SportsPulse: We asked kids from the Boys & Girls Club in Washington to fill out March Madness brackets. Enlightenment and hilarity ensued. USA TODAY
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off Thursday, with a full slate of 16 games, beginning just after noon ET.
Here is everything you need to know regarding coverage, along with must-watch story lines heading into March Madness’ opening weekend.
– Need help filing out your bracket? We’ve got you covered with some fun tips on who to pick and why.
– Adored in Cameron Indoor Stadium and vilified outside it, Grayson Allen is on the brink of his final NCAA tournament.
– What if the Mascots played in the NCAA tournament?
– Virginia and Villanova’s NCAA tournament plan: Get old, stay old, win titles.
– Six dark-horse teams that could stage Final Four runs.
– Three March Madness matchups between haves and have-nots.
– These eight teams got hot at the right time.
No. 7 Rhode Island vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
Midwest Region; 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Why Rhode Island will win: The experienced Rams get great guard play from seniors Jared Terrell (17.5 points per game) and E.C. Matthews (12.8 points per game). Two more starters are seniors: Forward Andre Berry (9.1 points per game) and guard Stanford Robinson (9.3 points per game. And the youngster of the group, sophomore guard Jeff Dowtin (9.7 points per game), handles the ball well, averaging 5.5 assists to 1.8 turnovers. And the Rams can get hot: They won 16 consecutive games this season.
Why Oklahoma will win: Freshman guard Trae Young led the nation in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.8 per game). The Sooners started out 14-2 and looked like a top-four seed. The bad news: They struggled mightily down the stretch and finished 18-13. The good news: The tournament is a new season and the Sooners’ score 86 points per game, fourth best nationally. And they were a Final Four team in 2016, their last time in the tournament.
No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Wright State
South Region; 12:40 p.m. ET, truTV
Why Tennessee will win: Before losing to Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game, the Volunteers had won 13 of 15. That’s the type of sustained, solid play — underscored by victories during the season vs. Florida, Kentucky and Purdue — that will propel Tennessee.
Why Wright State will win: Simply put, it’s time. The Raiders, winners of the Horizon League tournament, are making their third appearance in the tournament and are in search of their first victory. A formidable defense will power Wright State, especially if Tennessee underestimates the Raiders.
No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 UNC-Greensboro
West Region; 1:30 ET, TNT
Why Gonzaga will win: The Zags are one of the best shooting teams in the country (50.3%), seventh best in the country. They don’t have a headlining superstar as in years past, but freshman Killian Tillie has been shooting lights out from long distance the last few weeks, and at 6-10, gives teams problems in the paint, too.
Why UNCG will win: The Spartans don’t give anyone easy looks. UNCG holds opponents to 40.6% from the field, plus yields 62.4 points a game, sixth best in the country. They also grab 7.7 steals per game.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Penn
Midwest Region; 2 p.m. ET, TBS
Why Kansas will win: The Jayhawks morphed in February into something formidable. With a four-guard lineup that fires up three-pointers (and hits 40%), Kansas has overcome a lack of size and depth, and even with starting center Udoka Azubuike a game-time decision because of a sprained knee, the Jayhawks have too much talent to lose in the first round.
Why Penn will win: Penn ranks No. 2 nationally in three-point field-goal defense and could foil Kansas’ perimeter shooting strategy. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1. It has to happen sometime, right? The Kenpom rating system has Penn as the highest-rated No. 16 seed since 2012, when UNC Asheville played Syracuse to the wire.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Iona
Midwest Region; Approx. 2:45 p.m. ET, CBS
Why Duke will win: The Blue Devils, as usual, have Final Four talent. Freshman Marvin Bagley III, a likely NBA lottery pick when he leaves college, averages 21.1 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game. Then there’s fellow frosh Wendell Carter Jr. with his 13.8 ppg and 9.3 rebounds a game. Senior guard Grayson Allen provides veteran presence among a sea of talented freshmen. Duke was a preseason No. 1 and they’d like to finish the tournament as the postseason’s No. 1.
Why Iona will win: The Gaels have balanced scoring, with five players who score in double figures, and they shoot well from beyond the three-point arc, which is often the formula for upsets in the tournament. Their three-point percentage is 39.8, 31st in the nation. Junior guard Rickey McGill averages 13.5 points and 5.6 assists per game. They’ll need to rebound well against the bigger Blue Devils as Iona’s rebound margin is below water at nearly minus-four per game.
No. 6 Miami (Fla.) vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
South Region; Approx. 3:10 p.m. ET, truTV
Why Miami will win: Any team that beat North Carolina on the road is more than capable of advancing past a first-round opponent making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985. The Hurricanes are deep enough to survive the loss of star guard Bruce Bowen, who’s out with a foot injury.
Why Loyola-Chicago will win: The Ramblers will tap into the magic of 1963, the year they won the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers have won 10 in a row and their experience, deft shooting from three-point range and rebounding are a winning combination.
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State
West Region; Approx. 4 ET, TNT
Why Ohio State will win: Keita Bates-Diop. The 6-7, 235-pound redshirt junior has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2017-18 season and arguably the best player in the Big Ten the last few months, averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds.
Why South Dakota State will win: Mike Daum. The two-time Summit League player of the year is a double-double (23.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg) waiting to happen. The 6-9, 250-pound forward shoots 42.1% from three, and has given teams fits all year.
No. 8 Seton Hall vs. No. 9 N.C. State
Midwest Region; Approx. 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS
Why Seton Hall will win: With four starters averaging at least 13 points, Seton Hall has the kind of balance that allows a team to weather an off night from one player. The Pirates play a physical game — they’re among the national leaders in blocked shots and rebounding — and their strengths play into N.C. State’s weakness.
Why N.C. State will win: The idea behind Wolfpack’s pressure defense is to force a fast pace and to grind down opponents. When it works, they force mistakes, especially later in games. Offensively, they shoot plenty of three-pointers — this means every starter, and includes 7-foot sophomore Omer Yurtseven, who presents a serious matchup difficulty.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Radford
East Region; 6:50 p.m. ET, TNT
Why Villanova will win: The Wildcats can shoot. They have the nation’s best offense at 87.1 points a game, thanks in large part to their ability to knock down threes. They average 11.3 of those per game, fourth in the nation. They shoot better than 50% from the field overall and nearly 40% from three and 77% from the free throw line. Junior guards Jalen Brunson (19.4 points per game) and Mikal Bridges (18 points per game) are stars.
Why Radford will win: No 16-seed has ever beaten a top seed, but the Highlanders have surprised all season so they figure: Why stop now? They were picked to finish seventh in the Big South, but they made the NCAA tournament by winning eight consecutive games, including three in the conference tournament and one in the First Four in Dayton against LIU-Brooklyn. And the Highlanders play good defense, giving up just 64.4 points per game, 16th in the nation.
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson
South Region; 7:10 p.m. ET, CBS
Why Kentucky will win: The Wildcats are young and inexperienced but way too talented to blow a game of this magnitude. Few teams in the country have an answer for 6-9 freshman forward Kevin Knox, who averages a team-best 15.6 points a game.
Why Davidson will win: They’re on a roll, and they’re they’re disciplined. The Wildcats run good half-court sets, which is part of why they managed to knock off top-seeded Rhode Island, another tournament team, in the A-10 conference tournament. Peyton Aldridge (21.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) will be tough to slow.
No. 6 Houston vs. No. 11 San Diego State
West Region; 7:20 p.m. ET, TBS
Why Houston will win: Led by senior guard Rob Gray and a grinding defense, Houston beat Wichita State and lost by one to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference tournament final. Houston’s No. 18 RPI is a reflection of the Cougars’ strength. There’s also this: Houston has not lost consecutive games this season.
Why San Diego State will win: The Aztecs are as hot as any team. They won three games in three days to earn the Mountain West’s automatic bid, and since guard Trey Kelly returned from injury last month, they’ve won nine in a row.
No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin
East Region; 7:27 p.m. ET, truTV
Why Texas Tech will win: Coach Chris Beard and his Red Raiders are tournament ready after finishing second in the rugged Big 12.
Why Stephen F. Austin will win: The Lumberjacks always seem primed for postseason upsets, having knocked off Virginia Commonwealth in 2014 as a No. 12 seed and West Virginia in 2016 as a No. 14.
No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Alabama
East Region; Approx. 9:20 p.m. ET, TNT
Why Virginia Tech will win: The Hokies boast an efficient offense. They make 50% of their shots from the field, eighth best in the nation. They make 39% of their three-point shots, which ranks 29th in the nation. They have four starters who average in double figures, led by junior guard Justin Robinson (13.8 points, 5.6 assists per game). The Hokies can beat anyone on their best day. The evidence: They won at Virginia, the tournament’s top overall seed.
Why Alabama will win: Freshman guard Collin Sexton is the linchpin of the Crimson Tide. He averages 19 points per game plus 3.6 assists per game. He attacks the basket and has a knack for finishing around the rim. Fellow freshman guard John Petty averages 10.1 points per game. The Tide don’t rebound well so it depends on 6-9 junior forward Donta Hall, who averages 10.9 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game, plus more than two blocks per game.
No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 13 Buffalo
South Region; Approx. 9:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Why Arizona will win: Deandre Ayton. The Pac-12 player of the year is a monster in the paint at 7-1, 250, averaging 20.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg. He gets help on the perimeter from Allonzo Trier (18.4 ppg) and Rawle Alkins (13.4), and another 7-footer, senior center Dusan Ristic (12.1), helps on the inside.
Why Buffalo will win: They can score. The Bulls average 84.8 points per game, seventh best in in the country. They have four players who average 14 points or more, led by junior guard CJ Massinburg (16.9 ppg). If they get hot, they can play with anyone.
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 Montana
West Region; Approx. 9:50 p.m. ET, TBS
Why Michigan will win: Winners of nine in a row, including the Big Ten tournament for the second consecutive season, the Wolverines are led by Mo Wagner’s inside-out game. But their strength is a fierce defense that allows only 63.5 points a game.
Why Montana will win: The Griz are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. But junior guard Ahmaad Rorie, a transfer from Oregon, leads a team that won the Big Sky’s regular-season and tournament titles. Montana is hot, having won six consecutive (with only two losses since late December).
No. 6 Florida vs. No. 11 St. Bonaventure
East Region; Approx. 9:57 p.m. ET, truTV
Why Florida will win: The Gators have the necessary experience after advancing to the Elite Eight last season, and their top guards, which each average double-figures in scoring, will be too hard for the Bonnies to contain.
Why St. Bonaventure will win: Notching their first tournament victory since 1970 with a win against UCLA in the First Four, the Bonnies will ride the momentum. Courtney Stockard, back from a recent hamstring injury, knows how to score.