NCAA Tournament: Previewing Thursday’s bracket action; picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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GAMES OF THE DAY

No. 12 Nevada vs. 5 Iowa State (-6.5), 9:57 p.m., truTV: This is one of my two favorite first round matchups. I’m not sure there is a hotter team in college basketball than Iowa State. The Cyclones were on the bubble roughly six weeks ago. Now they’re a No. 5 seed that finished second in the Big 12 and won the Big 12 tournament title. Monte’ Morris is playing great and Naz Long looks like a new man. But the Wolf Pack are the most talented double-digit seed in the field. They have a center that will play in the league, a guard that averages 20 and another forward that went for 45 points in a road game against New Mexico. This is going to be a fun, fun basketball game.

PREDICTION: Iowa State (-6.5)

No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 6 Maryland (-2), 6:50 p.m., TNT: This game is fascinating to me because I think Xavier will win this, but also because Maryland always, always, always plays close games. They’re good enough to keep pace with just about anyone in the country, and they have the ultimate closer in college hoops in Melo Trimble, who is 30-8 in games decided by six points or less in his college career. Xavier has just one win over a team not named DePaul since Feb. 4th, but with Trevon Bluiett’s ankle finally healthy and the Musketeers getting used to life without Edmond Sumner, I think they win this game, and I would not be surprised if it came on a buzzer-beater.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+2)

UPSETS BREWING

No. 12 UNC Wilmington vs. No. 5 Virginia (-7), 12:40 p.m., truTV: I’ve written and talked about this plenty, but I have a real concern about UNCW in this game simply because I don’t love the matchup. UNCW wants to press, force turnovers, speed things up and make opponents make mistakes. That’s not an easy thing to do against Virginia. I do, however, think that, given the pace UVA plays at, the Seahawks will have a good shot to cover.

PREDICTION: UNCW (+7)

No. 13 East Tennessee State vs. No. 4 Florida (-10.5), 3:10 p.m., truTV: A bet on ETSU is a bet on Steve Forbes, a former Wichita State and Tennessee (under Bruce Pearl) assistant that has had success everywhere he’s been in the coaching world. He now has a team with some high-major talent and an elite guard in T.J. Cromer, and he’ll be going up against a Florida team that is missing their starting center. Florida is an elite defensive team, and their guards are going to make ETSU work, but I think the Buccaneers have a puncher’s chance here.

PREDICTION: ETSU (+10.5)

No. 12 Middle Tennessee (-1) vs. No. 5 Minnesota, 4:00 p.m., TNT: It feels so weird writing about this game as a potential upset when the team that I think will be doing the upsetting is actually the team that is favored in this game. But since this is all about the tournament and all about the brackets, we can call Middle Tennessee winning an upset without the gambling dorks losing their minds. If there’s anything I’m worried about with Minnesota, it’s that they have a pair of dynamic guards and a couple of big, athletic bodies up front. As good as the Blue Raiders are, I’m worried about the athleticism advantage that Minnesota will have. I’m still riding with Kermit Davis, though.

PREDICTION: Middle Tennessee (-1)

No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast vs. No. 3 Florida State (-12), 9:20 p.m., TNT: So I think Florida-Gulf Coast wins this thing. Florida State is really talented and crazy athletic with a ton of size, but I just don’t trust them. I don’t think they have great guard play and I don’t think that they realize that Jonathan Isaac is the best player on the floor every time he steps on the floor. I don’t even think Jonathan Isaac realizes it. Throw in the fact that FGCU is well-coached and has a really good guard in Brandon Goodwin, and I’ll ride that Dunk City train.

PREDICTION: Florida-Gulf Coast (+12)

HOPEFULLY, IT’S CLOSE LATE

  • No. 12 Princeton vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (-6.5), 12:15 p.m., CBS: Princeton is better than you may realize, controls tempo and should keep this one close. PREDICTION: Princeton (+6.5)
  • No. 13 Winthrop vs. 4 Butler (-11), 1:30 p.m., TNT: I actually think Pat Kelsey’s club has a chance to pick off Butler, who is a team I absolutely cannot figure out. PREDICTION: Winthrop (+11)
  • No. 10 VCU vs. No. 7 Saint Mary’s (-4.5), 7:20 p.m., TBS: Saint Mary’s has a chance to make something of a statement against a program with a reputation in March that is only in the tournament because of a pair of fluky wins. PREDICTION: Saint Mary’s (-4.5)
  • No. 13 Vermont vs. No. 4 Purdue (-10.5), 7:27 p.m., truTV: The Catamounts should keep this close. They’re well-coached, control pace and tough defensively. Staying out of foul trouble will be the key. PREDICTION: Vermont (+10.5)
  • No. 9 Virginia Tech vs. 8 Wisconsin (-5.5), 9:40 p.m., CBS: You know a No. 8 seed has been miss-seeded when they show up as a 5.5 point favorite. And while I love Buzz in a tournament setting, I’ll get my money in on Wisconsin. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-5.5)
  • No. 13 Bucknell vs. No. 4 West Virginia (-14), 2:45 p.m., CBS: There is no way that Bucknell is going to know what’s coming when they face Press Virginia. They may have prepared for it, but practice and what happens in an actual game are two different things. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-14)
  • No. 9 Vanderbilt (-2) vs. No. 8 Northwestern, 4:30 p.m., TBS: In the battle of the brainiacs, I fully expect a Vanderbilt team with three wins over Florida that is coached by a guy that made one of the most famous shots in NCAA tournament history to be able to handle a Big Ten program playing their first ever NCAA tournament game. PREDICTION: Vanderbilt (-2)

THE ONLY DRAMA IS WHETHER OR NOT THEY COVER

  • No. 16 South Dakota State vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (-22.5), 2:00 p.m., TBS: This matchup is intriguing because SDSU’s Mike Daum is the second-leading scorer in college basketball, but I can’t see this Gonzaga team being the first ever No. 1 seed to lose in the first round when they’ve blown everyone out this year. PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-22.5)
  • No. 16 Mount St Mary’s vs. No. 1 Villanova (-26.5), 7:10 p.m., CBS: Jamion Christian has done a terrific job at The Mount, but there’s a reason Villanova is the reigning champ, even though they’ve been stuck in Buffalo for three days. PREDICTION: Mount St. Mary’s (+26.5)
  • No. 15 North Dakota vs. No. 2 Arizona (-17), 9:50 p.m., TBS: Arizona is coming off of a Pac-12 regular season and tournament title, and Allonzo Trier is playing as well as he has all season long. PREDICTION: Arizona (-17)