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Which First Four matchups are most enticing?

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The long-awaited return of March Madness tips off with the First Four round. In past years following the expansion of the field to 68 teams, these games could be seen on Tuesday and Wednesday. Of course, everything is different in 2021, so all four games fall on this opening Thursday. No worries, though — you’ll still get to watch them.

Of course, as busy sports consumers you’ll want to prioritize your viewing for the day to be sure you see the most compelling matchups. We’re here to help.

Standard disclaimer: Any time one has to rank items, one will have to be last. This is nothing against any team on the day’s lineup. In theory, all these contests by definition involve opponents on the same seed line and should therefore be evenly matched. So we hope they’re all interesting, but some have more potential to entertain than others.

BRACKET TIPS? AT YOUR SERVICE:

Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) celebrates with center Mady Sissoko (22) and forward Joey Hauser (20) after defeating Michigan.
Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) celebrates with center Mady Sissoko (22) and forward Joey Hauser (20) after defeating Michigan.

With that out of the way then, here are the First Four games ranked by watchability, with an almost sure-to-be-wrong score prediction for each.

No. 11 Drake vs. No. 11 Wichita State

Time/TV: 6:27 p.m. ET, TBS

This clash of former Missouri Valley Conference foes has plenty of intrigue. The Shockers dominated the MVC for the better part of a decade before moving to the American four years ago. Drake’s postseason history is less sustained, so the Bulldogs want to make the most of this opportunity. Wichita State coach Isaac Brown did a terrific job keeping the team together following Greg Marshall’s departure, and was rewarded by having the interim tag removed from his head coaching title. The Shockers tend to play a lot of close games, averaging 72.4 points while giving up 67.4, and this figures to be another tight affair. The Bulldogs aren’t big but rely on scrappy defense and three-point shooting. There might not be a ton of highlight plays, but it should come down to the wire.

Prediction: Wichita State, 75-72.

***

No. 16 Appalachian State vs. 16 Norfolk State

Time/TV: 8:40 p.m. ET, TruTV

Of the two 16-vs.-16 matchups, we’ll give this one the nod as it has higher likelihood for a big score. Both teams are guard-oriented and are capable of draining lots of triples. The Mountaineers got hot at the right time during the Sun Belt tournament, but the Spartans have been more consistent from distance over the course of the year.

Prediction: Norfolk State, 80-76.

***

No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s vs. No. 16 Texas Southern

Time/TV: 5:10 p.m. ET, TruTV

This one might not be as fast paced but could be equally competitive. Both rely on controlling the lane. Mountaineers’ big man Nana Opoku might have his hands full with the Tigers’ solid frontcourt, but the Mount figures to make more shots from the arc.

Prediction: Mount St. Mary’s, 67-60.

***

No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 11 UCLA

Time/TV: 9:57 p.m. ET, TBS

And so we come to the contest with the most recognizable name-brand basketball schools on the day’s lineup. So why is it ranked fourth? Quite simply, this one looks to have the biggest blowout potential. The First Four round wasn’t kind to UCLA in its last NCAA appearance three years ago, and the Bruins enter this year’s event on a four-game skid. The Spartans, on the other hand, picked up three top-five wins in the last month just to get here, and their long slog through the loaded Big Ten should have prepared them for the big stage.

Prediction: Michigan State, 79-66.

Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness picks, rankings for NCAA Tournament’s Thursday games



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