The NCAA tournament has a new look this year, with a 68-team bracket and a matchup of First Four teams vying for spots in the main draw.
If you’re in a bracket that ignores that first batch of games, the tournament doesn’t really start until Thursday. For those who had to pick the First Four games, too, here’s hoping you’re not already behind in the standings.
Based on UNC Asheville’s 81-77 overtime victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in Tuesday’s bracket breaker, it figures to be a wild ride either way.
Yep, the madness is here and this March is filled with great teams, great players and some intriguing matchups.
To get you ready for the main event, here’s a rundown of what to look for:
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jimmer Fredette, BYU. When it comes to exciting players, this year’s tournament starts with The Jimmer. The nation’s leading scorer had 37 points in a double-overtime win over Florida last year and had 52 against New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament. Dude knows how to put on a show.
Kemba Walker, Connecticut. The dynamic guard opened the season by single-handedly carrying UConn to the Maui Invitational title and had a memorable five-game-in-five-days performance in the Big East tournament. King Kemba is the East Coast version of Jimmer — or is it the other way around?
Nolan Smith, Duke. The first player to lead the ACC in scoring and assists, he’s one of those players who’s hard to take your eyes off, he does so many things well.
Derrick Williams, Arizona. Flew under the radar a little playing out West, but is a dynamic player who can finish with either hand and is good for 1-2 highlight-reel dunks a game.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. Losing a national player of the year should have hurt the Buckeyes more than this. Ohio State did just fine without Evan Turner, thanks to this dynamic, beyond-his-years freshman.
Keith Benson, Oakland. Not many people know much about Benson because of where he plays, but this guy’s a legitimate NBA prospect who’s as athletic as any forward in the nation.
1-12 — Temple coach Fran Dunphy’s record in NCAA tournament games, worst among coaches with at least eight appearances.
175-1 — Odds for Memphis to win the national championship, worst among teams not lumped into the “field” category.
4 — Number of teams with bears for mascots: Belmont, Northern Colorado, Oakland, UCLA.
5 — Number of 14-loss teams, one fewer than the previous 26 years combined.
9 — Wins in a row by Butler, which was in danger of missing the tournament a year after getting to the title game.
11 — Bids by the Big East, most in the country.
14.5 — Rebounds per game by Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried, best in the country.
15 — Consecutive NCAA tournament appearances by defending national champion Duke.
21 — Years since Arkansas-Little Rock qualified for the NCAA tournament.
24.3 — Number of 3-point attempts per game by Louisville.
30 — Point spread between Ohio State and Alabama State, widest in the tournament.
320 — More shots than any of his teammates have taken by Kemba Walker, who’s cast up 632 so far this season.
2,800 — Approximate miles Washington has to travel to Charlotte for its opening game, the longest road trip in the bracket.
Memphis vs. Arizona, West Regional, Tulsa, Okla. Tigers coach Josh Pastner looked as if he’d be the heir apparent to Lute Olson at Arizona after spending four years playing there and serving as an assistant. Instead, he was passed over and ended up at Memphis. He’s said there’s no hard feelings, but it’s an interesting mix nonetheless.
Temple vs. Penn State, West Regional, Tucson, Ariz. Two schools close in proximity who rarely play each other head across the country to meet in a defensive dogfight in the desert. Makes sense.
Michigan State vs. UCLA, Southeast Regional, Tampa, Fla. Early in the season, the Spartans were a favorite to win the national title. After struggling for good chunks of the season, Michigan State got into the NCAA tournament and could give the Bruins all kinds of problems, not to mention other teams in that bracket.
UConn vs. San Diego State, West Regional, Anaheim, Calif. OK, so maybe we’re jumping ahead a little since these teams wouldn’t meet until the regional semifinals. But Kemba vs. Kawhi (Leonard) would be fun to see.
Every year, there are upsets in the bracket, some that might have been predicted, a few others that seem to come out of nowhere and throw a wrench into everyone’s bracket. Here’s a few potential underdogs to keep an eye on:
No. 13 Belmont vs. No. 4 Wisconsin, Southeast Regional. The Bruins don’t make a lot of mistakes and enter the tournament on a 12-game winning streak. The Badgers are great defensively, but struggled in their past two games, including that 36-33 loss to Penn State. Thirty-three points? Really?
No. 12 Richmond vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt, Southwest Regional. The Spiders have knocked off higher seeds in the past and have one of the nation’s leading scorers in Kevin Anderson. The Commodores lost to Murray State last year, Siena two years before that, so dropping out early clearly isn’t out of the question.
No. 10 Georgia vs. No. 7 Washington. There was plenty of criticism about the Bulldogs getting such a high seed, but they know how to play defense. The Huskies are a great offensive team, but don’t always come through at the other end. OK, we might be stretching a little.
No. 11 Gonzaga vs. No. 6 St. John’s, Southeast Regional. So much was made of what a down year Gonzaga was having, but the Bulldogs lost just three conference games and won the West Coast Conference to reach the NCAAs for the 13th straight year. St. John’s hung tough in the Big East and has 10 seniors, but none have played in the NCAA tournament.
Abdul Gaddy, Washington. The sophomore point guard tore his ACL in practice in January, though the Huskies still managed to win the Pac-10 tournament without him.
Chris Singleton, Florida State. The Seminoles’ leading scorer and rebounder tweeted that he wants to play in Florida State’s opening game against Texas A&M just five weeks after breaking his foot, though it’s supposed to be a game-time decision.
Chris Wright, Georgetown. Wright broke his non-shooting hand in late February and the Hoyas haven’t won since. He’s expected to play Friday against the winner between Southern California and Virginia Commonwealth. Georgetown clearly needs him.
Kyrie Irving, Duke. Like Singleton, Irving is hoping to be back for the NCAAs. The point guard injured his right big toe in early December, but Coach K says there’s a chance he could play against Hampton on Friday. Even if he doesn’t the Blue Devils should roll in their opener and have him some point during the tournament.
Kelsey Barlow, Purdue. The sophomore guard wasn’t injured, but his loss takes away one of the Boilermakers’ best perimeter defenders. He was suspended for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.
That’s just a bit of what you might expect. With 68 teams in the field — still sounds weird, doesn’t it? — there’s so many story lines, so many possibilities to keep up with.
Now, it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the madness.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.