Most NCAA basketball fans are already thinking ahead to the Final Four. Will Baylor repeat? Can Maryland score enough to knock off the No. 1 seeds? How good is this young UConn squad?
But that doesn’t mean you should skip the first round, especially this year. With interstate rivalries, high-scoring 15 seeds, and 42-point-dropping guards all descending upon Texas, there will be an excess of competitive games. And if there’s an upset, do you want to be the one to miss it? Probably not.
Here are four of our favorite opening round match-ups:
Sunday, 12:00pm ET on ESPN
One thing’s for certain — this game is guaranteed to be a shootout, with two of the best offenses in college basketball — and two of the worst defenses.
That spells bad news for the Hawkeyes, who have shown a tendency to struggle when a team can score with them. Iowa has played three teams this season that rank in the top-20 of points per game — Maryland (twice), Ohio State (twice), and Iowa State. They went 1-4 in those games, with their only win coming against Iowa State. And Central Michigan can definitely keep with them. They averaged 77.9 points per game on the year, 16th best in the country.
Just an absolute filthy dime from Maddy to Molly for the knock down triple‼️ 😳#FireUpChips 🔥⬆️🏀 || #PlayOfTheGame || @maddy_watters || @davismolly14 pic.twitter.com/AfEaYaIB3d— Central Michigan WBB (@CMUWBBall) March 11, 2021
Just an absolute filthy dime from Maddy to Molly for the knock down triple‼️ 😳#FireUpChips 🔥⬆️🏀 || #PlayOfTheGame || @maddy_watters || @davismolly14 pic.twitter.com/AfEaYaIB3d
Central Michigan is an interesting case study because they don’t play particularly fast, ranking 137th in points per possession. They’re just efficient, finishing 54.6% of their two-pointers, sixth-best in the country. And while Iowa might have the country’s most dynamic player in Caitlin Clark, Central Michigan has its own pair of guards, Molly Davis and Micaela Kelly, who each averaged 20-plus points per game this year and could readily lead CMU to the upset.
Sunday, 2:00pm ET on ABC
Tune in for the simple reason of watching Anastasia Hayes. The Middle Tennessee guard is a walking bucket, having averaged 26.5 points per game this season, second-best in the nation. She even dropped 42 in a game.
It will be interesting to see how Hayes handles Tennessee’s length, with 6-foot-2 guard Jordan Horston wreaking havoc on the perimeter and SEC All-Defensive forward Tamari Key clogging up the middle. Tennessee will need a team effort to stop Hayes, but luckily, they know her pretty well — Hayes spent her freshman season playing for the Lady Volunteers, where she won the 2018 SEC 6th Woman of the Year. No one else on Middle Tennessee shoots above 45% from the field, but if they can find a way to hit shots and open lanes for Hayes, the Blue Raiders could keep it close. And if this game comes down to the wire, Hayes could help send her in-state rival and former squad home.
Let's run it back one more time! 🏆#BlueRaiders | #MT pic.twitter.com/BC6v83T3js— MT Women's Basketball (@MT_WBB) March 14, 2021
Let's run it back one more time! 🏆#BlueRaiders | #MT pic.twitter.com/BC6v83T3js
Sunday, 5:30pm ET on ESPN2
Most of the time, people hesitate to select a non-Power 5 team for a deep run because they haven’t played a tough enough schedule. Well, that isn’t the case with South Dakota State, which has played five games against teams ranked in the top 75 of simple RPI, including 5th seeded Gonzaga, 5th seeded Missouri State, and 7th seeded Iowa State. The 21-3 Jackrabbits won all of those games and they could certainly give Syracuse some trouble on Sunday. Their biggest problem is that they allow opponents to shoot 30% from beyond the arch. But Syracuse isn’t a great three-point shooting team, knocking down just 29.7% of their threes.
‘Cuse won’t go down easy, though. They are a veteran squad led by redshirt senior Tiana Mangakahia, the NCAA leader in assists who returned to the court after sitting out last season due to breast cancer. Senior Kiara Lewis, however, will be the key player Sunday. In games that Lewis scores 15 or more points, the Orange are 7-2. If she can get hot, South Dakota State will have trouble catching up. If not, this game could come down to the final possession.
Tiana Mangakahia has 11 assists and it’s still the third quarter 🏀 pic.twitter.com/1KW6Et6Ki1— Billy Heyen (@BillyHeyen) January 22, 2021
Tiana Mangakahia has 11 assists and it’s still the third quarter 🏀 pic.twitter.com/1KW6Et6Ki1
Monday, 6:00pm ET on ESPN2
I know, I know. The chances of Troy knocking off Texas A&M are very, very slim. But hear me out — this could still be an entertaining game. Troy plays at the fastest pace in the entire NCAA, averaging 83.1 possessions per 40 minutes and 84.3 points per game.
Could Troy catch Texas A&M lazy in the first half and keep the game close? Possibly. Troy forward Alexus Dye could always get hot like she did earlier in the season against Mississippi State, when she dropped 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Worst case scenario: Texas A&M puts up more than 100 points, and Troy gets pretty close itself.