The best time of the year is officially upon us! It’s not just March – it’s March with a totally unblemished bracket. The matchups are set, your bracket hasn’t been busted (yet), and dreams of winning your office pool are still plausible.
While March Madness always offers plenty of upsets, this year’s bracket appears poised to top even the craziest years. The word to sum up college basketball this season has been “parity,” as no team has clearly established itself as an unstoppable force.
Last season, we watched Kentucky enter the tournament 34-0, trying to become the first NCAA Champion to go undefeated since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1975-1976. This year, all 68 teams in the tournament have lost at least four times. Anyone can beat anyone, and that alone should make this March Madness the most exciting, confusing and maddening tournament we have ever witnessed.
If you are planning on watching, here are the 5 best 1st round games you won’t want to miss:
1. Seton Hall (6) vs. Gonzaga (11)
When: Thursday, March 17, 9:57 ET on TRUTV
Seton Hall is fresh off an impressive Big East Conference Championship after knocking off Xavier (2-seed) and Villanova (2-seed) in the process. They are led by their backcourt of Isaiah Whitehead and Khadeem Carrington, but now face a bruising frontcourt from Gonzaga. Forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis were key pieces in Gonzaga’s Elite Eight run last season, and should give the Pirates all they can handle.
Prediction: Seton Hall (68) – Gonzaga (67)
2. Texas (6) vs. Northern Iowa (11)
When: Friday, March 18, 9:50 ET on TBS
Former VCU coach Shaka Smart is making his first tournament appearance with his new school - the Texas Longhorns. He and the Longhorns are taking on a dangerous Northern Iowa squad capable of pulling an upset. The Panthers have beaten North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State (twice) this season, and are led by a tremendous guard in Wes Washpun. Smart is used to coaching as the underdog in the tournament, but will be the hunted instead of the hunter in this one. Shaka is too good of a tactician and has too much talent in Isaiah Taylor and Cameron Ridley to be eliminated in the first round though.
Prediction: Texas (66) – Northern Iowa (61)
3. Dayton (7) vs. Syracuse (10)
When: Friday, March 18, 12:15 ET on CBS
Many were surprised to even see Syracuse make the field, let alone get a 10-seed. Losers of five of their last six games, the Orange didn’t exactly end the season in impressive fashion. However, they are oozing with talent and will be seeking revenge on a Dayton Flyers squad that knocked them out of the tournament two years ago. Archie Miller’s squad has also struggled down the stretch (4-4 in their final eight games), but play the tough-nose defense that allows them to stay in any game. This should be a low-scoring, physical, tightly contested war.
Prediction: Dayton (52) – Syracuse (54)
4. Baylor (5) vs. Yale (12)
When: Thursday, March 17, 2:45 ET on CBS
As a No. 3 seed last season, Baylor lost to No. 14 seed Georgia State in one of the craziest games of the tournament. Now sitting as a 5-seed, they face an even stronger squad in the Yale Bulldogs. Baylor’s 1-3-1 zone is often exploited by elite shooting teams, and Yale’s 37.4 percent clip from beyond the arc should have the Bears worried. Yale pulls off the upset to become the latest 12-seed to beat a 5-seed.
Prediction: Baylor (61) – Yale (63)
5. California (4) vs. Hawaii (13)
When: Friday, March 18, 2:00 ET on TBS
Hawaii hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2001-2002 season, but don’t think this moment will be too big for them. They are led by three upperclassmen in Stefan Jankovic, Aaron Valdes and Roderick Bobbitt, while Cal is primarily led by freshman. The overrated Pac-12 gets exposed in a shocker as Hawaii advances.
Prediction: California (71) – Hawaii (74)
While these five games promise to be some of the most exciting during the first-round slate of 32 games, there are also plenty of intriguing storylines to monitor throughout the tournament. Here’s a look at 5 of the most interesting ones:
1. How Far Will (likely) Naismith Player of the Year Buddy Hield Carry Oklahoma?
Oklahoma Sooners shooting guard Buddy Hield has had one of the most prolific seasons in NCAA history. The sharpshooter from Haiti is averaging 25.0 points per game while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 46.4 percent from beyond the arc and 89.5 percent from the line. His Sooners are the No. 2 seed in the weakest region of the bracket (West), giving him the perfect opportunity to post some dazzling performances.
2. The Usual Blue-Chip Programs Are In The Tournament Field
It’s always fun to see the mid-majors compete against the big boys, and this tournament promises to be no different. Perennial powerhouses Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and the defending champs (Duke) all hold top-4 seeds and are more than capable of making a championship run. Less historic programs like Villanova, Oregon, Virginia, Oklahoma and West Virginia will give these blue-chip programs all they can handle though.
3. Can Virginia Finally Get Past The Michigan State Spartans?
For the third straight season, Virginia and Michigan State find themselves in the same region of the bracket. The past two years, Michigan State and Tom Izzo have beaten Tony Bennett’s club as an underdog both times. As the top two seeds in the Midwest region, their inevitable showdown in the Elite Eight will send one of them to the Final Four. With the Spartans having the best player in the country in Denzel Valentine, Michigan State appears poised to knock out Virginia for the third year in a row.
4. North Carolina And Kentucky Are On A Crash Course To Meet In The Sweet 16
North Carolina and Kentucky, two of the most storied programs in college basketball history, both find themselves in the East region. While there was no doubt the Tar Heels were worthy of a No. 1 seed, many came away shocked that the Wildcats were handed a No. 4 seed. It comes as bad news to both title contenders, as they appear destined for a meeting in the Sweet 16 with an Elite Eight berth on the line. Roy Williams vs. John Calipari, North Carolina’s frontcourt vs. Kentucky’s frontcourt and Marcus Paige vs. Tyler Ulis promises to make this one of the best games in the tournament.
5. Can Villanova Get Past The First Weekend?
The Villanova Wildcats have let down believers year after year, failing to reach the Sweet 16 each of the past six years. Assuming they get past UNC-Asheville, Jay Wright’s club could be facing in-state rival, Temple, for a chance to reach the Sweet 16. They already beat the Owls by 16 earlier this season, meaning anything short of reaching the second weekend would be unacceptable for the Wildcats.
With so many unknowns, only one thing is certain - this tournament is going to be madness.