Two second-round matchups to watch

I’ve always taken the task of filling out my bracket very seriously. I feel like I need to justify the hours upon hours of college basketball that I watch throughout the year with a strong performance in my March Madness pools. And generally, I’ve been pretty successful in my predictions.

This year, though, I am struggling to make my picks. In fact, I can’t even get past the first round. There are too many intriguing games and, while bad for my bracket, that’s great news for Gus Johnson and the heart-wrenching drama that makes March Madness the best few weeks of the year. Let’s take a look at two of the best first round matchups.

In the East region, the 6 vs. 11 match-up between Xavier and Marquette should be a barnburner. The Musketeers boast the A-10 Player of the Year in Tu Holloway and you can expect him to live up to the hype. Holloway is averaging over 20 points per game and has saved some of his best performances for Xavier’s biggest games. He dropped 33 points against conference rival Richmond, including knocking down 17-of-17 free throws, and went for 21 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in a key conference victory against Temple. If Marquette can contain the dynamic Holloway, the Golden Eagles will have a shot to take down the X.

Marquette is led by a balanced attack. Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom are dangerous weapons on the perimeter and in the lane, while Jae Crowder is a great passing big man who can run the floor. If the Golden Eagles can slip by Xavier, they’ll most likely battle for a Sweet 16 spot against the ‘Cuse, a team they beat 76-70 back in January, thanks to a combined 61 from the above mentioned trio.

The Musketeers stand in their way first though. At the end of a close game in front of a packed house in Cleveland, the team with more tournament experience is going to have the edge. Xavier has been to the Sweet 16 for three consecutive years. These kids know how to win in the early rounds, so the Musketeers get the nod.

UCLA and Michigan State face off in another great first round battle. The Bruins have performed pretty poorly away from home this year, though they put up a good effort in Lawrence against Kansas in a 77-76 loss back in December. UCLA does own impressive home victories against BYU, Arizona and St. John’s. This game will be in New Orleans, so it will be interesting to see what the Bruins put together against the schizophrenic Spartans.

It’s hard to know what to make of this Michigan State team that knocked off Washington, Wisconsin and Purdue, but one thing we do know is that they are battle tested and well-coached. Thirteen of their 14 losses have come against tournament-bound teams with the exception being a twenty point loss at Iowa, which State avenged twice over before season’s end.

Meanwhile, Spartans coach Tom Izzo has become a tournament legend, having led the Spartans to six Final Fours in 13 years. Behind senior Kalin Lucas, Michigan State will have a good shot against a UCLA team that has stumbled down the stretch, partly because of injury (Malcolm Lee’s left knee).

Pick against Tom Izzo at your own risk.