#12 Oral Roberts vs #5 Duke Thursday at 7:10 PM ET on CBS
Part of what makes College Basketball and March Madness so fun, is the fact that Duke can be playing Oral Roberts in the opening round, and Oral Roberts will be very competitive, with at least a chance to win. That is exactly the case here, as both of these teams will enter this game red hot, as winners of a combined 26 games in a row. Oral Roberts has not lost a game since going down at New Mexico on January 9th, and they were able to go a perfect 18-0 in Summit League Conference play. It is also important to remember this a team with the same coach in Paul Mills and star player in Max Abmas as they had two years ago, when they shocked #2 seeded Ohio State and #7 seeded Florida, on their way to the Sweet 16. In addition, they added Arkansas Transfer Connor Vanover, who is a very unique matchup at 7 ‘3”, due to his ability to shoot and make the three-point shot.
Duke on the other hand is fresh off an ACC Tournament victory, and haven’t lost a game since February 11th at Virginia. The crazy part is, Duke really should have won that game as Kyle Fillipowski was clearly fouled in a tie game right before time expired, but the refs missed it at Virginia ended up getting the job done in Overtime. The thing that’s really impressive about this Duke team is the fact that they were really struggling at one point earlier this season at the start of ACC Conference play. Duke started their conference slate at a mediocre 4-4 and really struggled to find any consistency. This was especially worrisome with a first year Head Coach in Jon Scheyer, but he has done an amazing job turning things around. Overall Duke got a really good first round draw, playing in an East region that feels wide open. However, none of that matters unless Duke can get by this Oral Roberts team.
At the end of the day, it’s called March Madness for a reason and this Oral Roberts team has won games in the NCAA Tournament before. Despite entering the tournament playing great basketball, sometimes all it takes to end that is one bad game. Oral Roberts will do just enough to move on thanks to the tournament experience of Abmas.
The Pick: Oral Roberts
#9 Illinois vs #8 Arkansas Thursday at 4:30 PM ET on TBS
The most intriguing 8-9 game features two coaches that have a ton of NCAA Tournament experience, in totally different positions. Primarily, Eric Mussleman has led Arkansas to back to back Elite 8’s in each of the last two seasons. Just to put how good of a job Muss has done at Arkansas into perspective, prior to him arriving they hadn’t been in that position since 1995. This season has been a rollercoaster for Arkansas like each of the last two, however the primary difference is how this team is built. Arkansas has three McDonald’s All-American Freshman that play big minutes in Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh. While Muss hasn’t coached a ton of these high-profile Freshman in the class, they are all super talented and the expectation was that he was going to be able to make it work. Unfortunately, plans got a little bit off the rails when Nick Smith Jr., suffered a knee injury in December and was ruled out indefinitely. He didn’t return to the lineup until February 11th against Mississippi State, missing 13 games in the process, and he is still getting in the groove of things and learning how to play with his teammates. While Smith deserves credit for not giving up on his teammates and waiting to play College Basketball this is a difficult adjustment for Arkansas to make in the middle of the season. In addition, Arkansas suffered a devastating injury towards the back end of their non-conference schedule when star big man Trevon Brazille tore his ACL, ending his season.
Illinois has been a really frustrating team to try and figure out, as just like Arkansas they are a very talented team that was expected to do big things in the preseason. While Illinois has had some impressive performances, this season including wins over Texas, UCLA and Michigan State, they have had trouble playing consistently good basketball. Part of the reason for that might be the uncertainty at the Point Guard position, with Skyy Clark stepping away from the team earlier in the season for personal reasons and the recent injury to Jayden Epps. Illinois is a very dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament however, as they are led by a pair of transfers from the Big 12 that have plenty of tournament experience in Matthew Mayer from Baylor and Terrance Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech. Mayer won a National Title at Baylor in 2021 and Shannon was part of two NCAA Tournament teams at Texas Tech, including one that made it to the Sweet 16 last season. In addition, their Head Coach Brad Underwood is about to coach in his seventh NCAA Tournament, and has still yet to make it to a second weekend.
The winner of this game will be in a great position to do some serious damage against Kansas, and as much as I love Muss and the Hogs, Illinois will be the pick here. It’s always that most frustrating teams that you cannot figure out during the season, that finally find their stride in the biggest moment in March and that is what will happen here.
The Pick: Illinois
#13 Kent State vs #4 Indiana Friday 9:55 PM ET on TBS
Mike Woodson has done a tremendous job at Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two seasons. While these standards won’t exactly be the same as Indiana fan’s, the Hoosiers had not made the big dance since 2016 prior to Woodson’s arrival, and bringing him in was the best move this program has made in a while. That is despite the negative commentary when the hire was first made, but Woodson has proven a lot of people wrong in the process. It’s been a rollercoaster season for Indiana, with some tremendous wins, including a sweep of their arch rival Purdue, for the first time since 2013. The inside/ outside duo of Jaden Hood-Schifno and Trayce Jackson Davs is something that will be very scary for opponents to deal with, especially in a tournament setting. The key for this Indiana team will be how much help they can get and if these Hoosiers can knock down some threes. Indiana is another team just like so many in this NCAA Tournament field, and has had trouble playing consistently great basketball. After the Hoosiers victory at Purdue, you felt like this team could have the biggest upside to make a long run in the big dance. However, they follow that up with a very disappointing home loss to Iowa and a narrow home win vs a Michigan team that missed the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers didn’t look anything special in the Big Ten Tournament either so there is some concern about how they’re playing right now.
Kent State will be appearing in the NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2017. The Golden Flashes do a few things that can be very dangerous in a tournament setting. Primarily the Flashes are a complete team, in large part to their suffocating defense. They rank 26th in Effective Field Goal Percentage Defense and 20th in Defensive Turnover Percentage. Indiana ranks 80th in the country in offensive turnover percentage so this can definitely be a weakness that Kent State can take advantage of. Also, the Flashes have a clear cut go to bucket getter in Sincere Carry, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and winning conference player of the year last season.
This game will be a rematch between the 2002 Elite 8 game that featured future star NFL Tight End Antonio Gates, who played all 40 minutes in that game. Unfortunately for the Flashes they ended up losing that game. However, they will get some payback here and pull one of the most surprising upsets of the NCAA Tournament.
The Pick: Kent State
#10 Penn State vs 7 Texas A&M Thursday 9:55 PM ET on TBS
In every NCAA Tournament, there is at least one matchup taking place featuring two teams, that going into the Selection Show, I was all set to pick no matter what. That is exactly what happened here, with both the runners up of the SEC and Big Ten Tournament squaring up. Buzz Williams led the Aggies to their first NCAA Tournament since 2018 and their first under his watch. This A&M team deserves a lot of credit, considering not everyone was on board with what Buzz Williams was selling, after Texas A&M was not selected to the big dance last season. While the Aggies did return a majority of the prominent pieces from that team, they did really struggle during non-conference play with brutal losses to both Murray State and Wofford. A lot of times when this occurs, the team has dug themselves into too much of a hole to reach the big dance, but these Aggies do not fall into that category. Texas A&M has played in 23 games since their loss to Wofford on December 20th and they are 19-4 during those games. The bottom line is since the start of the new year, there aren’t a ton of teams in College Basketball playing better than Texas A&M and they are a real threat to do significant damage in this tournament.
On the other side of the spectrum, Penn State is fresh off a very impressive showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Entering Chicago as a clear-cut bubble team, the Nittany Lions picked up a trio of Quadrant 1 victories over Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana, while also almost completing a 17 point comeback to beat Purdue in the championship game. Penn State has picked up a whopping six Quadrant 1 victories in the past 2 weeks, and like Texas A&M, there just aren’t a whole lot of teams playing better right now. Penn State provides a really unique matchup for Texas A&M, considering how quickly they play and how much they really like to spread the floor. Penn State basically plays a five guard lineup, and anyone on the floor is capable of knocking down a jump shot at any time. It will be interesting to see how Texas A&M adjusts to this and tries to cement their slower pace style of play. This Penn State team has also not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, and haven’t won a tournament game since 2001. Micah Shrewsburry is the perfect coach for this program, and has done an unreal job, getting these Nittany Lions to the tournament in only his second season.
While this game is super difficult to pick, Penn State has had such a memorable season and at times it felt like there was some magic in the air. The Nittany Lions coming down from a 17-point first half deficit to beat Maryland in the regular season finale to really get this run started, is something that will be remembered in State College forever. I think the magic continues on Thursday.
The Pick: Penn State
#11 NC State vs #6 Creighton Friday at 4:00 PM ET on TNT
This is another matchup between two teams I really liked to go far in the big dance, going into the selection show. Entering the season these two teams were on the complete opposite of the spectrum, as Creighton had a ton of hype and NC State was almost an afterthought. That makes sense after what these two teams did last season however, as Creighton made the Round of 32 and NC State finished dead last in the ACC.
The hype for Creighton was more than warranted, as they returned four key contributors from that team that was really close to beating Kansas last season. In addition, they added South Dakota State Transfer Baylor Schierman, who played in the NCAA Tournament last season and is one of the premier three-point shooters in the country. At many points this season, Creighton has looked like the team we expected, with some big wins over the likes of UConn, Xavier, Arkansas, Providence and more. The issue is we haven’t seen that from them on a consistent basis and they’ve had some head scratching losses this season. That includes a game for the Big East Regular Season Title at home against Marquette and a blowout loss to Xavier. While Creighton has been a very good team, there is just something that is missing from the group we saw breakout at the end of last season.
Kevin Keatts did a tremendous job rebuilding this NC State roster in the offseason, and it all started with Terquavion Smith coming back to school and turning down the option of going to the NBA after one season. Smith is one of the best Guards in the ACC, and when he’s really going, this NC State team is impossible to stop. NC State also brought in Ole Miss Transfer Jarkell Joiner in the backcourt, and along with Smith this is one of the best backcourts in all of College Basketball. With guys like Jack Clark as a premier on ball defender, and DJ Burns to match up Creighton big man and Big East Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner, NC State should have enough to compete with Creighton. The Wolfpack are also one of the more difficult teams to evaluate in this tournament, considering the last two teams we’ve seen them play they blew out Virginia Tech and got blown out by Clemson. We will see something in between here.
As much as I bought the Creighton hype going into the season, this game feels really dangerous and it feels like way too many people are hopping on the bandwagon for a deep Creighton NCAA Tournament run. This NC State team is a real sleeper in this tournament, with a pair of Guards that can carry them in any game they play. I like Kevin Keatts to win his first ever NCAA Tournament game at the Division 1 ranks, and to lead the Wolfpack over Creighton.
The Pick: NC State
Zac Krull has covered College Basketball for the last 2 years while working with Aaron Torres of Aaron Torres Media and recording his own Zac Krull Sports Podcast. Currently, Zac is writing as a contributor for Aaron Torres online with weekly articles and working as a producer for the BETQL Network. Zac graduated from SUNY Cortland in 2021 with a degree in Sports Studies.