The First Four games from Tuesday and Wednesday may have been the official beginning of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, but for many fans, March Madness doesn't actually get underway until the first full wall-to-wall day of action tips off Thursday with first-round games from all corners of the bracket. The first game of the day will be No. 6 seed Colorado State taking on No. 11 seed Michigan in South Region action in Indianapolis, the first of 16 first round contests held in four different host cities.
After last year's NCAA Tournament included an adjusted schedule and sites entirely based in the state of Indiana, this year's tournament brings the return of full arenas with fans who have traveled the country to follow their favorite college basketball programs.
It should make for a terrific environment when Kentucky or Tennessee take the floor in Indianapolis, while Fort Worth gets to play host to both No. 1 seeds from the Big 12 Baylor and Kansas and the fan bases of UConn and Providence descend on Buffalo. Overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga will make just a quick trip across the state line to its First Round site in Oregon, where fellow West Coast Conference mate Saint Mary's also gets to start its tournament march.
The return of fans and cross-country action is just one of several storylines to follow as we watch the action unfold in the First Round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Now let's move from the bleachers to the court with three big storylines for Thursday.
Gonzaga, Baylor begin pursuit of another Final Four run
Both of the teams in last year's national championship game will be in action on Thursday, starting with the reigning champion Baylor at 2 p.m. ET against No. 16 seed Norfolk State. The Bears finished the regular season strong with five straight wins but a one-game stay in the Big 12 tournament kept Scott Drew's team off the radar throughout the weekend until they were revealed as one of the four No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday. Baylor is expectedly a heavy favorite to win its first game, but the team's long-term tournament outlook will be a discussion in the wake of Wednesday's announcement that leading scorer LJ Cryer (out with a foot injury since Feb. 16) will not be available for the first our second round. A big win will be a chance to see Baylor's bench in action, and the Bears' depth is going to be a key factor to making another Final Four run.
Gonzaga was undefeated in the 2020-21 season until Baylor handed the Bulldogs their first and only loss of the season in the title game, and their 2021-22 season has included much of the same dominance. The Zags finished with a 26-3 record that included non-conference wins against UCLA, Texas and Texas Tech and a margin of victory of 22.0 points per game. Drew Timme is back to reclaim his status as one of the stars of March, and now he's joined by freshman phenom Chet Holmgren to make one of the best one-two frontcourt duos in the country. Gonzaga's tournament starts 16-seed Georgia State at 4:15 p.m. in Portland.
Also of note will be a third No. 1 seed, Kansas, in action against No. 16-seed Texas Southern at 9:57 p.m, which won on Tuesday night against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the First Four and another one of last year's Final Four teams, No. 4 seed UCLA, squaring off against No. 13 seed Akron at 9:50 p.m.
South Dakota State, Vermont hope to hope play spoiler as No. 13 seeds
Of all the potential seed line upsets in the bracket among Thursday's games, two that stand out are No. 13 seed South Dakota State taking on No. 4-seed Providence in the Midwest Region at 12:40 p.m. ET (truTV) and No. 13 seed Vermont playing No. 4 seed Arkansas in the West Region at 9:20 p.m.
The Jackrabbits rate as the best three-point shooting team in the country (44.2%) and appear to be a popular upset pick not only because of their elite offense but Providence's disconnect between their 25-5 record and an efficiency margin rating that checks in at No. 48 in the country at KenPom.com. South Dakota State hasn't lost since Dec. 15, and sharpshooting sophomore Baylor Scheierman could end up being one of the big stars of the day.
Vermont also boasts a strong offense, a senior-led rotation and the Catamounts a great job of working the ball around without turning it over. That's going to present a challenge to Arkansas' patience on defense and a clash of style to the Razorbacks' up-tempo pace. Also a potential disadvantage to the No 4 seed from the SEC is the Buffalo venue, which is well within manageable travel for fans and students from Vermont.
Game of the day: No. 7 Murray State vs. No. 10 San Francisco
Either one of these teams is good enough to beat a major conference opponent in the first round, but they got squared off against each other in what is clearly the game of the day, set for a 9:40 p.m. tip-off from Indianapolis. Both teams rank in the top 30 in adjusted efficiency margin at KenPom and the 54 combined wins is the second-most of any game on Thursday's slate. San Francisco has a two wins against NCAA Tournament teams in No. 10 seed Davidson and No. 12 seed UAB and Murray State has its own set of wins against tournament teams (No. 8-seed Memphis and No. 1 seed Chattanooga) to go with a gaudy 30-2 record and 18-0 mark in conference play.
Murray State has a versatile offense led by Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year KJ Williams, a 6-10 big man who averages 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Williams is just as dangerous down low as he is stepping outside, where he can space the floor as a plus-value three-point shooter. Stopping Williams will be the main focus for a San Francisco team that defends at an elite level and is led by a pair of senior guards in Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz that have been rock solid for the last three years under Todd Golden.
Thursday's live streaming guide
(11) Michigan vs. (6) Colorado St.
(13) South Dakota St. vs. (4) Providence
(9) Memphis vs. (8) Boise St.
(16) Norfolk St. vs. (1) Baylor
(14) Longwood vs. (3) Tennessee
(16) Georgia St. vs. (1) Gonzaga
(12) New Mexico St. vs. (5) UConn
(15) Saint Peter's vs. (2) Kentucky
(12) Indiana vs. (5) Saint Mary's
(13) Vermont vs. (4) Arkansas
(10) San Francisco vs. (7) Murray St.
(13) Akron vs. (4) UCLA
(16) Texas Southern vs. (1) Kansas