Every year a new college basketball hero arises in March. Here are some potential NBA lottery picks fans should watch out for in this NCAA tournament. USA TODAY Sports
March Madness has officially arrived and college basketball fans can rejoice.
Yes, the First Four has been played in Dayton the previous two nights. But the opening Thursday with 16 games across the four regions is the official start of the NCAA tournament. It’s the day that marks the start of the run of upsets. Where Cinderellas get made and top seeds fall prematurely. It’s the day when your carefully thought-out bracket predictions either take shape or get relegated to the recycling bin of history.
And, for true college hoops fans, it’s a 12-hour marathon of truly meaningful, win-or-go-home games.
How we rank the games set for Thursday:
1. No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State (4:30 p.m., TBS)
All-America guards Markus Howard (25.0 ppg) and Ja Morant (24.6 ppg) can both fill it up, making for a must-watch individual matchup. But which team wins? Right now Howard’s Marquette’s team is struggling (losing five of six) and Morant’s is a trendy upset pick as a mid-major because of it.
2. No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 11 Belmont (3:10 p.m., TruTV)
The Bruins got past Temple in the First Four in Dayton, and now that coach Rick Byrd finally got his first NCAA tournament win, the nerves are calmed for a deep run. Maryland has the fourth youngest team in all of Division I looking hot-and-cold in Big Ten play late in the season and looking ripe for an upset.
3. No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 12 New Mexico State (1:30 p.m., TruTV)
The SEC tournament champs aren’t a team to bet against based on current form, but the Aggies are a 30-win team that’s well-coached by Chris Jans, a Wichita State disciple when the Shockers were a Cinderella Final Four finisher in 2013.
4. No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Northeastern (4 p.m., TNT)
The Jayhawks didn’t win the Big 12 regular season for the first time in 15 years, and they recently had their second-leading scorer, Lagerald Vick, leave the team. But Dedric Lawson is still out to wreak havoc, so the Huskies better be on their A-game if they want to take advantage of KU’s vulnerabilities.
5. No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Florida (6:50 p.m., TNT)
Twins Caleb and Cody Martin are back for more March Madness success after leading the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 last year. They run into a Gators team that played themselves off the bubble late in the season, and will have nothing to lose.
6. No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 Seton Hall (9:40 p.m., CBS)
The Terriers defied the mid-major norm by staying away from the bubble and receiving a solid seed in the NCAAs, but their memorable season could come crashing to a halt against a Seton Hall team that played itself off the bubble and was very close of winning the Big East tournament. The player to keep an eye on is Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, a three-point marksmen and 20-point per game scorer.
7. No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 14 Old Dominion (9:50 p.m., TBS)
The Boilermakers quietly won the Big Ten regular season and have an unstoppable player in All-America guard Carsen Edwards. The Conference USA-winning Monarchs get a nice 1-2 backcourt punch from B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver to equip them for an unexpected upset.
8. No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 Yale (12:40 p.m., TruTV)
What will the Tigers’ psyche be with coach Will Wade’s suspension and a forthcoming NCAA violation clouding their future? Don’t expect that to take an LSU team that won the SEC regular season too far out of its groove. But expect that dimension to give Yale a chance here to pull off a monstrous upset.
9. No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s (7:20 p.m.,TBS)
The defending champion Wildcats aren’t Final Four good. But they might be Sweet 16 good after winning both the regular season and tournament Big East titles. They’re meeting a Gaels team that just limited Gonzaga's No. 1-ranked offense to 47 points in the West Coast Conference tournament final to earn their place in the field of 68.
10. No. 8 Syracuse vs. No. 9 Baylor (9:57 p.m. ET TruTv)
Two teams that veered away from the bubble by mid-February, the Orange and Bears are dark horses teams to knock off Gonzaga in the next round. They’d have to do that on defense, because neither are very spectacular offensively. ‘Cuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone is never an easy adjustment, but Baylor’s pretty well battle-tested from facing an array of top-notch teams in Big 12.
11. No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota (12:15 p.m., CBS)
The Cardinals have lost seven of their last 10. Meanwhile, the Gophers just beat a really good Purdue squad in the Big Ten tournament. The story line of Richard Pitino coaching against the school that fired his dad is sure to get most of the attention.
12. No. 2 Michigan vs. No 15 Montana (9:20 p.m., TNT)
The Wolverines are a well-oiled machine on both ends of the floor. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis gives this team a backbone and veteran floor general Zavier Simpson makes this team go. Expect for the Grizzlies to put up a fight. They’re a top-10 shooting team (50 percent) and if they’re making threes anything is possible in March.
13. No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 13 Vermont (2 p.m., TBS)
The Seminoles are playing as well as any team in the country not named Duke, having lost in the ACC tournament final after knocking off Virginia. Coach Leonard Hamilton has transformed this team into a Final Four contender, making the Catamounts’ first-round draw an unfortunate one.
14. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Farleigh Dickinson (7:27 p.m., TruTV)
The Bulldogs lead the nation in offense, averaging 89 points a game. They also have the best field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio in the country. Can anyone on the Knights stop the ‘Zags’ Rui Hachimura? Nope.
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15. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian (7:10 p.m., CBS)
The Wildcats have matured from November to March more than any team in the country, as a credit to coach John Calipari’s ability to mold teenage standouts with egos into a cohesive unit. Abilene Christian only became eligible for the tournament two years ago and was the worst school in all of Division II eight years ago. So just playing Kentucky is an accomplishment. Expect UK to give the Southland champ a welcoming.
16. No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Bradley (2:45 p.m., CBS)
The reason this game offers the least intrigue of the bunch is because the Braves won’t really be in this thing from the get-go. Unlike when Middle Tennessee knocked off the Spartans when they were a No. 2 seed in 2016. Tom Izzo and the MSU's path towards an Elite Eight matchup with Duke will start with a likely blowout of the unlikely Missouri Valley champ.