By the ASSOCIATED PRESS
March Madness is here! Here is what to know, including the favorites and underdogs as well as key games and how to watch the NCAA Tournament. Oh, and how to fill out your brackets!
The top four seeds in the tournament are Alabama, Houston, Kansas, and Purdue. Each is in a region, some tougher than others (on paper), and each has had its share of headaches to set up what could be a chaotic tournament. We break them down for you:
EAST REGION: The Boilermakers got a No. 1 seed for the fourth time after edging Penn State 67-65 in the Big Ten championship game, but they face potential hurdles in Memphis and surging Duke. Memphis (26-8) is fresh from a big upset of top-ranked Houston and led by Kendric Davis. Duke (26-8) shut down Virginia in a 59-49 ACC title game win.
SOUTH REGION: Alabama, led by coach Nate Oats in a challenging season, is a No. 1 seed for the first time after sweeping the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles behind league player of the year Brandon Miller, who has armed security on hand after being the subject of threats. They will open the tourney not far from home, in Birmingham, Alabama. Potential hurdles for the Crimson Tide could include Baylor, Arizona. There's an intriguing early matchup between No. 5 seed San Diego State and No. 12 Charleston, which has 31 wins. Furman is making its first tourney appearance since 1980.
MIDWEST REGION: Houston (31-3) got a top seed despite stumbling 75-65 against unranked Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game, minus league player of the year Marcus Sasser (strained groin). They will open against Northern Kentucky (22-12). Potential hurdles could include Penn State, which took Purdue down to the wire in the Big Ten, and SEC Tournament runner-up Texas A&M.
WEST REGION: The Jayhawks fell 76-56 to Texas in the Big 12 championship game and they wound up with the top seed in a stacked region. They will open against Howard (22-12), making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992. Potential hurdles include No. 6 TCU (21-12), which beat Kansas at Allen Field House 83-60 on Jan. 21, and Arkansas (20-13).
GAMES TO WATCH
No. 7 Texas A&M (25-9) vs. No. 10 Penn State (22-13)., Thursday, 9:55 p.m. ET (TBS) The Aggies, who felt snubbed last season, are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018, and the Nittany Lions' drought dated to 2011. Both flirted with league tournament titles and have been hot. Texas A&M went 19-4 after a loss to Wofford and Penn State has won eight of 10.
No. 8 Arkansas (20-13) vs. No. 9 Illinois (20-12), Thursday, 4:30 p.m. ET (TBS). The Razorbacks have made back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight. Top prospect and potential top NBA draft pick Nick Smith Jr. has only played in 14 games because of knee issues, but has scored 20-plus in half of the team's last six. Illinois won the Big Ten season title before being ousted by Penn State in the first round of the league tournament. Illinois is led by transfers Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech) and Matthew Mayer, who helped lead Baylor to the 2021 national championship.
No. 5 Miami (25-7) vs. Drake (27-7), Friday, 7:35 p.m. ET (TBS). The game features two conference players of the year, Miami's Isaiah Wong in the ACC for the regular-season co-champions, and Drake's Tucker DeVries from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champs. DeVries is averaging 19 points while Wong leads the team in scoring (16.2 points per game), assists and steals. Drake made the Elite Eight three years running, though it has been a while (1969-71).
No. 6 Kentucky (21-11) vs. No. 11 Providence (21-11), Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET. (CBS). Led by last year's AP player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, the Wildcats are trying to avoid back-to-back first-round exits after that infamous defeat to Saint Peter's. The Friars, meanwhile, went to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Kansas. They're led by Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins.
Texas Southern and Kennesaw State are in. North Carolina is not.
The Tar Heels are the first team since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to start the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll and finish it with an NCAA tourney airball.
Kennessaw State, three years removed from a 1-28 season, made the field. So did Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament champion Texas Southern, which is 14-20. Southern Conference champ Furman is dancing for the first time since 1980 and MEAC winner Howard makes its first appearance since 1992.
Gun violence has cost lives and disrupted college sports all season, touching some of the top programs in college basketball, including Alabama. Coaches have been thrust into uncertain and unwelcome roles in trying to navigate the topic — as well as the fallout from the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The NCAA Tournament is filled with great players and the AP All-America team is a good place to get familiar with the names. It's also an event where guys you've never heard of — no offense, Drake — can take a star turn. Guard play is always going to be important (see: Baylor, 2021 title winner) and there are some NBA prospects in the mix.
Bet on this, too: Some player — maybe more than one — will have a chance to join the mustachioed Doug Edert (remember Saint Peters' inspiring run last year?) and find a way to cash in on their celebrity.
HOW TO WATCH
Every game of the men’s tournament will be aired somewhere, either on CBS, TBS, TNT or TruTV and their digital platforms. CBS will have the Final Four semifinals and national title game this year. Fans of Jim Nantz should soak up every moment: It's his final NCAA Tournament.
There are multiple sites listing game times, channel and announcing team, including the NCAA and CBS. The NCAA will again stream games via its March Madness Live option and CBS games will be streamed on Paramount+.
Who's going to win the national championship? The betting favorites this week to reach the Final Four are Houston, Alabama, Purdue and either Kansas or UCLA, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
MARCH MADNESS CALENDAR
Selection Sunday set the bracket matchup s for the First Four and first- and second-round games that stretch from Florida to California. Sweet 16 weekend will see games in New York City (East Region), Las Vegas (West), Kansas City, Missouri (Midwest), and Louisville, Kentucky (South).
Where is the Final Four? In Houston, on April 1, with the championship game on April 3. Basketball aficionados, take note: The women’s NCAA Tournament will hold its Final Four in Dallas, a four-hour drive up the road from Houston.