The SEC. The Big Ten. The PAC-12. These power five conferences along with several mid major conferences will be represented in Salt Lake City on Thursday when four NCAA tournament games kick off at the Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Fans used to attending this arena for Utah Jazz NBA games or the occasional Miley Cyrus concert will be in for a treat this week as they can possibly witness a storybook ending for the underdog Cinderella teams.
This week David will take on Goliath. The JV will take on the Varsity. Cinderella is getting an invite to the royal ball and there is nothing that the ACC loving selection committee can do about it. Here are the matchups slated for Thursday:
#2 Arizona Wildcats vs #15 North Dakota Fighting Hawks:
Fifteen seeds Occasionally will beat a 2 seed but this one isn’t likely. Arizona struggled at the start of the season but they were without two of their best players. Wildcats head coach Sean Miller has made it to the Elite 8 four times but has yet to crack the Final Four due to tough regional championship games against powerful teams like the Wisconsin team led by Frank the Tank several years ago.
This year the Final Four will take place in Glendale Arizona which is only a couple hours away from where U of A resides in Sunny Tucson. This will provide the Cats the motivation they need to bring it home for two more games to play for all the marbles.
Alonzo Trier is looking more like Alonzo Mourning as he causes other teams to morn at his impressive 17.3 points per game clip. Lauri Markannen sure knows how to “Finnish” at the rim (no pun intended) but it helps that the Finland native is grabbing more rebounds (7.1 per game) than his family grabs second helpings of pickled herring at Finnish dinners.
Look for the Cats to eat the Fighting Hawks for breakfast because, after all, you know that the girl at the office who picks teams according to their mascots will pick the cat to get the bird just like Sylvester the cat got Tweety bird in episode 67 of the Looney Tunes.
Prediction: This is Arizona’s to lose. They won’t lose because they have too much star power for the Hawks to match them. The Hawks will put up a fight but won’t win that night Arizona 75 ND 63
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs South Dakota State Jackrabbits
This is a mid major first round matchup even though Gonzaga doesn’t play like your average mid major team. It’s the WCC champ verse the Summit league champ.
One nationally reknowned name is guard standout Nigel Williams-Goss. The junior is averaging 16.9 points per game and has an electrifying intensity that has led the Zags to the most wins in America this season.
Another name fans have heard of it maybe can’t pronounce is Przemek Karnowski, a Bulldog big man from Poland. Parnowski’s beard rivals NBA MVP candidate James Harden and some sources speculate that he almost needed a beard card before playing BYU in Provo at the Marriott Center this year.
Nobody outside of South Dakota has heard of the players on South Dakota State but this was the first team in decades to strip Utah State of a win at its hosted Christmas Gossner Classic tournament a couple years ago. They did allow a double digit comeback in the closing minutes but finished the game in overtime.
The Jackrabbits have an 18-16 record this year yet this team who tied for fourth in the regular season Summit League standings but were bitten by the March Madness bug and won their conference tournament in full stride over Omaha (Peyton Manning’s favorite University). One standout player on the Jackrabbits is Mike Daum (25.3 points per game) but it is yet to be seen whether he can score on the bearded baller of Gonzaga.
Prediction: Gonzaga wins a close single digit game just like they did four years ago in Salt Lake City. A 16 will beat a 1 seed someday but probably not this year. Gonzaga: 69 South Dakota State: 63
#8 Northwestern Wildcats vs. #9 Vanderbilt Commodores:
These evenly seeded games are a coin flip. In the only Salt Lake City matchup between two Power 5 teams, this will be a terrific battle for bragging rights between the SEC and the Big 10. Can these Midwestern boys brave over 4,000 feet of elevation or will their game be as flat as the plains which they live in? Fans will find out when these two teams square off at 2:30 PM.
The Northwestern Wildcats qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Honestly they may just be happy to be there. Maybe they will be hungry for more wins. Time will tell.
First year Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew knows how sweet it is to win in the NCAA tournament as he hit a game winning three pointer for Valparaiso in 1998 to lead his #13 seed team to a victory over #4 seed Ole Miss. It is still referred to this day by Valparaiso fans as The Shot. Perhaps many of their fans weren’t around when the greatest basketball player ever named Michael Jordan hit The Shot to win a series over the Cavaliers in 1989.
Prediction: The first Big Dance for the Wildcats will be awkward as most first dances are. They will enjoy a thrilling game but at the end of the day Bryce Drew will take his team that had a losing record a couple of weeks ago to Vivint arena again on Saturday for the second round. The score will ironically match the Valparaiso vs Ole Miss score 19 years ago that the Vanderbilt coach is responsible for. Northwestern 69 Vanderbilt 70
#7 St. Marys Gaels vs. #10 VCU Rams: It’s the WCC vs the Atlantic 10. It’s the west coast vs. the East coast. It’s a mid major vs a mid major. This year St. Mary’s has played tough and can really give VCU trouble on the offensive end. Look for the Gaels to intimidate the Rams early with their aggressive play. The Rams have more of a history in the tournament since they made the final four as a double digit seed in the 2011 tournament. The Atlantic 10 is more highly esteeemed as they put 4 teams in the tournament compared to only two from the WCC.
Prediction: The Gaels will find a way to win with their high powered offense and the West coast crowd giving them the home court advantage. VCU can’t be Cinderella every year especially when they play a successful team like St. Marys who mostly only lost against a top team in the land called Gonzaga. Gonzaga ousted them thrice in conference play including the WCC championship. There won’t be a fourth meeting in the elite 8 as St. Marys will likely bow down to Arizona in the 2nd round. St. Marys 81 VCU 72