The first four days of the NCAA Tournament might be the best stretch on the sports calendar, and everything kicks off on Thursday.
We've got 16 games coming at us, and it should be a blast.
Here are 10 things to keep an eye on as you take in Day 1 of the Big Dance.
Starting With a Bang
The very first game of Thursday is a doozie, with West Virginia and Maryland kicking off the day at 12:15 p.m. EST in an 8/9 battle.
This is a really strong 8/9 game. Our nERD metric has WVU and Maryland ranked 19th and 28th, respectively. BartTorvik has them ranked exactly the same while KenPom has West Virginia 17th and Maryland 22nd. Both of these teams rank in the top 50 in both offense and defense, per BartTorvik.
The college basketball odds at FanDuel Sportsbook have the Mountaineers as a 2.5-point favorite.
It should be a superb matchup, and he winner will have more than a fighting chance versus (likely) Alabama in the second round.
How Good Is Utah State?
Utah State has generated a lot of sleeper hype in the buildup to the Big Dance, and this site right here has done its part.
The 10th-seeded Aggies will get to show how real they are in their first-round date with 7th-seeded Missouri, which tips at 1:40 p.m. EST.
Once you dig into the numbers, it's pretty easy to like Utah State. They sit 18th on KenPom, 16th by nERD and 25th on BartTorvik. They're spearheaded by an efficient offense, one that ranks 13th, per KenPom. They do an excellent job getting to the free-throw line (69th in free-throw attempt rate), and they launch plenty of threes (57th in three-point attempt rate).
There's a reason the Aggies are a 1.5-point favorite as a 10 seed. Will they live up to their billing as a potential bracket-buster?
A Clash of Styles
San Diego State and Charleston meet up at 3:10 p.m. EST in what looks like an interesting matchup.
Charleston, a 12 seed, plays super fast, checking in 29th by KenPom's adjusted tempo. Fifth-seeded San Diego State, meanwhile, is 252nd in adjusted tempo. Whose style will win out?
The Aztecs have built themselves into a West Coast power by playing lockdown defense year after year. This season is no exception as San Diego State is a top-10 D on both KenPom and BartTorvik. Overall, they're a top-15 team by all of nERD, KenPom and BartTorvik, so they're a very stout 5 seed.
Charleston, despite a sterling 31-3 record, is outside the top 65 on all three of the aforementioned rating systems and is a 5.5-point 'dog. But if the Cougars can get out front and speed up the Aztecs, they could pull the upset.
Arizona's Explosive Offense
Arizona might be the most entertaining team in the field -- just in terms of how fun it can be to watch them play when they're clicking.
Per KenPom, the Wildcats -- a 2 seed -- are fourth in offense and ninth in pace. They can run teams out of the gym, and they put up at least 90 points eight times this season.
Arizona's tournament journey starts at 4:10 p.m. EST Thursday with a game against 15th-seeded Princeton. The Tigers are outside the top 100 for BartTorvik, KenPom and nERD. There's a chance they get completely overwhelmed. Arizona is a 13.5-point favorite, and the spread has already moved 1.0 point toward Arizona from where it opened.
Of course, this is March, so anything can happen, but if you're looking for a fast pace and points, Arizona is the team to watch.
Two Teams Looking for Redemption
The 8/9 matchups should be some of the tightest first-round games of the tournament. While it doesn't always play out like that, Thursday's 8/9 games project to be nail-biters.
The first one of the day gets underway at 4:30 p.m. EST between Illinois and Arkansas, and it's a matchup between two teams that disappointed in the regular season. Arkansas and Illinois both opened the year in the preseason top 25, with Arkansas ranked 10th and viewed as a legit contender for a national title.
Things didn't go as planned, but both sides have the ability to be dangerous and are capable of giving Kansas a game in the second round. Arkansas, the 8 seed, is a 1.5-point favorite.
Another Tight 8/9 Matchup
The day's next tip is between Iowa and Auburn in another 8/9 meeting. This one is basically a pick'em, with both teams priced at -110 on the moneyline.
Something that may prove to be important in this game is the location of the tilt. This one is being played in Birmingham, Alabama, which could be a big advantage for the Tigers.
Auburn is the more well-rounded team, ranking 48th in offense and 29th in D, per KenPom. Iowa heavily skews toward offense, slotting in 3rd on KenPom, and they play at the 66th-fastest pace. The Hawkeyes are just 167th on defense, though.
With a 151.5-point total and 1.5-point spread in favor of Auburn, this matchup should be one of the best to watch on Day 1.
Is Duke Overrated or Underrated?
Duke is a very interesting team coming into the dance.
There is absolutely an argument that the Blue Devils are overrated, and we've made said argument. In short, the ACC was down, and Duke had some luck in close games while posting a meh 5-6 mark against Quad-1 foes.
On the flip side, maybe Duke -- a 5 seed -- is actually underrated. They're unquestionably playing their best ball of the year right now, winning nine straight and rolling through the ACC Tournament, a run that was capped off with an impressive 10-point victory against Virginia.
Boasting five players who were top-22 recruits -- including three who were rated in the top four of the 2022 class -- Duke has top-tier talent. That's never been in question this year. But it took the Blue Devils some time to get going under first-year coach Jon Scheyer, which is perfectly understandable.
Duke has the tools to make a deep run. With that said, Oral Roberts is far from a pushover in the first round. Our model gives ORU a 36.5% chance to pull the upset, the second-best first-round win odds for any 12 seed. The betting market doesn't agree as Duke is a 6.5-point favorite, the largest spread gap for any 12/5 game.
Either way, by the time this game -- which starts at 7:10 p.m. EST -- is over, we should have a better idea of what to make of Duke.
My Favorite Thursday Matchup
Northwestern and Boise State get going at 7:35 p.m. EST, and it's my favorite game of the day.
Northwestern, a 7 seed, was a great story this campaign, finishing second in the Big Ten during the regular season and getting to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history. But it was a bit of a mundane Big Ten this year, with just one team in the KenPom top 20, and Northwestern got a tough first-round foe in the 10th-seeded Broncos.
This matchup is a metrics-versus-market clash.
Boise State ranks in front of Northwestern by nERD (30th vs. 38th), BartTorvik (30th vs. 35th) and KenPom (30th vs. 35th). As such, this line initially opened with the Broncos as a slight favorite. But it quickly moved toward the Wildcats on Sunday night, and the line has held -- as of Wednesday morning -- with Northwestern as a 1.5-point favorite.
When situations like this arise in any sport -- where the metrics say one thing but the books and line movement point the other way -- I'm always super intrigued to see how it plays out,
And it's not just that aspect of this game that excites me. Both of these teams are good, especially on defense, with the Wildcats sitting 13th in KenPom D and Boise State checking in one spot behind them.
All in all, I can't wait to watch this one.
The Status of Marcus Sasser
Whether or not Marcus Sasser is able to play for Houston in their opening-round game against 16th-seeded Northern Kentucky shouldn't impact the outcome too much. But if the top-seeded Cougars are going to push for a national title -- something that is very much within their grasp -- they need Sasser.
Houston ranks as the country's best team for both BartTorvik and KenPom. We have them second. They're an outstanding squad, one that ranks in the top 11 in both offense and defense, per KenPom.
But without Sasser -- a four-year stud who injured his groin on a scary slip in Houston's second game of the American Conference Tournament -- the Cougars fell by 10 to Memphis in the conference championship game. Memphis is no slouch, but it was just Houston's third loss of the year -- and their other two defeats were one and six points, with the six-point defeat coming to Alabama, the Big Dance's overall top seed.
Houston has been very quiet about Sasser's injury. If he's able to play at all on Thursday, it would be a huge boon for the Cougars' chances of getting to the Final Four. If Sasser can't play, it would be an especially difficult blow for him, as he was also forced to miss last year's run to the Elite Eight due to injury.
Penn State Lets It Fly
Penn State takes a ton of three-pointers, and that makes them a scary team to play against. If the Nittany Lions are hitting, they can beat anyone.
For the year, Penn State has a 47.4% three-point attempt rate. That's the 10th-highest mark in the nation and the 3rd-highest clip among NCAA Tournament teams.
The heavy reliance on threes creates a lot of variance. It's how Penn State can lose by nine at Nebraska but also go a combined 4-0 against Northwestern and Indiana -- the teams that finished second and third, respectively, in the Big Ten -- and lose by just two to Purdue last Sunday in the Big Ten tourney final.
The 10th-seeded Nittany Lions face 7th-seeded Texas A&M at 9:55 p.m. EST in Thursday's penultimate game. BartTorvik has the Aggies 17th overall while KenPom (25th) and nERD (27th) are a little bit lower on them. All three ratings systems have Texas A&M being a tick or two better than Penn State, which is reflected in the line -- TAMU is a 2.5-point favorite.
Penn State's willingness to bomb from deep makes them a live 'dog and gives them a solid chance to ruin what could be a Lone Star battle in the second round between the Aggies and second-seeded Texas.