For sports fans, Thursday and Friday are the best two days of the year: NCAA Tournament first round games!
And what's better about March Madness than the upsets? There's nothing like seeing the unknown, disrespected underdog rise up and knock off a team from one of the powerhouse conferences. Here's a look at the teams I think have the best chance at shocking the world in Round 1:
#13 Siena over #4 Purdue
This is going to be a very common upset pick for a couple of reasons. First, the Saints have done this before. As a 9-seed last year, they beat Evan Turner and 8th-seeded Ohio State in double overtime, thanks to some heroics by point guard Ronald Moore. They nearly knocked off Number 1 seed Louisville in Round 2. Two years ago, Siena trounced Vanderbilt in a 13 over 4 upset. Moore, star forward Alex Franklin, and swing man Edwin Ubiles were starters on both those upset teams (Siena's other two starters, Ryan Rossiter and Clarence Jackson, were on both those teams too). So Siena not only has Tournament experience, they have a history of Tournament success!
Second, Purdue has been a mess since star forward Robbie Hummel went down for the season with a knee injury. They were embarrassed by Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, falling behind 37-11 at halftime before losing by 27. It all adds up to another first-round upset for Siena.
#11 Old Dominion over #6 Notre Dame
I think it's quite clear that Notre Dame is better when they're not force feeding Luke Harangody. And I know they're better defensively when Harangody is on the bench. But what will they do now that Harangody is close to 100 percent recovered from his knee injury? Do they keep the same slow-it-down, share-the-ball style that led to their late-season run? Or do they go back to doing everything through Harangody again? I think it might be the latter, and I think that's going to be a huge mistake. Especially against a team like Old Dominion.
ODU has the kind of size you don't usually see in a mid-major team. Forwards Gerald Lee (6' 10", 250 lbs.) and Frank Hassel (6' 8", 240) have the kind of size you'd usually see in the Big East. The Monarchs smother opponents on the defensive end and can control the boards. The question is whether they'll shoot it well enough to get the win. They did when they upset Georgetown on the road in December. If a guy like swingman Ben Finney gets hot, ODU is going to win this one.
#11 San Diego State over #6 Tennessee
I don't think San Diego State is better than Tennessee, but this one looks more like an 8-9 type of match-up than a 6-11. These teams are very closely matched.
Here's why the Aztecs are so tough: Of their eight losses this season, seven came on the road, and four came by three points or less. They found their shooting touch late in the year, and if they are knocking down the threes like they were in the Mountain West tournament (.483 percent in the semifinals and final), they're going to get the win. The Vols did indeed score big wins over Kansas and Kentucky this season, but they were too inconsistent away from home for my liking.
#13 Murray State over #4 Vanderbilt
Well, if you're a college basketball fan, I don't need to tell you how bad the officiating is. Unfortunately, those old guys in the striped shirts act like they're the most important thing in the game, jumping around like ninnies and often making terrible calls that decide the outcome. And I think the refs will decide the outcome of this one.
First, here's why I like Murray State: They play an aggressive, smothering man-to-man defense. And on offense, they're very balanced (five of their players average double-digit points). I like teams who play well away from home (since there are no home games in the Tournament), and Murray State was 15-4 away from home this year, tied for the ninth-best record out of 347 teams in Division I.
But this one will come down to how much the refs let them play. Vandy star big man A.J. Ogilvy will be guarded by Tony Easley, an undersized (6' 9", 200 lbs.) center who plays very physical and blocks a lot of shots. If Easley is allowed to bang Ogilvy down low, he can take Vandy out of their comfort zone. But if the game is called tight, Easley will get into early foul trouble, the Commodores will fend off the upset.
#12 New Mexico State over #5 Michigan State
Let me make this clear: I don't think the chances of an upset are good here. But I think I'd be very nervous if I were a Spartans fan, because New Mexico State is the biggest wildcard in this Tournament.
Because of their frantic, run-and-gun style, I think the Aggies could at take MSU out of their comfort zone. Their leader, Jahmar Young, is super tough and super clutch. Jonathan Gibson is very dangerous from the outside. And Troy Gillenwater is the best sixth man in the tournament.
And while the Spartans are talented and very well-coached, they often didn't look sharp away from home this season (and Spokane, Washington is far away from East Lansing). Here's what they've done on the road since February 1: They lost on a neutral court to Minnesota in last week's Big Ten tournament. They struggled to pull away from a shorthanded Purdue team on the road. They lost at Illinois at got crushed at Wisconsin. Their two road wins were over lowly Penn State and Indiana.
Do I think MSU will win it? Yeah, probably. But this is a very dangerous match-up for the Spartans.