Ranking Thursday's 16 NCAA tournament games from must-see to don't bother

Yahoo Sports

You’ve filled out your bracket. You’ve told your boss you’re too sick to come into work. You’ve purchased enough chicken wings to feed a football team.

That can only mean one thing: One of the best days of the year has arrived.

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On Thursday, CBS and Turner Sports will televise 16 first-round NCAA tournament games. Below is ranking of all 16 from must-see to don’t bother watching until the final two minutes.

1. Marquette (5) vs. Murray State (12), 4:30 p.m., TBS

On one side is a presumptive top-three pick in this June’s NBA draft, a Russell Westbrook clone with a distinctive blend of quickness, fearlessness and dynamic athleticism. On the other side is college basketball’s most explosive scorer, a quick-trigger shooter who can erupt for 40 points with a few flicks of his wrist. This high-octane, star-studded showdown between Ja Morant’s Racers and Markus Howard’s Golden Eagles should be thrilling from start to finish.

2. Kansas (4) vs. Northeastern (13), 4 p.m., TNT

A blue blood on the ropes against a feisty mid-major is the best March theater, and this has the potential to deliver that. Not only has Kansas not performed like a top-four seed since Udoka Azubuike’s midseason season-ending injury, the Jayhawks are especially vulnerable to a team like Northeastern. A four-guard team with an outstanding point guard and 3-point shooters galore, the Huskies should be able to exploit Kansas’ leaky ball-screen defense.

3. LSU (3) vs. Yale (14), 12:40 p.m., truTV

The absence of suspended head coach Will Wade makes LSU one of the NCAA tournament’s most unpredictable teams. Either the young, talented Tigers could crumble, or the adversity could be a galvanizing element. Either way, Yale will be a real test. Combo guard Miye Oni is a legitimate NBA prospect, his supporting cast is also talented and while Yale can’t physically match LSU, the Bulldogs are a good enough defensive rebounding team not to get bludgeoned on the offensive glass.

4. Louisville (7) vs. Minnesota (10), 12:15 p.m., CBS

The actual basketball in this game might not be that interesting. It’s going to be difficult for Minnesota to handle Louisville’s defense without an actual point guard or consistent outside shooting. But the Pitino narrative here is all kinds of fun as Richard Pitino coaches against the school that fired his scandal-tainted father. It doesn’t appear that Rick will be flying in from Greece to watch this game in person, but we can all hold out hope.

5. Wofford (7) vs. Seton Hall (10), 9:40 p.m., CBS

Over the past few months, Wofford has laid waste to an unusually strong Southern Conference, reeling off 21 straight wins by an average of 17 points in a league that grades out similarly to the Mountain West and Atlantic 10. This is a rough draw for a Seton Hall team that finished the year strong itself, having ridden streak-shooting Myles Powell to two victories over Marquette and another against Villanova during the past two weeks.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 14: Markus Howard #0 of the Marquette Golden Eagles celebrates a basket with his teammates on the bench after a basket against the St. John's Red Storm during the Quarterfinals of the 2019 Big East men's basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 14, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 14: Markus Howard #0 of the Marquette Golden Eagles celebrates a basket with his teammates on the bench after a basket against the St. John's Red Storm during the Quarterfinals of the 2019 Big East men's basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 14, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

6. Auburn (5) vs. New Mexico State (12), 1:30 p.m., TNT

In many ways, these teams are mirror images of each other, from letting it fly from behind the arc, to attacking the offensive glass, to disrupting opposing offenses with waves of ball pressure. They’re also both peaking at the right time, the Aggies having won 19 in a row and the Tigers having just stormed to the SEC tournament title. On Dec. 8, New Mexico State pushed Kansas before falling 63-60. The Aggies should prove a worthy adversary for Auburn too.

7. Villanova (6) vs. Saint Mary’s (11), 7:20 p.m., TBS

This very same matchup produced maybe the biggest victory in Saint Mary’s basketball history back in 2010. Omar Samhan led the Gaels to a 75-68 upset over Villanova in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. Whether history will repeat itself might depend on if Saint Mary’s recent defensive uptick continues. Going under ball screens worked for the Gaels in the WCC title game against Gonzaga, but the reigning national champions have the outside shooters to render that strategy ineffective.

8. Maryland (6) vs. Belmont (11), 3:10 p.m., truTV

If this is going to be the year that Belmont finally pulls a long-awaited NCAA tournament upset, then the Bruins will have to figure out a way to compensate for Maryland’s edge in quickness, size and athleticism. Belmont should be able to deploy its array of shooters and put up some points against Maryland, but how will the Bruins stay in front of Anthony Cowan or handle the likes of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith around the rim?

9. Nevada (7) vs. Florida (10), 6:50 p.m., TNT

Nevada has a bunch of 23-year-olds who made the Sweet 16 last year and returned to school with ambitions of advancing further this March. Florida starts three freshmen and two erratic seniors, lost 15 games and wasn’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament before beating LSU in the SEC quarterfinals last Friday. It has seemed like Nevada has been sleepwalking since the midpoint of Mountain West play, but expect the Wolf Pack to wake up now that the postseason has arrived, even with star Jordan Caroline playing through an Achilles injury.

10. Syracuse (8) vs. Baylor (9), 9:57 p.m., truTV

Jim Boeheim is 15-2 in opening-week NCAA tournament games since 2006, but this matchup with Baylor will pose a couple of unusual challenges. Starting point guard Frank Howard has been suspended indefinitely and leading scorer Tyus Battle is fighting through a back injury that sidelined him during the ACC tournament. How Syracuse replaces Howard and how healthy Battle is will make this 8-9 game more intriguing than some of the others.

11. Florida State (4) vs. Vermont (13), 2 p.m., TBS

Vermont is an elite mid-major capable of upsetting an unsuspecting power-conference team in the NCAA tournament, but this is the worst possible draw for the America East champs. Not only is Florida State really good, the Seminoles might be the most physically imposing team in the whole field. Can Vermont handle the waves of length and athleticism Florida State will unleash on Thursday? Not likely.

12. Michigan State (2) vs. Bradley (15), 2:45 p.m., CBS

Valley teams have a long history of NCAA tournament upsets, but Bradley is nowhere near as formidable as Loyola-Chicago’s Final Four squad last year or the Wichita State and Creighton teams from previous seasons. The Braves beat no one of note besides Penn State in non-conference play this season, went 9-9 in the league and then won three games by three or fewer points to capture the Valley tournament. There’s nothing on their resume to suggest they can put a scare into the Spartans.

13. Purdue (3) vs. Old Dominion (14), 9:50 p.m., TBS

For a team with 26 victories including quality wins over Syracuse and VCU, Old Dominion is downright inept offensively. The Monarchs’ best offense is often a put-back of a missed shot. Purdue could be a tad vulnerable given Carsen Edwards’ recent shooting slump and lingering back injury, but even an upset won’t be fun to watch. Old Dominion’s best chance is to slow the pace to a crawl, dig in on defense and hope to generate just enough offense to win.

14. Kentucky (2) vs. Abilene Christian, 7:10 p.m., CBS

The most intrigue in this mismatch will probably come from evaluating how mobile Kentucky’s P.J. Washington looks despite the sprained foot he suffered in last Saturday’s SEC semifinal against Tennessee. The injury was serious enough for Washington to wear a boot, undergo testing and see a specialist Wednesday, but John Calipari said he expects his star forward to play Thursday night.

15. Michigan (2) vs. Montana (15), 9:20 p.m., TNT

This is a rematch nobody wanted. In the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, Michigan began its run to the national championship game with an otherwise forgettable 61-47 victory over Montana. Expect a similar defensive-oriented, sometimes hard-to-watch matchup this year as the Grizzlies have most of the same personnel, while the Wolverines are better defensively but lacking as many scoring threats.

16. Gonzaga (1) vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (16), 7:27 p.m., truTV

Nine teams 200th or worse in the KenPom rankings have taken aim at Gonzaga this season. None have come within 20 points. This isn’t going to go well for Fairleigh Dickinson, which has not beaten a top 150 team all season and must face the Zags in Salt Lake City less than 48 hours after winning a First Four game in Dayton on Tuesday night.

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