One of the most beautiful parts of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament is that there are often multiple games going on at once, especially during first-round action on Thursday and Friday. This also presents a dilemma, however, as viewers without multi-screen setups in their living rooms are forced to make choices between games.
Take Friday night’s window of games, for example. At 9:20 p.m., No. 5 seed Houston and No. 12 seed UAB get started, and the 5 vs. 12 games are always must-see TV. But just 20 minutes later, No. 7 seed Michigan State and No. 10 seed Davidson tip-off in a game dripping with intrigue. Soon after, No. 14 seed Colgate takes on No. 3 seed Wisconsin in a game with upset potential.
It’s critical that viewers develop a strategy for how to navigate these situations in advance. Even for those who do have multi-screen setups, a hierarchy must be established. Which game is going to get “main screen” status and which games can be relegated to secondary screens — at least until they start getting interesting?
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In anticipation of these questions, here is a complete ranking of the first round NCAA Tournament games in descending order from worst to best.
32. (2) Kentucky vs. (15) Saint Peter’s
Thursday | 7:10 p.m. | CBS
Saint Peter’s is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade under fourth-year coach Shaheen Holloway after winning the MAAC Tournament. Some may remember Holloway, a former undersized guard at Seton Hall, for helping lead the Pirates to the 2000 Sweet 16. But this game would be far more intriguing if it were Rick Pitino and the MAAC regular-season champions, Iona, taking on Kentucky.
31. (2) Duke vs. (15) Cal State Fullerton
Friday | 7:10 p.m. | CBS
There have already been plenty of tributes to retiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and there will be plenty more to come this weekend. Unless you have a vested interest in this game, there’s no need to subject yourself to the entire “Coach K’s last first NCAA Tournament game” storyline — not when Illinois and Chattanooga are squaring off in the same time window.
30. (8) Seton Hall vs. (9) TCU
Friday | 9:57 p.m. | truTV
“Oh, the Seton Hall vs. TCU game is starting! Where is the remote?” There’s something you’ll hear no one say, especially not when UAB vs. Houston, Davidson vs. Michigan State and Colgate vs. Wisconsin are also underway as part of a potentially wild Friday night window. This game is merely a death march to a Saturday execution date at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats.
29. (6) LSU vs. (11) Iowa State
Friday | 7:20 p.m. | TBS
This feels like an NIT game. LSU is 7-10 over its last 17 games and just fired its head coach, Will Wade. Iowa State is 8-11 over its last 19, finished with a 7-11 Big 12 record and lost by 31 points in its first Big 12 Tournament game. There are no projected lottery picks — unless LSU’s Tari Eason does something crazy and becomes one — and neither of these teams even remotely qualifies as a sleeper pick to make a Final Four run. Just watch; it will end up being the most dramatic finish of the first round.
28. (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Georgia State
Thursday | 4:15 p.m. | TNT
Keep it on for the first 15 minutes and then find Marquette vs. North Carolina, which will be tipping off. Gonzaga made a habit of destroying overmatched foes like this during the regular season and should have a double-digit lead within that 15-minute time window.
27. (1) Kansas vs. (16) Texas Southern
Thursday | 9:57 p.m. | truTV
Texas Southern won a First Four game for the second straight season to reach this spot. The Tigers lost to Michigan in last season’s first round and have a coach in Johnny Jones who won’t be rattled by the mighty Jayhawks. It wouldn’t be shocking if this one stays close for a bit. But Kansas will pull away in the second half.
26. (2) Villanova vs. (15) Delaware
Friday | 2:45 p.m. | CBS
Occasionally, you can find something on the resume of a No. 15 seed that suggests it can compete with a No. 2 seed. For example: Oral Roberts entered its upset victory over Ohio State last season having taken Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Arkansas down to the wire in regular-season games. It really shouldn’t have been surprising to see the Golden Eagles compete with the Buckeyes. Unfortunately, there is nothing on Delaware’s resume to suggest it can hang with Villanova. But don’t tune it out entirely. The Blue Hens’ leading scorer is Jameer Nelson, the son of former St. Joseph’s star Jameer Nelson. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on.
25. (3) Purdue vs. (14) Yale
Friday | 2 p.m. | TBS
Purdue in a different first-round matchup could be on upset watch because of its defensive vulnerability. That’s what doomed Ohio State last season (see above). But the Boilermakers should have nothing to worry about with a Yale team that will struggle to keep up offensively. Of course, the Bulldogs did take down No. 5 seed Baylor in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Never say never.
24. (1) Arizona vs. (16) Wright State/Bryant
Friday | 7:27 p.m. | truTV
Wright State plays fast and scores a lot. Arizona plays faster and scores more. The Raiders won at NC State earlier this season, which should get Arizona’s attention. Keeping up with the Wildcats won’t be plausible for Wright State in the end, though, since it gets most of its points inside the arc and Arizona’s size will make life hard. Bryant’s Peter Kiss is a fun player, but the Bulldogs’ 111-44 loss to Houston earlier this season — yes that score is correct — suggests they would be ill-equipped to handle the Wildcats. If Houston, which plays at a slow pace, scored 111 on Bryant, just think what Arizona could do. The subplot of this game is how Arizona looks assuming that Kerr Kriisa is out due to the ankle injury he suffered in the Pac-12 Tournament. That injury is a big storyline hanging over the Wildcats entering the tournament.
23. (1) Baylor vs. (16) Norfolk State
Thursday | 2 p.m. | TBS
Of the No. 16 seeds, Norfolk State is the scariest. The Spartans were in this spot last year and got shellacked by Gonzaga. But this is among the nation’s most-experienced squads, and it’s facing the bracket’s most-vulnerable No. 1 seed. Baylor lost key big man Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua for the season due to injury, and it’s without top 3-point shooter LJ Cryer as well. Norfolk State is capable of making Baylor sweat.
22. (3) Texas Tech vs. (14) Montana State
Friday | 1:45 p.m. | TNT
Who isn’t fired up for the epic Mark Adams vs. Danny Sprinkle coaching showdown? OK, that’s slightly sarcastic. But if you peel this one back, these two coaches have done excellent work this season. The Red Raiders did not miss a beat in Adams’ first season after Chris Beard’s departure. In fact, TTU only improved. Montana State is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996 in Sprinkle’s third season as head coach. The last time the Bobcats were dancing, Sprinkle was the team’s fourth-leading scorer. He’s 45 years old now.
21. (3) Tennessee vs. (14) Longwood
Thursday | 2:45 p.m. | CBS
Longwood is from Farmville, Virginia. Yes, Farmville is a real place and not just the name of an old Facebook game. The Lancers are making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and their coach Griff Aldrich, has an incredible story. But this matchup doesn’t bode well for Longwood. Tennessee is coming off an SEC Tournament title and should be motivated to prove that it deserved better than a No. 3 seed.
20. (8) San Diego State vs. (9) Creighton
Thursday | 7:27 p.m. | truTV
Ah, the classic “first one to 50” thriller. San Diego State is coming off a 53-52 loss to Boise State in the Mountain West Tournament title game. Creighton just lost 54-48 against Villanova in the Big East Tournament title game.
19. (4) UCLA vs. (13) Akron
Thursday | 9:50 p.m. | TBS
Akron began the season with a one-point loss at Ohio State, and it would have won if not for a buzzer-beater from Zed Key. The Zips are legit and will have no issue playing at UCLA’s methodical pace. The Bruins have become accustomed to being the hunters in March, but this is a potential upset to watch. Plus, there’s this added storyline: UCLA coach Mick Cronin and Akron coach John Groce go way back, as Cronin explained this week.
“We lost our hair at the same time,” he said.
18. (7) USC vs. (10) Miami
Friday | 3:10 p.m. | truTV
Will the losing team’s fanbase even care? These are football schools that just made two sport-shattering hires with Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma to USC) and Mario Cristobal (Oregon to Miami). A deep NCAA Tournament run might be fun to help pass the time until the spring game, though.
17. (6) Colorado State vs. (11) Michigan
Thursday | 12:15 p.m. | CBS
Punching its way through this pod is going to be tough for Michigan because of the unique matchup problem presented by Colorado State’s David Roddy. Typically, “unicorn” in basketball parlance has referred to a centers who can shoot 3-pointers and defend on the perimeter. They’re less rare nowadays, though, so perhaps the term should now apply to players like Roddy. At 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds, he is supremely athletic, yet also a legit human wrecking ball.
16. (6) Texas vs. (11) Virginia Tech
Friday | 4:30 p.m. | TBS
If you didn’t start watching college basketball until after the Super Bowl, it will feel like the seedings for these teams are reversed. Texas is 5-6 since February began and just got bounced in its first Big 12 Tournament game. Virginia Tech has won 13 of its past 15 and just beat Duke in the ACC Tournament final. The methodical pace of these squads almost guarantees it will be a close game in the end.
15. (3) Wisconsin vs. (14) Colgate
Friday | 9:50 p.m. | TBS
Potential upset alert! Get your three-screen setup ready. You’ll need to be watching UAB vs. Houston and Davidson vs. Michigan State for reasons already covered. Colgate nearly beat Tennessee as a No. 15 seed in 2019 and played Arkansas tough until late in the game last season. With Wisconsin limping in off two straight losses and with star guard Johnny Davis’ health uncertain, this one could get weird.
14. (2) Auburn vs. (15) Jacksonville State
Friday | 12:40 p.m. | truTV
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper were once rivals in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference. Now they are Division I head coaches within the same state. Jacksonville State lost just 65-59 at Alabama on Dec. 18, and the Gamecocks would love nothing more than to assert their presence on the state’s hoops scene by ending Auburn’s dream season prematurely. Even if the Gamecocks’ upset bid falls flat, there is the secondary intrigue here of seeing how Auburn’s mercurial guards respond on the NCAA Tournament stage.
13. (5) Iowa vs. (12) Richmond
Thursday | 3:10 p.m. | truTV
Richmond is a veteran club that will be a trendy upset pick after running through the A-10 Tournament and stealing a bid to the dance. Unfortunately, the Spiders are up against an Iowa team that is also quite hot. The Hawkeyes could win this one 101-60 or get pushed until the end. The potential variance makes it intriguing.
12. (8) Boise State vs. (9) Memphis
Thursday | 1:45 p.m. | TNT
If the term “battle” applies to any of the 32 first-round games, it’s this one. These are two of the nation’s most voracious rebounding teams, and they both play tenacious defense. There’s a stark contrast between Boise State’s slow pace and Memphis’ up-tempo style, though. The analytics nerds will tell you there is no such thing as “momentum.” But this game could prove that theory wrong — even in low-scoring style — with about a dozen momentum swings.
11. (4) Arkansas vs. (13) Vermont
Thursday | 9:20 p.m. | TNT
Anyone who remembers Vermont’s 60-57 overtime win vs. Syracuse in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament grins whenever the Catamounts show up in the bracket. Vermont hung tough with Providence back in December and is 22-1 since that loss. The Razorbacks didn’t pull away from Colgate until late in a first round game last season, and it’ll be no surprise if this one goes down to the wire as well.
10. (5) Saint Mary’s vs. (12) Indiana
Thursday | 7:20 p.m. | TBS
If anyone ever needed to create a formal “Alliance” in basketball like the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 at least pretended to do last season in football, it’s the Mountain West and WCC. Everyone wants so badly for those two leagues to be better than they actually are. A victory for Saint Mary’s here over a brand like Indiana on the NCAA Tournament stage would be huge for all the little guys out West.
9. (7) Ohio State vs. (10) Loyola-Chicago
Friday | 12:15 p.m. | CBS
The winner of this game will have sleeper potential in the South Region. Loyola-Chicago beat Illinois in last season’s NCAA Tournament and will be undisturbed by Ohio State’s Big Ten pedigree. The Buckeyes are a No. 7 seed but have the talent to perform well above that slotting. Expect Ohio State to be particularly motivated for redemption after it lost to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the first round last season.
8. (6) Alabama vs. (11) Rutgers/Notre Dame
Friday | 4:15 p.m. | TNT
Chaos. Whichever of these three teams advances immediately becomes a sleeper pick to make noise. Alabama beat Gonzaga, Houston, Tennessee and Baylor this season. It also lost to teams like Vanderbilt, Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Iona. Rutgers’ resume is equally wonky with victories over the Big Ten’s other eight NCAA Tournament teams, yet losses against DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. Notre Dame beat Kentucky, which is the only reason the Fighting Irish made the tournament. There’s no telling what will happen in this game — or who will even playing in it. But it’s guaranteed to be chaotic.
7. (5) UConn vs. (12) New Mexico State
Thursday | 6:50 p.m. | TNT
Raise your hand if you realized that New Mexico State has been to more of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments (8) than UConn (5). The Aggies have been close to breaking through for their first Big Dance victory since 1993 on several occasions in the recent past. They lost 78-77 to No. 5 seed Auburn in 2019. Have fun, Huskies!
6. (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Marquette
Thursday | 4:30 p.m. | TBS
All eyes are on the Tar Heels as they try and set up a made-for-TV second-round showdown with No. 1 seed Baylor. While UNC and its first-year coach Hubert Davis are the mainstream attraction here, the opposing coach may actually prefer underdog status. First-year Marquette coach Shaka Smart never won an NCAA Tournament game at Texas in his six seasons there, but he won quite a few at VCU before then. His Golden Eagles haven’t won consecutive games since January, but perhaps Smart can recycle whatever motivational speeches he used at VCU in this spot.
5. (7) Murray State vs. (10) San Francisco
Thursday | 9:40 p.m. | CBS
If the “mid-major tournament” was a thing, this would be an epic Elite Eight matchup. Nonetheless, it’s still an excellent first-round NCAA Tournament game. It’s San Francisco’s first Big Dance since 1998. Murray State is an NCAA Tournament regular, and with the Racers bumping up to the Missouri Valley Conference next season, this basketball-crazed school will only keep climbing. If Murray State advances to play Kentucky in the second round, it will be the first-ever meeting between the Bluegrass State squads.
4. (4) Illinois vs. (13) Chattanooga
Friday | 6:50 p.m. | TNT
You remember Silvio De Sousa, right? If not, Google search “Silvio De Sousa chair” and then remind yourself that everyone deserves a second chance. The former Kanas big man is back on the national stage as an interior presence for Chattanooga and spearheading an upset of Illinois would make for one heck of a redemption arc. He’s got the size and athleticism to keep Kofi Cockburn from completely taking over. The Mocs looked like children of destiny by winning the SoCon Tournament on a buzzer-beater. With De Sousa on the inside and studs Malachi Smith and David Jean-Baptiste on the perimeter, it’s all-aboard the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
3. (5) Houston vs. (12) UAB
Friday | 9:20 p.m. | TNT
Oil, meet water. Houston holds opponents to just 29% 3-point shooting, which is the third-best mark of any team in the 68-team field, per KenPom. UAB shoots 38.4% from 3-point range, which is the seventh-best mark of any team in the field. The Blazers surpassed 100 points against three Division 1 opponents this season. Houston kept opponents from reach 50 points on nine occasions and even held ECU under 40 once. This one has Friday night fun written all over it.
2. (4) Providence vs. (13) South Dakota State
Thursday | 12:40 p.m. | truTV
When Providence plays basketball, it’s usually a close game. When South Dakota State plays, it’s usually a high-scoring game. Mix it all together and what do you get? A close, high-scoring game with upset potential. Yes, please. The Friars are only a two-point favorite, so while the seedings suggest they should win big, all signs point toward a thriller. This is just the second game of the entire NCAA Tournament, and its finish should be unencumbered by other notable action — unless you are dead set on seeing the first half of Baylor vs. Norfolk State.
1. (7) Michigan State vs. (10) Davidson
Friday | 9:40 p.m. | CBS
The winner likely takes on Duke and will have a chance to be the team that ends Mike Krzyzewski’s career. So there’s the intrigue of this game setting up a potential Tom Izzo vs. Coach K matchup, sure. But the storylines go deeper. Davidson’s leading scorer, Foster Loyer, is taking on his old team. Loyer is a former top-100 prospect who played three seasons for the Spartans. It never quite worked out for him there, but he’s shown his ability with the Wildcats. Davidson also has another potential NCAA Tournament breakout star in Korean wing Hyunjung Lee, who is a career 39.6% 3-point shooter. Between the characters, the brands and what’s in store for the winner, this is an easy pick for the top spot.