Warren’s Watchlist: First Round upsets that will reap you benefits

Sam Warren

Warren’s Watchlist is a weekly predictions column written by senior Sports Editor Sam Warren on everything associated with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament throughout the month of March.

It’s official. The first nets have been cut. The conference championship shirts and hats have been worn. The Gatorade baths have been dished out. Selection Sunday has passed. Finally, after twenty full days of nationally meaningless basketball, March’s premier event is starting and the most exciting time of the year for sports fans is about to hit the screens of millions once again.

Now, the fun begins. Every year, 68 teams enter March Madness, but only one exits victorious. There are top seeds with star NBA talent that dominate their way through the tournament. There are mid-level teams that squeak out clutch wins to inch their way to triumph. But, most importantly, there are the underdogs, the longshots, the dark horses and the Cinderella teams that make magically unexpected runs in the Big Dance, coming from the depths of obscurity to become the center of the nation’s attention in just a matter of days. As the bracket sets and the dust settles on the chaos that is the seeding process, it’s time to take a look at some of the possible First Round upsets to make sure your bracket doesn’t get busted so quickly.

East Region: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 Yale

LSU has been dominant all season; 26-6 record, 4-2 record versus top 25 teams, 26th ranked strength of schedule, wins over No. 2 seeds Tennessee and Kentucky and winning the regular season Southeastern Conference title. But, that was all done under the tutelage of head coach Will Wade, who will not be with the team during the NCAA Tournament. On March 7, it was reported that Wade made a monetary offer to a recruit, which was overheard on a Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretap. The following day, LSU announced that he was indefinitely suspended amid the FBI’s probe. Since then, the Tigers have only beaten bottom-seeded Vanderbilt, who had not won a game in conference play, in the SEC tournament and then falling to No. 8 seed Florida the following game.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, they will meet a hot Yale team in the first round. The 22-7 Bulldogs cruised through the Ivy League tournament, drubbing Harvard, who they lost to twice  earlier in the season, by double digits in the championship game. The Bulldogs’ explosive offense averages 81.1 points and a 49.6 field goal percentage, which is fifth-best in the country. Yale also has NBA talent in Ivy League Player of the Year junior Miye Oni, who leads the team with 17.6 points per game. The Bulldogs also have set a precedent for upsets in the past, beating Baylor as a 12-seed in 2017. With the absence of leadership for LSU and building Bulldog momentum, don’t be surprised if the Tigers are the first big piece to fall on Thursday morning.

South Region: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 St. Mary’s

Despite dominating the tournament last season, the Villanova Wildcats seem to be limping into the Big Dance this year. The defending champs have had a rough go, losing to teams like Furman, Penn, Georgetown and Xavier this year despite none of them making the tournament. The Wildcats only retain two key players from last year’s title team, seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and start two sophomores and a freshman beside them. Villanova now also ranks 123rd in scoring after leading the nation last year, and lacks scoring options off the bench.

Meanwhile, the Saint Mary’s Gaels are looking to go streaking. Besides their two regular season losses against top-seeded Gonzaga, the 22-11 Gaels haven’t lost since January. On top of that, the Gaels avenged those losses in the WCC Championship game against the Bulldogs by thrashing the former best team in the country 60-47. Saint Mary’s runs on deep balls and defense, ranking in the top 50 in the country in both three-point percentage and opponent points per game. Led by sniper Jordan Ford, the Gaels offense might be boring to watch as they play the third slowest tempo in the country, but they might bring just enough firepower to knock off last year’s titleholder.

West Region: No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State

One of the fiercest competitors in college basketball this year has been Marquette junior guard Markus Howard. The Big East Player of the Year is averaging 24.8 points per game, ranking sixth in the nation, headlined by a 53-point game against Creighton on Jan. 9. Howard is punishing from deep, making the 10th most three-pointers per game in Division I this season. But, Howard suffered a painful wrist injury in the Golden Eagles’ semifinal loss against Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, causing him to go just one for 15 from the floor. Marquette also lacks scoring depth, with only one player average ten plus points this season.

On the other side, tantalizing NBA prospect Ja Morant and Murray State are on fire. The Racers have lost only one game in 2019, ultimately crushing rival Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference finals. Morant, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, averaged a double-double for the Racers, leading them in points (24.2 points per game) and assists (10.3 assist per game), along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game as well. Morant headlines the 11th best offense in the nation, but Murray State also features three other players averaging 10-plus points as well. While Howard may still put up big numbers despite his injury, look for the Racers to topple the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles in an offensive shootout.