First Four Preview: Iowa barely makes field, N.C. State is in
The Hawkeyes, once talked of as a potential Final Four darkhorse, narrowly snuck into the First Four and will face Tennessee in Dayton.
Those loud pops you're hearing? Those would be the respective bubbles of UW-Green Bay and SMU, both left on the outside looking in.
And those collective sighs? They're hailing from Xavier, Tennessee and N.C. State -- all three of which had to sweat out Selection Sunday. Interestingly, Iowa, which was once believed to be firmly in the field, will be sent to Dayton as part of the First Four as well.
The principal question heading into Sunday was whether the committee would favor teams from power conferences (ahem, ACC) or whether they'd respect Green Bay's 24-6 record (14-2 Horizon). The committee firmly chose the former. It likely came down to N.C. State or Larry Brown's SMU squad (23-9), but a first-round loss to Houston in the AAC tournament probably cost the Mustangs an NCAA berth.
First Impressions from First Four:
1. Iowa will face Tennessee in a battle of No. 11s in a match-up that almost no one thought would be necessary, at least from the Hawkeyes' perspective, maybe a month ago. On February 15, the Hawkeyes had four conference losses (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin). Since then, Fran McCaffery's dark-horse team has nose-dived, losing six of seven, including horrible losses to Illinois and Northwestern. The committee's choice to give Iowa a play-in game shows how close they were to being left out of the tournament entirely. The most intriguing part of the matchup has to be momentum. Iowa has endured a steep fall, while the Vols have won five of their last six and nearly took down Florida in the SEC tournament.
2. The fact that N.C. State made the field of 68 is shocking, quite frankly, and is just another jab at the one-bid conferences. Maybe Coach K helped when he stumped for the ACC to get more bids, but the Wolfpack are only 3-9 against teams in the top-50, including two bad losses to Miami (at home) and Wake Forest. The Pack's best victory came on a neutral court over Syracuse last Friday. They also, coincidentally, took down Tennessee on the road. No matter. Perhaps the committee felt that by giving us more T.J. Warren, we would excuse the fact that the Wolfpack probably didn't deserve an invite. In that regard, let's all rejoice -- all of us minus Larry Brown.
3. The 16s that will play in Dayton (Albany vs. Mount St. Mary's, Cal Poly vs. Texas Southern) aren't the best representatives of their respective conferences. As CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander quipped, Cal Poly, at 13-19, stole the Big West's auto bid by beating Cal State Northridge in the Big West final. Cal Poly was a No. 7 seed and became the first seed that low to take the tourney title. UC Irvine would've had a better shot a pulling an upset. Same goes for Mount St. Mary's, who took down top-seeded Robert Morris in the NEC tournament. Albany, too, as the Great Danes took down top-seeded Vermont in the semis of the America East Conference and then beat Stony Brook in the championship. Is it a knock on these schools? Of course not, and they've earned the right to play in the tournament. Would the conferences have been better served with their top teams making the Dance? Perhaps. Then again, it wouldn't be March without a couple upsets.
Top Players in the First Four:
T.J. Warren, N.C. State: The ACC's Player of the Year in the First Four? Yep, we'll take that. The 6-foot-8 forward led the ACC in scoring at 24.8 points per game and could be a menace to Xavier's big men.
Jordan McRae, Tennessee: Another high-volume shooter, McRae averages 18.6 per game to go along with 3.5 boards per contest. The senior is anything but shy – he pops more than six three-pointers per game.
Semaj Christon, Xavier: Christon, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, is an NBA prospect itching to make a splash on a national stage. He had 18 points in the Big East semifinal loss to Creighton, and will certainly dot a few highlight reels from the play-in games.
Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa: Marble averages 17.3 points per game for the Hawkeyes and is one of its only capable one-on-one scorers. Aside from a 3-for-11 night in the loss to Illinois, his production has actually increased during Iowa's recent lull.
Aaric Murray, Texas Southern: Texas Southern won the SWAC tournament in large part because of Murray, who had 27 points and 10 boards in the championship against Prairie View A&M. He has had some off-the-court issues (largely a reason he's bounced around from La Salle to West Virginia and finally, to Texas Southern), but the 6-foot-10 senior poured in 48 against Temple earlier this year.
No. 16 Albany vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary's Tuesday, 6:40 p.m. ET. Winner faces No. 1 Florida.
No. 12 N.C. State vs. No. 12 Xavier Tuesday, 9:10 p.m. ET. Winner faces No. 5 Saint Louis.
No. 16 Cal Poly vs. No. 16 Texas Southern Wednesday, 6:40 p.m. ET. Winner faces No. 1 Wichita State.
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Iowa Wednesday, 9:10 p.m. ET. Winner faces No. 6 UMass.
Tennessee beats Iowa, then beats UMass, to set up an intriguing Round of 32 game against Duke. Let's not forget the noise La Salle made last year (Sweet 16) coming out of Dayton as a First Four.
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