Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Opening Round Games to Watch for... and Under-the-Radar Upsets

March Madness is upon us, with Maryland making an incredible run into the tournament after being left almost for dead by more than a few prognosticators (ATH included) earlier in the season. It is incredible, though not so surprising I suppose, that no one is calling for Gary Williams’ head anymore, though he will still have to do a lot more to return Maryland to its traditional place among the nation’s better (and more consistent) programs. In the meantime, let us revel in the glory that is March Madness- and whether the Terps make it to the Final Four or are knocked out by 3-point-shooting Cal, Maryland fans can rejoice in the rejuvenation of this team over the latter part of the season.

However, as we are inundated with predictions from every bracket, we would be loathe not to include some of our most eagerly awaited matchups from the first round, which will be fun to watch regardless of whether they will make anyone’s Final Four predictions. The joy of March Madness is watching teams that have nothing to lose and are going at one another to stay alive for just one more game. These opening round games will be intriguing enough to make you tune in whether you are a fan of the teams, whether it impacts your bracket, or whether you are just a casual fan.

#5 West Virginia v. #11 Dayton: Dayton is an explosive at-large from the A-10 looking to obtain some credibility against a physical West Virginia squad. I love WVU this year because they can shoot from the outside and have great physical play inside, but Dayton has a decent resume, having beaten Marquette early and Xavier later in the season. I think this is a classic battle of two teams that are probably equal on the court but seeded according to their conference strength.

#8 Louisiana State v. #9 Butler: These are two teams that were both favored going into their conference tournaments but faded in critical games to the eventual winner. How insane is it, by the way, that the #1 team in a major conference winds up as a #8 seed? Not that insane when you look at the SEC this year. We haven’t seen these teams up against high caliber opponents very often this season; we should learn a lot watching these teams take on one another.

As for upsets, VCU, Siena, and USC are cited as being great teams that could make a splash, but let me throw out a couple others you may have overlooked:

#13 Cleveland State over #4 Wake Forest: Wake has played down to competition this season, and if they are caught sleeping against a strong defensive team like Cleveland State this could be a huge upset.

#12 Western Kentucky over #5 Illinois: Just because Illinois can be really bad some nights. And WKU has won 11 of their last 12 games, and their mascot is… well, something.

#10 Michigan over #7 Clemson: Am I a Michigan fan? Yes. Is that why I am calling this upset? Only a little. A diary writer on one of my favorite blogs put it this way when describing Clemson’s offense: “They average 79 points a game to Michigan's 67. Given the ACC at times can be dump-and-go Olympics where defense gives way to LOOKHOWFASTWERUNUPDOWNTHECOURTOMGTYLERHANSBROOOOOOOugh, though, means they might be mildly taken aback to find defenders rotating.” If Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims manage to combine for their obligatory 32 points, Clemson may not be able to overcome the 1-3-1 zone defense that took down Duke, UCLA, Illinois, Minnesota (twice) and Purdue this season.

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