With games on all day and night on four different channels, everyone knows that the first two days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are some of the best in the entire sports year. With the First Four completed on Tuesday and Wednesday, things start for real on Thursday afternoon as No. 12 Princeton meets No. 5 Notre Dame in Buffalo, New York, at 12:15 p.m. on CBS in the opener. The Tigers (23-6) went 14-0 in the Ivy League then survived overtime versus Penn and they beat Yale in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament (four teams). Overall, they have won 19 games in a row. The Irish (25-9) seem to be peaking at the right time as they advanced to the ACC Tournament championship game before losing to Duke (27-8). At least one 12-seed is always a good bet to pick up a win so don’t be shocked if Princeton at least makes Notre Dame sweat.
The No. 1 seed in the West, Gonzaga (32-1), tips off against No. 16 South Dakota State (18-16) in Salt Lake City, Utah, at 2 p.m. on TBS. It looked like the Bulldogs might have the albatross of an unbeaten record coming into the tournament before a late season loss to BYU. It’s tough to count on Gonzaga though, since not only was the West Coast Conference particularly weak this year outside of them and St. Mary’s (28-4) but they have never reached a Final Four in program history. Could this finally be their time?
Not since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has a team won back-to-back national championships, but many think that Villanova (31-3), the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, can do it out of the East region. They begin in Buffalo (7:10, CBS) with a matchup against No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s (20-15) who edged New Orleans (20-12) 67-66 on Tuesday in the First Four. The Wildcats boast senior shooting guard Josh Hart (18.9 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game), sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 points per game, 4.2 assists per game) and senior small forward Kris Jenkins (13.4 points per game) who beat North Carolina for the title last season with his buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
No. 13 Vermont (29-5), champions of America East, is an intriguing team since they come in riding the longest win streak in the country (21 games). They’ll meet No. 4 Purdue (25-7) who is generally regarded as the best team in the Big 10 (which was very down this year). If history is any indication, the Catamounts have a chance since they were also a 13-seed when they knocked off No. 4 Syracuse in 2005, the signature win in school history.
America fell in love with No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) in 2013 when they reached the Sweet 16. Dunk City is back in the tournament for the second straight year and they get to face No. 3 Florida State (25-8) in Orlando (9:20 p.m., TNT). Last season they crushed Fairleigh Dickinson in the First Four before losing to No. 1 seed North Carolina. Beware the athletic and high-flying Eagles, that’s why the Seminoles will be a trendy pick for a higher seed to go down in their first game.
Follow Metro Boston sportswriter Richard Slate on Twitter: @RichSlate