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Ready to run: ‘First Four’ participants envisioning journey to Final Four glory

By Jimmy Burch Fort Worth Star-Telegram (MCT) • Updated Mar 17, 2014 at 9:44 PM

The historic journey began with a simple question: “Is anything bothering you?”

Asked on a daily basis during deliberations by members of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee, the query triggered a response on the final day of bracket-related talks in 2011. One individual spoke in support of Virginia Commonwealth, a team kicked to the curb the previous night in discussions about candidates for at-large bids.

The response created further scrutiny, which resulted in VCU’s last-minute inclusion in the field. That decision ignited nationwide second-guessing from analysts on Selection Sunday.

But two weeks later, when the Rams completed an improbable journey from a “First Four” game in Dayton, Ohio, to a Final Four berth in Houston as a No. 11 seed, committee members were vindicated.

The never-ending quest to become the next VCU in tournament lore begins Tuesday night for four teams that barely squeezed out berths in the 68-team bracket: North Carolina State (21-13), Xavier (21-12), Albany (18-14) and Mount St. Mary’s (16-16). It continues Wednesday, when the “First Four” games conclude with Texas Southern (19-14) facing Cal Poly (13-19) and Iowa (20-12) taking on Tennessee (21-12).

Four of the eight competitors in Dayton are No. 16 seeds: Albany, Mount St. Mary’s, Texas Southern and Cal Poly. Teams seeded in that position are 0-for-life against No. 1 seeds in NCAA Tournament history.

Do not expect much from any of those squads if they advance, although a case could be made that Texas Southern — led by 6-foot-10 center Aaric Murray, the leading scorer among Division I players in Texas (21.2 ppg) — could have a puncher’s chance of making history if it advances to a Friday matchup against Wichita State (34-0), the top seed in the Midwest Regional.

But history and logic suggest the best chances for a “First Four” to Final Four run through the 2014 bracket belong to a pair of No. 11 seeds (Iowa, Tennessee) and the No. 12 seeds who will square off in Tuesday’s featured game (N.C. State, Xavier).

In order of most likely tournament success, here is a look at those four:

North Carolina State: Every team reduced to playing in a “First Four” contest has flaws. But few teams, regardless of seed, have a player as dynamic as Wolfpack forward T.J. Warren, an NBA-caliber talent who leads the team in scoring (24.8 ppg) and rebounds per game (7.2).

That makes N.C. State a dangerous NCAA draw if you buy into the theory that one superstar, surrounded by adequate role players, can carry a team deep into the tournament as long as he stays hot. Many people do.

“That’s part of the magic of the NCAA tournament … having that one player who comes from nowhere and puts a team on his back,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, citing the effort of Connecticut guard Kemba Walker in carrying a team that finished with a 9-9 conference record in the Big East to an NCAA championship in 2011. “Stuff like that happens. It shows the intrigue and mystery of the tournament is still there.”

When Warren needs help in carrying the load, the Wolfpack can turn to guard Ralston Turner (10.2 ppg) or point guard Anthony Barber (8.7 ppg, 3.6 apg). N.C. State has victories this season over fellow NCAA participants Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky.

Tennessee: The Volunteers have been inconsistent and have a lot of losses for a team that plays in the less-than-stellar SEC. But Tennessee, when on top of its game, can be as explosive as any team in the country.

That’s what happened when the Vols wiped out Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, 87-52 in the regular season.

Tennessee also laid a double-digit whipping on NCAA-bound Xavier, 64-49, as well as eye-catching routs of SEC foes Vanderbilt (76-38), Missouri (72-45), Ole Miss (86-70) and LSU (68-50). And, in fairness, three of the Vols’ losses came against top-ranked Florida.

When Tennessee cranks up the offense, the stars of the show tend to be guard Jordan McRae (18.6 ppg), forward Jarnell Stokes (14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and forward Jeronne Maymon (10.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg).

Iowa: The Hawkeyes posted a 9-9 record in the Big Ten, which earned six NCAA bids, before closing with an embarrassing 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the conference tournament.

Iowa knocked off four fellow NCAA teams during the regular season, including an 85-67 thumping of Michigan, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional. Iowa also posted victories over NCAA-bound teams Xavier, Nebraska and Ohio State.

But the Hawkeyes staggered to a 1-6 finish, losing four of those games to teams that did not make the NCAA field.

If Iowa can regain its earlier form, the catalysts figure to be guard Roy Devyn Marble (17.3 ppg), forward Aaron White (13.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and point guard Mike Gesell (8.1 ppg, 3.9 apg).

Xavier: The Musketeers have reached the Sweet Sixteen with regularity in recent seasons but managed only a 10-8 conference record in their debut season as a Big East member.

That list of league triumphs included a 75-69 upset of Creighton, the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, as well as victories over fellow NCAA-bound teams Cincinnati, Providence and Tennessee (Xavier and Tennessee were 1-1 in meetings this season).

Xavier features three double-digit scorers: guard Semaj Criston (17.1 ppg), forward Justin Martin (11.8 ppg) and center Matt Stainbrook (10.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Point guard Dee Davis runs the offense (7.7 ppg, 4.7 apg).

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