2016 NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

March 14, 2016

The bracket was unveiled over 24 hours ago, so hopefully everyone has had some time to digest it and begin making their picks if they haven’t already done so. And because this tournament already seems to have some controversy attached to its name, let’s get one thing out of the way:

Of course there are snubs. Of course there are good arguments that the Committee got it wrong. It’s a byproduct of the season as a whole.

Like many others, I was not happy when teams like Monmouth, St. Bonaventure and Saint Mary’s were seemingly snubbed for power conference teams Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Michigan. But this happens every year. And this year is exceptional, because there are no great teams.

The only reason that this year got more attention is because the majority of snubs were the little guy. But the bubble was also much bigger than in prior years, meaning that there were plenty of other teams with a legitimate argument that didn’t get in as well.

Additionally, at least one of those teams that did make the tournament controversially is going to make everyone eat crow. Since the First Four concept was introduced in 2011, each year at least one team from the play-in games in Dayton has won multiple games in the tournament. It will happen again this year, too.

The more detail oriented and veteran readers of Around The Corn may have noticed that the yearly disclaimer about my predictions being opinions and not a ticket to Las Vegas gold has not been copy/pasted into this article. I’m forgoing that this season. Blow your money, I don’t care. It’s been six years since I’ve won a bracket pool, so if you’re actually betting based on my predictions you probably have deeper rooted issues.

Here is a preview of the First Four games of the NCAA Tournament that will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday evening in Dayton, Ohio.

First Round Games to Watch

#11 Vanderbilt vs. #11 Wichita State (Tuesday, following Florida Gulf Coast vs. Fairleigh Dickinson game)

This game is being touted as one of the best First Four matchups ever, which is interesting considering how much criticism the Committee received for choosing Vanderbilt over some other bubble teams. Wichita State has a very tournament ready backcourt thanks to Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, who have been to the NCAA Tournament in each of their four seasons and who have never played fewer than two games in a single Big Dance. They take good care of the ball and will be difficult to rattle in high pressure situations. The Shockers are also the No. 1 team in the country in adjusted defense according to KenPom, a good sign against a Vanderbilt team that has a very talented and powerful offense.

Wichita State did not begin the season well, losing four of its first six games against teams that were taking advantage the Shockers’ struggles to score. While things have come together for Gregg Marshall’s team in that area, the Shockers will be facing an athletic team with two trees in the post with 7’1″ Luke Kornet and 7’0″ Damian Jones. Grittiness will be necessary for both teams, but if Wichita State can stay out of foul trouble trying to guard the bigs, tournament experience will help them tremendously in what will likely be a game that comes down to the final minutes.

#16 Holy Cross vs. #16 Southern (Wednesday, 6:40 PM ET)

This game is for the opportunity to play No. 1 Oregon in Spokane on Friday, so the likelihood of the winner continuing its success in the second round is low. But Holy Cross is already riding the good time wave and is probably just happy to be in the tournament. After finishing next to last in the Patriot League during the regular season, the Crusaders reeled off four straight tournament victories, including one in double overtime over No. 1 seed Bucknell. Malachi Alexander is a very good player and is the focal point of the offense. He will need to have a good game in order for the Crusaders to do well in Dayton.

Southern had a slightly better regular season, finishing above .500. But the Jaguars also have a very deep bench, getting double digit minutes from nine players on average. This is probably more important for Southern anyway, since Holy Cross has had longer to rest since its conference tournament. But without much else to separate these two teams, stamina could play a major factor. Don’t be spooked by the Crusaders’ 14-19 record – sub-.500 teams have done quite well in the First Four, and based on conference RPI the Patriot League is stronger than the SWAC.

Team That Could Make a Run

Wichita State

It should not be a surprise that one of the more successful teams in the country over the past four years is the choice for “Team That Could Make a Run” out of the First Four. There are few backcourts better than the Shockers’, not only because of talent but because Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet know each other’s tendencies so well. No other guard tandem in Division 1 has played more games together. But Baker and VanVleet are just part of the equation, as great defenses need all of its parts moving fluidly. Wichita State would be slated to play some strong offensive teams (Vanderbilt, Arizona, potentially Miami) depending on how far the team goes, and their defense is what gives them an edge.

Experience and good defense seem like qualities of an old school contender, but it has worked extremely well for this bunch of seniors the last three NCAA Tournaments. This is not the best Wichita State team that we have seen over the last several years, but you know what to expect from them. Teams such as Vanderbilt and Arizona have not always been consistent this season, which is the kind of thing Gregg Marshall’s teams have been feasting on since Baker, VanVleet and fellow senior Evan Wessel were freshmen. Do not be surprised at all if the Shockers make it four consecutive tournaments with multiple victories.

My Picks

#16 Fairleigh Dickinson over #16 Florida Gulf Coast

#11 Wichita State over #11 Vanderbilt

#16 Holy Cross over #16 Southern

#11 Michigan over #11 Tulsa

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