While there were certainly areas in which the selection committee could be criticized for its work on this year’s bracket, there’s no denying the fact that there are some intriguing matchups set for the first round.
Games involving the eight and nine seeds tend to rate among the most suspenseful, as one would expect, but there are other matchups to be considered as well.
Below are eight — two from each region — of the best matchups of the first round.
Games involving the teams playing in the First Four were not picked here, which means no Florida vs. St. Bonaventure or UCLA (a game that can be good regardless of which team the Gators get).
No. 4 Wichita State vs. No. 13 Marshall (East Region, Friday)
In its first season in the American, Wichita State won 25 games and on Selection Sunday received a lot more respect from the committee than they’ve received in past seasons. That being said, the Shockers have themselves a tough matchup in 13-seed Marshall. The Thundering Herd, back in the tournament for the first time since 1987, love to play fast, spread teams out and fire up three-pointers with Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks being the team’s top two offensive weapons.
Wichita State doesn’t lack for scoring talent, with Landry Shamet leading the way on the perimeter and Shaq Morris being an incredibly tough matchup due to his physicality and ability to step out away from the basket. That, especially with Wichita State’s struggles in defending the three, should make for a fun game Friday afternoon in San Diego.
No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Butler (East Region, Friday)
There are some solid 7/10 matchups in the bracket, with this battle between the Razorbacks and Bulldogs leading the way. Arkansas is experienced on the perimeter, with Anton Beard, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon leading the way offensively. In the post, Arkansas has a freshman center in Daniel Gafford who’s become a bigger name in the eyes of NBA Draft types as the season’s progressed. Lastly, the uptempo style the Mike Anderson’s team plays can be quite the adjustment for teams that are not too familiar with it.
While Arkansas likes to ramp up the pressure, Butler plays in the half-court more often than not. In senior Kelan Martin the Bulldogs have one of the best forwards in the country, not just the Big East, and guard Kamar Baldwin is no slouch either. Defensively, LaVall Jordan’s team has done a good job of keeping their opponents off the offensive glass but defending the three has been an issue. Arkansas, on the other hand, is one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the country. Given the difference in styles, this could wind up being one of the first round’s best games.
No. 8 Seton Hall vs. No. 9 NC State (Midwest Region, Thursday)
The storylines for this matchup are interesting to say the least. Seton Hall has four seniors in its rotation, veterans who would like nothing more than to cap their careers with a deep NCAA tournament run. On the other side is an NC State team that, while it has some experienced players of its own, has surprised many simply by reaching the tournament in Kevin Keatts’ first season at the helm. It wouldn’t be fair to label this a “house money” situation for the Wolfpack, but they may be dealing with less pressure than the Pirates. As for the talent on the court, the matchup between Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado and NC State’s Omer Yurtseven should be an interesting one.
Delgado’s averaging 13.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, getting better at dealing with double teams as his career’s progressed. Yurtseven’s made significant strides from his freshman to sophomore season, and he enters the tournament averaging 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Both teams have talent across the board, and the matchup between playmakers Khadeen Carrington and Markell Johnson could determine the winner. Also worth keeping tabs on: the health of Seton Hall’s Desi Rodriguez, who made his return to the lineup in the Big East tournament after missing three games with an ankle injury.
No. 7 Rhode Island vs. No. 10 Oklahoma (Midwest Region, Thursday)
Given the team’s nosedive in Big 12 play, there were questions as to whether or not Oklahoma would make the NCAA tournament. Not only are the Sooners in the field, but they won’t have to play in the First Four, either. First up for Trae Young and company is a Rhode Island squad that won the Atlantic 10 regular season title and reached the final of the conference tournament. Rhode Island may not have an individual option as explosive as Young can be on the offensive end of the floor, but their perimeter attack is experienced, tough and talented.
The “Batman and Batman” combination of E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell lead the way, with Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson and Darron “Fatts” Russell are key members of the rotation as well. This afford Dan Hurley the option of using multiple players on Young, ensuring that the freshman has to deal with a relatively fresh defender for much of the game. How Young deals with this, and which of his teammates manages to step forward, will determine the outcome. But for the perimeter matchup alone, this is a nice way to start Thursday’s slate.
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson (South Region, Thursday)
John Calipari’s young Wildcats should be confident after they managed to win three games in St. Louis to take home the SEC tournament title. But they’ll be up against a Davidson squad that did the same in the Atlantic 10, and unlike Kentucky anything less than the automatic bid would have meant the NIT (or worse) for Bob McKillop’s team. Davidson has a host of capable perimeter shooters, and in senior forward Peyton Aldridge and freshman guard Kellan Grady they’ve got two players who have led the way offensively.
Davidson is a tough team to defend because of their spacing and player/ball movement, but it should be noted that Kentucky has been one of the best teams in the country at defending the three. Offensively Kentucky has seemingly determined who should be doing what, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander being the team’s best playmaker, Kevin Knox its best scorer and the other members of the rotation (most notably P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Wenyen Gabriel) stepping forward when needed. If Jarred Vanderbilt is unable to return after missing the SEC tournament due to an injury that would hurt, but it isn’t an issue that Kentucky cannot overcome. How Kentucky goes about defending Davidson — and vice versa — is what makes this such a fun matchup.
No. 6 Miami vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (South Region, Thursday)
The Hurricanes took a hit personnel-wise when Jim Larranaga announced that Bruce Brown won’t be available due to the foot injury he suffered in late January. Miami did end the regular season well, winning its final four games, but to not have the sophomore guard on the court could prove costly against a balanced Loyola-Chicago attack that is also good defensively.
Experienced guards Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram and Marques Townes lead the way for the Ramblers, and when you add in Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year Ben Richardson, Porter Moser’s got the pieces needed to match up with Miami’s talented perimeter attack. The key for Miami could be the play of senior JaQuan Newton, who struggled a bit in the games immediately following his move to the bench but has since improved his play. If you like guard play (Miami’s Chris Lykes is incredibly fun to watch), this is a game you need to watch.
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State (West Region, Thursday)
After playing in just nine games last season due to injury, all Keita Bates-Diop did this season was win Big Ten Player of the Year. His play is just one reason why, in Chris Holtmann’s first season at the helm, the Buckeyes are back in the NCAA tournament after they missed out in both 2016 and 2017. But the matchup Ohio State drew is a tough one, with the Jackrabbits being led by two-time Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum.
“The Dauminator” is averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three and 85.6 percent at the foul line. Given his size (6-foot-9, 245 pounds) and ability to step away from the basket, Daum is an incredibly tough matchup for opposing teams. Freshman guard David Jenkins Jr. and senior guard Reed Tellinghuisen should not be overlooked either, and the same can be said for Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson. How the Buckeyes and Jackrabbits account for the league players of the year on the other side should be fascinating to watch.
No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Providence (West Region, Friday)
After they came back to blow out West Virginia in their season opener, Texas A&M had the look of a team capable of making a run to the Final Four. Things haven’t gone as planned since, with Billy Kennedy’s team being impacted by injuries and suspensions for much of the season. But the Aggies are back in the tournament, and in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams they’ve got a couple pros in the post. How Providence deals with those two will be interesting to watch, as they’ll need a big effort from leading scorer Rodney Bullock on both ends of the floor.
What may also help Providence inside is the recent play of Nate Watson, as the freshman stepped up during the Big East tournament. Where the Friars may have an edge is on the perimeter, with senior point guard Kyron Cartwright leading the way and there being multiple contributors capable of supplementing his efforts (Alpha Diallo being one). Ed Cooley’s team doesn’t lack for toughness, which will be key as they go up against a Texas A&M team that’s been quite good on the offensive glass.