2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Must-watch first round games

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East region

4. Florida vs. 13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, 3:15 p.m., truTV): The Buccaneers are going to be a trendy upset pick under the direction of coach Steve Forbes, whose team has won nine of its last time, while the Gators have dropped three of four. Florida could make its dent on the defensive end, where it excels at forcing turnovers. ETSU, on the other hand, is one of the country’s worst at taking care of the ball. If that can’t get settled, it’s hard to imagine an upset occurring. The formula for the Bucs is likely to contain a heaping of TJ Cromer. The 6-foot-3 guard averages nearly 20 points per game can lets it fly from 3. He’s one of the biggest mid-major breakout candidates of the tournament, and maybe the biggest reason you shouldn’t miss this game.

7. South Carolina vs. 10. Marquette (Friday, 9:50 p.m., TBS): No team benefitted from the rash of Big East injuries quite like Marquette, which surged in the second half of the conference season to earn a bid. While the Golden Eagles may have gotten some help getting in, now that they’re here, you don’t want to miss them. They shoot a ton of 3s and they shoot them well, at 43 percent, best in the country. They’ve also got experience in seniors JaJuan Johnson, Katin Reinhardt and Luke Fischer, the 6-foot-11 center who can be a problem inside. On the other side, Sindarius Thornwell is a force to be reckoned with, and really the only thing the Gamecocks have going on offense. South Carolina’s defense, well, it has plenty going for it as one of the stingiest in the country. This is a classic strength vs. strength matchup, with Marquette’s offense and South Carolina’s defense fighting to see which gives first.

West region

3. Florida State vs. 14. Florida Gulf Coast (Thursday, 9:15 p.m., TNT): Dunk City in the tourney is must-watch on its own, isn’t it? This year’s edition is just as dunk-prone as the 2013 outfit that made the Sweet 16. Hell, they even broke a shot clock because of it. Taking this game to another level, though, is the talent and athleticism of the Seminoles. Those dudes can dunk, too. Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon will be appointment viewing from NBA draft junkies, and they should have ample opportunity to showcase themselves against the Eagles, who give up a ton of buckets inside.

RELATED: Power Rankings 1-68 | Duke deserved a No. 1 seed | Committee got bubble right

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | Midwest | South | West

Midwest region

5. Iowa State vs. 12. Nevada (Thursday, 10 p.m., truTV): Offense will be flowing more smoothly than Miller Lite out of a Milwaukee tavern tap in this one at the Bradley Center. Both the Cyclones and Wolfpack make their bones on that end of the floor, specifically at the 3-point line. Iowa State converts at a 40.2 percent clip while Nevada clocks in at 38.5. Both feature high-caliber point guards in Monte Morris and Marcus Marshall with their scoring or distributing, and highly talented frontcourt players in Deonte Burton and Cameron Oliver. Neither team plays at a blistering tempo, but this one could quickly turn into a track meet if neither squad can keep the other from putting the ball in the basket. This game has been one circled by many as a possible upset, but it’s worth watching just for all the buckets that are sure to be had.

7. Michigan vs. 10. Oklahoma State (Friday, 12:15 p.m., CBS): The Midwest is full of offense-heavy showdowns, and this matchup is no difference, with the Wolverines (5) and Oklahoma State (1) both high in the KenPom offense rankings. Michigan certainly seems to have captured some mojo after its dodging disaster with its airplane skidding off the runway before the Wolverines ultimately embarked on a Big Ten tournament championship run. The Wolverines play slow, but they make shots as consistently as nearly any team in the country with a balanced attack. The Cowboys are more dependent on its top-three players of Phil Forte, Jeffrey Carroll and, especially, point guard Jawun Evans. Oklahoma State takes and makes a lot of 3s and hits the offensive glass with abandon.

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South region

5. Minnesota vs. 12. Middle Tennessee State (Thursday, 4 p.m., TNT): Here’s another trendy 12 over 5 pick. Steve Forbes’ Blue Raiders have won 20 of their past 21 games. JaCorey Williams (17.3 ppg) could be a problem for the Gophers, as could Giddy Potts, whose name outdoes his game but not by much as he’s averaging 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Minnesota, though, might have the counter to MTSU’s interior-heavy offense as the Gophers, specifically Reggie Lynch, block a ton of shots and make life very difficult for opponents in the paint. If the Blue Raiders want to pull off the upset, they may need to get hot from the arc.

7. Dayton vs. 10. Wichita State (Friday, 7:10 p.m., CBS): You can’t miss this game. You just can’t. The Shockers are going to come out all sorts of ornery after the committee gave them a worse seed than their national KenPom ranking (8), and this could be the start of their scorched Earth campaign to prove a point. The poor recipients of that wrath will be the Flyers, who didn’t deserve to start their tournament against a team as highly regarded as Wichita State. Still, while Las Vegas likes the Shockers, Dayton is no slouch. Coach Archie Miller will have no trouble playing the disrespect card here, and the Flyers have senior scorers in Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith that could be disruptive of the Shockers’ defense. Whether it’s to see the wrath that Gregg Marshall’s bunch comes out with or to see how one of the most ascendant coaches in the game handles an odd situation, this is appointment viewing.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically:

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering.