A Lightning Quick Guide to the First Round of March Madness: THURSDAY GAMES

Let’s not waste your time with some introduction paragraph that you’ll skim past anyway. The best sporting event in the world starts in a matter of days. There’s no time for pleasantries or preparation.

Ready or not, 32 college basketball games commence Thursday at noon (ET) until you pass out from exhaustion Friday night.

Then we get to wake up to eight more on Saturday, but more on that in the future.

For now, let’s tackle the 16 games on tap for Thursday, hitting the most important matchups and facts for each.

A quick aside for those of you thinking, “Wait, Shane. I used to see posts like this on this blog all the time. I didn’t see many this season. What the hell?”

It’s a fair question, dear reader. I have been posting less here at PB HQ, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing about college basketball. I am a contributor to multiple other outlets where you can find my work all basketball season long.

I write a ton of gambling-focused (but not gambling exclusive) content for The Action Network. I was once again on Joe Lunardi’s team for bracket breakdowns at ESPN. There’s others as well. Follow @OnTheShaneTrain on Twitter for all my work.

(8) Maryland vs. (9) West Virginia (CBS, 12:15 PM ET)

Some of the 8 vs. 9 games every year are fantastic matchups between teams that can play at a really high level but have interesting flaws. Others leave a bad taste in your mouth, before tip-off even begins.

This one falls into the latter camp.

West Virginia doesn’t quite play the full-court “Press Virginia”-style defense as much as it once did. The headliner for this team is Eric Stevenson, playing at his fourth school in four years. Iowa transfer Joe Toussaint is fun, sort of.

Maryland is equally blasé, which is a word I had to Google after three failed attempts to spell it.  Maryland plays slow and ugly. Maybe the Terps are finally assimilated to Big Ten life.

I can’t believe they put this game first. It will quickly take a backseat on my TV rotation.

(13) Furman vs. (4) Virginia (TruTV, 12:40 PM ET)

via Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Now we’re talking. Furman has a real chance to win this game. The Paladins gave Penn State hell early this season and beat South Carolina by 19. Furman got boat-raced by NC State, but the Wolfpack could not offer a more different challenge from Virginia.

The Cavaliers continue to play a glacially slow pace, providing a wide open door for Cinderella to sneak in. Slower pace means fewer possessions and a smaller sample size for Virginia’s advantages, as few as they may be, to present themselves.

But we’re also talking about a Virginia team that is just 4-3 in its last seven, with the two games prior to than span being single possession wins over terrible Notre Dame and Louisville teams.

Tony Bennett is a great coach with his hands full here. His Pack Line defense looks to force jump shots from the perimeter, which Furman loves. The Dins want to move the ball to find layups or 3s. This year, it’s worked. Furman shot the best 2-point percentage in all of college hoops and made the 20th most 3s in the nation.

The Hoos are on upset alert.

(10) Utah State vs. (7) Missouri (TNT, 1:40 PM ET)

Speaking of teams that want to unload a bunch of 3s: say hello, Utah State. The Aggies want to spread you out and bombard from beyond the arc. Leading scorer Steven Ashworth has chucked 237 shots from deep this season and hit 44 percent of them, proving him one of the best shooters in the nation.

Utah State’s downtown attack worked for the most part against a schedule that grades out well analytically but features exactly zero power conference opponents.

Enter Missouri, a real SEC team with some dudes. Kobe Brown will be a problem in the paint in this game.

If you could provide me one stat from this weekend’s games in advance for me to then use to gamble with that knowledge, I’m asking what Utah State shot from deep here. If the Aggies get hot, it’s hard to see Mizzou using its physical advantages enough to overcome that shooting spree. If the Aggies go cold, the Tigers could slowly build a big lead here.

(16) Howard vs. (1) Kansas (TBS, 2:00 PM ET)

Do you think there is a real person in our reality named “Howard Kansas”? If so, will he watch this game?

Hello, Howard. Enjoy the Jayhawks winning by half-a-hundred.

(16) Texas A&M-Corpus Christi vs. (1) Alabama (CBS, 2:45 PM ET)

Have you seen TAMUCC’s campus?

That entire island (or is it an isthmus?) is this university. That’s cool!

Alabama beat LSU by 50 this season. This one could use a mercy rule.

(12) Charleston vs. (5) San Diego State (TruTV, 3:10 PM ET)

Pat Kelsey has done an absolutely marvelous job building a program at Charleston. I, as a Boston College graduate and college basketball maniac, am legally required to complain about Pat Kelsey every time I see his name or face. Why? Because two years ago, BC hired Earl Grant, then the coach of Charleston. Grant is fine.

Charleston turned around and hired Kelsey, who was doing great things at Winthrop. Boston College hired Charleston’s coach and then said “OK, whatever” and hired a better coach. Infuriating.

Anyway, Kelsey’s Cougars are getting plenty of buzz as an upset possibility here. I buy it, if Charleston can shoot the lights out, but otherwise I worry about the Cougars interior defense. Against North Carolina in November, Charleston tried to play track meet, scoring 86 points, but allowed Armando Bacot to dominate the paint, posting 28 of Carolina’s 102 points that day.

San Diego State doesn’t have that kind of big man (few do), but Matt Bradley can physically dominate in the mid-range. I expect a big game from him that Charleston will need to offset with its 3-balls on the other end.

One item in Chucktown’s favor: this game is down the road in Orlando. The Aztecs had to fly 3,000 miles to play in front of a potentially pro-Cougar crowd.

(15) Princeton vs. (2) Arizona (TNT, 4:10 PM ET)

I’ve seen people trying to squint to see a path to Princeton competing her and I just don’t buy it. Princeton’s best player Toson Evbuomwan succeeds in the Ivy League because of the athletic advantages he has over other players in the conference.

He won’t have those against Arizona.

The Wildcats will have some tough choices regarding how to guard Evbuomwan, without needing to overhelp off Princeton’s shooters on the wings, but Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd has enough options to find something that works over 40 minutes of game time.

Besides, scoring for the Wildcats on the other end should look like a lawn mower taking down some overgrown weeds. Oumar Ballo is too powerful inside and Courtney Ramey should be able to create off the dribble against any Tiger defender.

(9) Illinois vs. (8) Arkansas (TBS, 4:30 PM ET)

Love this game. The exact opposite of the crummy West Virginia-Maryland game.

Lots to enjoy here. Both coaches are sideline psychopaths. Both teams have really interesting offensive pieces and high ceilings on the defensive end. NBA Draft prospects dot each roster.

Nick Smith Jr. will likely be the first Razorback drafted in June, though I’m more intrigued by Anthony Black, both as a draft prospect and as a meaningful college player. He’s way too big and skilled for college teams to figure out how to defend him without some major game-plan shifting. Black is a 6-foot-7 point guard, who can be a game-changing talent when he seems to grasp how to use his size to get to the spots to make plays for teammates. Too often his body is a step ahead of his brain, leading to some turnover issues.

If he can clean that up in this game and play a great one against Kansas, you’ll start to hear a lot more about him leading up to the draft.

(9) Auburn vs. (8) Iowa (TNT, 6:50 ET)

Ugh, no.

Iowa can’t defend. Auburn can’t score.

When Iowa has the ball, this game might seem fun for little glimpses. Kris Murray is a blossoming star, following in his brother Keegan’s footsteps, and Auburn’s Johni Broome is a great defender with a chance to really flummox Murray.

When Auburn has the ball, on the other hand, maybe look around your house. See if there’s any little projects that need a minute of your time. Maybe grab a drink. Hit the bathroom. Order dinner. That kind of thing.

I lean Auburn, simply because the game is in Birmingham.

(12) Oral Roberts vs. (5) Duke (CBS, 7:10 PM ET)

Game of the day, in my book. The TV execs nailed this one, putting it on the big network to open the primetime window.

Duke is coming on strong, which maybe we should have seen coming from a team that’s made up entirely of freshmen and transfers, playing for a first-year, first-time head coach. At the same time, this is a fairly low-ceiling Duke team that failed to really make its mark in the ACC, when the conference had its worst year in decades.

Oral Roberts still has most of the core of its Sweet Sixteen team from 2021, but this time the Eagles get to enjoy the NCAA Tournament with fans in the crowd. That will be a treat more for the fans that get to see Max Abmas in action. He’s one of the best pure scorers in the country, a maestro in the pick and roll.

You may remember him dominating Ohio State in 2021, running pick and pop over and over with big man Kevin Obanor. After that run, Obanor transferred up to Texas Tech and had a nice career.

Abmas has a new pick and pop buddy, Connor Vanover. The Arkansas transfer has sunk 43 threes this year, many off the pick and pop with Abmas. That’s particularly notable because Vanover is 7-foot-5!

He will test Duke’s freshman big men over and over again. Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills is not scared to go back to something as long as it works, possibly making for a long night for Duke’s bigs.

Oral Roberts may not win this game, but like a Bond villain, even in a loss, they’ll make things wildly entertaining.

(15) Colgate vs. (2) Texas (TBS, 7:25 PM ET)

I feel similarly about Colgate’s chances as I do about Princeton’s shot at an upset, with one notable difference.

Both will be physically undermanned. Both will get killed on the glass and in transition.

But Colgate is the best 3-point shooting team in the country. Full stop. End of sentence.

Over the past two seasons, Colgate wings Oliver Lynch-Daniels and Ryan Moffat have taken 486 threes combined. They have made 236 of those attempts, which is 49 percent.

It’s a lot easier to run offense with those guys standing at 24 feet ready to fire.

If Colgate gets liquid hot, the Raiders can hang around. Otherwise, there’s just no path to sticking close to Texas.

(10) Boise State vs. (7) Northwestern (TruTV, 7:35 PM ET)

The Mountain West Conference, despite having a host of memorable players and teams in recent years, has consistently underperformed in the Big Dance.

This Boise State team does bring some critical non-conference success, with three power conference wins including tourney-bound Texas A&M.

This game features two top 15 defenses and could be a rock fight, though it should be close with big shotmakers on each side able to play hero. Boise State’s Marcus Shaver and Northwestern’s Boo Buie are both prime candidates to take over in crunch time.

(16) Northern Kentucky vs. (1) Houston (TNT, 9:20 PM ET)

Biggest thing to watch for here: Marcus Sasser’s health. Does he play or sit? Does he play limited minutes or a normal amount of run? If he does play, does he seem hampered?

Answering those questions are critical for Houston’s path home for the Final Four.

(13) Louisiana vs. (4) Tennessee (CBS, 9:40 PM ET)

Two reasons to think the Ragin’ Cajuns have a chance here.

First, Tennessee will really miss injured point guard Zakai Zeigler. The Vols lost two of three games since his injury and appeared to sorely miss him on both ends of the floor.

Second, there is an avalanche of shooting regression set to kick in for this Vols’ defense. Tennessee’s opponents this season have made just 26.2 percent from long range, comfortably the lowest in the country. The Vols have a good defense and close out on shooters, but that number is simply unsustainable. Part of the issue comes from playing in the SEC, which shot the worst collective 3-point percentage of any conference in America. When the Vols run into some teams with real shooting talent, look out.

Louisiana doesn’t take a ton of 3s, but makes the ones it tries, hitting a top 50 percentage from long range nationally. That could be enough to spark the Cajuns offense and chip away at a Tennessee defense that isn’t the same without Zeigler.

(10) Penn State vs. (7) Texas A&M (TBS, 9:55 PM ET)

Hate the late start time for what should be one of the better games of the day.

I’m really bullish on Texas A&M, despite the fact that SEC teams are potentially in for a rude awakening as they get matched up with teams who can actually shoot, instead of playing the chuck-it-and-run style they saw in conference all year.

Of the teams in the SEC, the Aggies may be best suited for tournament play. They remind me of the South Carolina team that made the Final Four in 2017. Tough defense, good coach, and a lead guard who can get a bucket in Wade Taylor.

Penn State could certainly beat the Aggies with its brand 0f “booty ball”. That’s the term Illinois coach Brad Underwood grumbled to reporters after losing to the Nittany Lions. Jalen Pickett is the offending party, leading the Penn State offense via his methodical backdowns into the paint, reminiscent of Mark Jackson in the 90s or Jalen Brunson’s time at Villanova. Pickett is such a good passer and understands the spacing on the floor perfectly.

A&M counters with one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation, Dexter Dennis. If you’re up late enough to see it, this should be a chessboxing match worth your eyeballs’ attention.

(15) UNC-Asheville vs. (2) UCLA (TruTv, 10:05 PM ET)

Another game I wish was earlier. Put Maryland-West Virginia last! That game will be like extra strength Ambien.

Anyway, UNC-Asheville has a chance here. If you’re a bettor, I’d recommend the Bulldogs getting a big number.

UCLA has caught the injury bug in a big way. Jaylen Clark is out for the season and big man Adem Bona is hobbled, with a chance to miss this game or be less than 100 percent.

This is not the right team to play when missing key pieces of your frontcourt. UNCA is led by Drew Pember, a Tennessee transfer and one of the best scorers in the country. No one is drawing fouls at a higher rate than Pember. He’s taken 40 more free throws than any other player in the country and, thanks to his 83 percent shooting, he’s made 43 more than anyone else.

Pember dropped 40 against UCF and had the nation’s highest scoring game this season, 48 against Presbyterian.

Here’s the cold-water on the hype-train: UNCA played one game against tourney-level competition, a 34 point loss to Arkansas in which Pember had just five points.


Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, The Action Network, Betway Insider, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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