Welcome to the official start of March Madness, depending on your thoughts about the play-in games, with 16 games on tap this Thursday.
If, however, you’re feeling forlorn about leaving Dayton, the site of the First Four, the 11th-seeded Flyers kick off action against No. 6 Ohio State at 12:15 p.m., in Buffalo, N.Y.. The action continues throughout the day, touching on all four regions and concluding at roughly 9:57 p.m. in the West region where No. 4 San Diego State faces No. 13 New Mexico State in Spokane, Wash.
Here are the matchups, upsets and players to watch:
South: No. 8 Colorado vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh in Orlando, 1:40 p.m. (TBS)
In earning an at-large bid out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Panthers reached their ninth NCAA tournament over the past 10 seasons, but this is the first time since 2005 that they have been seeded this low. Behind do-it-all senior Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh finished the season 12-4 away from home, but has only beaten one team of Colorado’s caliber all season. The Buffaloes, meanwhile, boast home wins over four power-conference NCAA tournament teams even without junior point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, but three other players – Josh Scott, Askia Booker and Xavier Johnson – average double-digit scoring. The biggest fireworks should come on the offensive end for Pittsburgh, where it ranks among the nation’s top 20 most prolific teams, against a Colorado defense ranked 32nd in efficiency.
East: No. 7 Connecticut vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph’s in Buffalo, N.Y., 6:55 p.m. (TBS)
Given that the Huskies have lost only five times since Jan. 4 and three of those games were against Louisville, Coach Kevin Ollie’s group might be a dangerously under-seeded team capable of making some noise. Shabazz Napier has blossomed into one of college basketball’s best late-game performers, but the Huskies will need more post production if they want a deep run. Of course, it all begins with the matchup versus Saint Joseph’s, making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. The Hawks also haven’t won an opening-round game since 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight. Look for the battle between Langston Galloway, a hyper-efficient guard who commits turnovers on only 6.5 percent of possessions, and the Connecticut defense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in opposing field-goal percentage and block rate.
Midwest: No. 5 Saint Louis vs. No. 12 North Carolina State in Orlando, 7:20 p.m. (TNT)
One of the final teams to sneak into the field, North Carolina State took care of business during its First Four matchup with Xavier and brings all the momentum generated during an ACC tournament upset over Syracuse into the second round. The Billikens still boast one of the country’s stingiest defenses – eighth in overall efficiency, third in opposing three-point percentage, 33rd in turnover percentage – but enter having lost three of four, including their opening-round Atlantic 10 tournament matchup with St. Bonaventure. Besides, they will need all the defensive energy they can muster to contain T.J. Warren; the sophomore ACC player of the year takes more shots than all but two players in the country and is averaging 30.2 points over the past six games, five of them Wolfpack wins.
East: No. 12 Harvard vs. No. 5 Cincinnati in Spokane, Wash., 2:10 (TNT)
The Crimson busted brackets last season with an opening-round upset over New Mexico and return with another legitimate opportunity against the Bearcats, who enter having lost three of six but still have an all-American candidate in guard Sean Kilpatrick (20.7 points, 2.6 assists per game). Under Coach Tommy Amaker, Harvard has made each of the past four tournaments, so its players are no strangers to the experience. And if you’re looking for that trendy No. 12-No. 5 upset special, analyst Ken Pomeroy gives the Crimson a better chance than any other on their seed line.
South: No. 11 Dayton vs. No. 6 Ohio State in Buffalo, N.Y., 12:15 p.m. (CBS)
Ohio State has struggled away from Columbus this season, going just 8-6 in road/neutral games, but they have rebounded fine from a four-game losing streak in early January to reach the Big Ten tournament semifinals before losing to Michigan. The Flyers had their own January hiccup, also losing four straight then, and got bounced to Saint Joseph’s in the second game of the Atlantic-10 tournament. No Dayton player scores over 12.5 points per game, but keep an eye on senior forward Devin Oliver, who has averaged a double-double (10.5 points, 10.3 rebounds) over the past eight games. That said, Buckeyes Coach Thad Matta also is 12-1 all-time in opening games of the NCAA tournament. Betting against him might be tough.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
The senior guard finished third in the Mountain West in scoring (16.8 points per game), eighth in assists (3.2), first in steals (1.7), tied for sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3:1) and was named the conference player of the year. The Azetcs worked around a mid-season slump which saw him score only 19 points over three games, but he hasn’t scored fewer than 15 points in the six games since. A former transfer from Washington State, one of six transfers on his current roster, Thames also represents the crop of stay-in-school seniors leading their respectively squads to high seeds and could benefit from the national media attention relatively absent from his mid-major status on the west coast.
Jerami Grant, Syracuse
Syracuse is reeling lately, having lost five of seven after starting the season unbeaten, including in the ACC tournament quarterfinals to North Carolina State. But having Grant return from back issues could provide a boost to the Orange in the quest to reach the Final Four again. The former DeMatha standout played 40 minutes in that loss to the Wolfpack, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, including four on the offensive end. Though Syracuse’s fortunes likely hinge on its outside shooting, a healthy Grant will nonetheless provide a boost on both ends of the floor.