The Big Ten has a bit of a better understanding of where it stands now that the smoke has cleared from the first round of March Madness. Among those advancing, Penn State, Maryland and Northwestern will play their Round of 32 matchups on Saturday.
Unfortunately for those three, they’re all heading right into a buzzsaw.
Let’s get right into the games:
Time/TV: 7:45 p.m. ET (CBS)
KenPom: Texas by 6
Penn State made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in years and promptly ground a very good Texas A&M team into dust by doing what it does best: hitting 3-pointers and letting Jalen Pickett cook.
Anyone paying attention to what Micah Shrewsberry and the Nittany Lions have been doing lately could see this coming from a mile away, I had this upset in my own bracket and it was an easy call. That A&M team was good two, one of the better SEC outfits this season.
The Nittany Lions will have another chance to knock off a higher seeded opponent when they take the court against Texas.
Texas has had... a season. The Longhorns fired Chris Beard for cause following a domestic violence arrest in December. Interim head coach Rodney Terry led Texas through the season and all the way to a Big 12 Tournament championship.
Texas is No. 5 overall in KenPom, ranking in the top-20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. No individual stats jump off the page for the Longhorns, who are solid all-around without any clear weaknesses either.
But this is March and Penn State is a team writing a story. Pickett is one of the best guards in the country and the Nittany Lions are just too hot to handle right now.
I’m taking Penn State to play upset yet again.
- Pick: Penn State
No. 7 Northwestern Wildcats vs. No. 2 UCLA Bruins
- Time/TV: 8:40 p.m. ET (TNT)
- KenPom: UCLA by 8
The surprise story of the Big Ten season is still dancing after Northwestern defeated Boise State in the first round. They’ll have a chance to welcome future conference member UCLA into the fold when the two take the court on Saturday.
Northwestern is here because it has what it takes to win in March: High-level guard play. Boo Buie is one of the best guards in the conference while Chase Audige is among its best defenders.
But UCLA is an absolute buzzsaw for the Wildcats. Mick Cronin’s group is No. 2 overall in KenPom with a top-25 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency. There’s an asterisk because the team’s best defender, Jaylen Clark, is out for the rest of the season with an injury, but that didn’t stop the Bruins from bulldozing UNC Asheville in the first round.
UCLA was a questionable call and two points away from a PAC-12 Tournament title, ultimately losing to Arizona.
The ‘Cats have had a fun season, but I have a hard time seeing an outcome that doesn’t send them home Saturday.
- Pick: UCLA
Time/TV: 9:40 p.m. ET (TBS)
KenPom: Alabama by 6
Hey, congratulations to Kevin Willard on his first NCAA Tournament win as the head coach at Maryland! And he beat a storied, respected coach to do it! Yay!
His prize you ask? No. 1 overall seed Alabama.
.... not as good!
Anyway, Maryland came back from a rough first half against West Virginia to take the win and advance. That sequence of events absolutely will not repeat itself against a team like Alabama, Maryland needs to play all 40 minutes and can’t slip, not even for a second.
The stats are obvious, the Crimson Tide is No. 3 overall in KenPom with the 19th best offensive efficiency (116.4) and the third best defensive efficiency (88.9) in the country. The SEC Champs don’t let teams beat them from the perimeter, limiting scoring from the arc to an astounding 28.3%, third best in the country.
Even more impressive is the Tide’s Effective FG % on defense: 41.4. That’s easily the best mark in the country. The most obvious stat has already been mentioned, that big ol’ No. 1 next to Alabama’s name.
Maryland is also one of the worse 3-point shooting outfits in the tournament, knocking down just 33% of its attempts from range.
The Terps have their work cut out for them, but I think the challenge here is simply too great to overcome.
- Pick: Alabama