March Madness 2021: Five best NCAA Tournament first-round matchups

Which March Madness 2021 opening round games are the most intriguing? Let’s break down very best matchups of the first round.

After nearly two years without it, we are just a few days away from the start of March Madness. It feels good, right?

A lot of the buildup to the event revolves around picking a Final Four and eventual national champion, but the first round of the NCAA Tournament is often the most exciting. There’s a constant stream of games for your senses to absorb, most of which tend to be close and are undecided until the closing minutes.

Which first-round games in this year’s bracket are the ones most worth paying attention to? Here are the five games you absolutely have to watch:

(8) Loyola-Chicago Ramblers vs. (9) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

These two teams both had second weekend potential if given the right pod by the selection committee, so getting each other in the first round is a brutal draw. That said, it should make for an extremely entertaining and well-played matchup.

Loyola-Chicago enters the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s most efficient defense and excels at suffocating opponents with a slow tempo similar to Virginia. Offensively, they have a balanced attack around star big man Cameron Krutwig.

Well, Georgia Tech has a star big man of their own in ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright. The matchup between those two — Krutwig’s skill against Wright’s athleticism — will be very entertaining and could determine the outcome of the game.

The Yellow Jackets rely on their defense as well but do so via an attacking style designed force turnovers and poor, rushed shots by their opponents. They’ve ridden that strategy to eight consecutive wins and an NCAA Tournament title with enough offense from Wright, Jose Alvarado, Michael DeVoe, and Jordan Usher.

This matchup might be a low-scoring affair, but it will be well played and should be tight throughout.

(8) LSU Tigers vs. (9) St. Bonaventure Bonnies

Looking for an interesting contrast of styles between two very, very good teams? St. Bonaventure ranks 319th nationally in tempo, preferring to slow the pace down and let their defense take over games. LSU, meanwhile, is 78th in tempo and prefers to play at a faster pace.

There’s also the matchup of LSU’s excellent offense against that great defense of the Bonnies. The Tigers are fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency with Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford, and Javonte Smart all capable of scoring 30 points on any given night.

St. Bonaventure is 17th in defense and has only allowed three teams to score at least 70 points against them. In fact, they’ve held half of their opponents to fewer than 60 points, a mark of a truly great defense. Well, LSU has hit 70 in every game but two this season and has never been held below 60 points.

Who will win this strength-on-strength matchup?

(7) UConn Huskies vs. (10) Maryland Terrapins

UConn and Maryland have both shown flashes of brilliance this year yet have also had their struggles. The Huskies have a win over USC and a sweep of Georgetown on their resume along with losses to Providence and St. John’s, though those losses came without star James Bouknight.

Maryland has had much more volatile swings, having knocked off Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, and sweeping Michigan State while also losing to Northwestern and losing twice to Penn State.

Both are tough, hard-nosed, guard-oriented teams that play at a slow pace (both rank outside the top 300 in tempo), which should make for a really fun matchup if they both bring the best version of themselves. Plus, we’ll be treated to a superior individual matchup with a potential lottery pick in Bouknight going up against the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Darryl Morsell.

(6) Texas Tech Red Raiders vs. (11) Utah State Aggies

Texas Tech has to be included on the list because they pretty much only play close games. Thirteen of their 27 games on the season were decided by single digits with a majority of the others being blowouts against much lesser competition.

But there’s also a stylistic component here that should make this fun to watch. Texas Tech is more talented overall, but Utah State might have the best player on the court in Neemias Queta. He’s fifth nationally in block rate and spearheads the nation’s No. 8 defense, which is also top 10 nationally in interior defense and block rate. Considering the Red Raiders get a vast majority of their offense from inside the arc (304th in three-pointers attempted), it’s important for the Aggies to be dominant in that area.

That should make for a very exciting game and a potential upset in the first round.

(5) Creighton Bluejays vs. (12) UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Speaking of upset, here is one of the most popular 12-over-5 upset picks, and for good reason! There are so many things to like about this game.

For starters, there’s Creighton’s three-point offense against Santa Barbara’s three-point defense. The Bluejays rank 33rd in 3PA/FGA and 32nd in the percentage of points they get from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Gauchos are 15th and 56th in those categories on the defensive end. Which side prevails?

We also get a really fun point guard matchup between Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski and UCSB’s JaQuori McLaughlin, both of whom are phenomenal scorers and are their respective team’s leading playmaker. They will have the ball in their hands a lot and whoever plays better might just lead their team to a victory.

Brian Rauf
Brian Rauf

Heat Check CBB Lead National Writer