The wait is over. The ball will be tipped at 5:10 p.m. today in Bloomington, Indiana, one year and one day after the tournament that never happened was supposed to begin.
With all 68 teams cleared to play, it appears as if we’ve got Madness on the horizon at long last. And tipping things off is Mount St. Mary’s: the school located a 67-minute drive from Washington plays Texas Southern in Thursday’s First Four.
“This is a great game for our program,” Mountaineers coach Dan Engelstad said. “All eyes of the basketball community will be on us … we’re gonna get a chance to compete on the highest stage.”
The Mount is back for the first time since 2017, and has made the Big Dance four other times since moving up to Division I. Fans of a certain age will recall the bowtie-wearing Jim Phelan on the sidelines in the 90s, but Engelstad’s focus isn’t on the past, but on his program’s present foe.
“This is as an athletic team as we’ve seen, they are extremely fast in transition,” Engelstad said. “We can’t give them any pick-sixes (turnovers that lead to layups). We gotta protect the basketball, because if they get out in transition – they’re really good. They’re very good north-south. They’ve got some great drivers that assault the paint. We gotta keep them out of it and limit penetration.”
The Mountaineers are in good shape to do so after ranking 16th in the nation in scoring defense and 35th in rebounding margin. The winner plays No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday in the First Round. And while top seeds are 139-1 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, don’t tell that to a coach whose team is potentially 40 minutes away from facing one.
“These guys have played the Kentucky’s of the world. We’ve played Georgetown,” Engelstad said. “There’s not going to be a fear there. And the one thing that we do very well – which carries – is we guard at an extremely high level.”
While Mount St. Mary’s plays in the first game of the tournament, the First Round wraps up Saturday night when VCU plays Pac-12 regular season champ Oregon. The Atlantic 10 Tournament runner-up makes its 11th appearance in 18 years under five different coaches. Former assistant Mike Rhoades returned in 2017 and the program hasn’t missed a beat.
You’ll want to stay up for the 9:57 p.m. tipoff if only to see sophomore Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland – the A-10 Player of the Year’s 19.5 points-per-game led the league, and even while being bothered by a foot injury, averaged 21 points with seven rebounds and three assists during the conference tournament.
While VCU conjures up deep March runs thanks to their trip from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, the Rams have won just a single tournament game since 2013 — as fate would have it, against Oregon State in 2016. Meanwhile, Oregon is 6-0 in the First Round under current coach Dana Altman.
The West Region begins with a school chasing a title and history. Gonzaga (26-0) began the year ranked first, and they’re six wins away from becoming the first unbeaten National Champion since Indiana in 1976. They’re no longer fighting the previous stigma as a team that couldn’t reach the Final Four (the Bulldogs were the National runner-up in 2017).
Other intriguing matchups in that bracket involve former Big Eight/Big 12 foes Oklahoma and Missouri playing in the 8/9 game, while former Missouri Valley Conference competitors Wichita State and Drake play in one of the First Four games. Of course, the committee never cooks the books for these “random and coincidental” matchups.
Drake. When the Bulldogs began the season by starting 18-0, I LOVED THE DRAKE! and even had them in my Associated Press Top 25. When they lost two of three, I HATED THE DRAKE and consigned them to my mid-major dustbin. When they responded by winning five straight, I LOVED THE DRAKE yet again. And even when they came up short in their regular season finale against Bradley and then lost to Loyola (Illinois) in the MVC Finals, I find myself still LOVING THE DRAKE. I love their First Four matchup against former conference foe Wichita State even more while their First Round opponent USC is far from invincible (it doesn’t hurt that a First Four winner often wins its next game as well). And if the season ends a round earlier than I predict, I’ll just go back to being CONFUSED BY THE DRAKE.
Virginia will not arrive at Indianapolis until Friday after pausing during the ACC Tournament and being in quarantine for most of the last week. They have a conference regular season crown, but finished with the same amount of losses as Florida State and Virginia Tech — two teams that beat them. They face MAC champ Ohio, led by Jason Preston — no relation — who averages 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game while shooting 41% from three-point range. If Kippy & Buffy aren’t nervous, they should be.
Top-ranked Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring (92 points per game) and shooting (55% from the field) while ranking 17th in Division I in rebounding margin. Mark Few’s team has won 25 of its 26 games by double digits (West Virginia has the honor with their five-point loss December 2), and on those rare occasions when they have struggled (like when they trailed BYU by 12 at halftime of the West Coast Conference Championship Game) they’re able to blast their way past their opponent (outscoring the Cougars 47-25 in the second half). Led by All-Americans Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, and Jared Suggs, the Bulldogs may not make history, but they’ll be good enough to post four more wins and get to their second Final Four in five years.