2019 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

March 18, 2019
By K. Becks

The week is finally upon us.

The bracket is set, the anticipation high, the dream of a perfect bracket still intact for millions of fans, both diehard and casual alike (spoiler alert: the casual ones will, on average, do better). It’s March Madness in full effect, and I live for it.

The first six days of the tournament are my favorite six days of the year. Nothing is more exciting, with the potential for the unthinkable to happen (who’s our next UMBC?) being just as likely as the truly great ones pulling through (ahem, Zion Williamson).

Overall, there isn’t a lot to be upset about before the Tournament gets underway. Given a relatively soft bubble and a handful of teams at the top who clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack during the regular season, the Committee appears to have done a pretty good job selecting the field. Only time will tell if that is a correct assessment, but only the aforementioned diehards actually go back and analyze that point after the confetti has dropped from the rafters following the conclusion of the national title game.

If my Big Ten bracket is any indication, I’m not going to do very well in any betting pool this year (I finished tied for last out of 10 people). But that’s not really what matters. This stuff is fun, and I love covering it.

Let’s take a look at the first four games that will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday evening in Dayton, Ohio.

First Round Games to Watch

#11 Belmont vs. #11 Temple (Tuesday, following North Carolina Central vs. North Dakota State game)

If you believe Chris Holtman, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, then Belmont is the top 11 seed to be given a First Four matchup in Dayton. The Bruins earned their first at-large bid in school history, and few are complaining. Rick Byrd’s team is very solid, with great guard play thanks to seniors Dylan Windler, Kevin McClain and freshman Grayson Murphy. The trio are in large part why the Bruins lead the country in assists and are fourth best in field goal percentage. And if it weren’t for a future NBA lottery pick named Ja, Windler would surely have won OVC Player of the Year. Windler himself will likely get a shot in the League and has the potential to go off offensively in any game.

Temple is no slouch, either, which is why this game will be the best of the First Four if it lives up to the hype. Head coach Fran Dunphy will retire at the end of this season, but he’s got a team capable of extending his career at least a couple more games. The individual battle between Windler and Owls guard Shizz Alston, Jr. should be terrific. Alston has the ability to create his own shot off the dribble and is also adept at finding open teammates. Expect a close game, where either would be a nightmare matchup for Maryland in the Round of 64.

#11 Arizona State vs. #11 St. John’s (Wednesday, following Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Prairie View A&M game)

For the second season in a row, Arizona State begins its Tournament in Dayton for a First Four battle. The Sun Devils will look to avoid defeat this time around, again facing a team from near the Eastern seaboard. For some, St. John’s was an interesting inclusion into this year’s Field of 68. Whereas the Sun Devils finished the season by winning six of eight, only losing to a hot Oregon team twice, the Red Storm stumbled, dropping five of their last seven, including a blowout loss in the Big East Tournament to a struggling Marquette squad. Two previous victories over the Golden Eagles and one over Villanova likely saved Chris Mullin’s team.

These two teams play at a similar pace, which is a fast one, and neither is particularly upset by giving up a bunch of points. This could be a game that sees both teams reach the 80 point mark, but size could separate the Sun Devils from the Red Storm. Both squads have good guard play, but Arizona State has Zylan Cheatham down low and St. John’s might be left searching for an answer to stop him. Expect both teams to land punches in this one and keep it interesting for the entire 40 minutes.

Players to Watch

Dylan Windler, Belmont

The only reason Dylan Windler isn’t a household name amongst the best of the mid-majors is because a guy who is slightly outshone Windler and is headed to the NBA Draft as a future lottery pick. But if Ja Morant is the real deal, Windler shouldn’t be too upset being 1B in the Ohio Valley all season long.

The 6’8”, 200 pound senior averages a double-double and plays with two of the more unselfish running mates in the country on the perimeter. Belmont’s unselfishness as a team is well reported, but Windler is a great player and the leader on the court for the Bears. There is no question that when Belmont needs a basket, it’s Windler who the team will defer to in order to get the job done. And if Around The Corn is correct, the country will get more than one opportunity to see Windler in action, which would be a treat for us all.

Zylan Cheatham, Arizona State

Cheatham is a beast on the boards, leading the Pac-12 in rebounding with 10.4 per contest, which was also 14th in the country. While the 6’8”, 220 pound senior has superior athleticism in the paint, he’s really an all-around performer who can score, dish with precision and run the court on fast breaks. To say that he’ll be a problem for Arizona State’s first opponent, St. John’s, is an understatement.

Arizona State is just 6-5 in games where Cheatham does not score at least 10 points, so it is in Bobby Hurley’s best interest to keep his athletic forward on the court and give him opportunities to work. At the very least, the Sun Devils are a team that does not give up many second chances when he is in the game.

Team That Could Make a Run

Belmont

Realistically, either team that makes it out of Dayton in the Belmont vs. Temple matchup has a good chance at moving on to the Round of 32, but based on personal predictions, this section is reserved for the Bruins. Fans of the mid-major are happy just to have Rick Byrd’s team in the Field of 68, but the OVC regular season co-champions aren’t satisfied with just being included. Belmont is one of the best passing teams in the nation and lead the country in assists, which makes the Bruins incredibly difficult to defend.

The tempo that Belmont is comfortable playing in will likely bother both Temple and Maryland, teams that prefer slowing things down. Unless opponents are able to contain Belmont’s guards or Windler & Co. are having an off day shooting, Around The Corn thinks it’s actually likely that the Bruins make it to the Tournament’s second week.

My Picks

#16 Prairie View A&M over #16 Fairleigh Dickinson

#11 Belmont over #11 Temple

#16 North Dakota State over #16 North Carolina Central

#11 Arizona State over #11 St. John’s

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