The next four days are the very best on the sports calendar all year. With the First Four out of the way, the full NCAA tournament tips off with 16 games on Thursday, another 16 on Friday and eight each on Saturday and Sunday. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned college basketball fan’s head spin. We’re here to help with the 2015 edition of the NCAA Tournament Viewer’s Guide.
We’ll publish the guide every day of the tournament, running down where and when you can find every game on a given day and offering a compelling storyline for every contest. Thursday’s action features two popular 12-seed-over-5-seed upset picks (Wofford over Arkansas in the West and Stephen F. Austin over Utah in the South), three 6 vs. 11 games and a pair of 8 vs. 9 games. In other words, it shouldn’t take long for the madness to descend upon the bracket. (Games are presented below in order of start time. Hover over start times on image above on desktop or tap each game on mobile for specific start times.)
Notre Dame finished third in the ACC during the regular season, then won the conference tournament championship, knocking off both Duke and North Carolina about 50 miles from their respective campuses. Few teams in the country are more lethal from behind the arc than the Irish, who shoot 39.2% from deep, and Northeastern doesn’t exactly excel at defending the three, allowing teams to shoot 34.4% from outside. However, the Huskies make 38.8% themselves from deep, and if they're going to spring the upset, they’ll need to match Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia shot for shot.
UAB snuck through the Conference USA tournament and is probably lucky to be seeded even this high. Iowa State, meanwhile, has emerged as a chic Final Four pick after winning the Big 12 tournament. If the Cyclones are indeed going to emerge from this region, they should be able to make quick work of the Blazers. The C-USA champion doesn’t have any answer for forward Georges Niang or guard Bryce Dejean-Jones. Just as we know there will be upsets, we know there will be blowouts. Expect this to be one of the latter.
The Bears have the 13th-most efficient offense in the country, but they’re about as all or nothing as it gets. They shoot the three very well and are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, thanks to Rico Gathers. Yet they also rank 200th or worse in most every other offensive stat tracked by kenpom.com. If Baylor isn't hitting threes, it could find itself in a tight game against a Georgia State team that gets a lot of turnovers and is very efficient at scoring inside the arc.
The Wildcats are a popular choice to reach the Final Four, and rightfully so after finishing the season ranked second on kenpom.com with the No. 3 defense and No. 11 offense in the country. Freshman wing Stanley Johnson was one of the best players in the nation all season and, unlike last year, center Brandon Ashley is healthy and ready to go for the Big Dance. Texas Southern does have wins over Michigan State and Kansas State this season, but it didn’t a see a team all year that can clamp down on opponents like Arizona can. This should be nothing more than a tune-up for Sean Miller’s team.
The Bulldogs may have the better seed, but the Longhorns are favored by 1 1/2 points. There was some question as to whether Texas would even make the field, but it’s easy to look at this team and see why it might be considered dangerous. A three-headed monster of point guard Isaiah Taylor, big man Jonathan Holmes and freshman forward Myles Turner will make the Longhorns a tough out. Butler, meanwhile, really struggled down the stretch, splitting its final eight games entering the tournament, and is just 2-4 since February against teams that made the tournament. Whichever team can find its inconsistent offense first will likely win this game.
The only people who seemed to think UCLA belonged in the tournament were the selection committee members who gave them a bid. SMU, last year's most hotly debated snub, made the field with ease this year and has a significant edge across the board in this matchup. The Mustangs' one true weakness is their proclivity to give the ball away, but the Bruins are unlikely to take advantage because they rank 213th in the country in generating turnovers this season. If Kevon Looney and Isaac Hamilton aren’t knocking down threes, it’s going to be a long afternoon for UCLA.
4:10 p.m. ET on TBS
West Region: No. 6 Xavier (21-13, 9-9 in Big East) vs. No. 11 Mississippi (21-12, 11-7 in SEC)
This could be one of the more entertaining games of the first two days, with both teams ranking inside the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency. If you didn’t already know how good Mississippi’s offense can be, you found out in its comeback win over BYU in the First Four. When junior guard Stefan Moody shoots like he did on Tuesday—making 10-of-18 overall and 5-of-9 from three—the Rebels becomes very hard to stop. Remember, Ole Miss gave Kentucky one of its toughest tests of the season, taking the Wildcats to overtime in Lexington back in January.
Xavier, meanwhile, has four players who are capable of leading the team in scoring, led by freshman forward Trevon Bluiett and senior center Matt Stainbrook. The key to this game, however, just may be Musketeers junior guard Remy Abell. Mississippi plays a lot of zone, and Abell can break it with his 42.0% mark from distance.
The Buckeyes are three-point favorites here, and a lot of that has to do with freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell, who will probably be a top-five pick in the NBA draft if he decides to leave Columbus after the season. VCU hasn’t been the same team since losing guard Briante Weber to a knee injury, and despite their Atlantic 10 tournament title, it’s hard to have a ton of confidence in the Rams. They’ve had to turn to their offense with Weber gone, putting a lot on the shoulders of Treveon Graham and JeQuan Lewis. This game very well could come down to who wins the individual battle between Russell and Graham. Without Weber’s on-ball defense to slow down Russell, give the advantage to the Buckeyes.
Villanova quietly went about its business all season long, not even garnering mention as a potential 1-seed until late February, when Gonzaga suffered its second loss of the season. The Wildcats dominated an under-the-radar Big East conference, winning the regular season by four games and then cutting down the nets at the conference tournament. There’s no one star on Villanova, but six players average between nine and 14 points per game. Lafayette ranks 337th in adjusted defensive efficiency and allows huge shooting percentages across the board. The Leopards aren’t going to win this game with their defense. Instead, they’ll rely on the second-best three-point shooting in the country, led by senior guard Joey Ptasinski, who shoots 45.8% percent from deep.
The first 8-9 game of the tournament could also be one of the ugliest, as both Cincinnati and Purdue are prone to scoring droughts. In fact, these teams are almost mirror images of one another. Neither team shoots it well from behind the arc, both like to slow it down (only 10 of the nation's 351 teams play at a slower tempo than the Bearcats) and both can dominate on the offensive glass. The matchup between 6'10" Octavius Ellis of Cincinnati and 7'0" A.J. Hammons of Purdue will be the most interesting individual battle in this game. Both centers shoot a high percentage, and getting easy buckets is more important to these teams than those that make a lot of threes or feature guards who are superior creators.
7:20 p.m. ET
West Region: No. 4 North Carolina (24-11, 11-7 in ACC) vs. No. 13 Harvard (22-7, 11-3 in Ivy League)
All the attention in the West Region is being heaped on top seeds Wisconsin and Arizona, but don’t sleep on North Carolina. When guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson are playing well, this team can beat anyone in the country. Just one team got a greater percentage of its points on two-pointers this year. In other words, the Tar Heels can generate the sort of consistent offense to win the six games necessary to be crowned national champions in early April. While Harvard has won a game in the tournament each of the last two years, those teams were built on offense. This one made its way through the Ivy League with its defense, and it’s going to be hard for that to translate to a game against a team like North Carolina that plays the 10th-fastest tempo in the nation, while the Crimson rank 316th. Don’t expect an upset here.
7:27 p.m. ET on TruTV
South Region: No. 5 Utah (24-8, 13-5 in Pac-12) vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (29-4, 17-1 in Southland)
History suggests that at least one of the No. 5 seeds will go down, and the Utes could very well be the one. While Utah has been ranked highly by the AP, RPI and kenpom.com all season, it went just 3-7 against teams that made the tournament, and those three wins were against Wichita State (a 7-seed), BYU (an 11) and UCLA (also an 11). Point guard Delon Wright is one of the best players in the country, juniors Brandon Taylor (43.9%) and Jordan Loveridge (43.8%) shoot nearly identical percentages from deep and freshman Jakob Poeltl gives the Utes a legitimate presence on the inside, but they drew a tough opponent in the Lumberjacks. Stephen F. Austin ranks 19th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, 37th in three-point percentage and sixth in two-point percentage. Remember the names Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker, both of whom could star in this game. A lot of the players on this year’s Lumberjacks were prominently involved in their upset of VCU in last year’s tournament. This should be one of the best games of the day.
9:20 p.m. ET on TBS
East Region: No. 8 N.C. State (20-13, 10-8 in ACC) vs No. 9 LSU (22-10, 11-7 in SEC)
These are two of the more confounding teams in the field this year. N.C. State beat Duke by 12 points, won at Louisville and North Carolina, took Notre Dame to overtime and nearly beat Virginia. The Wolfpack also lost to Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest and Wofford. LSU owns road wins over West Virginia and Arkansas and had Kentucky on the ropes for 35 minutes before losing by two. That makes losses to Auburn (twice), Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee hard to comprehend. Both these teams are capable of not only winning this game, but putting a scare into Villanova in the next round. They could also both lose this game by 20-plus points. That makes it one of the harder games to handicap, but with talented players like Trevor Lacy and Cat Barber in the Wolfpack's backcourt, and Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin anchoring the paint for the Tigers, it should be a great game.
9:40 p.m. ET on CBS
Midwest Region: No. 1 Kentucky (34-0, 18-0 in SEC) vs. No. 16 Hampton (17-17, 8-8 in MEAC)
We’ve never seen a No. 16 beat a No. 1, and we’ve never seen this year's edition of the Wildcats lose a game. The only real question here is whether Kentucky will finish with the record for the largest margin of victory in a tournament game since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The '98 Kansas Jayhawks hold the record with their 58-point win over Prairie View A&M.
9:50 p.m. ET on TNT
West Region: No. 5 Arkansas (26-8, 13-5 in SEC) vs. No. 12 Wofford (28-6, 16-2 in Southern Conference)
This is another popular 12-over-5 pick, but it's a bigger challenge for the underdog. While the Terriers did manage to knock off North Carolina State this year, they do not have the profile of a Cinderella because they make their money on defense. That may play for them in the SoCon, but it doesn't usually work against the big boys. Just ask Duke (which beat Wofford by 29) or West Virginia (which beat Wofford by 33). There aren’t many players like Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls or Rashad Madden in the SoCon, let alone three on the same team. Arkansas will have to be careful not to fall into one of its scoring funks, but Wofford isn’t particularly efficient on offense and doesn’t shoot the ball well from distance. Those are two traits you typically see in a team that pulls an upset.
This is one of the 4-13 matchups that is drawing a lot of interest, thanks primarily to Georgetown’s recent early-round failures in the tournament. Let’s remember a few key facts, though. First, this Hoyas team has nothing to do with the ones that have lost to a double-digit seed in each of their last five tournament appearances. Second, all 10 of Georgetown’s losses came to teams that reached the tournament, and only one of those clubs (St. John's, a 9) received lower than a No. 6 seed. In other words, Georgetown took care of business when it was supposed to all season. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will be a handful for Eastern Washington, and Josh Smith presents a unique challenge, with no one in the Eagles’ rotation standing taller than 6'8". If Eastern Washington is going to pull the upset, Tyler Harvey is going to have to get hot from three-point land. That is a possibility, with the junior connecting on 40.4% of such attempts this season. If Georgetown keeps him in check, it will win by double-digits.