NCAA tournament viewing guide: Ranking Sunday's slate from most to least compelling

Zach Pereles

The biggest Cinderella of all time looks to keep dancing. Two pairs of in-state rivals vie for spots in the Sweet 16. Last year’s champs look to continue on their path to defend the crown, and two blue bloods do battle. Yeah, you could say it’s a pretty good Sunday slate.

Here’s how the day’s games stack up in terms of most compelling to least compelling.

1. (16) University of Maryland, Baltimore County vs. (9) Kansas State, 7:45 p.m. on TruTV

Come for the tweets. Stay for the chance to win big, watch the team that just pulled off one of sport’s biggest upsets ever or maybe just to figure out what the heck UMBC is. The Retrievers, fresh off knocking off top overall seed Virginia, are back in action on Sunday night. There’s a chance they get run off the floor. There’s a chance they hang tough and lose. But there’s also a chance they win, and that alone makes this the most compelling game of the day.

UMBC’s Jourdan Grant celebrates as his Retrievers pulls away from top-ranked Virginia. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
UMBC’s Jourdan Grant celebrates as his Retrievers pulls away from top-ranked Virginia. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

2. (5) West Virginia vs. (13) Marshall, 9:40 p.m. on TBS

Separated by just 157 miles, in-state rivals West Virginia and Marshall faced off annually in the Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic from 1929 to 2015. While West Virginia has dominated recently — the Mountaineers won nine of the last 10 meetings — the Thundering Herd is no stranger to upsets. That one meeting it won came in 2011, when the Mountaineers came in on the nation’s longest win streak and star center Kevin Pittsnogle guaranteed victory. Marshall pulled off the shocker, 58-52. It was Marshall’s first win over a top-10 team since 1971.

This contest should hold plenty of intrigue, too. The Thundering Herd, led by intramural ringer-turned-NCAA tournament hero Jon Elmore, just upset Wichita State. Elmore will have his work cut out for him, though, against Jevon Carter, perhaps the nation’s best perimeter defender.

3. (7) Texas A&M vs. (2) North Carolina, 5:15 p.m. on CBS

North Carolina has the third-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the nation, per Kenpom. It’ll meet a Texas A&M team that has terrific rebounders Robert Williams III and Tyler Davis. Williams III, a potential lottery pick this summer, posted 13 points and snared 14 rebounds while Davis had 14 points and collected 15 boards in the Aggies’ opening-round win over Providence. If the Tar Heels don’t shoot the ball well, they could struggle to get the second-chance points they thrive on. Senior guard Joel Berry II just passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list at UNC, and his matchup against mercurial freshman TJ Starks could go a long way in determining this one.

4. (10) Butler vs. (2) Purdue, 12:10 p.m. on CBS

Coming into the tournament, this game had major intrigue as a possible second-round in-state showdown. Then, Isaac Haas broke his elbow in the first round on Friday, and the potential matchup lost some of its luster. Just a day later, though, Haas practiced with the team and expressed a desire to play, even with a massive brace on the arm. Can he pull a Willis Reed? Even if he doesn’t, the Boilermakers will be hungry to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with. Butler is never one to go down easily in March, though.

5. (1) Xavier vs. (9) Florida St., 8:40 p.m. on TNT

The Seminoles withstood some shaky moments in the second half to put away Missouri. Now, they get their shot against Xavier, the top seed in the West region. The Seminoles have terrific length, athleticism and depth: 42 of their points came from bench players Friday. But Xavier is the No. 1 seed for a reason. Led by senior guards Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura, the Musketeers have one of the best offenses in the nation. Elite athleticism versus outstanding execution will determine a spot in the Sweet 16.

Miles Bridges scored 29 points in the Spartans’ win over Bucknell. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Miles Bridges scored 29 points in the Spartans’ win over Bucknell. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

6. (11) Syracuse vs. (3) Michigan State, 2:40 p.m. on CBS

It’s a matchup of two blue bloods led by two of the game’s iconic coaches. Syracuse somehow made the field and has proceeded to win both its play-in game over Arizona State and its Round of 64 game over TCU. It’s an eerily similar feeling to the 2015 team, which made the tournament as an underwhelming No. 10 seed and went all the way to the Final Four. This could easily be a blowout, though. Michigan State is the far superior team on paper and will be able to stretch the Orange’s patented 2-3 zone. But there’s a reason they play the games and it would not be wise to count out Jim Boeheim under any circumstances.

7. (7) Nevada vs. (2) Cincinnati, 6:10 p.m. on TNT

The Bearcats are suddenly the only top-four seed remaining in the East region after No. 1 Virginia and No. 4 Arizona lost in the first round and No. 3 Tennessee fell in the second round. They’ll face a Nevada team coming off a dramatic first-round win over Texas. The Bearcats boast one of the nation’s top defenses and thrive on creating turnovers. The Wolf Pack, meanwhile, has the lowest turnover percentage in the nation. Nevada twins Cody and Caleb Martin get most of the attention, but sharpshooter Kendall Stephen, who scored a team-high 22 points against the Longhorns, could be the X-factor.

8. (5) Clemson vs. (4) Auburn, 7:10 p.m. on TBS

Two Tigers face off for a spot in the Sweet 16, but don’t put this one high on your priority list on Sunday. Auburn played a clunker of a first half against Charleston before a last-possession stand to hold on. Clemson, meanwhile, played really well in a first-round win over offensively challenged New Mexico State. The winner of this one gets Kansas. If this were football, Clemson-Auburn would be at the top of a viewing guide. But it’s not, and it falls to the bottom.

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