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The March Madness First-Round Viewing Guide

A breakdown of all the games you need to watch—and maybe a few you can skip

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It’s finally here! After a full season of build-up and a few less-than-stellar games earlier this week (we won’t fault you for skipping Radford–LIU-Brooklyn), the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament has arrived. Over the next two days, there are sure to be plenty of upsets, a few close calls, and maybe a buzzer-beater or two. But with 32 matchups coming in a 48-hour stretch and a number of them overlapping, it can be hard to know what to watch. Thankfully, The Ringer has you covered. Here are the best first-round games to put on your television, and a few more you can probably skip over.

Get ready. The Madness is about to begin.

Tier 5: You Know Who’s Winning

No. 2 Duke vs. no. 15 Iona, Thursday, 2:45 p.m. ET

Yes, Duke has blown a 2-vs.-15 matchup before. And it blew a 3-vs.-14 game, too. But one of these teams has Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. and the other doesn’t.

No. 1 Villanova vs. no. 16 Radford, Thursday, 6:50 p.m. ET

Radford eked out a big win over LIU-Brooklyn in the First Four to make it here. The last two times the team has played in the NCAA tournament, it lost in the first round. It’ll extend its streak to three. Watch this only if you want to see what it’d look like if Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges played against a high school team.

No. 2 Purdue vs. no. 15 Cal State, Fullerton, Friday, 12:40 p.m. ET

Purdue is the second-best 3-point shooting team in the country. Its starting center, Isaac Haas, is 7-foot-2 and weighs 290 pounds. The tallest player in Cal State Fullerton’s most-used first line over the past five games is 6-foot-7. I’m sorry, Danny Chau.

No. 2 North Carolina vs. no. 15 Lipscomb, Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET

The defending champion may not be what it was last season, but Joel Berry II, Luke Maye, and Theo Pinson are more than capable of turning this into a blowout.

No. 3 Michigan State vs. no. 14 Bucknell, Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET

Bucknell has pulled off a big tournament upset before, beating third-seeded Kansas in the first round in 2005, and the Bison won the Patriot League this year, but Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges give the Spartans more firepower than they’ve had in decades. And betting against Tom Izzo in March is unwise.

No. 1 Xavier vs. no. 16 Texas Southern, Friday, 7:20 p.m. ET

After dispatching North Carolina Central, Texas Southern enters the tournament as KenPom’s lowest-rated remaining team. Its prize? A Xavier squad hellbent on finally breaking through to a Final Four. That the Tigers have made it this far despite having a losing record is remarkable, but they’re not likely to be around much longer.

No. 1 Virginia vs. no. 16 UMBC, Friday, 9:20 p.m. ET

Virginia took a hit on Tuesday when it was announced that its sixth man, De’Andre Hunter, would miss the tournament with a broken wrist. That might affect the Hoos’ chances down the road in a Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky or Arizona, but it shouldn’t hurt them much here.

Tier 4: It Would Take a Miracle

No. 3 Tennessee vs. no. 14 Wright State, Thursday, 12:40 p.m. ET

More like Wrong State, amirite?

Sorry, sorry, I’m trying to delete it. With Tennessee, Rick Barnes is making his way back to the tournament for the first time since 2015. Here’s hoping his team does better this time around.

No. 4 Gonzaga vs. no. 13 UNC Greensboro, Thursday, 1:30 p.m. ET

The Bulldogs nearly won it all last season, and while Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins are no longer around to carry the load, Gonzaga still has Jonathan Williams and Josh Perkins. UNC Greensboro won more games this season than ever before, and for Spartans fans, that might have to be enough.

No. 1 Kansas vs. no. 16 Penn, Thursday, 2 p.m. ET

No 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. Everyone knows that. But no 16-seed has ever been as good as the University of Pennsylvania. The Ivy League champs are ranked 128th by KenPom—higher than every other 16-seed, a few 15-seeds, and a 14. I’m not saying they’re going to end the 16-seed losing streak. I’m just saying there’s a chance.

No. 2 Cincinnati vs. no. 15 Georgia State, Friday, 2:00 p.m. ET

Cincinnati may well be the worst no. 2 seed in the tournament, but that shouldn’t stop it from bulldozing Georgia State. Facing the second-best defense in the country, and a team that plays at one of the slowest paces of play, it will take a miracle for the Panthers to break 60 points.

No. 4 Auburn vs. no. 13 College of Charleston, Friday, 7:37 p.m. ET

College of Charleston gets its pockets picked at a lower rate than all but one team in the country. That kind of ball security will be essential if it’s going to have any chance of toppling the Tigers. Unfortunately for the Colonial champs, Auburn is in the top 20 percent of teams in steals percentage, and its 16th-ranked offense is efficient enough to make this a blowout early.

Tier 3: Not The Worst Way to Spend a Few Hours

No. 5 Ohio State vs. no. 12 South Dakota State, Thursday, 4 p.m. ET

Keita Bates-Diop and the Buckeyes have had a tough go as of late, but as long as they don’t have to play Penn State [insert sound of Chris Holtmann sighing in relief] they shouldn’t have much trouble with the Jackrabbits. South Dakota State rarely turns the ball over, but Ohio State has the talent to go on a run.

No. 8 Seton Hall vs. no. 9 NC State, Thursday, 4:30 p.m. ET

Kevin Keatts has the Wolfpack running on all cylinders. NC State had an uphill battle to make the tournament after losing Dennis Smith Jr. to the draft last season, but Allerik Freeman and Omer Yurtseven helped knock off Duke and North Carolina and earn a bid to the Dance. Seton Hall standouts Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado could give the Wolfpack trouble, but NC State saw Marvin Bagley III and Cameron Johnson and lived to tell the tale, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t be able to get past the Pirates.

No. 3 Texas Tech vs. no. 14 Stephen F. Austin, Thursday, 7:27 p.m. ET

Keenan Evans, who dropped 17.5 points a night this season, is the best scorer the Red Raiders have had in more than a decade. And while Texas Tech will be heavily favored in this matchup, its cross-state opponents force a higher percentage of turnovers than any team in the country—something that could be an issue for a Raiders team that doesn’t exactly keep the ball on a string.

No. 4 Arizona vs. no. 13 Buffalo, Thursday, 9:40 p.m. ET

Arizona might be the most talented team in the country. Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins are a trio that can take over a game. Buffalo plays at the fifth-fastest pace in the nation, but giving the Wildcats more possessions might not be in their best interest.

No. 3 Michigan vs. no. 14 Montana, Thursday, 9:50 p.m. ET

The Wolverines have won nine in a row heading into the tournament, due, in large part, to a hot streak from deep. Michigan hasn’t attempted fewer than 19 3s in any game during its streak, and is shooting over 39 percent from beyond the arc in that span. Montana won the Big Sky this season, but it’s in the lower half of teams in defending the deep ball. Look for Michigan to take advantage of that.

No. 4 Wichita State vs. no. 13 Marshall, Friday, 1:30 p.m. ET

The Thundering Herd’s offensive scheme dictates they push the pace, but that strategy might not work against a Wichita State team that has the fourth-best offense in the country.

Tier 2: If You’ve Got Some Time

No. 6 Miami vs. no. 11 Loyola, Thursday, 3:10 p.m. ET

Miami is coming off an early loss in the ACC tournament, and its first-round matchup in the Dance isn’t kind. Loyola has won 17 of its past 18 games with its lone slip-up coming in a late-January barnburner against Bradley. The Ramblers have beaten top-tier opponents before, and while Lonnie Walker IV is an NBA lottery talent, he’ll need help from his supporting cast to move on to the next round.

No. 6 Houston vs. no. 11 San Diego State, Thursday, 7:20 p.m. ET

Houston has everything you could want from a mid-major team: a top-30 offense, a top-20 defense, a coach with a history of winning, and a go-to scorer. San Diego State looked dominant on its run to the Mountain West title, but its aversion to the deep ball could make this one tough if it falls into an early hole.

No. 7 Texas A&M vs. no. 10 Providence, Friday, 12:15 p.m. ET

No team with two NBA-quality forwards should be as inconsistent as Texas A&M has been this season. DJ Hogg and Robert Williams haven’t looked nearly as strong as expected this season, and the Aggies have suffered as a result. Still, their 12th-ranked defense could spell trouble for a Providence team that doesn’t exactly excel at racking up points.

No. 7 Arkansas vs. no. 10 Butler, Friday, 3:10 p.m. ET

Daniel Gafford is the second-most exciting thing about the Razorbacks this season. Though the freshman big man is the most enticing draft prospect at Arkansas, it’s Jaylen Barford who fills up the stat sheet most often. They’ll need as many points as they can get against a Butler team with a top-end offense and defense and a scorer like Kelan Martin running the show.

No. 8 Creighton vs. no. 9 Kansas State, Friday, 6:50 p.m. ET

Greg McDermott’s squad looked shaky in the regular season and lost to Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament. Still, Marcus Foster can be counted on to score in big moments, and though Kansas State has a well-rounded team, it doesn’t have that caliber of go-to guy.

No. 5 Clemson vs. no. 12 New Mexico State, Friday, 9:57 p.m. ET

Clemson quietly established itself as the fourth-best team in the country’s top league this season, beating North Carolina and pushing Duke and Virginia to their limits. Clemson guard Marcquise Reed is a joy to watch, but he and his backcourt partner Shelton Mitchell will have a tough time slowing down NMSU’s Zach Lofton.

Tier 1: Appointment Viewing

No. 7 Rhode Island vs. no. 10 Oklahoma, Thursday, 12:15 p.m. ET

Every game from here on out could be Trae Young’s last college showing. Oklahoma’s placement as a 10-seed raised some eyebrows after the Sooners went 2-8 in their past 10 games, and the team’s overreliance on its young star could get it into trouble against an experienced Rhode Island team. E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell give the Rams one of the best backcourts in the tournament, and they’re surely fuming after coming up just short last year in an upset bid against third-seeded Oregon.

No. 5 Kentucky vs. no. 12 Davidson, Thursday, 7:10 p.m. ET

Kentucky hit all the benchmarks to be named our Power Conference Sleeper of the year, but Calipari’s squad has a tough first-round matchup against Davidson. Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should give Kentucky enough size on the wings to bully Davidson, but the mid-major just knocked off Rhode Island to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, and we all know what happened the last time Davidson pulled off a big upset.

No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. no. 9 Alabama, Thursday, 9:20 p.m. ET

Collin Sexton has been electric over the past few weeks and carried an erratic Alabama team off the bubble and into the tournament. He’ll have to be even better for the Crimson Tide to beat the Hokies. Virginia Tech is one of the most balanced teams in the country, with all five starters averaging double-digit scoring, and no single player putting up more than 14 points a night. If Sexton’s support (looking at you, John Petty) can get hot, then this could be a tight one. If not, the game will still feature the best one-man show in college.

No. 6 Florida vs. no. 11 St. Bonaventure, Thursday, 9:57 p.m. ET

The Bonnies! St. Bonaventure is in the main field after beating UCLA on Tuesday. Every year since the First Four started in 2011, at least one participant has gone on to win a first-round game. To do that this March, St. Bonaventure will have to get through Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, and Florida’s king of clutch, Chris Chiozza.

No. 5 West Virginia vs. no. 12 Murray State, Friday, 4:00 p.m. ET

Bob Huggins has the Mountaineers looking their best just in time for the postseason. Breaking West Virginia’s press will be tough, but Jonathan Stark and Temetrius Morant give Murray State the skill in the backcourt to do it. Look for Mountaineer Jevon Carter to have a big game in his last NCAA tournament appearance.

No. 7 Nevada vs. no 10 Texas, Friday, 4:30 p.m. ET

Let’s start with this: Mo Bamba is very good at basketball. The Longhorns have the 10th-best defense in the country, and the freshman center is a big reason. He’s seventh in block percentage nationally, and his rebounding ability on the offensive glass gives Texas countless second chances. Nevada is favored here thanks to Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline, but all bets are off if the Longhorns can slow the game down to their preferred pace.

No. 6 TCU vs. no. 11 Syracuse, Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET

After a strong start to the season, TCU fell apart after entering the back half of its schedule, but managed to limp its way to a 6-seed. The Horned Frogs have one of the most efficient offenses in the country, but their lackluster defense could leave them open to an upset. Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense is among the best in the nation, and though the Orange struggle on offense, they pull down a higher percentage of their own misses than almost any other team. The team has made a Final Four run as a double-digit seed before. As long as the zone holds strong and Tyus Battle plays well, there’s no reason it can’t repeat history.

No. 8 Missouri vs. no. 9 Florida State, Friday, 9:50 p.m. ET

Michael Porter Jr. might be the most talented player in college basketball. His debut performance against Georgia wasn’t great, but he showed flashes of what might be to come. If Missouri wants any chance of taking down Florida State, it’ll need both Porter brothers at their best. The Seminoles went .500 in the ACC this season and picked up wins against Florida, North Carolina, Clemson, and Miami. They’ll be ready for a challenge.