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NCAA Basketball Tournament 2011 Predictions: First Four Get Brackets Underway

The 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament gets underway tonight with what the NCAA is calling the ‘First Four’. Actually, tonight is the first two of the first four, with the final two games tomorrow. Another change – the ‘First Four’ games are now officially considered the ‘First Round’ of the tournament, with Thursday and Friday now officially considered the 2nd Round.

Confused yet?

If not, you might be when you find out that tonight’s games are on Tru TV. Yes, Tru TV. Where would one find Tru TV? Well, for those with DirecTV, you’ll find it on Channel 246.

Now, on to tonight’s games:

6:30PM et: (16)UNC-Asheville Bulldogs(19-13) Vs. (16)Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans(19-16) – tru TV

UNC-Asheville emerged out of the Big South Conference as the third seed, taking out top-seeded and regular-season champ Coastal Carolina, 60-47, for its third conference tournament championship and first since 2003. The Bulldogs ran through Charleston Southern (72-63) and High Point (62-45) to reach the final and now enter their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance riding a six-game winning streak. UNC-Asheville took on a hefty non-conference schedule with matchups against three of this year’s better tournament teams, Ohio State, North Carolina and Georgetown, and although each resulted in defeat, the top-flight competition should help prepare the Bulldogs for center stage come Tuesday. This will be Asheville’s second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, having gone 1-1 in its only other trip in 2003 when the Bulldogs downed Texas Southern in the opening round before falling to Texas.

Arkansas-Little Rock claimed its first-ever Sun Belt Conference Tournament title in dramatic fashion as senior Solomon Bozeman’s three pointer with 1.5 seconds to play lifted the Trojans to a 64-63 win over North Texas in the championship game. UALR needed to rip off four wins in four days as the fifth seed in the Sun Belt’s Western Division to earn an NCAA berth, taking out South Alabama (82-68), Arkansas State (59-52), Middle Tennessee (65-56) and North Texas along the way. It was quite the turnaround for the Trojans, who ended the regular season on a three-game slide. UALR makes its return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 when it lost to eventual national champion UNLV, 102-72. The Trojans own a 1-3 mark in the tourney all- time.

My Take: UNC-Asheville: They’ve been here before and that kind of tradition leads to confidence.

The winner will face (1)Pittsburgh in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

9:00PM et: (12)Clemson Tigers(21-11) Vs. UAB Blazers(22-8) – tru TV

Clemson competed in the always tough ACC and emerged with a first-round bye to the conference tournament after winning out on a tie-breaker with both Boston College and Virginia Tech at 9-7 in league play. The Tigers handled Boston College easily in a 70-47 rout in the quarterfinals before giving top-seeded regular-season champ North Carolina all they could handle in a 92-87 overtime loss in the semifinals. Clemson comes into this matchup with four wins in six games with its only two losses coming against UNC and Duke, which defeated the Tar Heels in the conference championship Sunday. The Tigers are making a fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament but are searching for their first win since the 1997 team advanced to the Sweet 16. Clemson is 8-10 all- time in the tourney and will make its 11th appearance in the Dance this year.

UAB closed out the regular-season with four straight wins in a competitive Conference USA field to clinch its first league regular-season championship. The Blazers’ top seeding and momentum quickly ended though, as East Carolina pulled off a 75-70 overtime win in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. It was a disappointing end to the Blazers’ hopes of capturing their initial conference tourney crown, but the NCAA’s decision to hand out an at-large bid was no surprise. UAB posted a solid 12-4 record against C-USA opponents during the year and played a tough non-conference slate that included losses to fellow NCAA Tournament teams Duke (85-64) and Georgia (66-64), both on the road, as well as a pair of close defeats to Memphis. The Blazers also beat one of this year’s other "First Four" clubs, VCU. UAB is making its 14th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 2006 when it was bounced in the first round by Kentucky. The Blazers are 9-13 all-time in tournament play with their best finish an Elite Eight appearance in 1982.

My Take: CLEMSON - The ACC is a tough-as-nails conference. Clemson had North Carolina on the ropes before losing in overtime. I’ll take the Tigers to advance.

The winner will face (4)Kentucky on Thursday in Tampa, FL.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.