Preview: UD Arena hosts NCAA First Four

This week will be the first time in almost three years that UD arena has hosted the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. Photo of the arena courtesy of Shawn McLaws/Rooted Media.

 Tyler Jones | Contributing Writer

Although the vast majority of students will have left Dayton for spring break this week, campus will be far from quiet.

The college basketball world will descend upon the University of Dayton this week, as UD Arena hosts the First Four for the first time in almost three years.

After the NCAA Tournament and the Flyers pursuit of a National Championship were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, the entire 2021 Tournament was played in an Indianapolis bubble.

The First Four is aptly named for the first four games of the Tournament, widely regarded as quasi ‘play-in games’ to the field of 64. The eight teams playing at UD Arena this Tuesday and Wednesday consist of the four lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers (conference tournament champions) that play as 16 seeds, and the lowest-ranked at-large teams (non-conference champion) otherwise known as the ‘Last 4 In’, that play as 12 seeds.

Unfortunately, our beloved Dayton Men’s Basketball Team fell to Richmond in the semifinals of the A-10 tournament and came just short of an at-large bid on Selection Sunday, even labeled as the ‘First Team Out’.

Confusing? Absolutely, but welcome to March Madness. Let’s dive into the eight teams that will compete at UD Arena this week:

Day 1 – Tuesday, March 15

6:40 p.m. Tip-Off: #16 Texas Southern Tigers (18-12) vs #16 Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders (23-11)

Winner to play #1 Kansas

In an ironic twist by the committee, two schools located just 200 miles apart will travel over 1,100 miles each to kick off the 2022 NCAA tournament.

Texas Southern started their 2022 season with an absolute gauntlet of a schedule. Coach Johnny Jones tested his team early and often, facing high-quality opponents like Oregon, Saint Mary’s, and Brigham Young, before knocking off Florida in early December.

The trial by fire seemed to work because the Tigers caught fire in SWAC play, going 13-2 since Jan. 18 to win the conference tournament. Texas Southern doesn’t have a player averaging double-digit scoring, but don’t let that fool you: Nobody plays his bench more than Coach Jones, so every player on the team can and will contribute.

First-year head coach Steven Lutz has Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.

The Islanders started the year 9-1 before taking some very competitive losses to Minnesota and Notre Dame. Corpus Christi struggled slightly in conference play to a .500 record, but the Islanders are riding high into Dayton after knocking off the top two seeds in the Southland tournament to secure their bid.

The big key for the Islanders is defense. When they hold opponents to less than 70 points, Corpus Christi is an undefeated 17-0, but when an opponent eclipses 70 points, the Islanders are 6-11.

What to Watch: These two teams were seeded lowest by the Selection Committee, but this is what March Madness is all about. Texas Southern only played 9 home games this year, so don’t expect the Tigers to be phased by the trip to Dayton. The Tigers are also an impressive 3-0 on neutral floors, but the Islanders are an incredible 7-1 in a neutral setting.

9:10 Tip-Off: #12 Indiana Hoosiers (20-13) vs #12 Wyoming Cowboys (25-8)

Winner plays #5 St. Mary’s

Mike Woodson’s first year at the helm of his alma mater was a rollercoaster as Indiana started the year red hot and 9-1 in non-conference play.

However, IU struggled with the competitive Big Ten schedule to a sub .500 conference record (9-11). But Indiana found their rhythm when it mattered, rattling off upset wins over Michigan and Illinois in the Big Ten tournament to squeak into the First Four.

The heartbeat of this Hoosier team is sophomore forward, Trayce Jackson-Davis. Averaging over 30 minutes a game and leading the team in scoring at 18.1ppg, IU will go as far as Jackson-Davis can carry them.

Wyoming emerges as the fourth bid out of a surprisingly competitive Mountain West Conference.

Head Coach Jeff Linder will make his first appearance in the NCAA tournament as the Cowboys ride a dynamic duo of Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado to Dayton.

Ike, a sophomore forward, leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 19.6 ppg and 9.6 rebounds per game, while Maldonado pours in over 18 points of his own, while also adding over 6 assists.

Wyoming’s frontcourt depth will be critical in corralling Indiana’s Jackson-Davis, but if they can, the Pokes have the talent to advance.

What to Watch: The matchup of big men between Trayce Jackson-Davis and Graham Ike could be electric and the deciding factor in the game. How physical will the officials let this one get as foul trouble for either could doom their team’s chances. Another factor: Bloomington, Indiana is less than 200 miles from UD arena while Laramie, Wyoming is over 1,200 miles away.

If Hoosier nation descends on Dayton, the Cowboys could find themselves in a hostile environment.

Day 2 – Wednesday, March 16

6:40 Tip-Off: #16 Wright State (21-13) vs #16 Bryant Bulldogs (22-9)

Winner to play #1 seed Arizona

Raiders Head Coach Scott Nagy just wins. With Wright State’s come from behind win in the Horizon League Tournament Championship, Nagy and the Raiders locked up their 5th straight year of winning either the regular season or tournament championship.

Wright State boasts a three-pronged attack on offense with Tanner Holden (19.8 ppg), Grant Basile (18.5 ppg), and Trey Calvin (14.3 ppg) all able to score at any time.

Look for Basile to take advantage of the smaller Bryant roster and establish himself early. If Wright State’s guards can somewhat contain their Bryant counterparts, the Raiders will have more than a chance in this matchup.

Bryant dominated the Northeast Conference for both the regular season and the conference tournament, earning an automatic bid with a 70-43 drubbing of Wagner that was overshadowed by a postgame brawl in the stands.

The Bulldogs boast the nation’s leading scorer in Peter Kiss (25.1 ppg), who is perhaps one of the nation’s leading trash talkers as well, but don’t overlook Charles Pride, who is a more than capable second scorer at 18 points per game.

The Bryant game plan is simple – shoot it early and often: the Bulldogs average over 27 three-point attempts a game. The real test for this team will be defending Wright State and dealing with the imposing size of the Raiders.

What to Watch: The age-old adage about team basketball vs an individual takes center stage in this matchup. The Wright State starters play more minutes than almost any other unit in the country, but those minutes breed chemistry — demonstrated by their spread-out scoring attack. On the other side of the court, Peter Kiss is an electric player and could very well steal the stage Wednesday evening.

9:10 Tip-Off: #11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-10) vs #11 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-13)

Winner plays #6 Alabama

Notre Dame will make their 13th NCAA appearance under Head Coach Mike Brey when they come to Dayton for a Wednesday night contest.

The Fighting Irish boast one of the nation’s oldest and most experienced lineups, rotating five seniors and a grad student to pair with standout freshman Blake Wesley.

 Wesley leads the Irish in scoring at 14.6 ppg, but Notre Dame has a well-balanced attack with three other starters scoring in double figures and two other role players averaging 9 ppg.

Coach Brey’s top 7 players are talented enough to make some noise this March, they already beat Kentucky this year, but lack of bench depth could be this team’s Achilles Heel.

The Scarlet Knights went 14-3 at home, knocking off perennial Big Ten powers like Purdue, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State. Rutgers’ weakness is away from the RAC, where they were a disappointing 4-10.

 On a neutral court in Dayton, will the RAC Magic travel? The Scarlet Knights are led by Ron Harper Jr. and his 15.6 ppg, but his accuracy from long range (39%) could prove to be a difference maker late in the game.

If Rutgers can get by Notre Dame, they’ve shown they can take down higher ranked opponents.

What to Watch: Both of these teams rely heavily on their starters and a bench player or two. At this point in the season, that means heavy legs for key players – 5 players between the two teams are averaging over 30 minutes a game. In a tournament setting with little time between games, those minutes will add up quickly.

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