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MURRELL COLUMN: First Four games among select toss-ups

A common strategy to filling out the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is picking the upsets.

The formula used to achieve this is similar for picking any other game. Both thought processes include a bunch of undefined variables.

If you can identify a variable that gives one team an edge over another, you can pick a team. Heck, you can pick a team without mathematics, but then again, basketball’s a game of numbers.

This column will certainly delve into my predictions for this year’s National Collegiate Basketball Championship — the formal term during the Dick Enberg broadcasting days — many of them which are just toss-ups. The first four of them are all in … well, the First Four.

Keep in mind, at least one First Four winner has also advanced past the round of 64 every year, according to an encyclopedia check. So, this round is always important. If you don’t like Duke, you have to know who to root for come Friday.

 

FIRST FOUR

Fairleigh Dickinson (20-13) vs. Prairie View (22-12): Of course, the local favorite here is Prairie View.

The variable in PV’s favor is a 17-1 SWAC record. The SWAC is far from a power conference, but losing only one conference game — to Texas Southern — is quite an accomplishment on any basketball level.

The Panthers are going into the tournament on an 11-game winning streak, tied for the fifth-longest active with Colgate and Murray State, and they just beat the last team that defeated them in the SWAC title game. So, they have momentum, another variable you can claim if you want the Panthers to win.

FDU shoots at a better clip from the field than PV (47.8 to 43.8), and that small edge ranks the Knights 28th in all of NCAA Division I and PV 210th. Three-point shooting could be the difference, as the Knights’ 40.4 percent accuracy ranks fifth nationally, compared to the Panthers’ 31.1 percent (318th). Both teams are about the same in rebounds (PV has a 33.1-32.9 edge in per-game average), but my prediction is that the extra points from the arc will give the Knights the edge in a head-to-head battle. Pick: FDU.

 

Belmont (26-5) vs. Temple (23-9): I’ve watched both teams. I saw Temple wear down Houston in Philadelphia. Belmont contained the second-best college player in the nation, Murray State’s Ja Morant, for about a half.

Belmont’s Dylan Windler is a pure shooter overall and averages a double-double (21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds), so that’s hard to stop. If there’s a reason Belmont is a 3.5-point favorite, it’s because the Bruins’ 49.4 percent field goal shooting and ability to rebound and share the ball could wear down the Owls on defense.

Still, Temple finished 13-5 and third place in the most underrated athletic conference in Division I, the American Athletic. The Owls’ physicality, I think, will give the Bruins some fits it hadn’t seen in the Ohio Valley Conference. Pick: Temple.

It’ll be a packed house, given proximity of both teams to Dayton, Ohio, for an NCAA tourney game.

 

North Dakota State (18-15) vs. North Carolina Central (18-15): Right off the bat, the identical records make this one a toss-up.

Both teams are experienced in the NCAAs, so that bodes well for both teams. N.D. State has won four straight, but only after recovering from a three-game skid, two of them losses to Summit League regular-season champion South Dakota State and runner-up Omaha. North Carolina Central was tied for third in its conference, like N.D. State, and had to recover from a 74-52 loss to N.C. A&T to stack a MEAC tournament title run.

I only have one variable to rely on: The Bison played a tougher schedule than the Eagles. One would think the chance to play Duke is actually appealing to an N.C. Central program located in the same town, so the motivation is real for the Eagles. Pick: N.D. State.

 

Arizona State (22-10) vs. St. John’s (21-12): More than anything else, this is a coaches’ battle.

ASU’s Bobby Hurley and St. John’s Chris Mullin have played in the Final Four before. Hurley has two national titles from Duke, whereas Mullin’s tracks were stopped in the 1985 semifinals by Georgetown.

Arizona State finished second in Pac-12 standings and fared better in its last five games, the last being an overtime loss to eventual tournament champion Oregon.

St. John’s competed in a beat-‘em-up Big East, but got in despite finishing seventh in the conference at 8-10. The Red Storm have lost 4 of 5 with only a win over DePaul to boast.

The Sun Devils are more suited for the big stage that is the Big Dance. St. John’s stole a pick from North Carolina State. Pick: Arizona State.

 

REST OF THE FIELD

As you can see, I resorted to more theory than numbers in my last two predictions, and that’s what I did for the majority of my bracket.

My round of 64 produced a couple of toss-ups: Central Florida over Virginia Commonwealth, and Louisville over Minnesota. That’s just in the East Region alone.

The right-hand side of the bracket brought about three more toss-ups in the round of 32: Virginia over Ole Miss (the Rebels have had a lot of close calls against the likes of Tennessee and Kentucky), Cincinnati over Tennessee (I like the Bearcats’ size in the backcourt against the Volunteers) and Houston over Iowa State (Houston’s a little more complete team than the Big 12 champion Cyclones).

My Sweet 16: Duke vs. Virginia Tech, LSU vs. Michigan State, Syracuse vs. Murray State (this year’s darlings), Texas Tech vs. Michigan, Virginia vs. Wisconsin, Villanova vs. Cincinnati, North Carolina vs. Auburn and Houston vs. Kentucky. My Elite Eight: Duke vs. Michigan State, Murray State vs. Michigan, Virginia vs. Cincinnati and North Carolina vs. Kentucky.

Final Four: Michigan State vs. Michigan and Virginia vs. North Carolina. National championship: North Carolina beats Michigan.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or at ic.murrell@panews.com. On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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