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First Round Of NCAA College Basketball Tournament Underway

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you think of March Madness as a firecracker, the fuse has been lit, and tomorrow it explodes. We're talking 16 games in one day, blanket TV coverage and just maybe the kind of crazy upsets that put the madness in the men's Division I college basketball tournament. But first, back to the fuse. The tournament started yesterday with two preliminary games. There are two more tonight. They're called the first four, and that's where we'll pick things up with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

BLOCK: And these first four games are often undervalued. We figure the real tournament starts when the action gets underway in the main draw of the tournament, but I gather history shows otherwise.

GOLDMAN: Well, if you go back to the first year of the first four - that would be 2011 - VCU was one of the preliminary teams and got all the way to the final four, so big things can happen. But the teams that show up in Dayton, Ohio, which annually hosts this first four - they are the last pick for the tournament. They have to win just to get into the main draw. And despite what VCU did, they often serve as cannon fodder once they get there.

BLOCK: And this year the cannon fodder would include the Hampton Pirates. The good news is they make it into March Madness. The bad news is they get to go up against number-one Kentucky - undefeated, 34-0 for the season, the overall number-one seed.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. But, you know, at least Hampton's head coach has a sense of humor about this upcoming game. It was great. It was a treat to hear head coach Edward Joyner after his team beat Manhattan yesterday in the first game of the tournament. And at his press conference, he was asked how big of a mountain Hampton faces against the Wildcats, so he picked up his cell phone and said he had Jesus on speed dial. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARD JOYNER: Hey, Jesus. They want to know how much of much of a mountain and what are odds are. Hello? Hello?

(LAUGHTER)

JOYNER: I guess he'll get back to me, so I'll get back to you. But it's a heck of a mountain.

BLOCK: A heck of a mountain, appealing to a higher power. That's one approach, I guess, Tom, against Kentucky. But what do other coaches figure they can do against the Wildcats juggernaut?

GOLDMAN: Well, there are always injuries and foul trouble against Kentucky players, but you don't want to base strategy on that. Plus one of Kentucky's strengths is its so deep, so many good big players. The Wildcats don't really miss a beat when they substitute.

But here are a few thoughts from coaches that were polled by cbssports.com. Kentucky's not a great outside shooting team, make them take shots away from the basket. On the other hand, a team that can shoot well, that can spread the court and make long-range, 3-pointers and force Kentucky's big defenders away from the basket, they might have success. I think of a team like Notre Dame, for instance. Also, get back on defense. The Wildcats love to run and you have to try to slow them down, and good luck with that. It's almost impossible to do.

And then there's the psychology of Kentucky trying to become the first team since 1976 to go undefeated. The pressure will mount as the Wildcats get closer to that hallowed mark of 40-0. If you as the opponent can stay close, there may be jitters. Of course this is part of Kentucky coach John Calipari's greatness, his ability to get these guys to play as one and to keep them focused. He's done it all season. He needs to do it six more times.

BLOCK: OK. Enough with the number one seed. I love an underdog. Tom, if you're going to pick a sleeper, a choice for the tournament, who are you looking at this year?

GOLDMAN: Well, first a disclaimer, Melissa - it's all guesswork and hunches.

BLOCK: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: No matter how convincing the guys in the suits on network TV are, you may be able to statistically show why a certain team will succeed or surprise, but stats don't always work. That said, I'm kind of bullish on a couple of Iowa teams - Northern Iowa with a tough defense and a very good big man in Seth Tuttle. And Iowa State has a highly regarded head coach in former NBA player Fred Hoiberg. He likes to let his guys play, and they love him for that. So I'm kind of liking a couple of Iowa teams.

BLOCK: All right. Well, we'll see how your guess as your sleeper picks hold up in the tournament, Tom. Thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR sports correspondent, Tom Goldman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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