5 Best NCAA Tournament First Round Matchups

The Men’s NCAA Tournament begins Thursday with the First Four, then the first round will keep it going Friday and Saturday. There are a handful of rounds to follow those, but right now, we only know the matchups for those three days.

In my world, the first round is always the best. Sure, the later rounds probably have better teams, a higher level of play, and the stakes are even higher. I’m not slandering the Final Four here. But there’s something especially unique about the first round – four games in every time slot, all staggered, and for 12 hours straight for two days in a row. This is when the initial upsets happen, the teams that aren’t used to dancing get to show off on national television, and magical runs begin. I’ll be watching the Elite Eight, trust me, but I look forward to the first round in particular all year long.

There are some intriguing first round matchups in 2021, like in every year, and I’m going to outline NUMBER that particularly jump out to me. These are the games I’m most excited to see and recommend you make sure you’re tuned in to catch.

5 Best Men’s NCAA Tournament First Round Games

9 Wisconsin vs 8 North Carolina – Friday at 7:10 p.m. (CBS)

Wisconsin ranks 326th in tempo according to KenPom. North Carolina is 45th.

Roy Williams is known for wanting his teams to up the tempo and push in transition. This year’s Tar Heels might not do so to the same degree as some teams in the past, but it’s still what they want to do. The Badgers, per usual, want a half-court game. Wisconsin also comes in at No. 10 in KenPom while UNC is No. 28 – a pretty good pairing for an NCAA Tournament first round game between No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. Both also rank in the top 15 for defensive efficiency.

You’re talking about very contrasting styles, and the winner of this game will likely be the one that’s able to dictate the contest’s pace. But who will achieve that? I’m leaning toward Wisconsin because of experience in the backcourt, but I don’t feel confident about that.

9 St. Bonaventure vs 8 LSU – Saturday at 1:45 p.m. (TNT)

St. Bonaventure is the 17th-ranked team in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings, while LSU is No. 5 in offensive efficiency. The Bonnies play with the 319th-ranked tempo in the country, while the Tigers are the 78th-most up-tempo team. LSU doesn’t really play defense – it outscores teams and overpowers them with size and athleticism. St. Bonaventure plays like an old-school, East Coast, paint-centric side – it has one of the best interior defenders in the country in Osun Osunniyi and doesn’t shoot much from the perimeter.

These are two teams that will bring pretty different philosophies from two conferences that play quite opposite styles. This first round game will require both coaches to either determine a way to force the other to conform to it or adapt to succeed in a new atmosphere.

LSU averages 81.3 points per game and gives up 77.9 points per contest. St. Bonaventure averages 68.8 points per outing and gives up 59.1 points per game. Something has to give.

13 Ohio vs 4 Virginia – Saturday at 7:15 p.m. (truTV)

I think Ohio will be the Cinderella of the tournament, as I explained in a previous post, and part of that is because of this matchup.

Virginia had to forfeit its ACC Tournament Semifinals game against Georgia Tech because of COVID-19. That incident will keep the Cavaliers from practicing until later this week. We’ve seen lots of teams come back from COVID-induced pauses, and the results haven’t often been good, even if most players didn’t catch the illness.

In contrast, Ohio spent last week blowing out the No. 4, No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the MAC Tournament and is playing its best basketball of the season. James Preston is the prototype of a March Madness guard who leads a legendary Cinderella run, and head coach Jeff Boals was an assistant at Ohio State for a lot of March experience in the early 2010s.

The Bobcats’ strength is in its offense, and while you probably associate Virginia with defense, that’s not its strong suit in 2021. Sure, the Cavs defend well – they’re 33rd in defensive efficiency in KenPom – but they’re not close to the level they have been in recent years.

This feels like the perfect storm for a first-round upset, and even if it doesn’t happen, I don’t see Virginia blowing Ohio out. I’d tune in if I were you.

11 Utah State vs 6 Texas Tech – Friday at 1:45 p.m. (TNT)

I have raved about Chris Beard and his defenses in the past, and it’s the same again this year. TTU was one of the seven Big 12 teams that range from title contender to top-eight seed, and it has some pieces that make this team capable of a Sweet 16 and more. However, Utah State is a tough matchup.

The Red Raiders don’t shoot from deep much and focus heavily on inside play even though there isn’t a ton of height in their lineup. The Aggies have a 7-foot machine in Neemias Queta who is averaging 15.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game this season. He’s one of the best rim protectors in the country. As a whole, USU is excellent at blocks. It swats 14.6 percent of opposing shot attempts and has held teams to 42.9 percent shooting from two-point land. This means that Texas Tech will either have to get creative in opening lanes and getting to the rim, make more outside shots than usual, or both.

Beard is a fantastic coach, and this is something I believe he can handle and adjust for. But there are limitations – if players don’t make shots, there’s nothing he can do.

Outside of Queta, I’m not a huge believer in this Utah State team, though it is the eighth-ranked team in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. If the Aggies are able to get by the Red Raiders, I don’t see a long run in the cards. In fact, I don’t think USU would have much of a chance of winning a game if not be being paired with a favored matchup like this. But that doesn’t matter. In March, you get who you get, and the Aggies got lucky. I want to see how Texas Tech handles a team geared to stop what it likes to do.

14 Colgate vs 3 Arkansas – Friday at 12:45 p.m. (truTV)

It might seem odd to put a 14-3 matchup on this list of best NCAA Tournament first round matchups, but there are things to love about this game.

First, we don’t know a lot about Colgate. This team played 15 games all season, and they were all in the Patriot League. It only came up against five different teams all year long and went 14-1 doing it. But this all somehow turned into a top-10 NET ranking.

Still, the Raiders shoot 40.2 percent from three, and Jack Ferguson is 51.5 percent from deep on the season (35-of-68). Colgate is also 25th in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. The point is, Colgate can fill it up, and it likes to run.

Arkansas is 17th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo. The Razorbacks are coached by Eric Musselman, whose Nevada teams were known for offensive flair and a high pace. That’s a lot of recipe for success in the SEC, and he’s brought that with him to Fayetteville.

Do I think Colgate will win this game? No, probably not. It’s unlikely that Colgate will beat Arkansas at its own game. Do I think this will be an up-and-down affair with plenty of transition and exciting shots and plays that will make you want to stand and applaud? Yes, probably.

If you like your basketball to be high paced and full of possessions, this will be one of the best NCAA Tournament first round games for you to watch.

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