Everything you need to know about Thursday’s first-round games
The Big Dance has finally arrived, and we’re here to provide a preview of Thursday’s 16 games. Below are the players and numbers to know, as well as the upset possibilities:
All times ET
Player to watch: Trae Young went from being the darling of college basketball in January to one of its most criticized players, and Oklahoma tumbled down the stretch before still sneaking into the tournament. Oklahoma’s woes had more to do with its supporting cast than with Young, the nation’s leader in scoring (27.4) and assists (8.8).
Still, Young didn’t play as well late in the season. If he gets hot again, the Sooners could be a dangerous double-digit seed. If he doesn’t, they could be the first team out of the tournament.
Key stat: The Sooners are 15-0 when they score at least 85 points. They are 3-13 when they don’t.
Upset factor: Depends. Just two months ago, the Sooners were fighting for a No. 1 seed. Then they morphed into a moribund bunch that wilted to a 10-seed. If the tournament can give Oklahoma a little of its mojo back, the Sooners will be dangerous. If they’re the same team they’ve been since the start of February, Rhode Island will coast.
Player to watch: All-name-team nominee Admiral Schofield has elevated his game in recent weeks. Over his past six games, Schofield is averaging 20.5 points per game to go with seven rebounds, and he shot 40 percent from 3 in that stretch. Schofield’s emergence has given Tennessee a perimeter complement to forward Grant Williams, the team’s leading scorer.
Key stat: Tennessee is a load on the defensive end. The Volunteers ranked fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and give up just 66.1 points per game, the fewest of any team in the SEC.
Upset factor: Wright State, wrong opponent. The Vols are on a roll, having won six of their past seven while holding opponents to fewer than 70 points in all six wins. Wright State ranked all the way down at seventh in the Horizon League in scoring.
Player to watch: Big man Johnathan Williams leads a balanced Gonzaga attack. Williams is averaging 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. Although he isn’t a volume shooter, Williams has reached double-figure scoring in 12 straight games.
Key stat: Gonzaga’s average margin of victory is 17.4 points. That’s the second-highest of any tournament team, trailing only Cincinnati (17.8).
Upset factor: Faint. Gonzaga, last year’s national runner-up, has college basketball’s longest active win streak, with 14 consecutive victories. The Zags are attempting to become the fourth team since 1985 to win the national title the year following a defeat in the championship game. Gonzaga has the pieces to make another run to the Final Four.
Player to watch: If the Jayhawks are going to make a run to the Final Four, they’re going to need 7-footer Udoka Azubuike on the floor. Azubuike, who is shooting 77.4 percent from the field this season — on pace to be the second-highest in Division I history — suffered a ligament injury in his left knee last week, and that kept him out of the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas coach Bill Self indicated that Azubuike could see the floor against Penn in an “emergency-type situation.” Emergency or not, if he’s able to play, even sparingly, that would be a great sign for Azubuike and the Jayhawks moving forward.
Key stat: Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham is averaging 37.6 minutes per game. That is more than any other Kansas player in the Big 12 era. Expect Graham, who has played 16 full games this year, to see every minute, barring foul trouble, for as long as Kansas is in the tournament.
Upset factor: Maybe not completely unthinkable. Kansas enters as just a 14.5-point favorite against Penn. That’s the second-shortest betting line ever in a 1-vs.-16 matchup. The Ivy League champs are not the normal 16 seed patsy.
Key stat: Duke averages 40.1 paint points per game. That is the most among major-conference teams. The last time Duke led major-conference teams in scoring in the paint, it won the national title (2014-15).
Upset factor: Nonexistent. Iona is making a school-record third straight NCAA tournament appearance. On the other hand, the Gaels have lost 11 straight tournament games. Duke will run that streak to a dozen.
Player to watch: Lonnie Walker IV has been Miami’s go-to guy since Bruce Brown Jr. had surgery on his left foot on Feb. 1. Walker leads Miami with 11.5 points per game, though that’s the lowest scoring average among tournament teams’ leading scorers.
Key stat: The Ramblers are tenacious defensively, allowing only 62.2 points per game, which ranks fifth in the country. Loyola-Chicago also ranks 11th in defensive efficiency.
Upset factor: Substantial. BPI gives Loyola-Chicago a 43 percent chance of knocking off the Hurricanes. That’s the highest rate for any team seeded at least five spots lower than its opponent. One more victory would give the Ramblers 29 victories, which would tie a school record.
Player to watch: Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop won’t be the only big-time player in this game. Mike Daum is a load, capable of propelling a Cinderella-like run. Daum is scoring almost 24 points per game, which ranks sixth nationally. He also has 21 double-doubles, tied for fourth.
Key stat: South Dakota State enters the tournament on an 11-game win streak, the third-longest active streak in college basketball. To keep the streak going, though, the Jackrabbits will have to secure their first tournament win ever. South Dakota State is 0-4 all time in the tournament.
Upset factor: BPI gives the Jackrabbits a 20 percent chance of pulling off the upset. And the last time Ohio State was a 5-seed? The Buckeyes lost to Utah State in 2001.
Player to watch: How Allerik Freeman goes, so usually goes NC State. The Wolfpack are 13-4 when their leading scorer puts up at least 15 points. They are 8-7 when he does not.
Key stat: Led by Angel Delgado, Seton Hall is one of the tournament’s top teams on the glass. The Pirates lead the Big East in offensive rebounding rate (34 percent) and second-chance points per game (12.7).
NC State allows 37.5 points in the paint per game, most among major-conference teams.
Upset factor: Hard to tell. The Pirates have the advantage in the paint, and the Wolfpack have the advantage on the perimeter. Seton Hall is a slight favorite, but this is basically a toss-up game.
Player to watch: Jalen Brunson might be the go-to guy, but Mikal Bridges is Villanova’s two-way glue guy. Bridges is a menace on the defensive end who is shooting 43 percent from 3. The quintessential 3-and-D prospect, Bridges figures to have NBA teams salivating for his services.
Key stat: Should Villanova reach the Final Four, the Wildcats will break the Division I record for wins in a four-year span. Villanova has 130 wins the past four seasons. Duke owns the current record, with 133 wins in the 1998-2001 seasons.
Upset factor: No chance. At least the Highlanders picked up a tournament victory earlier this week in the play-in game.
Player to watch: Senior forward Peyton Aldridge headlines a hot-shooting Davidson squad that scores 42 percent of its points from the 3-point line, highest of any tourney team.
Aldridge is an all-around force, averaging 21.5 points per game, 7.8 rebounds and a 3-point shooting rate of 39 percent. Even though he’ll be playing Kentucky, Aldridge will be the most polished offensive player on the floor.
Key stat: A No. 5 seed is Kentucky’s second-lowest under John Calipari. But when the Wildcats were a No. 8 seed in 2014 — their lowest under Calipari — they advanced to the national title game.
Upset factor: Significant. BPI gives Davidson the best chance of any double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16. BPI also gives Davidson a 42 percent chance to advance past Kentucky.
With a young team, Calipari’s Wildcats could be one-and-done in a different kind of way.
Player to watch: Three-year standout Rob Gray finally gets his shot in the tournament, as Houston is in the dance for the first time in eight years. Gray, who will turn 24 next month, is averaging a career-high 4.5 assists per game to go with 18.5 points a game.
Key stat: Houston rebounds way above what its collective size suggests it should. According to KenPom.com, Houston was the 323rd-tallest team in Division I. Yet the Cougars rank ninth nationally in rebounding rate.
Upset factor: Sturdy. BPI gives San Diego State a 26 percent chance to advance. Vegas favors the Cougars by only four.
Player to watch: Keenan Evans suffered a foot injury on Feb. 17 that knocked Texas Tech off track. Evans, however, was able to play 35 and 33 minutes in Tech’s two Big 12 Tournament games, a sign that he has put that ailment behind him. When healthy, Evans can take over a game by finishing at the rim and getting to the line.
Key stat: After Virginia, Texas Tech might have the best defense of any team in the tournament. The Red Raiders rank third in the nation in defensive efficiency and give up just 23.8 points per game in the paint. Among major-conference teams, only Virginia surrendered fewer.
Upset factor: Doubtful. Texas Tech hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2005. But this is, by far, the best team the Red Raiders have featured since at least then.
Player to watch: Collin Sexton stole the show in the SEC Tournament, pouring in 27, 31 and 21 points over three games, including the game-winning floater against Texas A&M, which catapulted the Crimson Tide off the bubble. Sexton’s best attribute is his relentlessness.
Key stat: Sexton will force the issue, and that could play into Virginia Tech’s hands. The Hokies led the ACC with 20.2 transition points per game.
Upset factor: Call this one a coin flip. Virginia Tech is the higher seed and a slight favorite. But Alabama has the difference-maker in Sexton. If the Hokies contain him, they’ll move on. If not, they’ll be going home.
Player to watch: Deandre Ayton has been ridiculous this season, leading the Pac-12 with 11.5 rebounds per game while averaging 20.3 points. He scored 32 in each of his past two games, wins over UCLA and USC, in which he added 14 and 18 rebounds. He just might be the best player in the tournament.
Key stat: Since Feb. 1, Buffalo is 10-2 and averaging 88.3 points per game. That’s the highest scoring average by any tournament team over that span. The Bulls shot almost 51 percent from the field in that stretch, also the highest of any tournament team.
Upset factor: Slim. The Bulls can score. But they have no answer for Ayton. That said, it’s possible that nobody does. And that’s a big reason that Arizona could give the Pac-12 its first national title since 1997, when the Wildcats won it all.
Player to watch: Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman knocks down shots and values the basketball. He’s shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, and he leads the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.04. That’s the best ratio of any Big Ten player in the past 20 seasons.
Key stat: The Wolverines don’t give up offensive rebounds, and they don’t turn opponents loose on the break. Michigan is allowing just 8.1 second-chance points per game and only 9.5 points off turnovers, not only both fewest in the Big Ten but also third-fewest among major-conference teams.
Upset factor: Dubious. Big Sky teams have lost 12 straight NCAA Tournament games since the Grizzlies knocked off Nevada in 2006.
Player to watch: Chris Chiozza is one of the top floor generals in this tournament. He has assisted on 37 percent of Florida’s baskets, the highest rate of any SEC player. Chiozza is averaging 6.1 assists per game. Over the past 20 years, only Nick Calathes has averaged more at Florida.
Key stat: The Bonnies come into the tournament red-hot from deep. During a 13-game win streak that was snapped in the Atlantic 10 title game, St. Bonaventure shot 43 percent from 3-point range as a team. In the play-in victory over UCLA on Tuesday, though, the Bonnies made just 4-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Upset factor: Decent. If the Bonnies catch fire from 3 and protect the basketball, they could be a tricky out for the Gators.