won four straight games and six of their last seven, making the Big Dance by way of winning the A-10 Tournament. The Billikens are paced by senior guard Javon Bess, a transfer from Michigan State. The issue for St. Louis is that of depth: they only have 7 players who will play meaningful minutes, and that can lead to tired legs towards the end of games. Not only that, the Billikens really struggle to score: they 328th nationally in eFG% (.328) and rank 205th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency on KenPom. However, they are an excellent offensive rebounding team.
Virginia Tech has had an interesting season. They started out 17–3 before losing their star point guard Justin Robinson to a foot injury. Initially, the Hokies struggled mightily on the offensive end without their floor general. However, they have picked things up recently thanks in part to the emergence of Nickeil-Alexander Walker, a projected first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Walker, along with 6’10 forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., make for a tough tandem to stop. The Hokies are one of the top shooting teams in the country, and as a result one of the top offensive teams. And for the first time in head coach Buzz Williams’ time in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech is playing tremendous defense, ranking 25th defensively per KenPom.
They say “defense wins championships”, but offense matters too. While the Hokies are not the deepest team, getting Robinson back is a huge plus even if he comes off the bench in limited minutes. St. Louis’ strength is their defense, but their thin rotation will be worn down as the game progresses, and the Billikens simply don’t have enough playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. This game will be close throughout as both teams play slow, but expect VT to pull away late.
Pick: Virginia Tech