Sports Paulumn: The eight most intriguing March Madness matchups

With college basketball’s most exciting tournament tipping off on March 21, I figured I’d discuss some of the matches I found interesting. Upsets, high-scoring affairs and domination through and through, these games stood out to me among the 32-game field.

In no particular order, these are the eight games that drew me in over others.

(6) BYU vs (11) Duquesne – March 21, 10:40 a.m.

In a very difficult Big 12 conference, the BYU Cougars muscled their way into the tournament off of key victories against powerhouses such as Kansas and Baylor. Led by guards Jaxson Robinson and Dallin Hall, the Cougars are fifth in the nation in assists per game, and are one of college’s most efficient scoring offenses.

Duquense has gotten hot at the right time, winning 10 of their last 11 games behind senior guard and leading scorer Dae Dae Grant. Although barely cracking double-digit wins in their conference, the Dukes working their way through tourney-caliber teams and coasting on an eight-game winning streak could be trouble for BYU.

Also, don’t sleep on the magic of March Madness. Duquesne happens to have senior forward Fousseyni Drame, one of the more impactful players for Saint Peter’s during their 2022 Cinderella run.

(5) Wisconsin vs (12) James Madison – March 22, 7:40 p.m.

Wisconsin surprisingly made their way to the Big Ten championship game on March 17 as a five-seed, raising their tournament stock to a top-20 team overall and breaking a late season slump.

Transfer junior AJ Storr has been a huge part of the Badgers’ success this season, scoring 16.9 points per game on 44% shooting from the field.

However, the James Madison Dukes have looked unstoppable in the Sun Belt this season. At 31-3, the Dukes haven’t dropped a game since Feb. 1, and junior guard Terrence Edwards and senior forward T.J. Bickerstaff continue to dominate on offense. The Dukes are 13th in the nation in scoring at 84.4 points per game.

This matchup will be determined on the defensive side of the ball for both teams. Additionally, the question of James Madison’s weak conference schedule but high-profile record will be answered.

(3) Illinois vs (14) Morehead State – March 21, 1:10 p.m.

Illinois, the second-best team in the Big Ten, squeaked out a conference title with a 93-87 win over Wisconsin. The reason why? Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., one of the most elite three-level scorers in college basketball.

Star power is essential in the NCAA tournament, which is why if there’s any team to go out there and pull off a stunning upset, it’s the Morehead State Eagles. Their superstar, senior guard Riley Minix, averages 20.8 points per game on an efficient 54.6% shooting.

The Eagles are also a more capable defensive team, only allowing 62.8 points per game against the Fighting Illini’s 73.8. Granted, the Big Ten has noticeably more offense than the Ohio Valley Conference but holding teams to under 70 in the NCAA will be really promising come March.

If Minix and forward Dieonte Miles can neutralize or even slow down Shannon Jr.’s impact, the Eagles could slip their way into the Round of 32.

(6) Texas Tech vs (11) N.C. State – March 21, 7:40 p.m.

N.C. State should NOT have made the NCAA tournament. With a 9-11 conference record and four consecutive losses, the Wolfpack stunned in the ACC tournament and won five straight games, clinching an automatic bid through dynamic victories over Duke and North Carolina.

Texas Tech has a good tournament as well, winning four in a row before dropping the Big 12 championship against Houston. The Red Raiders’ situation is interesting. They aren’t a streaky team, they beat average teams and lose to top-ranked schools and their leading scorer, sophomore guard Pop Isaacs, shoots a dismal 35% from the field.

Both squads score at an even rate, allow a fairly average amount of points and don’t have an attributed star that can create their own shot.

This game earns the Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object award. In other words, can N.C. State prove that record isn’t everything, and how scorching hot does a team need to be to defeat an incredibly consistent team?

(5) Saint Mary’s vs (12) Grand Canyon – March 22, 8:05 p.m.

The key to Saint Mary’s success this season has been defense, defense and more defense. Only allowing 58.7 points per game this year, the Gaels rank third in college basketball in team defense.

Offensively, leading scorer Aidan Mahaney is coming off a 23-point performance in the WCC championship against Gonzaga, taking that momentum into the first round of the tournament.

While Saint Mary’s has had a very successful season, one of March Madness’s most capable underdog teams is the Grand Canyon Lopes. Senior guard Tyon Grant-Foster led a high-scoring offense (80 points per game) to a WAC championship and their third straight appearance.

Just like a lot of these matchups, we have two teams facing one another, one with a dominant offense and the other with a dominant defense. Depending on which one lets up, this game could be a shock for either of them.

(4) Kansas vs (13) Samford – March 21, 7:55 p.m.

In a down year for Kansas, the Jayhawks were able to fight their way into the tournament as a four seed with quality wins over teams like Baylor, Houston and Oklahoma twice. Unfortunately, this is shaping up to be a scary game for Kansas.

The Jayhawks’ two leading scorers, seniors Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson, are both questionable to play in their first-round matchup. It’s also worth mentioning that Kansas has dropped four of their last five games, with only one win against a struggling Kansas State team.

This opens up the door for Samford. A dominating 29-5 record in the Southern Conference, the Bulldogs were able to snatch their conference title and head to the NCAA tournament with a full head of steam. Samford started the season 0-2 and hasn’t lost back-to-back games since.

Led by junior forward Achor Achor, Samford’s going to be reliant on his impact to get past a quality defensive team in the Jayhawks, but Kansas’ struggles are so real that the Bulldogs have a real shot at playing a spoiler on Thursday.

Another quick note: Achor averages 15.8 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game and 1.8 blocks per game on only 22 minutes per game! Playing Achor on 30-plus minutes could be a masterclass in coaching.

(2) Tennessee vs (15) Saint Peter’s – March 21, 7:20 p.m.

Usually, 2-15 matchups aren’t very exciting, and the only reason they have real upset potential comes due to injuries or improper seeding by the committee.

Tennessee has one of the nation’s best players in Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht, who is making a real case for National Player of the Year behind his 21.1 points per game on 46.5% shooting. The Volunteers spread the ball around very efficiently too, averaging 17 assists per game.

Saint Peter’s, a team that has already shown they can win against a 2-seed as a 15-seed, is put in the exact same position. Their team is noticeably worse through departures of seniors and transfers of players such as Drame and senior guard Doug Edert.

However, this is not a case of the Peacocks needing to be a better team than Tennessee over the course of the season. March Madness is a one-game playoff from round-to-round, and I would be lying if I said any 15-seed had a fighting chance against these higher seeds.

None of that matters here. The Peacocks have done it once, they can do it again. Sometimes, college basketball and March Madness is less about statistics and matchup, and more about the in explicable madness. Give me the Peacocks in their second historic upset in three seasons.

(8) FAU vs (9) Northwestern – March 22, 10:15 a.m.

If there is any game I could definitively say I’m losing sleep over, it’s this one. I seriously cannot stop thinking about this matchup between the Florida Atlantic Owls and the Northwestern Wildcats.

Florida Atlantic was the Cinderella team of the 2023 NCAA tournament, making the Final Four as a nine seed in their first tournament in program history. After last season’s success, they brought back senior guard and leading scorer Johnell Davis as well as revamp their frontcourt with center Vladislav Goldin.

Northwestern showed out in the Big Ten, picking up ranked wins against top-10 teams in Purdue and Illinois behind their senior guard Boo Buie. Buie is one of the most dynamic players in college basketball, able to handle the ball and play make for teammates while also having a deadly three-point shot. Buie leads Northwestern in points and assists per game on 45% shooting.

Every time I try to predict this game, my mind becomes a pendulum. These two ball-dominant guards could cancel one another out, and then it comes down to depth between the Owls and the Wildcats. It could go either way, and it will surely be a high-scoring grudge match from start to finish.

Graphic by Lexi Petri.