(CBS Denver/CBS Local) — The 2019 NCAA Tournament officially tips off tonight at 6:40 p.m. Eastern Time, when the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights take on the Prairie View A&M Panthers in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. Most fans, however, are waiting for the start of the first round on Thursday, before diving headlong into March Madness. With that in mind, let’s highlight some of the best matchups heading into the first round of play set for Thursday and Friday of this week.
Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard
The second the brackets were released, the 5-12 matchup in the West region was circled as a must-see game of the tournament. The reason why? The tournament’s two highest-scoring players, Murray State’s Ja Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard, will be dueling on the same floor in Hartford, CT. Morant is a consensus top-five NBA prospect, while Howard has lit up the college game throughout his career and is expected to go in the second round due to his size. Watching this pair go shot for shot in the tournament is exactly what fans are hoping for, and we get just that on the very first day of action.
Villanova vs. Saint Mary’s
This matchup is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, the defending champs are a sixth seed after an up-and-down season that ended with them winning their third straight Big East Tournament. Two, the Wildcats and Gaels play at nearly the slowest pace of any team in the field. And, three, the Wildcats shoot a ton of threes, while Saint Mary’s doesn’t give up many. The Wildcats have attempted 1,023 shots from beyond the arc this year, hitting 361 of them, marks that rank fourth and fifth in the country respectively. Saint Mary’s doesn’t take nearly as many, but they are one of the most efficient teams from deep, hitting 37.8% of their shots (34th).
But, defensively, the Gaels have allowed opponents to take just 560 and hit only 178 threes this season (31.8%, 51st). That will be an interesting storyline in this game as the Wildcats begin their title defense.
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Wofford vs. Seton Hall
The Terriers earned a seven seed from the committee and had to be pretty happy about that, until they found out that their opponent would be the Seton Hall Pirates. Seton Hall knocked off Kentucky earlier this year and has beaten Marquette (twice) and Villanova (nearly twice) in the last two weeks. The Pirates are dangerous, thanks to junior guard Myles Powell, who is averaging nearly 23 points per game and has scored 20 or more in each of his last seven games.
However, just because they come from a small conference, don’t discount the Terriers. Fletcher Magee is a stud, hitting 42.8% of his threes and averaging over 20 points per game. It’s not just Magee who can shoot either. The Terriers as a team have hit on 41.6% of their threes, good for the second-best percentage in the country behind Lehigh. The Pirates rank just 130th in defending the three-point line this year, which should make for some fun in this game.
Sam Merrill vs. Matisse Thybulle
Merrill, a 6’5″ junior guard for Utah State, has averaged 21 points on 53% shooting from the field and 37.8% from beyond the arc. Thybulle, a 6’5″ senior guard for Washington, has averaged 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks per game this year. Welcome friends, let’s sit down and watch these opposites battle each other for supremacy on the court. The Aggies meet the Huskies in the 8-9 game in the Midwest region, and I would have to imagine that Thybulle gets the majority of the defensive responsibility for slowing Merrill. This is one of the fun “games within a game” that comes around this time every year with the tournament.