Strap in. The action is about to begin. Now that we've trimmed the teams from 68 to a neat 64, the first round of the 2022 NCAA men's tournament is set to commence. Sixteen teams will take to courts in Buffalo, Fort Worth, Indianapolis on Thursday, but there are no guarantees on who will make it through to Saturday. Will 1-seeds Gonzaga, Baylor and Kansas survive? Will No. 2 seed Kentucky handle Saint Peter's and avoid the fate that befell 2-seed Ohio State against Oral Roberts in 2021? Which player will save his team from elimination and become a household name?
ESPN's college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi considered all those questions and made some predictions for the first round of March Madness.
All times Eastern
12:15 p.m.: 11 Michigan Wolverines vs. 6 Colorado State Rams, CBS
12:40 p.m.: 13 South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs. 4 Providence Friars, truTV
1:45 p.m.: 9 Memphis Tigers vs. 8 Boise State Broncos, TNT
2 p.m.: 16 Norfolk State Spartans vs. 1 Baylor Bears, TBS
2:45 p.m.: 14 Longwood Lancers vs. 3 Tennessee Volunteers, CBS
3:10 p.m.: 12 Richmond Spiders vs. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes, truTV
4:15 p.m.: 16 Georgia State Panthers vs. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, TNT
4:30 p.m.: 9 Marquette Golden Eagles vs. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels, TBS
6:50 p.m.: 12 New Mexico State Aggies vs. 5 UConn Huskies, TNT
7:10 p.m.: 15 Saint Peter's Peacocks vs. 2 Kentucky Wildcats, CBS
7:20 p.m.: 12 Indiana Hoosiers vs. 5 Saint Mary's Gaels, TBS
7:27 p.m.: 9 Creighton Bluejays vs. 8 San Diego State Aztecs, truTV
9:20 p.m.: 13 Vermont Catamounts vs. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks, TNT
9:40 p.m.: 10 San Francisco Dons vs. 7 Murray State Racers, CBS
9:50 p.m.: 13 Akron Zips vs. 4 UCLA Bruins, TBS
9:57 p.m.: 16 Texas Southern Tigers vs. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, truTV
How many upsets do you have in Thursday's 16 NCAA tournament games, and which one are you feeling best about landing?
Medcalf: By seed, I don't see many upsets. I think most of the higher seeds will win on Thursday. My upset possibilities are largely the ones that are trending. I feel most confident about 13-seed South Dakota State beating 4-seed Providence. Ed Cooley's team did a remarkable job on its way to the Big East regular season championship, but the Friars are up against a South Dakota State squad that has shot 44% from 3, and last lost a game 10 days before Christmas. Also, if the Jackrabbits win, they get a shot at Iowa. There's a regional David vs. Goliath thing going on there, and I expect them to be extremely motivated going into this afternoon in anticipation of facing a Big Ten team -- featuring a bunch of guys they all faced on the AAU and high school circuits -- in the second round.
From there, I think Michigan can limit Colorado State's second-chance opportunities and win as an 11-seed that somehow didn't have to play in the First Four. And then I'll cheat and go with the 9 over 8 upset, Memphis beating Boise State. I think Memphis lost to Houston in the AAC title game on Sunday only because it was too fatigued after having made a tremendous turnaround over the past few months. But you don't want to face Jalen Duren and a bunch of versatile, bouncy athletes who can get up and down the floor and build up a big lead early. I think the Tigers advance there.
Borzello: By seed, I think we will have three -- two 9s over 8s, and then my biggest upset pick of the day: South Dakota State over Providence. It's a fairly popular upset pick, as far as 13-seeds go, but it makes sense for a number of reasons. South Dakota State is an elite, elite shooting team. The Jackrabbits are the best 3-point shooting team in the country. They'll have the best NBA prospect on the floor in Baylor Scheierman. Providence's defense hasn't been overwhelming down the stretch of the season, allowing three of its last seven opponents to score at least 1.20 points per possession. The Friars have a propensity to play close games, regardless of opponent, and I think South Dakota State's shooting ability gives it the edge.
Gasaway: In the interest of making this interesting I'll steer clear of 8-9 games and I'll even take a pass on No. 11 Michigan over No. 6 Colorado State, though the Wolverines are favored on paper. Where's the fun in picking a "Big Ten over Mountain West" upset? Instead, I'll go one seed line down with a 12-5 "Big Ten over West Coast Conference" shocker! I'll take Indiana over Saint Mary's. Yes, the Gaels forced Drew Timme into 2-of-10 shooting in their win at home over Gonzaga, but Trayce Jackson-Davis is on an incredible roll. Plus he has plenty of help, and I really like IU in a matchup of its D against the SMC offense. It won't be easy, but the Hoosiers could win a close one here.
Lunardi: Sadly, I only have one. And it goes in the same basket as my colleagues: South Dakota State over Providence. I think we're all expecting the inevitable dip in the Friars' late-game results, and the nation's top 3-point shooting team -- as well as its leader in KenPom's effective field goal percentage -- is poised to do the deed. In my immediate bracket reaction, I also had Michigan beating Colorado State (11 over 6) and San Francisco taking our Murray State (10 over 7). But with the Wolverines losing point guard DeVante' Jones to a concussion and the Dons still without center Yauhen Massalski (knee), I'm switching back to the favorites in those contests.
Which team (or coach) is facing the most pressure heading into Thursday's games?
Borzello: I don't know if it's necessarily pressure, but I do think Fran McCaffery will get some blowback if Iowa doesn't get out of the first weekend. The Hawkeyes are playing as well as any team in the country right now, winning 12 of their last 14 games and the Big Ten tournament, but they still only received a 5-seed. McCaffery has advanced to the second round in each of his last four NCAA tournaments, but has never been out of the first weekend as a head coach. That includes last season's second-round loss as a 2-seed. Iowa has some Final Four hype due to its recent form and the presence of Wooden Award candidate Keegan Murray, and I think it would be viewed as a disappointment if the Hawkeyes don't get to the Sweet 16.
Medcalf: I think Juwan Howard is facing the most pressure. His team started the season as a top-five squad in the AP poll and ended the regular season as a team that didn't have any guarantees. Many were disappointed when Michigan was placed into the bracket without a First Four game. The drama with Wisconsin's Greg Gard is in the past. But that's the kind of thing that will come up the entire offseason if the Wolverines lose in the first round. With a win, Howard can remind folks that he's a good coach who continues to bring elite players to Ann Arbor, and continue to put that drama behind him. With a loss to a Mountain West squad, even though Michigan is the lower seed, I think people will call this season a disaster that Howard created, and one he must fix entering next year.
Gasaway: Since 1975 the answer to any question with the words "most pressure" has been UCLA. I expect the Bruins to advance against Akron, and in fact Mick Cronin's team is the overwhelming favorite. If lighting should strike, however, and if the 13-4 madness were to materialize, the recriminations would be swift. We humans have difficulties acknowledging quixotic rarities in our sports occurrences by saying, "Goodness! What a quixotic rarity that was!" Instead, we search for a logical explanation where there may not be one. That is factory-installed pressure for UCLA.
Lunardi: I'll take "quixotic realities" for $200, Alex. In the meantime, my answer is Ed Cooley of Providence. The narrative, rightly or wrongly, is that the Friars have been "lucky" even more than they've been good. It's not a fair characterization in the aggregate, but there have been games where some good fortune has certainly tilted in their direction. A loss to South Dakota State, which is very possible because of the Jackrabbits' strength (as opposed to Providence shortcomings), could invalidate the Friars' great season in the eyes of their skeptics.
What do you consider Thursday's most intriguing matchup?
Gasaway: Vermont against Arkansas, one of the most accurate shooting teams in Division I against one of the best defenses. True, there's a solid chance the Razorbacks will just be too much to handle for an America East team. This could be one of those scores you see in the corner of the screen and think, "Well, I don't need to switch to that game." Still, there's some modest disagreement between laptops over just how solid that chance is. This kind of evaluative diversity can on occasion flag surprises in advance.
Borzello: Like Gasaway, I'm very intrigued by Vermont vs. Arkansas, another popular upset pick. I think the Razorbacks are too athletic and versatile for Vermont, though. So I'll go with Indiana and Saint Mary's. The Hoosiers did enough in the Big Ten tournament to go dancing, and then knocked off Wyoming on Tuesday. Saint Mary's had a headline win over Gonzaga in February that propelled the Gaels to a 5-seed, but Indiana won't be a pushover for Randy Bennett's team. I think the big key will be whether Saint Mary's can score consistently at the rim. The Gaels' guards prefer to attack off the bounce and make plays in the paint, but Indiana defends 2-pointers as well as any team in the field.
Medcalf: I like Marquette versus North Carolina with a pair of first-year head coaches who can help their respective causes with a win. Shaka Smart arrived at Marquette as the guy who hadn't fully met expectations in Texas and had not led the Longhorns to the second round during his time there. But a win in the opening round would set the stage for his future at Marquette, where it appears he can build a top-tier Big East squad. And Hubert Davis had an up-and-down season that was stamped by his team's win over Duke in the regular season finale. There were some doubters entering that game. But he changed a lot of minds that night. If he can lead UNC to the second round, he'll draw more believers. This game could be tremendous, and it could be ugly. But I think it will be fun. Expect Justin Lewis and Armando Bacot to carry their teams.
Lunardi: Give me Indiana and Saint Mary's. Playing the Gaels is essentially a math problem. Can a team score efficiently enough in limited possessions to make up for Saint Mary's almost never taking a bad shot? Even if it means fewer shots for both teams? It's a tough assignment in the best of times. For the Hoosiers, playing a hard-fought game 2,000 miles away less than 48 hours earlier is obviously sub-optimal.
Name one player who will be a household name after Thursday's games.
Gasaway: Douglas Wilson. The South Dakota State star will have gone toe-to-toe in the paint with Nate Watson of Providence in what will have been yet another close game involving the Friars. Who knows, should the Jackrabbits pull off the upset the 6-7 senior could even follow in the footsteps of a Plains hoops sensation from yesteryear and be labeled "Dougie."
Medcalf: Tevin Brown was a freshman on Ja Morant's Murray State squad that beat Marquette and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2019. Now he's the junior leader of the team, and he's averaging 16.9 PPG and connecting on 39% of his 3-point attempts this season. I think Brown will have a big night against San Francisco and show everyone that he's more than Morant's former teammate.
Borzello: Baylor Scheierman. He might already be known by college hoops diehards after winning Summit League Player of the Year honors this season, but he's going to need to be the star if South Dakota State is going to beat Providence. He's 6-foot-6, has elite NBA range (shot 49% from 3 in Summit play), is a terrific passer and keeps defenders guessing with his ability to create his own shot.
Lunardi: Tommy Kuhse. The Saint Mary's point guard is in his sixth year for coach Randy Bennett, and his control of tempo and patient shot-making is what allowed the Gaels to knock off No. 1 Gonzaga in their regular-season finale. Expect more of the same on Thursday and beyond.