2021 NCAA Tournament: First Four Preview

So, BSB might actually be back this time.   Doogan and I started this as an alternative to sending each other overly wordy, unabridged emails about sports.  And, since it’s been a long, hard winter for all of us, Doogan and I and our master admin, J, are in need of an outlet for “thoughts.”  So, let’s fire up the BSB machine again and even if it’s just a glorified email exchange, it will be cathartic for the three of us.

And,  is there a better time of year to start back up?  The NCAA Tournament, a Sixers playoff chase, the start of an interesting Phillies season…and, a ton of tennis tournaments and the Summer Olympics for me to write really long posts about to no one but myself!!!

So, let’s get this started with a preview of Thursday night’s First Four games.  I’ll get another one up tomorrow previewing Friday’s First Round games and then we’ll go from there.

#16 Mount Saint Mary’s (+1) vs. #16 Texas-Southern
 5:10 pm, truTV
Alright, alright, I recognize that these 16v16 games are kind of like tennis or the biathalon in that I care about and enjoy them WAYYY more than most of even the most ardent sports fans.  So, I’ll try and be short on them…I will probably fail at that attempt.  This game is one of those classic First Four games (if that phrase even means anything) with a (SWAC/MEAC) team vs. a non-champion from a bad league.  The winner of this game gets to get destroyed on national TV by Michigan on Saturday.

Mount Saint Mary’s
The best story from this game is the 5’7″ point guard on Mount St. Mary’s, Damian Chong-Qui.  Chong-Qui, who turned into the go-to guy just 6 games into the season when they lost Jalen Gibbs for the season, has a ridiculous backstory.  The Sun article is really good, but in summary, when Qui was 4, his family was the victim of a home invasion where his dad was shot once and stabbed five times and lost the use of his left hand.  Just TWO MONTHS LATER, his mother was randomly murdered, being mistaken for someone else.  When he was twelve, Qui’s dad dropped Qui off and went to get dinner for them.  While waiting for food, someone fired shots into a crowd and one of the random bullets struck the older Qui in the back and he is now paralyzed from the waist down.  And, a just year later, his son Damian, won the starting point guard job for powerhouse McDonough despite being only a freshman and standing a mere 4-feet-9-inches tall.  Qui, who says he “doesn’t believe in height” is now a budding star for MSM, averaging 14.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg (again, at 5’7”), and 5.6 apg.  He’s incredible!  They also have a strong, athletic frontline of 6’9″ JR Nana Opuku (10.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg), 6’9″ JR Malik Jefferson (8.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 58% FG), and 6’8″ JR Mazie Offurum (9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg).

Texas Southern
TSU is coached by Johnny Jones, who recruited and coached Ben Simmons at LSU but left there because, well, he’s not a very good coach.   But his TSU Tigers enter the Tournament having won 13 of their last 14 with the only loss being a 2-point loss to Prairie View in January, which they massively avenged with an 80-61 win in the SWAC title game.  They are led by 6’2″ SR guard and stat-sheet stuffer, Michael Weathers, who is averaging 16.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.4 spg, 1.1 bpg.  He also hit a couple MONSTER threes in their semifinal win over Jackson State last week.  But, they also have 6’6” SR Galen Alexander, 6’9” JR John Walker, and 6’9” JR Jordon Karl Nicholas, who are all double-figure scorers and all average at least 5 rpg.

The Matchup
Both of these teams live on their defense, particularly MSM, who is in the top-140 in adjusted defensive efficiency and allows the 14th lowest eFG%.  TSU is also excellent defensively, particularly at limiting the three-ball, which is a decent part of the MSM attack.  There is a big difference in pace here, so tempo could be key, particularly when MSM has the ball.  The Mount is one of the 10 slowest teams in America, while the TSU defense is 22nd in shortest opponent possessions.  Watch for whether the Tigers can speed up The Mount on D.

The Pick:  Mount Saint Mary’s +1
Confidence Level (5-star scale):  *
I don’t think I can pick against Chong-Qui and The Mount has athletic bigs with size that match up well against the TSU frontline.  The only thing that gives me pause is Weathers, who is a stud, but as long as they “contain” him, I think The Mount moves on.

#11 Drake (-1.5) vs #11 Wichita State
6:27 pm, TBS
The 11v11 matchups open with an old-school Missouri Valley battle between two teams that were conference rivals for 68 years (from 1949-2017)!  There is no love lost between these two, who both were left out of the tournament in many of the bracketologists’ final predictions.  The winner of this game takes on future NBA star, Evan Mobley, and his USC Trojans.

For several weeks in January, the biggest story in the sport was the undefeated Drake “Koffee Kakes.”  Darian DeVries (who is a legit star in the making on the sidelines) had a team picked for 7th in the preseason in the Valley, but was 18-0 and firmly entrench in the Top 25.  But, a 17-point loss at Valpo burst that bubble.  Three days later, their leading scorer 6’6″ SR Shanquan “Tank” Hemphill (14.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 59% FG) went down with a foot injury that has sidelined him until…well, until today.  The team rallied to split with Loyola and then won 2 more, but were hit with more AWFUL news on the injury front.  After losing their leader scorer, Hemphill, Drake’s best all-around player, Roman Penn, broke his foot and will not be coming back.  Without Tank and Penn, the ‘Dogs just weren’t the same team.  I love the Valley and all mid-majors, but I’m not sure they deserve to be here.  They did win a THRILLER against Mo State in the Valley semis (after a walkover in the quarters when UNI was hit with COVID), and 6’0″ SO Joseph Yesufu (12.7 ppg in reg season, and 25 in the win over Mo State) is a budding star who has stepped up without Penn and Hemphill, and 6’6″ SR Tremell Murphy (10.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 51% FG, 38% from three) had 20 in each of their two Arch Madness games, so there are other pieces.  This is a dangerous team with a GREAT coach.

Wichita State
The Shockers “shocked” everyone by winning the reg season title in a league that featured a national Top Ten team in Houston.  And, if you told me you had a vote for National Coach of the Year and then you told me that you submitted that vote for Isaac Brown, I would probably gain respect for you.  I’m not saying that would be my vote if I had one, but I’m also not saying it wouldn’t.  The situation that this dude walked into – a rebuilding roster that was picked to be a middle-of-the-pack American team WHEN they had their elite Xs and Os coach, Gregg Marshall.  But, Marshall (who, to no one’s great surprise, turned out to be a total d*ck, if not something much worse) and had to be let go right before the season started.  Wichita – with no time to do a legit “coaching search” – handed the job to an assistant and essentially punted on 2020-21.  But, Brown and 6’2” SO Tyson Etienne (17.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 40% from three) had other ideas.  Etienne (who is only 6’2” and with no mention of him being related to any of the 874 other Etiennes, who were all enormous, that I feel like Wichita has had in the past 20 years – right?) has been spectacular for the Shockers.  Along with his backcourt-mate, 6’0” Alterique Gilbert (10.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.5 spg) , who just loved the AAC so much, he had to leave UConn when they left the league, have been one of the best backcourts in the league.  Unfortunately, their “strong name” quotient took a big hit when Isaiah Poor Bear Chandler (his given name, not a nickname) got hurt.  Apparently, the 6’9” Isaiah is the son of Larry Chandler and Pte San Win Poor Bear.  He is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and grew up on a reservation in Pine Ridge, SD.  See – THIS is the stuff you get nowhere else.  Come for the basketball, stay for the in-depth research about an injured player who played 12 minutes a game and averaged 3 ppg when he was healthy.

The Matchup
I generally root for both of these teams and am happy they are both here, but I honestly don’t think either had a great case for inclusion.  Both teams are better on offense than defense, but Drake is an ELITE offensive team, sitting at 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency.  They are 11th in the nation at taking care of the ball (though, a lot of that success was due to their great PG Roman Penn, who is not healthy), and 30th in eFG%.  Wichita also takes care of the ball (27th in the nation), but is a poor shooting team, particularly inside the arc (44.7% on two-point shots is 322nd nationally).  Both teams like to slow it down and run their sets, which can be efficient, when good, or grinding, when bad.

The Pick:  Drake -1.5
Confidence Level (5-star scale):  **
Gimme the Koffee Kakes here having trust that the Hemphill return will spur them on.  I like what Yesufu and Murphy have done with Tank and Penn out and if they can keep up the production while sliding back to 2nd and 3rd options, they might  be able to cover up for some of the loss of Penn.  But, that will bite them at some point.  If WSU’s Gilbert can avoid bad turnovers and bad shots (a HUGE if), they could be a spoiler today and Saturday, but I’m not betting on that happening.

#16 Appalachian State (-3) vs. #16 Norfolk State
8:40 pm, truTV
Just like the first 16v16 game, this one pits the (MEAC/SWAC winner) against a non-champion from a lower league.  Well, the Sun Belt is a solid mid-major, but App State finished in 7th place there.  I honestly think they’re considerably better and more deserving of a full-16 than Hartford, but I got no problem with rewarding the Hawks there.

Appalachian State
App State was thought to be a CUSA contender this year and looked that way when they started 6-2 in league play that included a sweep of preseason favorites, Ga State.  But, they lost 6 of their last 7 reg season games (the only win a double-OT win over a bad GaSo team) that included two losses to last-place Troy.  What is strange looking at App State from afar is the apparent transformation of 6’2″ SR Justin Forrest, who averaged an incredibly inefficient 17 ppg last year as a JR, but is only averaging 11 ppg here as a SR…and with no change to his efficiency.  Did the dude mature in the offseason and realize that he shouldn’t be shooting as much, which is great, but then just reduced the number of shots WITHOUT cutting out the bad shots that led to the inefficiency, which is not great?  I dunno…I give up.   But, the added shots did allow their perimeter wing 6’3″ JR Adrian Delph (13.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 35% from three) and big wing 6’5″ SO Donovan Gregory (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.3 apg 1.9 apg) to both average double-figures.  While Forrest is the veteran and former all-league play, and Delph is the leading scorer, this team was led this year by 6’0″ SR PG Michael Almonacy (12.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg).  Almoncy, a transfer from Stony Brook, has been good all year, but blew up in the conference tournament, getting 13-7-7 in the Opening Round win over Little Rock, then getting a combined 42 points, 12 boards, and 6 assists in back-to-back OT wins in the quarters and semis against 2nd-seeded Texas St. and 3rd-seeded Coastal Carolina.  Finally, in the coup de grace against #1 Ga State in the SB title game, Almonacy had 32 points on 10-18 from the floor (6-10 from three) in a massive 80-73 upset to send them Dancing.  He played all 40 minutes in the title game, which capped off a 4-day stretch where he played 152 minutes, including 40-41-40 in the last 3 games.  WOW!

Norfolk State
The Spartans got a bit of a break in the MEAC Tournament, not having to play #2 N.C. A&T because of COVID and not having to play #1 Coppin State because they were upset in the semis.  But, they did POUND N.C. Central in the quarters and then comfortably beat a decent Morgan State team in the finals.  The Spartans are led by MEAC POY Devante Carter, a 6’3” senior who averaged 15.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.1 spg on the season.  But, you also have to watch out for long-range sniper 6’1″ JR Joe Bryant (11.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 39% from three), who led the team with 17 in the championship game against Morgan just two nights after dropping a 30-spot on N.C. Central.  6’6″ SR Kashaun Hicks only averaged 8 ppg in the reg season, but scored 27 in their two postseason games.  Interestingly, the Spartans are the 24th most experienced team in the country and use their bench more than all but 13 teams in the country.

The Matchup
Both teams are rather balance as to where they strengths are, but there are some really interesting mathups to watch here.  Particularly, keep an eye on the turnovers.  Both teams are very good at forcing opposing turnovers (NSU is 75th and App is 99th), but both teams are also very good at limiting their own turnovers (NSU is 112th, App is 100th), so the turnover differential could be key here, as that is where both teams thrive.  Another key stat might be fouls.  Norfolk scores over 21% of their points at the FT line, which is 39th in the country, but App State gives up just 14% of their points to free throws (23rd lowest in the country).  So, that is strength versus strength.  But, on the other side, App State scores 20% of their points at the line (94th in the country), and NSU gives up 24% of their points they give up from the stripe (344th, or 14th MOST in the country).  App State might win this game if they can get to the line.

The Pick:  App State -3
Confidence Level (5-star scale):  **
The only reason my confidence level isn’t a lot higher is because the computer numbers actually slightly favor Norfolk straight up.  But, I think they’re wrong here and that App State is clearly the better team, and I’m not too worries about laying the 3.

#11 Michigan State vs. #11 UCLA
9:57 pm, TBS
And, the headliner of the night is the nightcap here.  All eyes in the basketball world will be on two blue bloods playing for a spot in the main draw.  Michigan State looked like they were going to join Duke, Kentucky, and Arizona on the sidelines of this tournament, but they ended up beating Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan all since Feb 23…wow!  But, it wasn’t enough to overcome a ridiculous start to B1G play and get them into the main field.  UCLA has gone the other way, starting strong, but losing 4 straight, including a Pac-12 quarterfinal to Oregon State.  I think they should have been left out of the field, but reasonable minds can disagree.  At least they’re here in the First Four.  The winner will get BYU on Saturday.

Michigan State
The Spartans have had trouble all year figuring out the right lineups, which is crazy thinking they have one of the greatest coaches in history.  The one fixture has been the breakout star, 6’6″ JR Aaron Henry (15.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.3 bpg), but he hasn’t been as efficient as Izzo would have liked.  Also struggling with his shot this year is the lesser Hauser, Joey Hauser (9.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg), the 6’9″ transfer from Marquette, who is only shooting 33% from three.  Furthering the shooting troubles have been 6’5″ SR Joshua Langford, who is great to have back in college hoops, but is only shooting 37% from the floor, and then there’s the 6’2″ SO Rocket Watts, a highly-touted breakout candidate, who is shooting a dismal 34% from the floor and 26% from three.

Mick Cronin did a pretty solid job in Westwood this year, all things considered, as he had to deal with some crushing injuries.  They lost Pac-12 POY contender Chris Smith with a torn ACL in December.  Then, they lost Jalen Hill a couple weeks later, and then last week they lost leading scorer Johnny Juzang (14.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg), the 6’6″ SO transfer from Kentucky, right before a season-closing stretch against #3 Colorado, #1 Oregon, and #2 USC – they lost them all.  A brutal finish to a good season that dropped them to 4th when it looked like they were going to win the league.  If Juzang isn’t back, the scoring load will fall to 6’6” SO Jaime Jaquez (11.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 6’9” JR Cody Riley (10.3 pg, 5.2 rpg, 56% FG).  But, as long as they have a healthy Tyger Campbell, they have a shot.  Campbell, the well-traveled 5’11” PG has been great for the Bruins this year, averaging 10.6 ppg and 5.6 apg.

The Matchup
This game is a strength vs. strength kind of game and that will come when UCLA and their top-30 offense has the ball against Sparty and their top-30 defense.  One thing to watch is that UCLA only has 7% of their shots blocked (49th lowest), while the MSU defense blocks 12% of opponent shots (36th most).  On the other side, Mich State has an inefficient offense, but they get a lot of offensive rebounds, which is something that UCLA is very good at preventing.  UCLA looks like they have the edge looking at the tempo-free numbers.

The Pick:  Michigan State -2
Confidence Level (5-point scale): **
January.  February.  Izzo.  All the computer numbers favor UCLA rather decidedly.  And, the Spartans haven’t exactly been a vintage version here this year, but there’s just something about this team in this month, and UCLA’s injuries are catching up to them, and they look like they’re on fumes right now.

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