NCAA Tournament First Round: What to Know and Watch For Thursday

Kansas Limps In, Tom Izzo Starts March Madness Career, Bid Thievery Continues, and More as First Round Starts Thursday

The field of 64 teams is trimmed to 48 during 16 first-round games across Thursday's slate. Here's what to keep an eye on.

Thursday's NCAA Tournament first-round slate includes familiar blue bloods, juicy matchups, and the usual upsets that make viewers savor every episode of "March Madness." The First Four games kicked off the event, but things really get going with the first round, when the field of 64 is whittled to 48.

There are a few big-name programs included in that group of 48, but it's a fair assumption that plenty of unexpected teams will be joining them over the next few days. You've got to assume that every spot in the field is in jeopardy when it resets for the single-elimination tournament, and Thursday's action offers plenty of opportunities for those upsets to happen.

Here are the biggest storylines and things to watch for on the first day of the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

Kansas Limps In

The Big 12 Tournament gave us a glimpse of what the NCAA Tournament might look like without the Jayhawks in the mix. It was a fun week in Dallas, with plenty of drama and the Iowa State upset of Baylor to win the championship. But it was also marked by the absences of two of the conference's best players in Kansas' Kevin McCullar Jr. and TCU's Mike Miles.

The latter is now healthy and ready to go, but the former's status has gone from bad to worse. Bill Self told reporters Tuesday that McCullar won't play in the NCAA Tournament and that the star wing won't play again this season due to a lingering knee injury.

McCullar had been playing through the injury, but he was clearly laboring, and the combination of his health and the Jayhawks' depth issues was concerning. It's an even bigger concern now that he's out of the picture, and that's bad news for a Kansas team that drew a tricky opponent in the No. 4 seed Samford.

The Bulldogs play at a frantic pace and have one of the deepest benches in the country. That's not a great matchup for a Kansas team that already plays relatively slow and has one of the shortest rotations in the tournament. It'll be a tough test for the Jayhawks, and it's one of many things to keep an eye on during Thursday's action.

Tom Izzo Begins 26th Straight Campaign

There's simply no denying Tom Izzo's status as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. The Michigan State legend has a record of success that includes virtually everything: Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, Final Fours, and NBA talent developing.

His latest accomplishment added to an already staggering resume: He has now led Michigan State to the NCAA Tournament in 26 consecutive seasons. The school announced that it will wear a "26 Strong" uniform patch throughout the tournament in recognition of the achievement.

Izzo has been dubbed a "March God" for his success in the NCAA Tournament, but it's actually been his wins as a lower seed that stand out. He's won 16 tournament games as a lower seed, which is the most all time.

He broke the record last season when the Spartans, as a No. 7 seed, took down No. 2 Marquette in the second round. Michigan State kicks off this year's tournament as a No. 9 seed against No. 8 Mississippi State, and it's worth keeping an eye on how Izzo's magic starts this year's tournament run.

Will the Thievery Continue?

There's nothing college basketball fans love more than a good "bid thief" scenario in conference tournaments. It's the scenario everyone watches for during championship week: Will a team that wasn't expected to make the NCAA Tournament knock off a team that was safely in, stealing its auto bid in the process?

This year, NCAA Tournament selection committee chair Chuck McClelland noted on CBS that there were five instances of bid theft. That's notable because in each of the past two years, there have been three combined.

That means there are three games Thursday featuring potential bid thieves. In the earliest window, No. 11 Duquesne takes on No. 6 BYU in the East Region. That's followed by No. 11 Oregon against No. 6 South Carolina in the Midwest Region, and No. 11 NC State against Texas Tech in the South Region.

All three of those games feature teams that won their respective conference tournaments after entering the week on the outside of the tournament picture. They're all feeling plenty confident and playing with what amounts to house money this week. It will be interesting to see if any of them can keep the good times rolling and pull off another upset.

Gonzaga vs. McNeese State

The only game featuring a No. 5 seed versus a No. 12 seed Thursday is also one of the day's biggest attractions. That's because it features a blue-blood program in Gonzaga, which has been in the Final Four each of the past two tournaments, and a giant-killer in McNeese State.

The Cowboys pulled off one of the first round's biggest upsets last year, knocking off a talented and experienced Iowa team. They entered that matchup as massive underdogs, much like they are this year against the Bulldogs.

Gonzaga is a different animal than Iowa, of course, and the Zags look like one of the most complete teams in the country after a dominating run through the WCC. They're led by potential NBA draft lottery pick Chet Holmgren and veteran Andrew Nembhard, who is a much better player than his draft slot would indicate.

The Zags have everything you'd want in a potential national champion, and they'll be heavy favorites to advance to the second round, but McNeese State is a tough out. The Cowboys play at one of the slowest paces in the country and have a talented big man of their own in Jonas Harper.

This game has all the makings of a classic 12-5 upset special. It's worth tuning in to see how it plays out.

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