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First-Round Games You Can't Miss

First-Round NCAA Games You Can't Miss | Tipico
First-Round NCAA Games You Can't Miss | Tipico
Alex Valdes
Published: 2023-03-14

By Mike Miller

Every NCAA Tournament features three types of games: The standard matchup, which sometimes turns into a blowout; the highly anticipated showdown for fans expecting a classic; and the games with a backstory.

We’ve got 10 first-round games you shouldn’t miss.


Furman (13) vs. Virginia (4), Thursday at 12:40 pm ET on truTV
Never mind that the Cavs (25-7) are the only program that’s ever lost to a 16 seed. That was five years ago. This team is experienced, balanced and beat the likes of Baylor, Illinois and Duke this season.

And they can absolutely lose this game.

Furman is also experienced and balanced. It doesn’t have any great wins, but it does have a playmaker who can solve Virginia’s packline defense in 6-7 guard Jalen Slawson, a gunner who can stretch that defense in Mike Bothwell, and decent odds. One model gives them a 40 percent chance to win.

Charleston (12) vs. San Diego State (5), Thursday at approx. 3 pm ET on truTV
You’ll love the Cougars. They’ve won an NCAA-best 31 games through an up-tempo, 3-point heavy offense that prizes lots of shots, and a defense that forces turnovers. Are they a little undersized? Sure. But when you can throw wave after wave of players at a team, sometimes, it’s an overwhelming sensation and makes them bigger than they really are.

Still, San Diego State (27-6) is no pushover. It plays up to nine guys, seven of whom are seniors. It’s been battle tested (games against Arizona, Arkansas and St. Mary’s) and is dead set on winning an NCAA tourney game for the first time since 2015. Will they deliver? Or buckle under the pressure?

Oral Roberts (12) vs. Duke (5), Thursday at 7:10 pm ET on CBS
The Blue Devils (26-8) are a trendy pick to win the East Region. Makes sense. They’re on a roll with nine straight wins, breezed to the ACC tourney title and do have some pretty sweet memories from that regional. But this is a tough first test against a team that’s probably under-seeded.

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Oral Roberts (30-4) has lost once since Nov. 23. It features an All-American player in Max Abmas, a 7-foot-5 shot blocker in Connor Vanover and plenty of depth behind them. And they have some good memories of their own -- a Sweet 16 run in 2021.

To be clear, the Golden Eagles will have to be at their best to win. Duke’s got more talent. But with a rookie coach on the sideline and five freshmen who play serious minutes, it ain’t gonna be easy.

Iona (13) vs. UConn (4), Friday at approx. 4:45 pm ET on TBS
Dan Hurley’s been at UConn for five seasons. This will be his third NCAA Tournament with the Huskies (25-8), but he has yet to win a tourney game with them. You know who has a lot of NCAA Tournament wins? Iona coach Rick Pitino.

But that’s just the scene-setter. Because this should be a compelling game despite the nearly 10-point spread.

The Gaels (27-7) have size to deal with the Huskies’ big men. They have athletes on the wing who can run with UConn’s versatile wings. And they may have superior guards in Daniss Jenkins and Walter Clayton, two players who’ll play full-court, man-to-man defense and make life tough on the UConn guards. And if there’s something UConn’s guards don’t like, it’s pressure. They’re a below-average team when it comes to turnovers, ranking 234th in D-I.


Utah State (10) vs. Missouri (7), Thursday at 1:40 pm ET on TNT
Have an afternoon meeting? Cancel it. You’re gonna want to see the Aggies (26-6) and Tigers (24-9) combine for roughly 200 points and 75 attempted 3-pointers (best estimates). Maybe you’re not a person who likes offense, and that’s fine. Maybe you prefer a little defense in your games. Also cool. These two will play defense.

Missouri forces more turnovers than all but four teams in Division I. Utah State rarely allows a clean look inside the arc. They’ll try to defense. They’re just better on offense. And this could be the most entertaining game of the entire first two days.

Florida Atlantic (9) vs. Memphis (8), Friday at approx. 10 pm ET on TNT
The 8-9 matchups are typically the first-round standouts because the teams are evenly matched, or often times, seem a little underseeded. That’s certainly the case when the FAU Owls (31-3) will play Memphis (26-8).

The Owls have been synonymous with winning this season, though it took awhile for fans and experts to catch on. They weren’t ranked until the second week of January when they were already 16-1. They’re a fun team, too; unselfish with good shooters and a defense that limits good shots for its opponent.

Memphis will have the game’s best player, though. Guard Kendric Davis led the American Athletic Conference in scoring (22.1 ppg) for the second straight season, was its Player of the Year for the second straight season and did both with a brand new team. He transferred to Memphis last spring, and has been the driving force for the Tigers (26-8) all season. Oh yeah, Memphis is coming off a 75-65 win over No. 1 Houston in the AAC title game. Expect a classic.

Illinois (9) vs. Arkansas (8), Thursday, approx. 4:45 pm ET on TBS
This game has potential.

Few games will feature more future NBA players. Arkansas has a couple of 2023 NBA lottery picks in its starting lineup (Nick Smith Jr and Anthony Black), a future NBA pick in Jordan Walsh, and a scoring stud in Ricky Council IV who’ll play professionally somewhere. Illinois can match that with likely first-rounders Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon, plus another pro in Matthew Mayer.

But potential is the key word. Illinois (20-12) has been beset by inconsistent play and locker room turmoil. Arkansas (20-13) hasn’t had Smith most of the season due to a knee injury, while their starting center, Trevon Brazile, only played nine games before a knee injury.

This game should be down to wire. It should have jaw-dropping plays. Fingers crossed.


Providence (11) vs. Kentucky (6), Friday at 7:10 pm on CBS
Have you heard of Bryce Hopkins? He’s a 6-foot-7 power forward who snagged first-team All-Big East honors this season, his first with Providence (21-11). He’s the type of player who thrives in today’s game; rangy, good size, can handle the ball, score from just about anywhere. He’s productive, too, averaging 16.1 ppg and 8.5 rpg.

He was at Kentucky last season. Where he averaged 6.4 minutes per game.

Safe to say, the Wildcats (21-11) probably wouldn’t mind a do-over on this one. They’re slight favorites against the Friars, but someone with Hopkins’ skill is the type of player who gives Kentucky trouble.

Kent State (13) vs. Indiana (4), Friday, approx., 10:15 pm ET on TBS
This is a trendy first-round upset pick, but there’s more to the story. Hold that thought. First, the game. The Golden Flashes (28-6) are making their seventh overall NCAA appearance, and first since 2017. They haven’t won a game in the Big Dance since reaching the Elite Eight in 2002. Could they get off to a promising start against one of the sport’s most storied programs?


The Hoosiers have size advantages up front, notably with All-American center Trayce Jackson-Davis. But if Kent State guards/defensive menaces Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs apply their ferocious on-ball pressure to freshman point guard Jalen Hood Schifino, TJD might not even see the ball much.

Then there’s Kent State coach Rob Senderoff. He’s rebuilt Kent State into one of the MAC’s top programs, but he did it after a short stint as an assistant coach at Indiana from 2006-2008 that ended with a 30-month show cause penalty for NCAA recruiting violations. (It involved text messages, a rule that has long since passed into irrelevancy.) This will be the first time his team’s played against Indiana since then.

Auburn (9) vs. Iowa (8), Thursday, 6:50 pm ET on TNT
Speaking of assistant coaches with a history against an opponent … there’s also Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. While he was an Iowa assistant during the 1988-89 season, Pearl was involved in the recruitment of a player, which involved a taped conversation and a disclosure to the NCAA that there may have been a financial inducement by another school. It’s an old story, but fascinating.

Also fascinating? The yin-and-yang of Auburn (20-12) and its focus on pressure and intense man-to-man defense against Iowa (19-13) and its sometimes unstoppable offense that features crisp passing, open looks, and lots of baskets. Oddsmakers predict this will be one of the first-round’s closest games, too. Right now, it’s Tigers by a point.

First-Round NCAA Games You Can't Miss | Tipico


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