NCAA tournament First Four preview: March Madness begins with play-in games


The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off Tuesday night with the initial First Four games in Dayton, Ohio. Here’s a look at the games, with two 16th-seeded conference champions and two 11th-seeded at-large teams looking to advance into the tournament’s main draw.

All times Eastern. All point spreads and totals taken Tuesday morning from DraftKings Sportsbook.

The five best bets to win the men’s NCAA tournament

No. 16 Southeast Missouri State (19-16) vs. No. 16 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-10)

Winner faces: No. 1 seed Alabama on Thursday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern.

Point spread: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi -3.5

These are two teams that like to run, as reflected in the over-under total, one of the highest listed through the NCAA tournament’s first round. But can Texas A&M-Corpus Christi maintain that pace without starting point guard Terrion Murdix, the team’s highest-usage player and third-leading scorer who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Southland Conference tournament? Murdix had one of the highest assist rates in the nation, and his injury “took a chunk out of our hearts,” Coach Steve Lutz said.

The Islanders could have a big night at the foul line, however. They rank second nationally in free throw shooting (80 percent), and Southeast Missouri State fouls at an alarming rate (only three teams in Division I had more personal fouls per game).

The Redhawks, who are making only their second NCAA tournament appearance and first since 2000, lost five of seven to end the regular season but won four games in four days to take the Ohio Valley tournament crown. Point guard Phillip Russell, who is all of 5 feet 10, leads the team in scoring (18.2 points per game) and assists (five per game), and SEMO is another team that gets to the foul line a whole lot, ranking 31st nationally in free throw rate. Guard Chris Harris has carried the Redhawks of late, averaging 22.8 points per game over his past six and earning Ohio Valley tournament MVP honors.

Pick: Southeast Missouri State +3.5. Murdix’s absence will be tough for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to overcome.

The perfect bracket for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament

No. 11 Pittsburgh (22-11) vs. No. 11 Mississippi State (21-12)

Winner faces: No. 6 Iowa State on Friday at 3:10 p.m. Eastern

Point spread: Mississippi State -2.5

Expect more of a rock fight in Tuesday’s second game, particularly when the Bulldogs have the ball. Mississippi State operates at a snail’s pace and was the worst three-point shooting team in the nation during the regular season (26.6 percent). It would rather get the ball inside to 6-11 big man Tolu Smith (15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds per game). Mississippi State also is poor from the foul line, making only 64.7 percent of its attempts (the worst mark of any tournament team).

The Panthers went from nearly winning the ACC regular season title to almost missing the NCAA tournament, which might be more an indictment of the conference than anything else. They last were seen getting clobbered by Duke in the ACC tournament and have lost three of four. Pittsburgh has given up at least 1.13 points per possession in each of its past six games, so Mississippi State may be able to score despite its shooting deficiencies.

The Panthers can connect from long range, making 36 percent of their three-pointers, but Mississippi State’s defense ranks 27th nationally in that category and Pitt made just 5 of 18 three-pointers in its ACC tournament loss against Duke, which had the best three-point defense in the ACC this season.

Pick: Mississippi State -2.5. The Bulldogs can’t shoot but they certainly can gather their misses, ranking 15th nationally in offensive rebounding rate. Pitt was 12th in the ACC on the defensive glass and is trending in the wrong direction at the worst possible time.

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