Thursday it begins, this NCAA tournament where 68 teams have literally been walking by one another, all day and into the night. So which of the First Four or first-round games should we attend? Keep the car running, because we’ll never get this chance again, with March so, so . . . drivable. All we need is no speed traps and a big box of masks.
1. Texas Southern vs. Mount St. Mary’s at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall. Who’s No. 1? As in, the first team knocked out of the tournament? The loser must fly out of town late Thursday night, because that’s the rule this year, so with Virginia not due here until Friday, that means there never will actually be all 68 teams in one place. Now jump in the car and drive like an Andretti two hours to Purdue’s Mackey Arena to catch the end of . . .
2. Drake vs. Wichita State. Lovers of numerical omens, you’ve come to the right place. Drake hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since March 18, 1971, so the Bulldogs are playing Wichita State on the exact 50th anniversary of that victory. Don’t go away because following that on the Mackey Arena court is the First Four main event . . .
3. Michigan State vs. UCLA. Yeah, it’s a veritable First Four Who’s Who. But before questioning what guys from the rich side of town are doing here, notice the regular season: UCLA has dropped four in a row, and that’s the longest losing streak in the tournament. Michigan State was beaten by 30, 30, 25, 19, 18 and 17 points this season. Get some rest because the next day will be busy.
4. Colgate vs. Arkansas at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. If all you’re counting is seeding, this looks like a possible mismatch. Arkansas is No. 3, Colgate No. 14. But the NCAA NET rankings are here to differ. Colgate this week is ninth, or five spots ahead of the Razorbacks. Given the fact Arkansas has won 12 of its last 13 games against SEC competition — the Razorbacks soared from unranked in the AP poll to No. 8 in four weeks — that sort of computer number makes you want to call the Geek Squad. But here’s the chance for the Raiders to validate their NET worth. One odd thing about Colgate. It’s not just the Raiders have played only 15 games, the fewest for any team in the history of this event. But due to the Patriot League pairing teams so often this season to keep the schedule going, they’ve beaten only five different opponents. That record may never be matched by an NCAA tournament invitee. Now we go five miles north to the Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, which has been around long enough to have hosted a President Kennedy campaign speech . . .
5. Drexel vs. Illinois. This might be the chance to see the hottest team in the land. Because of cancellations, Drexel has won only four games in 40 days. Meanwhile, Illinois has beaten four top-10 teams this month. Not even Gonzaga has been on that kind of a tear. If this game gets out of hand, we can leave early for the three-mile jump northwest to Hinkle Fieldhouse . . .
6. Georgia Tech vs. Loyola of Chicago. It says something about this odd season that the ACC tournament champion is seeded ninth, and according to that, a slight underdog against Loyola Chicago. Then again, the Ramblers have won 17 of 18, so there’s a lot of noise for an 8-9 seed game. Hinkle Fieldhouse opened in 1928 and it’s not often the arena is younger than one of the fans. But it will be Friday. Sister Jean will be in the house, at the age of 101. She was eight years old when the NCAA tournament was born. Now, back to the Coliseum . . .
7. Oklahoma State vs. Liberty. Cade Cunningham, say hello to the NCAA tournament. The last Oklahoma State player to be first-team All-American was, well, nobody. But about this Liberty bunch, they have won 12 in a row and have a senior, Elijah Cuffee, who has played in 133 college games, four of them for conference championships. Not many guys around who can say that. Now we should find a TV to catch a little bit of the action from Mackey Arena . . .
8. Wisconsin vs. North Carolina. It’s the generation gap battle of the first round. Five of the top seven Carolina scorers are freshman. The five top Badger scorers are seniors. When that’s over, head back top to Hinkle Fieldhouse . . .
9. San Diego State vs. Syracuse. It’s a 9:40 p.m. ET tip, which might be a little past Jim Boeheim’s bedtime. He’s coaching in the NCAA tournament at the age of 76 but still keeps getting the Orange into March. This is the 35th time on his watch. San Diego State has a nice, shiny 23-4 record and should win, but it’s always interesting to see what a team does when it gets its first look at the Syracuse zone. The last time these two teams played was 2012 on an aircraft carrier. Now, downtown to Lucas Oil Stadium . . .
Let’s see, is this game on the north side that the NCAA is calling the Equality Court, or the south side, named Unity? Yep, Unity.
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10. There’s where West Virginia is taking on Morehead State, the savior of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. No Louisville in the field, nor Kentucky, so the Eagles must carry the flag for the Bluegrass. Without them, the state would have been shut out of the tournament for the first time in 58 years. If there’s still time, speed back up Fall Creek Parkway to the Coliseum . . .
11. Villanova vs. Winthrop. Is banged-up Villanova as vulnerable as it seems? We’ll find out. There’s Winthrop at 23-1, and never mind the Eagles’ 1-10 record in the NCAA tournament. This 5-12 seed matchup will draw upset predictions like a light bulb draws bugs. Get some sleep, early start tomorrow.
12. Colorado vs. Georgetown at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Hoyas were there in January, losing to Butler as part of that 9-12 regular season that had nobody paying attention to Georgetown. If the Hoyas get to the Sweet 16 and face Michigan, how about a coaches’ one-on-one game between Patrick Ewing and Juwan Howard? Better make that a game of H-O-R-S-E. Colorado led the nation in free throw shooting until the Buffs clanked a few in the Pac-12 title game and were passed by Oral Roberts. Still, 82.2 percent ain’t bad. Now, off to the Coliseum . . .
13. Kansas vs. Eastern Washington. We’re here to see how healthy the Jayhawks look, after having to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament because of a virus positive test. They’ll need to have recovered because Eastern Washington just stampeded through the Big Sky tournament, trailing barely more than eight of 120 minutes. Back over to Hinkle Fieldhouse . . .
14. Alabama vs. Iona. Who’s the bigger surprise, the Tide steamrolling the SEC as if it were November and football season, or Rick Pitino getting Iona here his first try? It’s not just that he’s now taken five different schools into the tournament, he’s done it in five decades. No time to waste because we need to rush to Hinkle to see another ending . . .
15. USC vs. Wichita State or Drake. Justify, American Pharoah, Miguel Cabrera . . . and here’s another name to add to the list of recent triple crown winners. UCS’s Evan Mobley is the first Pac-12 player ever to sweep player of the year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year. Now back out to the Coliseum to see a Hoosier native son . . .
16. Iowa vs. Grand Canyon. OK, Luka Garza, you’re on. Meanwhile, Grand Canyon coach Bryce Drew was 1994 Mr. Basketball in Indiana. Never mind he’s the brother of Baylor coach Scott Drew — they couldn’t meet until the national championship game — because a more impressive family tie is that he’s the son-in-law of Keith Thibodeaux. That’s who played Little Ricky in I Love Lucy. We need to find a TV because there’s no time to get to Bloomngton . . .
17. Virginia vs. Ohio at Assembly Hall. Check out the Cavaliers’ bench. How many made the trip? Virginia will be watched as much as any team, having arrived fashionably late to the party because of COVID concerns. There’s an unusual connection in this one. One of Ohio’s top players is Ben Vander Plas, whose father Dean played at Green Bay with Tony Bennett. Now Bennett is the coach at Virginia. One more thing, Ben is short for Bennett. So he’s playing against the coach he was named after. Still time to get to Bankers Life Fieldhouse . . .
18. Gonzaga vs. Norfolk State or Appalachian State. It starts for the unbeaten Zags, history or bust. There are two other stops we should try to make, so back to Hinkle . . ..
19. BYU vs. Michigan State or UCLA. Feast your eyes on the unintimidated Cougars, the last team to beat Gonzaga — so long ago, it was pre-COVID — and who almost did it again this season. If UCLA is the opponent, the Bruins will hope the Indianapolis hex doesn’t strike them down again. This is the city where they lost a national championship to Louisville and were first-round upset victims for Princeton and Detroit. To wrap up the first round, one last stop at Lucas Oil Stadium . . .
20. Texas vs. Abilene Christian. Is Shaka Smart ready to pull out his new hair yet? Abilene Christian can be a real pest; first in the nation in turnovers forced, second in steals. And what better way to end the first round than to watch the Longhorns’ Andrew Jones playing in the NCAA tournament three years after his leukemia diagnosis?
Funny how this elimination dynamic works once the NCAA tournament gets rolling. So much has been said about cramming all 68 teams into one city. By midnight Saturday, roughly 55 hours after the opening tip, 36 of them will be gone.