What to watch for on the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament

NCAA tournament sleeper picks (1:20)

Bruce Pearl and Seth Greenberg break down their sleeper teams picks for the NCAA tournament. (1:20)

The first Thursday of the 2016 NCAA tournament has a hard act — actually, two hard acts — to follow.

The first of these is, of course, the 2015-16 season itself. No season in college basketball history has been quantifiably crazier than this one: 74 top-10 losses, 37 top-five upsets, seven losses by the No. 1 team — all of which were the most since the Associated Press began tracking the poll in 1948-49. The regular season is supposed to be orderly and understandable as a prelude to an insane postseason. In 2015-16, the regular season got a head start.

As if that didn’t set the bar high enough, Thursday’s opening action also has last March’s first Thursday to live up to. The 2015 NCAA tournament opened with nine games decided by five or fewer points and five games decided by just one point — matching the one-point games in every round of the 2013 and 2014 tournaments combined.

It was awesome. It also was a hard act to follow. No one knows what this Thursday has in store. But we do have some ideas — teams, players and stories worth tracking as you make your final preparations for our latest national holiday of hoops:

Georges Niang and Iowa State are looking to make up for last year’s early exit. Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

Can Iowa State redeem itself? A year ago, the No. 3-seeded Cyclones opened the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament with an early-afternoon start against No. 14 seed UAB. The 60-59 loss kicked off an unforgettable day of close games; it also sent a very good, veteran team into an offseason that would be spent mostly thinking about how it had to avenge that defeat in the season to come. Now Iowa State is here again, in the early afternoon on the first Thursday of the tournament, playing a double-digit seed, this time against an opponent, Iona, that is (apparently, anyway) not only tougher than the Blazers but almost stylistically identical to Iowa State in its desire to push the pace. Senior Georges Niang returned to Ames last summer in part because he refused to let a lackluster first-round upset be his last game as a Cyclone. Can his team finally close that loop?

Obviously, UConn is winning the national title. Speaking of parallels to the past: In 2013-14, after a mostly average season, the Shabazz Napier-led Huskies took a disastrous late-season blowout loss on the road (81-48 to Louisville) before rebounding with a strong conference-tournament push. In 2015-16, after a mostly average season, the Huskies took a disastrous late-season blowout loss on the road (80-54 to SMU) before rebounding with a strong conference-tournament (title) push. Is there any doubt No. 9 seed Connecticut — which tips at 1:30 p.m. ET against overseeded No. 8 Colorado — is winning the national title this season? We’re only half-joking.

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Upset alerts. On Tuesday night, Wichita State showed why the gap between its résumé and its eventual NCAA tournament seed was going to make the life of some “favorite” difficult. That favorite is No. 6-seeded Arizona, which may well be the Shockers’ (and the committee’s) next victim. … No. 12 seed Yale has spent much of the week discussing the controversy around dismissed captain Jack Montague; less discussed is how well the Bulldogs’ fundamentals will play out against No. 5 Baylor — from geography (Providence, Rhode Island) to matchup style (Yale slows the pace and rebounds at both ends extremely well, which could be a huge boost against the offensive-rebound-reliant Bears) to sheer bracket inertia (as a 12-seed) make them one of the more enticing upset candidates in the field. … Then there’s No. 11 seed Gonzaga, which hardly had a banner season but nonetheless faces a favorable opposing frontcourt in hot No. 6-seed Seton Hall.

And, last but not least …

Will Indiana and Kentucky take care of business? Now that we’ve spent the past three days loudly wondering what on earth the selection committee was thinking with this bracket — and seriously, guys, what happened? — we can move on to one of their best mistakes. Which is to say: It’s borderline inhumane that a UK team playing lights-out basketball for the past month and an Indiana team that won the Big Ten title outright should have to meet in a single-elimination game in the second round of the tournament. It’s also — and don’t tell the committee we said this — kind of amazing. First, though, both teams have to handle openers against Stony Brook and Chattanooga, respectively.


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