Springtime is right around the corner, and you know what that means for fans of collegiate sports: It’s March Madness. It’s time for the NCAA tournament, brackets, upsets and Cinderella stories.
The official bracket for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament was released Sunday, and here are four must-watch potential matchups for the first two rounds of the tournament.
10-seed Loyola Chicago (25-7) vs. No. 2-seed Villanova (26-7)- South Region Second Round
No list would be complete without Sister Jean and the Loyola Chicago Ramblers. In their past two trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Ramblers have advanced to the Final Four (2018) and the Sweet Sixteen (2021).
Should they advance past 7-seed Ohio State in the first round, the Ramblers would likely face a stout Villanova team. The Wildcats have had their fair share of ups and downs in recent years, winning it all in 2016 and 2018 but being bounced early on several occasions.
The Ramblers would pose a tough challenge for the Wildcats as they convert a high percentage of shots. They rank 18th nationally in field goal percentage (48.3%) and ninth in three-point percentage (38.3%).
Villanova counters that with a pair of all-Big East players in Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, who have a combined average of 30.9 points per game.
Additionally, coaching experience heavily favors the Wildcats.
In his 21 years at the helm of Villanova, Jay Wright has led the Wildcats to 16 NCAA tournaments and three NITs. Conversely, first-year head coach Drew Valentine is one of the youngest head coaches in all of Division 1 at 30 years old.
12-seed UAB (27-7) vs. No. 5-seed Houston (29-5)- South Region First Round
One of the most exciting games of the tournament could happen in the first round, as the hot shooting UAB Flames face off against the Houston Cougars in the ever treacherous 5-12 matchup.
Houston came into the season ranked in the top ten with a deep roster full of experienced talent and exceeded expectations early. They started the season 21-2 but lost their starting point guard, junior Marcus Sasser and double-digit scorer Mark Tramon during that stretch.
Despite the losses, the Cougars stayed solid and ended the season winning nine of their last ten games.
They do so by playing solid, all-around basketball up and down the roster, ranking top ten in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The only other team top ten in both is top-ranked Gonzaga.
But as good as the Cougars are, the 3-ball is this sports’ great equalizer, and almost nobody in the country shoots it like UAB.
The Blazers have hit 38% from deep this season, the ninth best mark in the country. Most of that is from the teams’ electric junior guard, Jordan “Jelly” Walker, who is second in the nation in total 3-pointers made with 115, and he buries them at a 40% clip.
Walker is only 5-11, but few teams have had an answer for him this season, as he’s averaging over 20 points per game, being 14th in the nation. Look back to his 40-point outburst against Middle-Tennessee in February if you need proof of what Walker is capable of.
He’s the kind of scorer that can take over and win some games for an underdog in March, but Houston is long, athletic and play hard on defense. They feature 6-7 and 6-8 forwards Fabian White Jr., Reggie Chaney, with 6-10 Josh Carlton to anchor the defense.
Perhaps the biggest draw, however, is the seed matchup. The 5-12 games are a popular pick for upsets, with at least one happening most years.
10-seed Davidson (27-6) vs. No. 7-seed Michigan State (22-12)- West Region First Round
Davidson and Michigan State are two schools that have had a tradition of basketball success. When these two collide in the first round, the stars will be watching.
Lest we forget former Davidson and future NBA superstar Steph Curry and his tear through the 2008 NCAA Tournament or Magic Johnson and his run to a national championship at Michigan State in 1979?
Even the head coaches are legends in their own right, with Davidson’s Bob McKillop and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo combining for 34 NCAA tournament appearances.
However, the Spartans and Wildcats come into this year’s tournament on opposite trajectories.
After a strong 15-3 start that saw them rise as high as No. 10 in the AP Poll, the Spartans closed their season on a 7-9 stretch. That includes a stretch that saw them drop seven of nine.
Similarly, Davidson had a strong start, winning 15 straight following a 1-2 start. While the Wildcats did drop four games down the stretch, they remained consistent throughout most of the season.
The Wildcats are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, knocking down 38.8% of their shots and ranking sixth nationally. The Wildcats also have four players averaging over 10 points per game, which can pose a problem for anybody.
Still, while they are coming in on a low note, the Spartans do have a strong offense themselves. For the season, the Spartans have converted 37.8% of their threes and 45.7% overall.
Whoever wins this battle will give likely second round opponent Duke a serious run for their money.
9-seed Memphis (21-10) vs. No. 1-seed Gonzaga (26-3)- West Region Second Round
One of the main draws to any March tournament is the talent on display in nearly every game. However, you usually have to wait until the later rounds to see top prospects face off.
In the second round of the West Region, an early potential matchup between not two but three of the top five NBA prospects looms if Gonzaga and Memphis play.
Gonzaga has been arguably the best team in basketball over the past two seasons. After winning 31 games in 2021, they entered 2022 as the consensus preseason no. 1.
That’s thanks partly to a top five incoming recruiting class featuring one of the most intriguing high school players in recent memory and the number one recruit, Chet Holmgren.
Memphis on the other hand brought in the top ranked freshman class in the nation, headlined by Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates who are both projected to be top five picks in the upcoming NBA drafts.
Holmgren, however, is the projected to go first this because of his unique combination of size (7-1 with a 7-3 wingspan), defensive instincts (3.4 blocks per game) and mobility on and off ball.
Holmgren’s frontcourt partner may not be a top five pick, Zags big man Drew Timme has looked like one of the best players in college basketball over the past two seasons, averaging 17 and 19 points per game with savvy post play.
While the Zags big men run the show on offense, it will be interesting to see if they have the size to contend with the 6-10, 250-pound Duren on the other end.
Duren was the second ranked center in the 2021 recruiting class behind Holmgren. At only 18, he’s already a monster physically who jumps out the gym and loves to bruise and bang down low.
Bates is perhaps the biggest name on either team, but the star freshman hasn’t played since January. Bates was the top prospect in the 2022 class before he reclassified to join Memphis, but the 6-9 forward has struggled to find his role with the Tigers this year, shooting only 38% on 10 PPG.
Written by Nathan Harrell and Austin Bruce, Co-Sports Editors. Photo by Ben Hershey.