The First Four provides a soft landing for casual and die-hard college basketball fans preparing for the best weekend in sports. The action kicks off Tuesday with a pair of games, followed by a repeat performance Wednesday. Eight teams will try to punch their ticket to the field of 64.
The at-large teams playing in the First Four in Dayton are fighting for field-of-64 inclusion after seasons in which they each sent mixed signals to the selection committee. No signal is more mixed than Tennessee, which will play in the First Four's closing game Wednesday night against Iowa. The Volunteers have the résumé of a No. 11 seed, entering the tournament with a 21-12 record and bad losses to UTEP, Vanderbilt and a regular-season sweep at the hands of Texas A&M.
But the Volunteers grade out as an elite team when analytics are considered. KenPom.com ranks the Volunteers as the No. 13 team in the country, one spot above No. 2-seeded Michigan and two spots above No. 3-seeded Syracuse. The Volunteers aren't a great offensive team but excel on defense, especially in the paint. They're a physical bunch that serves as a direct counterpoint to Iowa, an elite offensive squad that has been damned because of its defense. The Hawkeyes' adjusted offensive efficiency is No. 4 in Division I, and their defense is 125th.
The other pair of at-large teams in the bracket offer another interesting matchup. North Carolina State was a surprise inclusion in the tournament but has one of the most explosive scorers in the country in 6'8 sophomore T.J. Warren. Warren has scored at least 20 points in 17 straight appearances; his last sub-20 effort was a four-point game on Jan. 11 in a 76-45 home loss to Virginia. North Carolina State struggles defensively and will face a balanced Xavier team that has lost three of its last four (including losses to Villanova and Creighton).
Albany and Mount St. Mary's open the First Four with a chance on the line to head to Orlando on Thursday to face No. 1 overall Florida. The Mountaineers are a top-100 offensive team that has given up at least 90 points seven times this year (and is 1-6 in those games). Albany is a better defensive team that has the 225th-most efficient offense in Division I and commits turnovers on 19.8 of its possessions.
Cal Poly is the only sub-.500 team in the field, having finished the regular season 10-19 before winning three games in three days to win the Big West Tournament. Still, the Mustangs opened their season in November by staying within 11 points in a 73-62 loss to Arizona. Texas Southern, coached by former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, has one of the worst defenses in the field (316th in efficiency) but is effective offensively due in large part to how often the Tigers get to the free-throw line.
First Four full schedule:
Tuesday, March 18
No. 16 Albany Great Danes vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers, 6:40 p.m. ET, truTV
No. 12 North Carolina State Wolfpack vs. No. 12 Xavier Musketeers, 9:10 p.m. ET, truTV
Wednesday, March 19
No. 16 Cal Poly Mustangs vs. No. 16 Texas Southern Tigers, 6:40 p.m. ET, truTV
No. 11 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers, 9:10 p.m. ET, truTV