Ready for the madness to begin? The 2021 NCAA men’s tournament kicks off Thursday night with the First Four, which brings two No. 11 seeded matchups (including two Blue Bloods met) and two No. 16 matchups for the right to advance to the first round. Typically in Dayton, this year’s First Four will be held at the Indiana (Assembly Hall) and Purdue (Mackey Arena) houses.
Here’s a quick guide to all four games, followed by the staff’s predictions …
Mount St. Mary’s vs. Texas Southern, 5:10 p.m. ET, TruTV
Our first test of March Madness will be a battle of contrasting styles. Mount St. Mary’s plays slower than any team other than Virginia. Mountaineers are content to rack up midfield possessions and have opponents score against a fixed defense. On the other hand, Texas Southern, a regular at NCAA tournaments, wants to get out there and run, with high-level athletes who love to attack the rim in transition. Enjoy what should be a great point guard battle – Texas Southern’s Michael Weathers is explosive on the ball and has found a home in Houston after transferring twice, while diminutive dynamo Damian Chong Qui is a steady playmaker who does not go back despite being only 5 years old. ‘8 “.
Drake v. Wichita State, 6:27 p.m. ET, TBS
To say that this longstanding rivalry with the MVC was unbalanced would be an understatement: Wichita won the last 11 Valley meetings by an average of 19.7 points. But this is a different Drake team than the dying program it was for much of the last decade thanks to head coach Darian DeVries, one of the smartest young coaches in the business. The Bulldogs recapture top scorer ShanQuan Hemphill after missing more than a month with a foot injury, a huge boost for a team that will not yet feature starting point guard Roman Penn.
Drake has a beautiful offense, hugging great space and guarding the ball on his way to owning the No. 19 offense nationally according to KenPom. Meanwhile, head coach Isaac Brown has done an incredible job with Wichita after inheriting the team just a week before the season. Star guard Tyson Etienne is an elite scorer capable of shooting from deep.
Appalachian State vs. Norfolk State, 8:40 p.m. ET, TruTV
The winner of this one has the privilege of playing against a Gonzaga team that is one of the best teams in recent college basketball history. While neither team’s stay in Indianapolis is likely to be very long, Thursday’s showdown should be fun. Appalachian State raced through the Sun Belt tournament with four wins in four days thanks to a slew of shots, particularly from the Division II trade Michael Almonacy. Almonacy burned the nets with five or more triples in three straight games to lead the Mountaineers to their first place in an NCAA tournament in 21 years. Norfolk State is back on the field for the first time since defeating Missouri as the No. 15 seed in 2012. This team may not have an NBA player like Kyle O’Quinn, but he will enjoy watching it all. Devante Carter.
UCLA vs. Michigan State, 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS
Michigan State hasn’t looked like a First Four team lately, beating three of the top six teams on the NCAA seeded list since Feb. 23 to shoot from the bubble to the field. Still, even during this stretch, the Spartans have been far from consistent, with their most recent three losses all by double digits. Which MSU team will be performing at Mackey Arena? The Spartans are frustrated on offense, but in their big victories they have been much more locked in on defense than they were at the beginning of the season. Someone other than Aaron Henry has to step up, maybe Rocket Watts, who has had a disappointing season.
UCLA sneaked onto the field despite a weak resume, and the Bruins haven’t beaten a team overall since Jan. 2 against Colorado. This isn’t a classic Mick Cronin defense, but the Bruins have enough firepower to keep this interesting.
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Pick ‘Em: First Four
No. 16 Texas Southern over No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s: The Tigers have too much firepower on the offensive side to lose this despite the Mountaineers’ flair.
No. 11 Drake over No. 11 from Wichita State: Hemphill’s return gives the Bulldogs the additional offensive weapon needed to earn a trip to the Round of 64.
No. 16 Appalachian State over No. 16 Norfolk State: App State stays hot by shooting the ball and earns a date with Gonzaga.
No. 11 Michigan State over No. 11 UCLA: It’s tough to buy shares in the Bruins after four straight losses, and Michigan State has been playing well of late. The Spartans find a way.
The best we saw
As teams clear the quarantine in Indianapolis and eagerly await the start of the tournament, some head outside to get their competitive juices flowing. Here’s Texas playing kickball:
Do you want a defensive battle? Watch Texas Tech vs. Utah State. The Aggies don’t have the guards to take down the Red Raiders’ half-hearted defense, and Neemias Queta will erase a lot of Tech shots at the rim. The first to reach 60 will win this one.
On the buzzer
Today five years ago, Paul Jesperson brought down one of the best timbre beaters in March Madness history to defeat Texas. For (hopefully) lots of March moments like this over the next 19 days.
Don’t forget to sign up for SI group challenge … only one day to go before the first round begins!
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.