While the greatest day in the history of sports — the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament — is still two days away, the Big Dance actually kicks off tonight with the first two games of the First Four.
Here is a quick look at the four games that will be played in Dayton over the course of the next two days:
Tue. 6:40 p.m.: No. 16 Albany vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s:
Playing for the right to face Florida on Thursday, two of the NCAA tournament’s most unexpected participants will square off the the first of 67 glorious games.
Albany was the No. 4 seed in the America East tournament, upsetting league champ Vermont in the semifinals on their home court before heading to Long Island to beat Stony Brook on the road. The Great Danes are led by Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley. Hooley has been playing great of late, as he scored 71 points in the three America East tournament games.
Mount St. Mary’s is led by a member of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree. Jamion Christian runs a similar system to what Shaka Smart does at VCU, only his is called Mayhem instead of Havoc. They press, they try to force turnovers and they shoot a lot of threes. The name to know on the Mountaineers is Julian Norfleet.
Tue. 9:10 p.m.: No. 12 N.C. State vs. No. 12 Xavier
N.C. State was the surprise of Selection Sunday, as they snuck into the dance over SMU, who had spent much of the final month of the regular season in the top 25. Xavier had a bit more room to spare, as most experts considered them as close to a lock as a bubble team can get, but they still found themselves on the wrong end of a play-in game.
This has the potential to be quite an entertaining game. N.C. State is led by T.J. Warren, who is one of the nation’s most talented scorers. He went for more than 40 points in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season and beat out Jabari Parker for ACC Player of the Year.
Xavier has a talented scorer in their own right in Semaj Christon, a 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard that has had the offense built around him this season. The good news for Xavier is that they also have Matt Stainbrook back from a knee injury that cost him a game at the end of the regular season.
Wed. 6:40 p.m.: No. 16 Cal Poly vs. No. 16 Texas Southern
Cal Poly is the lowest seeded team in this field after losing nine of their last 11 games and sneaking into the dance with a regular season record of just 12-19. Poly is led by Chris Eversley and Dave Nwaba, their two leading scorers and rebounders, but it was a three from Ridge Shipley, a freshman point guard that comes off the bench, that gave them the win over Cal St. Northridge.
Texas Southern is loaded with guys that you’ve heard of before. Their coach is Mike Davis, who once led Indiana to a Final Four. Their best player is Aaric Murray, a former top 100 recruit that played at La Salle and West Virginia. Former Marshall scorer D.D. Scarver is their second-leading scorer while Oklahoma State transfer Ray Penn comes off the bench.
Wed. 9:10 p.m.: No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Iowa
This will be one of the most interesting matchups of the first week of the tournament. Tennessee is a team with a great computer profile, a dominating win over Virginia in December and a talented roster playing their best basketball down the stretch of the season. The problem? The Vols lost too many head-scratchers and got a pair of bad breaks on game-winning threes from Texas A&M’s Antwan Space in their two losses to the Aggies this season.
Iowa is similar in that their computer numbers look really good, but their overall profile is suspect. They blew too many close games early in the season and they have completely lost the ability to play defense over the course of the last month.
The matchup that will be interesting will be between Jordan McRae and Roy Devyn Marble, two of the nation’s most underrated stars, but the x-factor is going to be Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. His son is having surgery to remove a tumor from his thyroid on the day of the game, and McCaffery will fly into Dayton before tip-off after being by his son’s side during the procedure. Will Iowa rally around their head coach and his family.