Over the next two days in a series of separate posts, RTC will break down all 32 of the first round games using our best analytical efforts to understand these teams, the matchups and their individual strengths and weaknesses. Our hope is that you’ll let us know in the comments where you agree, disagree or otherwise think we’ve lost our collective minds. Here are the Thursday evening games.
7:10 pm – #8 Northern Iowa vs. #9 UNLV (Oklahoma City pod)
The Midwest Region’s first game of the tournament features two teams battling for the privilege of going up against Kansas in the next round. What press there is about Northern Iowa, Jordan Eglseder gets most of it. UNLV will also have to watch out for senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh, a streaky three-point shooter who’s had five straight games in single figures and is due for a run. It was thought at the beginning of the year that UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis and Oscar Bellfield would do a little more sharing of the scoring burden for the Runnin Rebels this year, but it’s been Willis who’s shouldered most of the load. At 17.5 PPG, he averages a full seven points more than the Rebels’ next leading scorer, sophomore forward Chace Stanback. Both of these teams take good care of the basketball and, even though neither of them is going to give the scoreboard operator much of a workout, the game itself should be a good one between two teams of similar talent. We hope all these guys get to enjoy the trappings of the tournament… because it won’t last long, sorry to say.
The Skinny: In a game played in the mid-50s (both in tempo and era), look for UNI to make the key plays down the stretch to win this one by four.
7:15 pm – #1 Kentucky vs. #16 ETSU (New Orleans pod)
If any #16 seed is going to be the first to topple a top seed in this bracket, here’s your best shot. East Tennessee State was in this exact position one March ago and took #1 Pittsburgh to the wire. In fact, the Buccaneers trailed by just three points with 2:47 left in a contest usually reserved for monumental blowouts. ETSU was expected to rebuild after losing four starters from the Atlantic Sun champion of 2008-09, but the Bucs pulled off two upsets in the A-Sun Tournament and toppled Mercer in a true road game, meaning ETSU and former UAB headman Murry Bartow are dancing for the second straight campaign. One player who may give the top seed Wildcats some trouble is a 6’4 wing named Tommy Hubbard that has finally harnessed his talent and is one of the most improved players in the nation. Let’s be honest here, though: Kentucky should roll over the underdog Bucs. The Big Blue has more athleticism and pure ability than any team in the field, never mind the A-Sun champion that finished the season with 14 losses. No guard can come close to contain the blazing speed of John Wall. DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson should have their way on the boards. Even a few breathtaking alley-oops could be in store for the ESPN folks to feast on. Last year Cal State Northridge gave John Calipari’s Memphis team a real scare in the first round. Expect the Kentucky head coach to learn from that game and have his squad prepared to blow the doors off ETSU from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
The Skinny: Kentucky will spend most of the game up 20+ before calling off the dogs Cats to win by fifteen or so.