First Four preview: Albany vs. Mount Saint Mary's; N.C. State vs. Xavier
It's the week we've all been waiting for. While the First Four took a little getting used to, it isn't without its merits. Teams on a roll get a game to get the jitters out, and depending on their matchup in the next game, the traditional round of 64, they could have an edge over a reeling team which has been delayed a week. Take VCU, for example. The Rams were one of the last teams in the 2011 field and rode a win in their First Four game all the way to a Final Four appearance.
While the likelihood of any of the 16-seeds making that sort of run is next to impossible, there are talented teams waiting in those No. 11 and No. 12 seeds. Two of them are playing tonight -- N.C .State and Xavier. And even aside from the potential bracket implications, it's impossible to ignore the sheer fact there is NCAA tournament basketball on Tuesday night.
Watching basketball is good for you. The health benefits have not been approved by the FDA, but I'm pretty sure they exist. Here's what to watch for in the first two games of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
No. 16 Albany Great Danes (18-14, 9-7 in America East) vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers (16-16, 9-7 in NEC)
How to watch: 6:40 p.m. ET, truTV
Why you should watch: Both Albany and Mount St. Mary's knocked off the top seeds in their respective conference tournaments en route to earning a trip to Dayton. While the Great Danes have been there before -- this is the fourth time in nine seasons that coach Will Brown has taken his team to the Dance -- the Mountaineers are a bit more green. This is their third ever tournament appearance; they previously played in the play-in game in 2008 (beating Coppin State) and had opening-round losses in 1999 and 1995.
Mount St. Mary's is coached by 31-year-old Jamion Christian, a former William & Mary and VCU assistant who is in his second year with the Mountaineers. They topped Robert Morris in the NEC title game, capturing a surprise tournament berth despite a .500 record on the year.
“We are a mid low major team so a lot of teams look down on us,” Mount St. Mary’s senior Rashad Whack said during the team's media availability on Monday. “But we don’t pay attention to that. We try to stay together and focus on what we need to do to get better and just work on it, preparing us for the game.”
Whack is the team's leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, and he had 20 points in the NEC championship win over Robert Morris.
For Albany, it's about more than being remembered as the team whose mascot got in a fight with Stony Brook's during the America East title.
The Great Danes are a one-point favorite (via KenPom) in Tuesday night's game and will need to get hot against a Mountaineers' team that loves to shoot the three ball. Albany runs one of the slowest tempos in college basketball, so with the contrast in styles the game will come down to whichever team establishes its identity.
"Trying to run them off the three‑point line is a huge part of our game plan," Albany forward Sam Rowley said during Monday's media availability. "And also just they play very high‑tempo, high‑pace style of basketball. So we're just going to try to slow them down, take our time getting shots, and just sort of take them out of their game."
No. 12 N.C. State (21-13, 9-9 in ACC) vs. No. 12 Xavier (21-12, 10-8 in Big East)
How to watch: 9:10 p.m. ET, truTV
Why you should watch: State was the last team in the field. Number 68 out of 68. And the only reason they got there was a late-season charge following a rough home loss to Miami on March 1. The Wolfpack rattled off four straight wins, including a pair of wins in the ACC tournament, to play their way into the at-large conversation. The win over Syracuse on Friday, as well as a solid showing against Duke on Saturday, may have been what pushed them into the field.
The committee emphasized playing a strong schedule, leaving SMU out of the final bracket. State played the 21st strongest schedule and did have a non-conference win over Tennessee. It lost games to Cincinnati, N.C. Central and Missouri along the way, though, and also lost a conference game to Wake Forest on a coast-to-coast drive by Codi Miller-McIntyre (where he possibly took a step more than you're allowed).
For State, it begins and ends with ACC player of the year T.J. Warren. The sophomore can score from anywhere and was able to put up monster numbers despite being targeted and shadowed by every opposing defense. He took his game to new heights this year by finishing on his drives, improving his face-up ability and hitting just enough deep jumpers to keep defenders from sagging off him.
If the Wolfpack can get anything out of its reserve players like Jordan Vandenberg in the post, Swaggy P impressionist Ralston Turner or point guards Tyler Lewis and Anthony "Cat" Barber, they might be able to ride that into a win not just on Tuesday but against Saint Louis in the second round as well.
Xavier might be a bit surprised to find itself playing down the road in Dayton, but the Musketeers didn't do themselves any favors, dropping two games to Seton Hall in conference and losing to USC out of conference, as well as losing three of their last four games to end the year. One of Xavier's best out-of-conference wins is also Tennessee (along with a good win over Cincinnati), and that could've pushed the team into the First Four, although the Musketeers did beat Creighton during the regular season.
The Musketeers are a solid offensive team led by do-it-all sophomore Semaj Christon (17.1 ppg, 2.7 reb, 4.2 ast).
"[Christon and I] were teammates at Brewster [Academy] my senior year," Warren said Monday. "We have a good relationship. I'm familiar with his game. He's from Cincinnati, so it's not too far from here. So it's going to be a lot of fun to play against him in the NCAA Tournament." The Musketeers have good size and will have to do a good job of getting to the line and trying to force N.C. State into foul trouble. If 6-10 junior Matt Stainbrook can get going, Xavier might have the edge over the Wolfpack.