Now that the field has been set, USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach examines the NCAA Tournament bracket and which teams have the best shot at making it to the Final Four.

Let the madness begin!

With all due respect to the participants in the First Four round, the opening Thursday of the NCAA tournament is widely viewed as the real beginning of the Big Dance. It’s the day that marks the start of the weekend when March Madness is at its most, well, mad. It’s the day when your carefully thought-out bracket predictions either take shape or get relegated to the recycling bin of history.

And, for true college hoops fans, it’s a 12-hour marathon of truly meaningful, win-or-go-home games.

REGION ANALYSIS: East | South | Midwest | West

THURSDAY MADNESS: Dissecting everything 

PLAYER MATCHUPS: 11 best in the tourney

BRACKET CHALLENGE: Make your selections

Given the sheer volume of games, it might be difficult for the casual fan to find the best matchups throughout the day. We’re here to help.

Obviously, you’ll want to pay attention to the scoreboard and react accordingly if a close finish is in the offing on another channel. But here are the ones that should be most worthy of your attention on the Thursday slate in order of appearance.

All times Eastern. 

1.) No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Princeton, West Region, 12:15 p.m. ET, CBS

The first tipoff of the day is an excellent place to start. The Fighting Irish earned their share of quality wins during their tough trek through the ACC. But the Tigers, who made a clean sweep of the Ivy League, are accustomed to winning and won’t be intimidated by the bright lights. If both teams get off to fast starts, it should be close throughout.

2.) No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee State, South Region, 4 p.m. ET, TNT

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders are much, much better than the team that stunningly knocked out Michigan State last season as a No. 15 seed. And marksman Giddy Potts is back for more as well for Cinderella favorite MTSU. But Big Ten coach of the year Richard Pitino will have his team ready. Minnesota point guard Nate Mason will be the best player on the court.

MINNESOTA: Success from last year’s failures 

THE SLIPPER FITS: 10 possible Cinderellas this year

3.) No. 5 Iowa State vs. No. 12 Nevada, Midwest Region, 9:57 p.m., TruTV

Both these teams are hot and the matchup pits two elite guards against each other with ISU’s Monte Morris and Nevada’s Marcus Marshall.

4.) No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt, West Region, 4:30 p.m. ET, TBS

Northwestern is easily the most talked-about rookie team in this year’s field, but the Wildcats have waited a long time for this opportunity and won’t want it to end with just one game. The Commodores, however, will be equally motivated to justify their inclusion in the tournament despite that 15 in the loss column.

5.) No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 UNC Wilmington, East Region, 12:40 p.m., truTV

Coach Tony Bennett orchestrates the nation’s best defense, limiting opponents to 55.6 points a game. Stopping the Seahawks’ C.J. Bryce (17.6 ppg) will be a priority.

6.) No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast, West Region, 9:20 p.m., TNT

This FGCU team still has the identity and swagger of Dunk City, but looks to have more of a sustained mid-major legacy behind coach Joe Dooley. The Seminoles had an impressive résumé but aren’t exactly peaking in March. Dwayne Bacon is a lethal player for FSU.

RELATED: This Dunk City squad wants its own legacy

7.) No. 4 Butler vs. No. 13 Winthrop, South Region, 1:30 p.m., TNT

Now residing in the big-name Big East Conference and strongly positioned in the top quadrant of the bracket, the Bulldogs want to avoid becoming someone else’s Cinderella story. Butler is sound on defense, but its methodical offense can bog down at times. A dynamic scorer always makes an underdog dangerous, and the Eagles have such a player in senior G Keon Johnson.

8.) No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 Vermont, Midwest Region, 7:27 p.m., truTV

Entering the tournament with the longest active winning streak doesn’t guarantee success, but Vermont should at least be confident it can compete as its level of competition takes a major step up. The Catamounts don’t have any individual who can match up with the Boilermakers’ star big man Caleb Swannigan, but they’re efficient and choose good shots.

9.) No. 4 Florida vs. No. 13 East Tennessee State, East Region, 3:10 p.m., truTV

The Gators’ defense will have its hands full in limiting the Buccaneers’ elite guard T.J. Cromer (19.1 ppg). But Michael White’s team will have an Orlando crowd to ride off of in its mission to fend off a Cinderella.

10.) No. 7 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 10 VCU, West Region, 7:20 p.m., TBS

The Gaels lost all three games to a really good Gonzaga team, which perhaps overshadowed how good they really are, which is certainly better than a No. 7 seed. The Rams still have a havoc-wreaking defense and high-energy offense under coach Will Wade, and will need to make Saint Mary’s uncomfortable to pull off an upset.

BREAKOUT STARS: Six players ready for spotlight

11. No. 6 Maryland vs. NO. 11 Xavier, West Region, 6:50 p.m., TNT

The Terrapins are led by mainstay point guard Melo Trimble, one of the best players in this tournament, and then coach Mark Turgeon has a pretty freshmen-laden roster. The Musketeers fought off the bubble after collapsing late while adjusting their identity with the loss of Edmond Sumner. Trevon Bluiett is an electric scorer for Xavier.

12.) No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech, East Region, 9:40 p.m., CBS

There are a couple other possibilities for surprises in the day’s final session, but this one seems most likely to produce a tight finish. Both these power-conference teams have been in their share of close contests already this year. The Badgers’ upperclassmen have plenty of tournament experience, but the scrappy Hokies shouldn’t be troubled by the big stage.

13.) No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 13 Bucknell, West Region, 2:45 p.m., CBS

The Mountaineers’ full-court pressing style could knock the Bison off their game, but two frontcourt players in Zach Thomas and Patriot League player of the year Nana Foulland could be the difference-makers.

14.) No. 1 Villanova vs. Mount St. Mary’s, East Region, 7:10 p.m., CBS

Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5 sparkplug point guard, gives the Mountaineers a shooter’s chance to pull off the biggest upset in tournament history, but most likely the defending national champions will be on their A game behind the potent scoring of guards Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson.


USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the NCAA tournament’s West region.

15.) No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 South Dakota State, West Region, 2 p.m., TBS

Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski are the stars of this ‘Zags team but it’ll take a collective defensive effort from Mark Few’s group to contain the best scorer in this tournament in big man Mike Daum (25.3 ppg). The ‘Zags have only lost one game and likely will be ready to keep their historic season going.

RELATED: Gonzaga, Arizona destined to meet, break each other’s hearts

ARIZONA: 7-footer Markkanen better than expected

16.) No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota, West Region, 9:50 p.m. ET, TBS

Since Allonzo Trier returned midseason, the Wildcats have looked like a title contender en route to capturing the Pac-12 tournament title. The Fighting Hawks have a big-time scorer in Quinton Hooker (19.1 ppg), who’ll they’ll need a huge performance from to keep this close.



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