USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the East region of the NCAA Tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
The NCAA tournament gets fully underway on Thursday with 16 games at four different sites across the country.
Get ready for all the action with our capsule previews for every game on the schedule as the field of 64 starts to narrow down on the road to Glendale, Ariz.
No. 1 Villanova (31-3) vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s (20-15)
Time, TV: 7:10 p.m. ET, CBS. Site: Buffalo.
Why Villanova will win: The Wildcats are on a mission to become the first repeat champions of the NCAA tournament since Florida in 2006 and 2007. They are led by Big East player of the year Josh Hart, who averages 18.9 points per game, and their offensive efficiency ranks among the tops in the nation. The embarrassment of riches for the No. 1 overall seed also includes Mikal Bridges, the Big East’s defensive player of the year, and Kris Jenkins, who hit that fairy-tale shot at the buzzer to beat North Carolina in last season’s championship game.
Why Mount St. Mary’s will win: Yes, no 16-seed has ever beaten a 1. And Villanova has all the advantages, arriving in Buffalo on Monday, a day early, to get ahead of a snowstorm while the Mountaineers had to play in Tuesday night’s play-in game in Dayton. But the law of averages says a 16 has to win sometime, so why not when the odds are longest? The Mount’s coach, Jamion Christian, a former assistant to Shaka Smart, believes in high-intensity defense. Elijah Long scores 15.4 points per game and hits 40% from three.
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No. 4 Florida (24-8) vs. No. 13 East Tennessee State (27-7)
Time, TV: Approx. 3:10 p.m. ET, truTV. Site: Orlando.
Why Florida will win: The Gators’ deep team played their first 11 games away from home while the O’Connell Center was being renovated, so they’re used to neutral site games. Florida is 3-3 since center John Egbunu tore his ACL, but with eight different leading scorers the Gators’ balance will be the key to getting a tournament win in coach Mike White’s second season and first NCAA tournament as a coach or assistant coach.
Why East Tennessee State will win: Led by three seniors — including leading scorer T.J. Cromer (19.1 ppg) — the Buccaneers have had the same starting lineup for all but three games. If ETSU wants to advance, it will need to rely on its 49.1% field goal percentage, 10th in the country.
No. 5 Virginia (22-10) vs. No. 12 UNC-Wilmington (29-5)
Time, TV: 12:40 p.m. ET, truTV. Site: Orlando.
Why Virginia will win: The Cavaliers have long been known for their defense, and they lead the country in giving up 55.6 ppg this season. It’ll be needed against UNCW, but if they can slow the game down enough and get scoring from senior London Perrentes (12.5 ppg), the Cavaliers should move on.
Why UNC-Wilmington will win: The Seahawks’ up-tempo pace has them 10th in the country with 85.2 points per game. If they can speed the game up and get rebounding, including from Devontae Cacok (9.6 rpg), they can pull the upset.
No. 8 Wisconsin (25-9) vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech (22-10)
Time, TV: Approx. 9:40 p.m. ET, CBS. Site: Buffalo.
Why Wisconsin will win: The Badgers have won 11 NCAA tournament games in the past three years, more than anyone else, and they’re the only team to get at least as far as the Sweet 16 in each of those years. They depend on their defense, which is rated among the most efficient in the nation, and on stars Bronson Koenig (14.1 points per game), Ethan Happ (13.9 points per game) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 points per game). They were ranked as a top 10 team for much of the regular season before struggling down the stretch.
Why Virginia Tech will win: The Hokies feature an offensive attack rarely seen — its two highest scorers come off the bench: Maryland transfer (and ACC sixth man of the year) Seth Allen and South Florida transfer Zach LeDay, who combine for nearly 30 points per game. Virginia Tech lives by the three, hitting 41%, best in the ACC and among the top 10 nationally. Plus the Hokies are hungry, making their first tournament appearance since 2007, though they must stay out of foul trouble as they typically use a seven-man rotation.
USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
No. 4 Purdue (25-7) vs. No. 13 Vermont (20-5)
Time, TV: 7:27 p.m. ET, TruTV. Site: Milwaukee.
Why Purdue will win: Caleb Swanigan gets most of the attention – and rightly so – but this is a very balanced Purdue team. It ranks fourth in the country in assists (18.1), seventh in 3-point percentage (.406), 18th in rebound margin (plus-6.8), 21st in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.38) and 27th in field-goal percentage (.480). Four players average in double figures and Dakota Mathias is thisclose at 9.9 points per game.
Why Vermont will win: The Catamounts haven’t lost since last year, bringing a nation’s best 21-game winning streak into the game. While they lost both of their games against Top-25 teams this year, South Carolina and Butler, Vermont does know a little about upsets, beating fourth-seeded Syracuse in the 2005 tournament.
No. 5 Iowa State (23-10) vs. No. 12 Nevada (28-6)
Time, TV: 9:57 p.m. ET, truTV. Site: Milwaukee.
Why Iowa State will win: The Cyclones are one of the nation’s best teams from long range. They rank 14th in the country, but Marquette is the only tournament team averaging more 3s per game than Iowa State (10.0.) And it’s not simply because they take a lot of shots from 3-point range. Matt Thomas and Nazareth Mitrou-Long are shooting a combined 40.9% from beyond the arc.
Why Nevada will win: The Wolf Pack can win anywhere. It went 7-1 on neutral courts this season, those seven wins a school record. It also won eight road games, and its six in the Mountain West was also a Nevada best.
USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the South region of the NCAA Tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
No. 4 Butler (23-8) vs. No. 13 Winthrop (26-6)
Time, TV: 1:30 p.m. ET, TNT. Site: Milwaukee.
Why Butler will win: Kelan Martin is again looking like one of the country’s top players after his late-season wake-up call. The junior lost his starting job after struggling midway through the Big East season – the slump started with a 3-of-13 night against DePaul on Jan. 21. Rather than sulking, he refocused his energies in practice and it’s now showing on the court. Martin is averaging 19 points and 6.8 rebounds over the last six games, including 22 in Butler’s second win this year over Villanova.
Why Winthrop will win: For one of the smallest players in the game, Keon Johnson puts up some of the biggest numbers. The guard, who is listed at 5-foot-7, is 10th in the country in scoring at 22.5 points per game. He’s topped the 30-point mark in seven games, and did it twice to lead the Eagles to their first Big South tournament title since 2010.
No. 5 Minnesota (24-9) vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee (30-4)
Time, TV: 4 p.m. ET, TNT. Site: Milwaukee.
Why Minnesota will win: The Golden Gophers played their way into the tournament with a blistering second half of the Big Ten season. They won eight in a row before dropping the regular-season finale, then beat Michigan State before losing to eventual champion Michigan in the Big Ten conference tournament. Jordan Murphy has keyed the run, averaging 15.6 points and 12.4 rebounds during the win streak, and the Gophers will need him to come up big again after losing Akeem Springs to a torn Achilles.
Why Middle Tennessee will win: Did you watch the NCAA tournament last year? The Blue Raiders pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, beating a second-seeded Michigan State team that many thought was a dark horse for the national title. And this Middle Tennessee might be even better. The top scorers from the Michigan State upset, Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts, are back, and the addition of JaCorey Williams gives the Blue Raiders three players averaging 14.5 points or more.
USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the NCAA tournament’s West region.
USA TODAY Sports
No. 1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs. No. 16 South Dakota State (18-16)
Time, TV: 2 p.m. ET, TBS. Site: Salt Lake City.
Why Gonzaga will win: The last time the Bulldogs were a No. 1 seed in Salt Lake City, their 64-58 victory against No. 16 seed Southern was far too close for comfort, foreshadowing their loss in the Round of 32 to Wichita State. With five double-digit scorers, the Bulldogs have plenty of options if one or two key players have a bad game, and the Jackrabbits don’t have anyone who can match up with 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski (12.6 ppg).
Why South Dakota State will win: Sophomore Mike Daum has become one of college basketball’s most productive players, averaging 25.3 points with 8.2 rebounds while shooting 41.6% from the three-point line. At 6-9, he’s a real matchup problem and carried the Jackrabbits to the Summit League title. Though this team didn’t come close to beating a quality opponent outside its league,, a heroic performance by Daum could put the pressure on and test how well Gonzaga executes in a close game.
No. 2 Arizona (30-4) vs. No. 15 North Dakota (22-9)
Time, TV: Approx. 9:50 p.m. ET, TBS. Site: Salt Lake City.
Why Arizona will win: The Wildcats were seemingly built for a long tournament run with a pair of 7-footers in the frontcourt and a deep roster of wing players who can shoot the three-pointer. Arizona won nine of its last 10, wrapping up the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and has become a real title threat since sophomore guard Allonzo Trier returned from suspension, averaging a team-high 17.3 points in the final 15 games.
Why North Dakota will win: At a school known for hockey, just making the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history is a big deal. North Dakota’s lone game this year against a power conference team was a competitive 84-73 loss to Iowa in December, so perhaps this team can hang athletically. The Fighting Hawks’ best hope is to shoot a bunch of threes and hope they go in. Their top three scorers, led by senior Quinton Hooker (19.1 ppg), average a combined 14.6 attempts per game from the three-point line.
No. 3 Florida State (25-8) vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)
Time, TV: Approx. 9:20 p.m. ET, TNT. Site: Orlando.
Why Florida State will win: The Seminoles are stacked with talent, including Dwayne Bacon (16.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and freshman Jonathan Isaac (12.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg). But they’ve gone 7-6 since January and will need to find the consistency that they’ve had in going unbeaten at home.
Why Florida Gulf Coast will win: The Eagles earned their Dunk City nickname during their 2013 tournament run, and this year’s team is following suit. Florida Gulf Coast is fifth in the country with 50.2% shooting, a byproduct of leading the country with 41.5 points a game in the paint. Continue to score down low, and the Eagles can move on.
No. 4 West Virginia (26-8) vs. No. 13 Bucknell (26-8)
Time, TV: Approx. 2:45 p.m., CBS. Site: Buffalo.
Why West Virginia will win: The Mountaineers like it in Buffalo. In 2010, they used two games in the city to kick-start a trip to the Final Four. Their stifling defense — known as “Press” Virginia — leads the nation in steals and forced turnovers, which in turn leads to easy baskets. Jevon Carter, Big 12 defensive player of the year, scores 13.1 points per game to lead a balanced attack. They always stay close: All of West Virginia’s losses on the season have been by fewer than 10 points.
Why Bucknell will win: The Bison will feel right at home in a city called Buffalo. They’ve won 14 of their last 16 games and have an NCAA tournament pedigree as upset artists. Bucknell shocked Kansas in 2005 and Arkansas in 2006 — and coach Nathan Davis was an assistant on those teams. Nana Foulland, the Patriot League’s player of the year, averages 14.9 points per game and tournament MVP Zach Thomas averages 16 per game.
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No. 5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs. No. 12 Princeton (23-6)
Time, TV: 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS. Site: Buffalo.
Why Notre Dame will win: The Fighting Irish always have a fighting chance because no one shoots free throws better: They led the nation at 79.9%. Guard Steve Vasturia shot his free throws at 91.5%t, best in the ACC and eighth in the nation. Power forward Bonzie Colson was the only ACC player to average a double-double (17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game) on the season. And the Irish share the ball: Their assist-to-turnover ratio is second-best in the nation.
Why Princeton will win: The Tigers have known only victory in this calendar year, having won 19 consecutive games since a Dec. 20 loss at Monmouth. Ivy League schools have won first-round games as a 12-seed in two of the last three NCAA tournaments (Harvard vs. Cincinnati in 2014 and Yale vs. Baylor last year). If the Tigers’ threes are falling (they generate more than 40% of their points from there) they are tough to beat.
No. 6 Maryland (24-8) vs. No. 11 Xavier (21-13)
Time, TV: 6:50 p.m. ET, TNT. Site: Orlando.
Why Maryland will win: The Terrapins start three freshman and have been inconsistent at times, including going 4-6 in their past 10. But junior guard Melo Trimble has 21 consecutive games scoring in double figures and averages 17 points per game. As he goes, so goes Maryland.
Why Xavier will win: Junior guard Trevon Bluiett (19.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.3 apg) has been the go-to guy since Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending injury in late January. He’ll need to be on, and Xavier will need the defense that has made them 12-1 when holding teams under 70, to advance.
No. 7 Saint Mary’s (28-4) vs. No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth (26-8)
Time, TV: 7:20 p.m. ET, TBS. Site: Salt Lake City.
Why Saint Mary’s will win: Outside of going 0-3 against Gonzaga, the Gaels did little wrong this season and got a nice seeding boost from early non-conference victories against Nevada and Dayton. Saint Mary’s has exploited its Australian recruiting pipeline for several years, and this year’s team has seven Aussies including leading scorer Jock Landale, a true low-post player at 6-11 who nearly averaged a double-double (16.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg). He’s one of the few Gaels who isn’t a threat from three-point range, as starters Calvin Hermanson (43.7%), Emmett Naar (43.9%) and Evan Fitzner (44%) can all light it up from outside.
Why VCU will win: Four of the Rams’ five starters are seniors playing in their fourth NCAA tournament, and that kind of comfort level both as a team and on this stage can pay dividends when the pressure gets turned up. One of the big keys for VCU will be the turnover battle. Though the Rams aren’t creating as many turnovers as they have the last five years, they’re still 36th nationally and can get teams off-kilter with their pressure. VCU’s small-ball lineups with 6-7 forwards Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox force teams with traditional centers like Saint Mary’s to adjust.
No. 8 Northwestern (23-11) vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt (19-15)
Time, TV: Approx. 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS. Site: Salt Lake City.
Why Northwestern will win: Despite making the NCAA tournament for the first time, this has been a fairly linear program-building job for Chris Collins, who has continued to add talent and develop experienced depth over his four seasons. The Wildcats are very good on the defensive end, allowing opponents to shoot just 40.3%, which should help them settle in against a team that doesn’t have a lot of individual playmakers. Guard Bryant McIntosh isn’t efficient (39.8 FG%), but on a team with balanced scoring, he’s a tough customer who is great with the ball and finds a way to put it in the basket when it counts.
Why Vanderbilt will win: The Commodores are a different team than they were at the start of February, winning seven of their last nine. Vanderbilt set a school record with 337 made three-pointers this season and will rely heavily on the outside shot; the Commodores led the SEC in three-point accuracy at 37.7%. Vanderbilt has been hot of late and schematically gives opponents trouble by spreading the floor with five shooters. Even 7-1 center Luke Kornet is a huge threat from the outside (13.2 ppg), and junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis is a 40% shooter from the arc for his career.