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SALT LAKE CITY — March Madness is officially here.
The NCAA tournament selection committee released its 68-team lineup Sunday, and for the first time since 2013, no Utah school will be represented in the NCAA tournament. However, Vivint Arena will be a first and second round host site — also for the first time since 2013.
All eight teams playing in Salt Lake are participating in the West Region bracket. The group includes two teams making their first-ever tournament appearances and three finalists for national player of the year honors.
Here’s a look at the games that will be played in at Vivint Arena on Thursday. Winners will face each other on Saturday:
Matchup: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 South Dakota State
Time: Noon MDT
Gonzaga (32-1) came one home game loss to BYU short of a perfect regular season. However, the Bulldogs bounced back nicely by taking control of the West Coast Conference tournament game.
This is actually Gonzaga’s second time as a No. 1 seed. The team's previous time playing in Salt Lake City was also in 2013. That, unfortunately, did not end well, as the team was knocked out by Wichita State in the second round of that tournament.
Gonzaga has qualified for 19-straight NCAA tournaments dating back to 1999 and enter this year’s tournament as the highest-rated team according to analytics expert Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The team will look to move past the Elite Eight and into the Final Four for the first time this season.
Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss has led the team with 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. He was named the conference’s top player. He’s also a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, the Oscar Robertson Award and the Wooden Award — three of the most prestigious national college basketball awards in the country.
Gonzaga is the 13th highest-scoring team in the country with the second-best field goal percentage in the nation, averaging 52 percent from the floor. The team is also eighth in scoring defense. To no surprise, it led the country in scoring margin by outscoring teams by 23.4 points per game this season.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
South Dakota State (18-16) entered the Summit League tournament at the No. 4 seed and even beat in-state rival and conference top seed South Dakota Coyotes in the conference tournament despite only leading twice — after the first and last buckets of the game.
The Jackrabbits are led by sophomore forward Mike Daum, who may very well be the most underrated player in the country. Daum is second in the nation in points per game, averaging 25.3 points. He also averages 8.2 rebounds per game, shoots 52 percent from the floor overall and 42 percent from beyond the arc. According to the Sports Reference, he’s the third-most efficient player in the country.
The Jackrabbits also include one local tie. Guard A.J. Hess transferred from Southern Utah University after playing three seasons with the Thunderbirds. Hess, who ironically played his first game of his college career at Gonzaga, suffered an injury last season that kept him out of what would have been his senior season. After receiving a medical hardship waiver, Hess transferred to South Dakota State, where he is their third-leading scorer, averaging 9.8 points per game this season.
The Jackrabbits have qualified for four NCAA tournaments since 2012. Head coach T.J. Otzelberger is in his first year with the program after Scott Nagy left, taking the coaching job at Wright State.
Matchup: No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt
Time: 2:30 p.m. MDT
The wait is finally over! Northwestern (23-11) is dancing for the first time in program history after being the last remaining power conference team to have not made the NCAA tournament (which began in 1939).
The Wildcats are led by three double-digit scorers: Bryant McIntosh (14.4 points per game), Scottie Lindsey (14.2) and Vic Law (12.4). The Wildcats also have the 23rd best field goal defense and 34th best scoring defense in the country, holding opponents to 65.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field.
Fun fact: Northwestern guard Charlie Hall, who has only appeared in six games this season, is the son of “Seinfeld” and “Veep” actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
We're going to the dance, boys! @NUMensBball making history! #proud#B1GCats#poundtherock#NCAA@marchmadnesspic.twitter.com/TpuoqtvxRV — Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) March 12, 2017
Vanderbilt (19-15) enters the tournament for the second-straight season and fifth time since 2010. However, the Commodores haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2007.
The team, much like Northwestern, is led by balance. Four players average double-figures for the Commodores, led by Matthew Fisher-Davis at 13.6 points per game.
It will be interesting to see if Vanderbilt’s battle-tested schedule will help them in the tournament. According to Pomeroy, the Commodores had the 17th-toughest schedule this season — the toughest of any of the other teams playing in Salt Lake by a decent margin (Northwestern is next at 53rd).
Matchup: No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota
Time: 7:50 p.m. MDT
Arizona (30-4) defeated Oregon Saturday night and is returning to the tournament yet again as Pac-12 champions. The Wildcats have played in every tournament except for one since 1985 (though two were later vacated) and made it to the Elite Eight twice in the last three seasons.
Leading the way is Allonzo Trier, who has averaged 17.3 points and five rebounds per game since missing the first half of the season due to suspension. However, freshman forward Lauri Markkanen played brilliantly in the Pac-12 tournament, averaging 20 points in three games.
Markkanen, like Williams-Goss, is also a finalist for three awards. He’s a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden awards, both as the best player in the country, and a finalist for the Karl Malone Award as the best power forward. He is averaging 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season.
Arizona was 35th in the country in shooting percentage during the season and 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy’s numbers. Pomeroy also listed the Wildcats as 28th-best in defensive efficiency.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Like Northwestern, North Dakota is also dancing for the first time — though it took considerably less amount of time to do so. The Fighting Hawks, which defeated Weber State in overtime Saturday to win the Big Sky Conference championship game, joined the Division I ranks in 2008.
The team's move comes after a successful run in Division II that included three Final Four appearances and even legendary coach Phil Jackson played there.
However, joining the Division I ranks hasn’t been as easy. While this is the first NCAA appearance in the program’s history, the Fighting Hawks have played five postseason games in the College Insider Tournament and are 0-5 in those games.
Leading North Dakota is led Quinton Hooker, who averages 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Carson Shanks, who averages 5.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, began his college career at Utah State before transferring to North Dakota during his freshman season.
Matchup: No. 7 St. Mary’s vs. No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth
Time: 5:20 p.m. MDT
Saint Mary’s Gaels
After a three-year hiatus, the Gaels return to the NCAA tournament as runner-ups in the West Coast Conference. Saint Mary’s lost to Gonzaga three times during the season (its only conference losses of the year), including the conference title game, 74-56.
The Gaels are led by Jock Landale, who is the third of the players in this group up for national player of the year honors and is the second-most efficient player in the country, according to Sports Reference.
Landale averages 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and has shot a robust 61 percent from the field this season.
The Gaels are fourth in the country in scoring margin and second in the country in scoring defense, holding teams to 56.5 points per game. They are also eighth in the country in field goal percentage offense.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
The Rams are heading to their seventh straight NCAA tournament and have had success in the past, though mostly under former head coach Shaka Smart. The Rams even made it as far as the Final Four in 2011.
Known for its athleticism, VCU is 25th in the country with 252 total steals this season, and the team has forced nearly 15 turnovers per game this season — 45th highest in the country. It will be an interesting matchup with Saint Mary’s, which is 12th in the country in fewest turnovers made.
Offensively, the Rams are led by JeQuan Lewis and his 14.7 points per game — defensively, Lewis also averages 1.8 steals per game. Justin Tillman also averages 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for VCU.