2018 NCAA Tournament
2018 NCAA Tournament (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

March Madness”. The best month in sports has finally arrived. The bracket is set, bubbles have been burst, and teams are finally able to prepare for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Cinderella stories will be written, unsung heroes will emerge, and one team will find itself standing alone atop the college basketball world. However, to be that team holding the trophy, in the end, you have to get out of the always entertaining first round.

Marquee Match-Ups

Yes, you 100% should watch every game you possibly can in the first round of the NCAA tournament. However, if you are put in a position where you must pick and choose, the following games will be the most important to keep an eye on.

  • 7 Rhode Island v 10 Oklahoma

It is no secret that Oklahoma backed its way into the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners went from being a top 10 team to losing 11 of their last 15 games. However, with a player as dynamic as Trae Young, anything is possible in a tournament format. Rhode Island comes into the tournament after a heartbreaking one-point loss to Davidson in the Atlantic 10 conference championship game. Senior guards Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews will lead this Rams squad into their second consecutive tournament appearance. Guarding Young will be unlike any defensive task this group has ever had, so if they want a shot at winning someone will have to find a way to slow down Young and the Oklahoma offense.

  • 8 Missouri v 9 Florida State

Yes, all 8/9 match ups are must watch because they should theoretically be the most evenly matched games of the first round. However, this game’s notoriety went to a different level the second that Michael Porter Jr. stepped on the court for Missouri in the SEC Tournament. Porter Jr. was considered a top 3 prospect coming into this season, but back injuries derailed his year. With him back in the lineup, the Tigers now have one of the most talented players in the country taking the court for them. To combat this newfound star power, the Seminoles bring in a massive front line that consists of 7 players 6’8+ and headlined by 7’0 Ike Obiagu and 7’4 Christ Koumadje.

  • 7 Texas A&M v 10 Providence

This 7/10 matchup will be a battle of strength versus strength, both metaphorically and literally. There is no secret what A&M wants to do offensively. They are led by forwards Tyler Davis and Robert Williams who can just overwhelm the opposition with their size and strength. However, that excellent size is not complemented with much outside shooting. The Aggies only manage a futile 32.7 percent mark from beyond the three-point line. Providence is not much better, managing a 33.3% success rate from 3. The Friars have had an up and down season, but are currently on an upswing. They finished their season by losing in the Big East championship game to Villanova after defeating Creighton and Xavier. The winner of this one will be whoever does the dirty work defending and rebounding.

Potential Breakout Stars

In recent years, everyone wants to know who will be this tournament’s Steph Curry, Jimmer Fredette, or Kemba Walker. Fans always clamor for a player who takes over a tournament, leading his team to unexpected victories and putting up ridiculous stats against superior competition. As a disclaimer, I am not going to put Trae Young on this list. Young leads the nation in scoring and assists. His spectacular scoring skills put the college basketball world on notice very early this season.  Young putting up huge numbers is to be expected, thus not a “breakout”. There is even speculation that Oklahoma was included in this year’s tournament just because of Young’s polarizing star power. The following two under the radar guys could potentially take over the 2018 NCAA Tournament and be remembered for years to come.

  • Mike Daum, South Dakota State

For one reason or another, the players that fans fall in love with in March are often guards. Forward Mike Daum will attempt to buck that trend in this year’s tournament. Daum is the leader of a Jackrabbit squad which averages a scorching 84.9 points per game. In that high scoring offense, the junior chips in 23.8 points/game of his own. The 6’9 245 pound forward will not wow fans with impressive dribbling displays, explosiveness, or wild pull up jumpers. Instead, Daum just demoralizes his opponents with his litany of post moves. The Jackrabbits’ big man also possesses an efficient catch-and-shoot three-point stroke, making 42% of his shots from behind the arc. Mike Daum’s scoring expertise is combined with great free throw shooting and an average of over 10 rebounds a game. In the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Daum will meet the 5the seeded Ohio State Buckeyes. 

  • Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure

If you are looking for a mid-major guard who can light up the scoreboard, then Jaylen Adams is your guy. Adams scored double digits in 23 of 26 games this season to the tune of 19.8 points per game. Among those double-digit games were back to back 40 point games against Duquesne and Saint Louis. In those games, Adams combined to score 84 points on only 40 shot attempts. This efficient scoring lasted all season long during which Jaylen Adams shot an astounding 45.7% from three-point range. Adams will face the Florida Gators in round 1. Against stiff competition, expect Jaylen to get a heavy dose of shots against Florida.

 Upset Watch

  • 6 Miami v 11 Loyola – Chicago

Fans have come to always expect the 6/11 games to create some upsets. Loyola-Chicago comes into the 2018 NCAA Tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference. Miami was bounced in the first round of the ACC tournament. The Hurricanes will also be without do-it-all guard Bruce Brown. Expect to see lots of picks leaning in Loyola-Chicago’s favor.

  • 5 Ohio State v 12 South Dakota State

The aforementioned Mike Daum leads the Jackrabbits into the always entertaining 5/12 game.  Ohio State is coming off an early exit in the Big Ten tournament. South Dakota State can score in bunches, in addition, Ohio State does not have many players to physically match up with Daum. As a result, I predict this game could be the beginning of a Cinderella run for South Dakota State.

  • 1 Kansas v 16 Penn

I am giving in to the hype and including this game in the “Upset Watch” category. Do I really think Penn will win this game? No, albeit I do think that they can play a competitive 40 minutes against Kansas. Penn is one of the best teams in the country at defending the three. Kansas has been a team who often falls in love with shooting the three ball. Penn has solid guards that they pair with bigs Max Rothschild and All-Ivy League selection AJ Brodeur. I give Kansas the heavy advantage in this pairing. However, I will definitely tune in to see if the Quakers can make some noise.