Fireworks could start early at NCAA Tournament

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Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (left) and Tom Leibig practice Wednesday for a first-round game in Pittsburgh. | Keith Srakocic/AP

All right, we’ve had a few days to digest the NCAA Tournament bracket. We’ve filled in picks, entered pools, been besieged by regrets and self-doubt. You know, the usual.

How confident am I in Villanova, the team I picked on these very pages to win it all? Put it this way: I believe the Wildcats are the best team in the country, but I certainly realize the odds are great that another team will cut down the nets in San Antonio.

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So: Not all that confident, it seems. But enough about that. You know what’s better — pretty much always — than the end of the tournament? The beginning. Let’s look at the opening “weekend” of action.


After top-seeded Villanova dispatches Radford on Thursday, it’ll get No. 8 Virginia Tech or No. 9 Alabama in Round 2. It’s a bit of a pick-your-poison scenario in that the Hokies are tough and unafraid, and the Crimson Tide are super athletic and have a 2018 lottery pick in freshman guard Collin Sexton. Virginia Tech is more dangerous.

A second-round matchup of No. 2 Purdue and No. 10 Butler would be riveting, with all the pressure on the big-school Boilermakers. The boys from Indy would have a great shot at an upset.

Watch out for: Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp. When Wichita State’s three-point shooters are on, the fourth-seeded Shockers can make any opponent look foolish.

The big question: Is third-seeded Texas Tech going to play like the team that once looked like the class of the Big 12?


Speaking of the class of the Big 12, Kansas won the league’s regular-season and tournament titles. So why do the Jayhawks feel like a No. 1 seed that’s a second-class citizen in its own region?

No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State have championship-level ceilings, no doubt about it.

All three teams could face big-time trouble in Round 2, though. Kansas will struggle with No. 8 Seton Hall or No. 9 NC State.

Watch out for: No. 12 New Mexico State, a popular pick to reach the Sweet 16. And don’t sleep on No. 13 Charleston. These two would be great fun head-to-head in Round 2.

The big question: Does guard Trae Young of 10th-seeded Oklahoma have a monster opening weekend in store for us?


Big problem for top seed Virginia: Sixth man De’Andre Hunter, the team’s fourth-leading scorer and one of the most well-rounded and polished freshmen in the ACC, has been ruled out of the tournament with an injury. Could it lead to a Sunday exit?

Ah, but we must talk about 11th-seeded Loyola. What a huge opportunity for the Ramblers to knock off two big-league opponents — first Miami, then Tennessee — that don’t exactly have an abundance of postseason pedigree.

Watch out for: No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 5 Kentucky in Round 2, if both teams get there. In terms of talent, these two are powerhouses. Sean Miller’s Wildcats have the world-against-us chip on their collective shoulder. John Calipari’s Wildcats never don’t have the same chip.

The big question: Might No. 7 Nevada be the sleeper of the tournament?


It’s the most wide-open region of all. Xavier is the No. 1 seed, but No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Gonzaga and No. 5 Ohio State all have Final Four upsides. And No. 6 Houston scares the daylights out of everybody.

Top to nearly bottom, this region is packed with teams good enough to go on runs. Expect the unexpected.

Watch out for: No. 11 San Diego State. The Aztecs have reinvented themselves with a nine-game winning streak.

The big question: When it comes to the first four days of the tournament, are there three more encouraging words than “expect the unexpected”?

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