While we love the First Four and the way Dayton, Ohio, embraces kicking things off, the 2023 NCAA tournament truly gets underway on Thursday — with 16 first-round games over the course of 12-plus hours.
Three of the four 1-seeds are in action, with Kansas facing Howard at 2 p.m. ET, Alabama tipping against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 2:45 p.m. and Houston going late, at 9:20 p.m ET. They won’t be your typical 1 vs. 16 matchups, either; there are legitimate storylines to watch in the lead-up to the games. Will Bill Self coach Kansas? The Hall of Fame coach missed the Big 12 tournament to undergo a medical procedure, and it’s unclear if he will be back on the sideline on Thursday. Will Marcus Sasser suit up for Houston? The Cougars’ All-American guard missed the AAC title game with a groin injury, and his status is up in the air.
Popular potential upsets on Thursday include a couple of mid-major darlings in 12-seeds Oral Roberts and Charleston. Oral Roberts took the country by storm during its run to the Sweet 16 in 2021, led by star guard Max Abmas. Abmas and coach Paul Mills are still leading the Golden Eagles, and they will face Duke, which has turned its season around and enters the dance as one of the hottest teams in the country. Meanwhile, Charleston and its energetic coach, Pat Kelsey, takes its 31-3 record against 5-seed San Diego State. The tempo battle in that one should determine the winner. That also goes for 4-seed Virginia against 13-seed Furman, which won the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. The Paladins want to score the ball early and often, while Virginia prefers a grind-it-out affair.
If you want NBA prospects, Arkansas vs. Illinois in the 8-9 game at 4:30 p.m. ET is for you. The Razorbacks have three players projected to be selected in June’s NBA draft in lottery picks Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black and second-rounder Ricky Council IV, and Illinois counters with likely second-rounders Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon Jr.
One more intriguing matchup features teams that made runs to the championship games of their conference tournaments — then didn’t appear to be rewarded by the selection committee. No. 7 seed Texas A&M takes on 10-seed Penn State, and the key will be the 3-point shot. Penn State takes a ton, while the Aggies don’t. Can the Nittany Lions make enough to pull off the upset?
Heck, watch it all. It’s the NCAA tournament! Maryland and West Virginia get things started at 12:15 p.m. ET. — Jeff Borzello