For the first time in TWO years we get to say these words: the 2021 NCAA Tournament is finally here! After being robbed of March Madness last year due to the pandemic, this year’s tournament has an extra special feel. This year’s tournament will be conducted entirely in the state of Indiana, mostly in gyms around Indianapolis. The 2021 NCAA Tournament also has a bit of a different format – the “First Four” play-in games will be on Thursday, the first round on Friday and Saturday, then the second round on Sunday and Monday.
Today we start our look at the Tournament with the “First Four” matchups. All of these games will be played on Thursday and are slotted into the West and East regions. Two of these games are on the 11-seed line featuring the “Last Four In.” The other two matchups are on the 16-seed line, featuring the 4 lowest-seeded conference champions.
11. Wichita State vs 11. Drake
6:30pm on TBS
Two old Missouri Valley Conference rivals meet again in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers had tremendous success in the Missouri Valley Conference before departing for the American Athletic Conference in 2017. Drake has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2008 when the lost to 12th seeded Western Kentucky on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime. Wichita St was the top seed in the American tournament this year but was upset in the semifinals by Cincinnati. Drake went back and forth with Loyola (Chicago) in the Missouri Valley this season and fell to the Ramblers in the Championship Game. Both of these teams could be dangerous against 6-seed USC. Wichita St relies heavily on their backcourt for scoring – 4 of their top 5 scorers are guards. Tyson Etienne (17.0 PPG) and Alterique Gilbert (10.3 PPG, 4.1 APG) lead the way for the Shockers. On the other side, Drake has one of the most efficient offenses in the nation but was set back late in the year by injuries. Point guard Roman Penn was lost for the year and leading scorer ShanQuan “Tank” Hemphill went down in mid-February with a broken foot. If Hemphill (14.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG) can return for Thursday’s game, it will give Drake a complement to their backcourt duo of Joseph Yesugu (12.1 PPG) and sharpshooter DJ Wilkins (10.6 PPG) who shoots over 41% from beyond the arc.
16. Norfolk State vs 16. Appalachian State
Norfolk State returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 when they pulled one of the most surprising upsets in history by beating 2-seed Missouri. This year the Spartans won the MEAC thanks to a semifinal forfeit by North Carolina A&T who was forced to drop out due to COVID. Appalachian State won the Sun Belt which lived up to its name as the “FUN BELT.” App State came up clutch with overtime victories over Texas State and Coastal Carolina before beating Georgia State in the final. All told, the Mountaineers went through the top 3 teams in the conference to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2000. Norfolk State relies heavily on their guards – 8 of their top 9 scorers are guards. Devante Carter leads the Spartans in scoring (15.5 PPG), rebounding (5.3 RPG), and assists (4.0 APG). Appalachian State saw a number of players opt out in the middle of the season but the group that stayed behind gelled at the right time. Like Norfolk, App State is a guard-heavy team whose top 4 scorers all come form the backcourt. Adrian Delph (13.2 PPG), Justin Forrest (13.0 PPG), and Michael Almonacy (12.9 PPG) lead the way for the Mountaineers. One of the dangers of App State’s team is that anyone can go off on any night. Forrest scored 24 and 28 through the first two rounds of the Sun Belt Tournament then Almonacy exploded for 32 in the title game to send App State dancing.
11. Michigan State vs 11. UCLA
These are two teams that took very different trajectories to reach the Big Dance. UCLA started the year 9-1 in conference play and still sat at 13-3 and right in the mix for the Pac-12 title at the end of February. But the Bruins lost their last four games – the last two in brutal fashion. Rival USC topped the Bruins on a buzzer-beating 3 then they fell to eventual Pac 12 Tournament Champions Oregon State in overtime. Michigan State, on the other hand, started the year just 2-7 in Big Ten play but flipped the switch in early February, going 7-4 down the stretch including wins over Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan. On paper, this game is a matchup of strength-on-strength as UCLA’s offense and Michigan State’s defense both rank in the Top 30 in efficiency in their respective categories. UCLA has a guard-heavy attack with their top 4 scorers all coming from the backcourt. Johnny Juzang (14.0 PPG) leads the way for the Bruins. Michigan State is more of a frontcourt team and only forward Aaron Henry (15.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG) averages in double-figures. The Spartans are a deep team and will go 9 or 10 deep in their rotation.
16. Mount St. Mary’s vs 16. Texas Southern
5:10pm on truTV
The first game of the NCAA Tournament will feature a dramatic contrast of styles. SWAC Champions Texas Southern play with pace, ranking in the Top 40 in the nation in possessions per game. NEC Champs Mount St. Mary’s, on the other hand, play at one of the slowest tempoes in the nation, faster than only Virginia. Texas Southern won the SWAC Tournamnet from the #3 seed (defeating Jackson St and Prairie View A&M who were both unbeaten in conference play) and is making their 5th NCAA Tournament since 2014. The Mount is making their third Tournament appearance in that same time frame. Texas Southern has a strong frontcourt and ranks in the Top 10 in the nation in rebounding. The Tigers inside presensce is led by John Walker III (12.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and Joirdan Karl Nicholas (11.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Michael Weathers (16.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.6 APG) is a do-it-all guard who is the only guard in the top 6 in scoring on the Tigers team. Mount St. Mary’s lost their leading scorer after just 4 games when he opted out of the rest of the season. As such, the Mountaineers were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the nation and relied heavily on dynamic guard Damian Chong Qui (15.1 PPG, 5.5 APG) to be the catalyst for their offense.