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The 2021 Men's NCAA Tournament May Be Different, but the Madness Feels All the Same


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INDIANAPOLIS — There are many things we know to be true this time of year. On Friday, we confirmed for certain that it is no longer February and not yet April, and in dramatic fashion.

The very first game of the men's first round, between Florida and Virginia Tech, tipped off at venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, a treat for this first-time visitor and a locale more than worthy of that honor. Of course, the crowds were sparse and masked, the chief reminder of the past year’s trials and our ongoing, strange circumstances. Many fans here are neutrals, only some of whom are visibly taking sides. Concession options are limited, though there's still beer, and there are, mercifully, no bathroom lines. There are smaller touches, like pre-taped school dance teams performing on arena scoreboards, rather than at center court. (Author's note: Does Red Panda have Zoom?)

That game ended frantically in overtime, with a series of small plays and big gaffes on both sides—missed free throws, unforced turnovers, a rare five-second inbound violation by the Gators, a game-tying three by the Hokies' Nahiem Alleyne—building to a surgical three-pointer from Florida's Tre Mann. And naturally, that set up a matchup not with No. 2 seed Ohio State, but No. 15 seed Oral Roberts, who would topple the Buckeyes shortly afterward behind the formidable duo of Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor. Some brackets were busted within a few hours. And the comforting thing that echoed across all six venues on Friday was the wonderful, familiar chaos.

There were upsets and almosts. The only Indiana team in the Indiana tournament, naturally, is already out. Purdue was outplayed by North Texas in front of an overwhelmingly friendly crowd, sending a large fan contingent back into the arms of what one can only hope are socially-distanced downtown bars. Early in the day, there were maybe 10 minutes where it felt like Colgate could rightfully knock off Arkansas. No. 10 seed Rutgers won its first men's tournament game since 1983. Not to be outdone, No. 12 seed Oregon State broke a streak that dated back to '82, forcefully taking Tennessee apart at that. There have already been four overtime games, if you include the First Four on Thursday.

Still dancing: Jim and Buddy Boeheim. Gone, for the first time ever in the first round: Roy Williams.

We should probably not bet against Jay Wright anymore, either: Villanova, widely pegged for an early exit by experts, handled Winthrop capably. The public was spared Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State, who navigated an off night and pulled away from pesky Liberty late. We also got some Sister Jean screen time, setting up a tasty second-round game between Loyola Chicago and Illinois. Somewhere along the way, Wisconsin even found its mojo. Well, maybe.

The night wrapped up at 12:40 a.m. Eastern Time at Lucas Oil Stadium, technically Saturday, where No. 14 seed Morehead State ran with West Virginia for the better part of 30 minutes. The Eagles were then deftly put away by Miles McBride, who may have turned in the best individual performance of the day with 30 points, six rebounds and six assists.

One byproduct of the times: the venue setup at this year’s tournament, with single-game sessions only and additional cleanup required, has produced hellishly late tip times in the final TV window of each night so far. Generally speaking, proclaiming that you’d never want a day to end is made much easier when one is not sitting in an empty arena after hours. Still, the whole basketball thing has started to feel sort of normal. A lot of change can happen in two years, but the best part of Day 1 is that we get to wake up and do it all over again. Mercifully, this year, Day 2 is on a Saturday. —Jeremy Woo

Rutgers guard Jacob Young holds out his arms during a win over Clemson


Four players—four rivals, four friends—are flashing a rare blend of impossible-to-ignore fire and skill that could signal the dawn of a big women's basketball boom. (By Robert O'Connell)

Miss anything from Day 1 of the men's tourney? We've got you covered.

No. 15 seed Oral Roberts's shocking win over Ohio State was a moment only March Madness could provide. (By Kevin Sweeney)

In a women's tournament so rich with talent and storylines, it's a shame the NCAA's failures have had to take center stage. (By Emma Baccellieri)

The NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics has asked the league to investigate the unequal training accommodations at the women's tournament, and Dawn Staley also spoke out.

SI Gambling has identified two teams on upset alert on Saturday as the first round of the men's NCAA tournament continues. (By Frankie Taddeo)

Best Thing We Saw

Javion Hamlet's dad

Javion Hamlet's dad watched his son make North Texas history on Friday night, leading the Mean Green to their first men's NCAA tournament win in program history. He also wore a ridiculously awesome sweater honoring the accomplishments of son, the team's star senior point guard, that reads "Javion, the Final Act" on the back.

And when the upset of No. 4 seed Purdue was secured, he even brought out an iPad and reached peak dad energy.

Pick 'Em

SI's Kevin Sweeney makes his picks for eight of Saturday's men's first-round games:

No. 12 Georgetown over No. 5 Colorado: Like fellow bid-stealer Oregon State did Friday, the Hoyas will continue their momentum from their conference tournament.

No. 3 Kansas over No. 14 Eastern Washington: If there’s another stunning upset today, it will be in this game. But the Jayhawks will do just enough to knock off EWU and its high-scoring offense.

No. 9 St. Bonaventure over No. 8 LSU: The Bonnies may not be as deep or athletic, but they are battle-tested. SBU keeps the score down and advances.

No. 5 Creighton over No. 12 UC Santa Barbara: This one will be a battle, but Marcus Zegarowski and the Bluejays find a way late against a talented Gaucho roster.

No. 6 USC over No. 11 Drake: It’s still unclear how the Bulldogs found a way to beat Wichita State, but their dream season comes to an end against Evan Mobley’s Trojans.

No. 7 UConn over No. 10 Maryland: The Huskies are 11–3 this year with James Bouknight, and they’ll ride their dynamic wing scorer into the second round.

No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia: This would be a tough matchup for Virginia even if it wasn’t coming off COVID-19 pause. Jason Preston will be the best player on the floor.

No. 6 BYU over No. 11 UCLA: The Bruins will make it interesting if Johnny Juzang can play, but the sharpshooting Cougars find a way. They’ve lost to one team not named Gonzaga since early December for a reason.

Crystal Ball

Grant McCasland’s name will be a hot one in coaching rumors this year and beyond. He’s an accomplished program builder who just led North Texas to its first-ever men's NCAA tournament win, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have spent time under Scott Drew at Baylor. McCasland’s teams are elite defensively, adopting a similar “no-middle” system to the one Chris Beard has deployed with great success at Texas Tech. The win over Purdue was icing on the cake for an already-impressive résumé. —Kevin Sweeney

At the Buzzer

This video by Oregon's Sedona Prince illuminating the NCAA tournaments' men's and women's weight room disparities, which has gone viral to the tune of more than 500k likes and 170k retweets and counting on Twitter, is from late Thursday night, but it bears repeating for anyone that missed it. Kudos to the women's players for speaking out about this. —Molly Geary