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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

10 biggest storylines for first round of NCAA Tournament

Lonzo Ball

College basketball fans are salivating. March Madness has arrived, and two of the best days on the sports calendar are coming up. There are 16 games taking place on Thursday and 16 more on Friday for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The first two days of March Madness never disappoint, bringing buzzer-beaters, upsets, and shocking drama.

The narratives that will unfold over the two wildest days in sports may not be evident right now, but there is still a treasure of trove of things to watch for as the tournament heats up.

Here’s a look at the 10 biggest storylines entering the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will be played at various venues across the country on Thursday and Friday.

1. Can Oregon adjust without Chris Boucher?

The Ducks accomplished enough in the meat of the season to earn a 3 seed, despite Chris Boucher’s torn ACL suffered in the Pac-12 Tournament. The versatile big man brought length, rim protection, and outside shooting to the Oregon lineup, and his production will be sorely missed. He was averaging 11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, and a conference best 2.5 blocks per game.

Because they earned that seed, the Ducks are likely safe in round one, though in this tournament that can be a dangerous thing to say. Even without Boucher, Iona is travelling 3,000 miles to Sacramento to face the Ducks, and Oregon is still far more talented than the Gaels. Yet if and when Oregon wins this game, it will be interesting to see how they replaced Boucher in the lineup and if his absence was detrimental.

The winner of Creighton and Rhode Island provides no cakewalk to the Sweet 16, so Oregon needs to figure out life without Chris Boucher sooner than later.

2. Under-seeded Wichita State faces big challenge

The seeding of Wichita State has taken over as the prevailing narrative of the week.

Advanced metrics love the Shockers because they not only won a ton of games in the Missouri Valley Conference, but also because they did so by wide margins. The RPI, still the preferred metric of the committee despite its flaws, does not account for margin of victory or defeat. In a perfect world, Wichita State would have been seeded higher, but in today’s system, they earned a 10 seed.

None of this, by the way, changes the fact that the Dayton Flyers are really good.

Dayton is a legitimate 7 seed and capable of winning games in this tournament. Just because Wichita State deserved a less difficult opponent doesn’t mean the Flyers are doomed.

This may be the best game of the round, and penciling the Shockers forward would be a mistake. Archie Miller and his Flyers deserve your attention. Dayton has six wins over teams in this tournament, while Wichita State managed only one such win this season (against 16 seed South Dakota State).

3. Michigan-Oklahoma State a clash of styles

Speaking of great first-round games, this one should be a battle.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, this game features two top 25 teams squaring off as a 7 and 10 seed. More importantly for the viewing audience, it features two wildly different styles.

Michigan plays the patient, drawn out offense of coach John Beilein. The Wolverines play the 12th-slowest pace in Division I, and it pays off. They’ve posted the 5th-lowest turnover rate and the 8th-best effective field goal percentage. Michigan will work your defense until they get the shot they want, every time down the floor.

Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood wants to press and run the ball all night long. You may remember his teams at Stephen F. Austin the past three years causing all kinds of trouble in the NCAA Tournament. Now he has power conference athletes in his system, and it’s led to Oklahoma State being the top ranked offense in the nation.

Slow meets fast. Frantic meets deliberate. Sounds like a fun way to start Friday’s slate (at 12:15 pm ET in Indianapolis).

4. Northwestern is finally in and has good chance to win!

After decades of torture and teasing, the Northwestern Wildcats are finally dancing in March. Coach Chris Collins has built a program capable of competing in the Big Ten and this year’s team can win in this tournament.

The Wildcats will face a Vanderbilt team with 15 losses this season, including home losses to Bucknell, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. The Commodores earned their way into the tournament, but Northwestern will have a golden opportunity to take home their first NCAA Tournament win in their first year of play.

Junior guard Bryant McIntosh will run the show for the Wildcats. In the Big Ten Tournament, he and Northwestern showed the ability to dominate games for stretches. Even though it happened against lowly Rutgers, Northwestern ripped of a 31-0 run. That doesn’t happen easily or without skill.

5. Winthrop’s Keon Johnson is your new favorite player

Looking for a guy to fall in love with this weekend, even if it is just for one game? Winthrop’s Keon Johnson is your man.

The 5-foot-7 guard does everything for the Eagles, scoring 22.5 points per game. Johnson shot more free throws than any other player in the Big South Conference and took the 2nd most 3-point attempts. The little guy finds ways to score. He topped 30 points seven times this season, which doesn’t even include a spectacular 27 point, 7 assist, 5 rebound game against Charleston Southern.

Butler will be a tough test, though the Bulldogs don’t feature any guards with the right tools to lock in on Johnson. Tyler Lewis will likely spend most of the day chasing Johnson around, likely with limited success.

See Nos. 6-10 on Page 2

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