Your Guide to Michigan State–UCLA and the Rest of Thursday's First Four

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Ready for the madness to begin? The 2021 men's NCAA tournament kicks off Thursday night with the First Four, which brings two No. 11 seed matchups (including two bluebloods facing off) and two No. 16 matchups for the right to advance to the first round. Normally held in Dayton, this year's First Four will be held at the homes of Indiana (Assembly Hall) and Purdue (Mackey Arena).

Here's a quick guide to all four games, followed by staff predictions...

Mount St. Mary’s vs. Texas Southern, 5:10 p.m. ET, TruTV

Our first taste of March Madness will be a battle of contrasting styles. Mount St. Mary’s plays slower than any team not named Virginia. The Mountaineers are content to grind out possessions in the halfcourt and make opponents score against a set defense. On the other side, NCAA tournament regular Texas Southern wants to get out 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 with the ball and has found a home in Houston after transferring twice, while diminutive dynamo Damian Chong Qui is a steady playmaker who doesn’t back down despite standing just 5’8”.

RESULT: Texas Southern 60, Mount St. Mary's 52

Drake vs. Wichita State, 6:27 p.m. ET, TBS

To say this former MVC rivalry was lopsided would be an understatement: Wichita won the final 11 Valley meetings by an average of 19.7 points. But this is a different Drake team than the moribund program it was for much of the last decade thanks to head coach Darian DeVries, one of the sharpest young coaches in the business. The Bulldogs get leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill back after missing more than a month with a foot injury, a huge boost to a team that will still be without starting point guard Roman Penn.

Drake runs beautiful offense, embracing great spacing and taking care of the ball en route to owning the No. 19 offense nationally per 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 catching fire from deep.

Appalachian State vs. Norfolk State, 8:40 p.m. ET, TruTV

The winner of this one gets the privilege of playing 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 matchup should be fun. Appalachian State ran through the Sun Belt tournament with four wins in four days thanks to great shot-making, particularly from Division II transfer Michael Almonacy. Almonacy torched the nets with five or more threes in three straight games to lift the Mountaineers to their first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years. Norfolk State is back in the field for the first time since upsetting Missouri as a No. 15 seed in 2012. This team may not have an NBA player like Kyle O’Quinn, but you’ll enjoy watching do-it-all point guard 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 seed list since Feb. 23 to skyrocket from off the bubble into the field. Still, even during this stretch the Spartans have been far from consistent, with their three most recent losses all coming by double figures. Which MSU team will show up at Mackey Arena? The Spartans are frustrating on offense, but in their big wins they’ve been much more locked in on defense than they were earlier in the season. Someone not named Aaron Henry has to step up—perhaps Rocket Watts, who has had a disappointing season. 

UCLA snuck into the field despite a weak résumé, and the Bruins haven’t beaten an at-large team since Jan. 2 against Colorado. This isn’t a vintage Mick Cronin defense, but the Bruins have enough firepower to keep this one interesting.

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ICYMI

Need bracket advice? Five SI writers give their insight on upset-minded questions around the Big Dance. (By SI Staff)

Former Duke star Nolan Smith explains what players will be missing due to this year's bubble-like March Madness. (By Jason Jordan)

Capacity limits and the varying sizes of the men's tournament venues have sent March Madness ticket prices soaring. (By Ross Dellenger)

NBA draft guide to March Madness: Key matchups, top prospects, sleepers and more to watch in this year's Men's NCAA tournament. (By Jeremy Woo)

Who has the potential to dole out multiple upsets? Here are five sleeper teams that could crash the men's Final Four. (By Jason Jordan)

Pick 'Em: First Four

No. 16 Texas Southern over No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s: The Tigers have too much firepower on the offensive end to lose this one despite the Mountaineers’ grind-it-out style.

No. 11 Drake over No. 11 Wichita State: Hemphill’s return gives the Bulldogs the extra 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 shooting the ball and earns itself a date with Gonzaga.

No. 11 Michigan State over No. 11 UCLA: It’s hard to buy stock in the Bruins coming off four straight losses, and Michigan State has played well of late. Spartans find a way.

Best Thing We Saw

As teams clear quarantine in Indianapolis and anxiously await the start of the tournament, some are headed outside to get their competitive juices flowing. Here’s Texas playing some kickball:

Crystal Ball

Want a defensive battle? Watch Texas Tech vs. Utah State. The Aggies don't have the guards to break down the Red Raiders' no-middle defense, and Neemias Queta will erase plenty of Tech shots at the rim. First to 60 will win this one.

At the Buzzer

Five years ago today, Paul Jesperson knocked down one of the greatest buzzer beaters in March Madness history to knock off Texas. Here’s to (hopefully) many March moments like this one over the next 19 days.

Don't forget to sign up for SI's Bracket Challenge ... only one day to go until the first round starts!