Mark Titus' March Madness first-round viewing guide
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
THE OPENING TIP
The wait is over. The NCAA Tournament is finally here!
After a season unlike any before, I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you feel overwhelmed as you fill out your bracket. It’s hard enough trying to make sense of the madness in a normal year, much less at a time when you have to remember which teams played full schedules, what those schedules looked like, who dealt with COVID pauses, when those COVID pauses took place and how those COVID pauses impacted the teams that dealt with them.
Don’t beat yourself up if it’s too much to process. (If you truly have no idea what to do with your bracket, just pick Gonzaga to win it all, and flip a coin on the rest of the games.) On top of trying to make sense of all 68 teams in the tournament, there are logistics that have to be considered, mainly that the entire tournament is taking place in Indiana and that the first round starts Friday this year instead of Thursday. Add it all up, and I could understand how someone might feel a little lost heading into what is usually the best weekend on the sports calendar.
I’m here to help. Just know that the First Four (i.e. "play-in") games are all Thursday night, and the first round starts just after 12 p.m. ET Friday. In the meantime, if you can’t devote your entire weekend to watching the NCAA Tournament, I recommend at least making time to watch these five matchups in the opening round.
Loyola Chicago enters this one having won 17 of its past 18, with the lone loss in overtime at Drake on Valentine’s Day. The Ramblers have the best defense in the country, according to KenPom, a star who has Final Four experience in Cameron Krutwig and a roster on which five of the top six guys in the rotation are seniors.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech is on a hot streak of its own, having won eight games in a row after winning the ACC Tournament title on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets are also one of the fun stories of this season, going from being a team that didn’t even practice 5-on-5 at the start of the year to being the only power conference team in America to have its conference’s player of the year (Moses Wright) and defensive player of the year (Jose Alvarado) without both awards going to the same person (Alabama’s Herb Jones and USC’s Evan Mobley each won both of their conference’s awards.)
Simply put: Both of these teams are good enough to beat Illinois in the second round, but only one of them will get the opportunity. If all of that doesn’t do the trick for you, this game will feature Josh Pastner -– a man who has been a godsend for this newsletter all season — and Sister Jean — the most famous college basketball nun who has ever lived.
If you’re looking for a 12-over-5 upset special for your bracket, look no further. Villanova is one of the premier programs in college basketball for good reason, and Jay Wright deserves the benefit of the doubt in March more often than not. But the best Villanova teams in the tournament have been fueled by great point guards such as Scottie Reynolds, Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Although the Cats had exactly that in Collin Gillespie, serious questions have arisen since Gillespie tore his MCL earlier this month. Villanova has gone 0-2 in two games without its senior star.
Enter 22-1 Winthrop, which is one shot away from being undefeated this season. The Eagles are among the fastest teams in America and are led by a strong core of upperclassmen. I have no idea if the upset bid will come to fruition, but I do know I’m going to enjoy watching every second of Winthrop’s attempt to take down the program that has won two of the past four national titles.
I’m not going to lie ... this game is likely going to be pretty ugly. Maryland held opponents to 65 points per game this season while playing a loaded Big Ten schedule. On the other side, UConn’s defense allowed only 53.6 points per game. By the way, FOX Bet has the O/U set at 130.
That’s all you really need to know about this one. Both teams play great defense. Both are storied programs that have won national championships this century (which might not sound that impressive but is more than the entire Pac-12 or Big Ten can say). Both teams are coached by guys who are just as likely to be at each other's throats as they are to calmly shake hands after the game.
Why am I excited to watch this game? Because I think it’s going to come down to the wire, and the winner will be decided down the stretch via the one-on-one matchup of Maryland’s Darryl Morsell and UConn’s James Bouknight. Morsell is one of the premier defenders in the nation and was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, while Bouknight embodies the spirit of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier in that he fits the mold of a guy who can single-handedly carry UConn to a surprise national title. This game might look like a rock fight for 36 minutes, but I’m betting it will be worth it for those final four.
Speaking of guys good enough to carry their teams, you likely know all about Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham, who is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and has been every bit as good as advertised this season. You might not know much about Liberty’s Darius McGhee, unless you read my newsletter from a couple of weeks ago and saw him throw it down vs. Bellarmine. McGhee stands 5-foot-9, has a 48-inch vertical and has averaged almost 23 points per game in his past seven games for a team entering the tournament on a 12-game win streak.
If Cunningham and McGhee aren’t enough to sway you, I should mention that seemingly every game Oklahoma State plays comes down to the wire. The Cowboys have played 28 times this season, and 15 of those games have been decided by five points or fewer. Now, those close games go Oklahoma State's way more often than not so I don’t necessarily expect an upset here, especially because the Cowboys have proven they can beat the best of the best, notching four top-10 wins away from home in the past month. But this team does have a tendency to play to the level of its competition, so given how hot Liberty has been, don’t be surprised if this is a tight one down the stretch that comes down to Cunningham having to outduel McGhee.
The only reason this game isn’t higher on my list is because I’m still not 100 percent certain Virginia will even be playing, given that the Cavaliers are the only team in the NCAA Tournament yet to arrive in Indianapolis. Virginia is expected to arrive Friday, but for now, the team is still quarantining after a positive COVID test forced it to withdraw from the ACC Tournament.
Assuming Virginia makes it, this should be one of the best games of the first round. Virginia is still technically the defending national champion, but this team ain’t that team, as this might be the worst defensive group Tony Bennett has had in the past decade. Pair that with an Ohio offense that’s seventh in the nation in scoring and led by a guy in Jason Preston who I believe will be the best player on the floor, and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision an upset in this matchup.
The Buckeyes should win relatively easily, but it’s worth noting that Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas leads the country in scoring, the Buckeyes are great on offense but suspect on defense, and Ohio State has a tendency to let huge leads slip away. Don’t expect a particularly close game, but there should definitely be some stretches of high-level, fun basketball in this one.
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
LOVE FOR THE LITTLE GUY
One of my favorite things about Selection Sunday is watching how teams react to seeing their names placed in the bracket. I was worried that COVID would keep us from getting to see that this year, but thankfully, the tradition was upheld, and we got to see plenty of excitement from around the country.
Here are some of my favorite reactions from schools hearing their names called:
1. Wichita State (No. 11 seed in the West)
2. Cleveland State (No. 15 seed in the Midwest)
3. Grand Canyon (No. 15 seed in the West)
4. UNC Greensboro (No. 13 seed in the East)
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
Here’s the truth, ladies and gentlemen. Tate and I have done so many podcast segments over the past five days that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Needless to say, they have all been a blast, and they aren’t slowing down as the NCAA Tournament quickly approaches. We have interviewed the likes of Luka Garza, Matt Painter, Chris Holtmann, Eric Musselman and yes ... Josh Pastner! Make sure to check out our full show from Monday, in which we filled out our entire 2021 NCAA Tournament brackets.
See you next week!