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March Madness begins: Ranking the best men’s NCAA Tournament games to watch Thursday

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March Madness is here, fellow college hoops fans! The first full Thursday of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the day we all circle on the calendar the moment the prior season ends. This is when championship runs begin, Cinderellas emerge, and brackets are busted.

With 16 games spread throughout the day, there will be something happening from noon until midnight in the East. Not every game is going to provide compelling action from start to finish, and the casual fan might need help identifying which matchups have the most entertainment potential. To assist with your planning, we offer our annual ranking of the day’s contests.

Standard disclaimer: These rankings are entirely arbitrary, based upon what we think will provide the most compelling sport theater. Always keep in mind that some games we rate near the top will disappoint, while some placed at the bottom could surprise. Did anybody see Saint Peter’s coming last year? Oh, stop, no you didn’t. Regardless, always pay attention to the scoreboard and be prepared to switch channels should events warrant.

NCAA TOURNAMENT LIVE UPDATES: NCAA Tournament live updates: Let the bracket busting begin as men’s March Madness tips off

BRACKET TIPS: How to fill out your tournament projections and win your pool

BRACKETS ARE BACK: The USA TODAY Sports Bracket Challenge is back. $1 MILLION grand prize for a perfect bracket. 

With all that out of the way, here’s are list for Thursday’s games ranked by watchability

(Times p.m. EDT).

No. 5 Duke vs. No. 12 Oral Roberts

TIME/TV: Thursday, 7:10 p.m. CBS

It’s Duke, so it’s understandable that this one was chosen to get the prime-time treatment. But beyond the big-name value, it isn’t hyperbole to say this could be the most important game of the opening round for a lot of bracket players across the nation. The Blue Devils’ strong play down the stretch culminated in an impressive run through the ACC Tournament. But those who remember the Sweet 16 appearance by Oral Roberts just a couple of years ago were likely tempted to pick the Golden Eagles once again. This year’s squad might be even better. High-scoring guard Max Abmas (22.2 ppg), who became the toast of Tulsa two seasons ago, is still there. He’s joined by Connor Vanover, an athletic 7-footer with 3-point range who can also protect the rim (3.2 bpg). Duke’s shooting can still be spotty at times, however, and ORU is capable of long scoring runs, so don’t give up on this one even if the Blue Devils grab an early lead.

No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 12 College of Charleston

TIME/TV: Thursday, 3:45 p.m., truTV

Another 5-12 pairing could be the highlight of the late-afternoon window. Both teams enter on a roll after securing conference tourney titles, and both have depth and balance. The Aztecs play sound defense and will usually turn to Matt Bradley (12.9 ppg) when they need a bucket. The Cougars have numerous scoring options but Ryan Larson (10.6 ppg, 4.1 apg) is usually the initiator.

REGIONAL BREAKDOWNS: East | South | Midwest | West

POSTSEASON LINEUP: Complete men’s tournament schedule, results

No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Penn State

TIME/TV: Thursday, 9:55 p.m., TBS

This late-night clash of major conference tourney runners-up should be worth staying up to see. The Aggies, underseeded according to numerous analysts, can ill afford to spare any thoughts about possibly facing Texas in the next round. This date with the Nittany Lions, who were playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten of late, will be challenging enough. Penn State’s alpha cat is Jalen Pickett (17.9 ppg), who hits 51.6% of his shot attempts and hardly ever leaves the floor. He’ll be opposed by A&M’s Wade Taylor IV, arguably the SEC’s most dynamic point guard averaging 16.5 points and 4.0 assists.

No. 8 West Virginia vs. No. 9 Maryland

TIME/TV: Thursday, 12:15 p.m., CBS

The day’s first game to tip in the first round is an 8-9 tossup between power conference squads that don’t often meet despite representing neighboring states. Their last encounter, in fact, also occurred in the tournament, a 69-59 win for the Mountaineers in the second round in 2015. West Virginia still plays the same physical style under veteran coach Bob Huggins, but the Terrapins can also be stingy. Maryland’s Jahmir Young (16.1 ppg) and the Mountaineers’ Erik Stevenson (15.5 ppg) are the most likely take-over candidates.

SHOCKS AHEAD?: Five potential first-round upsets 

FIRST-TIMERS: Nine teams with great opportunity to win their first title

No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette

TIME/TV: Thursday, 9:40 p.m., CBS

The Volunteers are widely viewed as the most vulnerable to a first-round upset of the top 16 seeds, thanks in large part to the loss of point guard Zakai Zeigler to a season-ending knee injury. The Ragin’ Cajuns would be a tough draw even if Tennessee were at full strength. Jordan Brown (19.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg), is a difficult assignment even for a team with SEC-caliber athletes. Tennessee will need notoriously streaky Santiago Vescovi to find his shooting touch quickly.

No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 Utah State

TIME/TV: Thursday, 1:40 p.m., TNT

This figures to be another of those matchups from near the middle of the bracket that could prove hard to predict. There is little familiarity between these teams, but both are happy to be here thanks to late-season pushes and should certainly bring plenty of energy to the court. Kobe Brown and DeAndre Gholston have made their share of big shots for the Tigers, and they’ll need to make a bunch against the Aggies who are deceptively effective on the boards with three players averaging over five rebounds.

No. 4 Virginia vs. No. 13 Furman

TIME/TV: Thursday, 12:40 p.m., truTV

The tournament experience for the Cavaliers in recent years has had no middle ground, resulting in either a national championship or a first-round exit. The Paladins are capable of making the latter scenario a reality, and the absence of injured big man Ben Vanderplas won’t help. Furman is paced by the high-scoring duo of Mike Bothwell (18.0 ppg) and Jalen Slawson (15.7 ppg), but generating points against UVa’s well-schooled defense will still be a challenge.

No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 Boise State

TIME/TV: Thursday, 7:35 p.m., truTV

This one should possibly be ranked higher given both teams’ recent proclivity for playing nail-biters. The Broncos have more recent NCAA experience on their side, though it wasn’t exactly positive. Wildcats guard Boo Buie (17.1 ppg) is a high-volume scorer but is not always accurate, a potential problem given the team’s negative rebounding margin. Boise State has numerous scoring options, but Tyson Degenhart (14.3 ppg) and Max Rice (13.9 ppg) are the main candidates to take the clutch shot.

No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Illinois

TIME/TV: Thursday, 4:30 p.m., TBS

This would likely be the least aesthetically appealing of the 8-9 contests if it weren’t for the next one on the list. It might, however, be the least consequential, as whoever advances will be a heavy underdog against – barring a miracle – Kansas in the next round. The Razorbacks aren’t as deep across the front line as last year’s Elite Eight squad but can still be disruptive in the paint. Illinois’ sketchy free throw shooting, just over 68% as a team, could be an issue.

No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 9 Auburn

TIME/TV: Thursday, 6:50 p.m., TNT

Auburn, however, has been involved in even more not-so-pretty games this season. But even the Tigers might find points against the Hawkeyes, for whom defense often seems optional. Nevertheless, Iowa’s feast-or-famine shooting can lead to a Hawkeye romp if Kris Murray (20.4 ppg) starts out hot.

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Colgate

TIME/TV: Thursday, 7:25 p.m., TBS

Of the trio of No. 2 seeds in action on the first day, the Longhorns might have the most challenging opponent. The Raiders dominated the Patriot League and are once again among the nation’s best shooting teams. All five Colgate starters sport double-digit scoring averages, and Oliver Lynch-Daniels connects on 50.3% of his 3-point attempts. Texas should eventually take charge with its superior size and depth, but it might take a while.

No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 15 UNC-Asheville

TIME/TV: Thursday, 10:05 p.m., truTV

The battle-tested Bruins have had a few games to adjust to life without injured guard Jaylen Clark. Even so, his absence on the defensive end could allow the Bulldogs and prolific scorer Drew Pember (21.2 ppg) to stick around well into the night.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 Princeton

TIME/TV: Thursday, 4:10 p.m., TNT  

Perhaps it is fortunate that no current Wildcats players were around when Pete Carril’s Princeton teams provided plenty of scares and the occasional upset come March. His legacy lives on, however, with former Tigers player Mitch Henderson now helming the program. Princeton’s precision passing will produce points, but the Tigers won’t have any answers for Arizona’s inside strength.

No. 1 Houston vs. No. 16 Northern Kentucky

TIME/TV: Thursday, 9:20 p.m., TNT

Yes, we know what we said about this event’s potential to surprise. But realistically the only apparent suspense involving this game is whether Marcus Sasser will suit up for the Cougars or rest the groin injury he sustained during the American Athletic Tournament. But do keep an eye on Marques Warrick, a prolific shooter averaging 19.1 points for the Horizon League champion Norse.

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Howard

TIME/TV: Thursday,  2 p.m., TBS

Bill Self has officially rejoined the Jayhawks after a health scare and may be on the sideline. The tournament opener isn’t likely to put any undue stress on his ticker, but Elijah Hawkins (13.0 ppg, 5.9 apg) is a steady floor leader and leading “One Shining Moment” candidate for the Bison.

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

TIME/TV: Thursday, 2:45 p.m., CBS 

At least the Islanders can now claim a tournament victory thanks to Tuesday night’s entertaining First Four victory against Southeast Missouri. The journey almost certainly ends here, however, against the Crimson Tide’s lineup of next-level talent.

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