The First Four is ... great ... and all, but the NCAA Tournament as most of America recognizes it begins on Thursday. For the next three weeks, we get non-stop basketball, upsets, high-profile showdowns and lots and lots of people lying about how much college hoops they watched in the previous four months. It's fun.
Those of us who have been following along relatively closely since early November know the type of treat that the sports world is probably in for. Whether you're one of those people or not, you should still be able to enjoy this look at the 64 things that are going to make this tournament one of the best ever. And when I say "enjoy," I mean "read."
1. Wichita State
That there's an undefeated team in the field for the first time since 1991 would be big enough news, but the fact that the Shockers have been the most debated team of the 2013-14 season only adds to the intrigue. An undefeated mid-major team that has the stigma of playing a sub-par schedule but the clout of playing in the most recent Final Four is about as sexy a storyline as the tournament has ever seen. Some people think they know how good Wichita State is, some people think they know how bad Wichita State is, others freely admit they have no clue. The one thing we do know for sure is that with the Shockers' draw, we're all going to find out very soon.
2. The fact that none of us know anything
This was supposed to be an off year for parity, one in which the preseason top five and a class of stud freshmen ruled the college basketball world for five months. Instead, this was nearly the first season in the history of the AP Top 25 where no team ranked in the preseason top five occupied one of those spots heading into the NCAA Tournament (Louisville is currently No. 5). Every major prediction anyone has made all season long has fallen flat, so why should the next three weeks be any different?
3. There will be buzzer-beaters
The last two tournaments have been notably short on these, so I think we're due for a run.
4. There's a 14-19 team in the field
Cal Poly consolidated a miracle run in the Big West Tournament last week by topping Texas Southern in the First Four on Wednesday night. Its reward is a date with Wichita State on Friday. It will take six more wins and a national championship for the Mustangs to finish above .500.
5. Ohio State vs. Dayton
One of the most interesting games in the Round of 64 will take place during the first session of the first day. Dayton fans have long claimed that Ohio State has been scared to schedule a home-and-home with the Flyers, a claim Buckeye Nation is quick to brush off. Oh, and Dayton's best player, Jordan Sibert, just so happens to be an OSU transfer.
Photo: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
6. The streak of overall top seed champions
For all the "madness" that is supposed to be inherent in this thing, the last two champions have both been the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. You're up, Florida.
7. The quest for a repeat champion
Not only has college basketball not had a repeat champion since Florida in 2007, but no defending champ since then has even made it past the Sweet 16. That could change in a few weeks, as AAC champ Louisville is just the No. 4 seed in their region, but still the pick of many to make it to their third straight Final Four.
The surefire consensus national Player of the Year has done it all in college, except make it out of the first weekend of the big dance. The Jays have been bounced after one win in each of the past two seasons, but they're a three-seed in a favorable region for Dougie McBuckets' final run.
9. Doge McDermott.
No explanation necessary.
Okay, maybe a little explanation would have helped.
10. The predictable Final Four that almost certainly will not be
According to ESPN, 8.9 percent of the more than six million brackets on ESPN.com have a Final Four of Florida, Arizona, Michigan State and Louisville, by far the most popular combination. For comparison, the most popular Final Four combination on ESPN.com last year only accounted for 4.5 percent of the brackets. Anything that popular in March is sure to crash and burn.
11. The 13/4 upset streak
At least one 13 seed has won at least one game in each of the last six years, the longest such streak in NCAA Tournament history. It's your world, Manhattan, Tulsa, Delaware and New Mexico State.
12. BYU's insane offense
Have you seen BYU this season? If not, do yourself a favor and watch at least 15 uninterrupted minutes of the Cougars' game against Oregon. They waste zero time getting up and down the court, and guards Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws have the combined conscious of a second-grader who is the only player on his team strong enough to get the ball to the rim. Maddening for BYU fans, extraordinary theater for the objective viewer.
13. Stephen F. Austin
Wichita State being all undefeated and stuff has kept Stephen F. Austin, which hasn't lost since Nov. 23, from getting the attention it would in just about any other year. The Lumberjacks (oh yeah, they're the Lumberjacks) are winners of 29 straight and have a real chance to push that number to 30 by beating VCU.
14. The Midwest Region
Yeah, it's an unfair region, and yes, it's an awful break for teams like Wichita State, Louisville, Duke and Michigan, but let's not act like it isn't great for us. Three of last year's Final Four teams? Awesome. Three of the top seven teams in Ken Pomeroy's latest rankings? Terrific. We're probably going to get three Final Four quality games on the second weekend of the tournament. It's remarkably unfair, but I can't wait to watch.
15. Eric Stutz's hair
You can say you saw and fell in love with it before everyone else started talking about it.
Photo: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
16. Bryce Cotton
The Providence star has been one of the best players no one has heard of for the past three years, and he comes into the tournament averaging MORE THAN 40 MINUTES PER GAME. I'm not sure any player in the Big Dance has earned this moment more.
17. The Michigan State streak
Since Tom Izzo became the head coach at Michigan State in 1995, no four-year player has left East Lansing without going to a Final Four. It's a streak that would be broken if Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and company don't lead the Spartans to Dallas this year.
18. The billion dollar bracket challenge
You're sick of the Twitter jokes and the forced "what I would do" conversations with co-workers, but don't act like you aren't at least a little bit interested. You're not?... I am.
19. UMass is back
If you grew up (or just lived, I guess) in the 1990s, you remember how big a thing UMass basketball was. You're also probably shocked that it hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998. The Minutemen are horribly overseeded as a six, but it's still nice to have them back.
20. Bill Raftery
We've missed you so much. Your aunt Linda doesn't think Fox Sports 1 deserves you.
21. Frank Kaminksy
The breakout star for the Badgers this season also has one of the best nicknames in college basketball: "Fupps" (pronounced "Foops") or "Big Daddy Fupps."
Duje Dukan (@DDukan13) November 20, 2013
I see you @FSKPart3 get money FUPPS!!!— Aaron Irving (@IrvSwerves) November 20, 2013
If I dont see fupps on sportscenter tonight im gonna be heated— JD Wise (@jd_wise22) November 20, 2013
KING FUPPS! #FrankTheTank— Aaron Moesch (@moeschpotato5) November 20, 2013
22. The chance of a 16 beating a 1
The most sacred record in college basketball might be the 116-0 mark of No. 1 seeds vs. No. 16 seeds since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. The addition of an extra First Four game has made the final line in the field a tad stronger, and we've nearly seen a 16 seed do the unthinkable in each of the past two seasons (Southern/Gonzaga last year and Syracuse/UNC Asheville in 2012). Feel free to get overly excited when you see that Weber State is within one of Arizona with six minutes left in the first half.
23. Wofford's free throw shooting
Because it's almost unbelievably putrid. The Terriers have just one player in their regular rotation who shoots better than 70 percent.
24. Jabari Parker
He young. He good.
25. Delaware vs. Michigan State
The fourth-seeded Spartans have been injured all season and their healthy and dominant run to the Big Ten Tournament title has made them the trendy national championship pick, but they've drawn a dangerous opening opponent in the Blue Hens (Blue Hens!). Devon Saddler (19.7 ppg), Davon Usher (19.4 ppg) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg) make up the highest-scoring trio in the tournament, and they could put the fear of God into both the Spartans and the bracket-picking public.
26. Ron Baker's hair
Photo: Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports
If you choose to face Kentucky, you will do it alone. I cannot interfere.
27. The potential of Villanova/St. Joe's in the Round of 32
A Holy War between these Big 5 rivals would be a hard act to top on Saturday. 'Nova blew out the Hawks by 30 in their regular-season meeting.
28. The 12/5 upset
It's happened 41 times, and multiple times in five of the last eight tournaments. Chances are good that at least two move on again this year, as all four of the 12/5 matchups in this year's draw appear to be enticing upset picks.
29. New Mexico shooting for its first Sweet 16
Despite being a pretty tradition-rich program, the Lobos have never made it past the tournament's opening weekend. Their opening-round upset loss to Harvard last year was so hard for the folks in Albuquerque to stomach, that one of UNM's beat writers actually rage quit his job immediately after it happened. They'll have to take out Stanford and (probably) Kansas to realize the dream this year.
30. Nebraska going for first big dance victory
Tim Miles has Nebrasketball back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, and his next task is getting the Huskers their first tournament win since ever. To do it, they'll have to top a sixth-seeded Baylor team that, believe it or not, does not play in their same conference.
31. Jim Boeheim masks
Pitino is a remarkable 11-0 in regional semifinal games, a mark that (if the Cardinals make it that far) will likely be tested by either undefeated Wichita State or Pitino's old school and Louisville's arch-rival, Kentucky.
34. BYU's Luke Worthingon
Luke, your thoughts on making the list?
No, you're No. 1, my man.
35. The enigma that is Kentucky
Before the season I said that this Kentucky team was the most fascinating recent memory, and now they've landed in the most un-fascinating of all NCAA Tournament spots: the 8/9 death game. Despite losing the bulk of a team that fell in the first round of the NIT last season, Kentucky was picked as the preseason favorite to win the national title by both major polls thanks mostly to a recruiting class that was described as "the best ever" by more than a few folks who make a living doing this sort of thing. Two weeks ago, the Wildcats became just the fourth team ever and the first since Indiana in 1980 to go from preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 to out of the poll completely. Now comes the final chance for John Calipari's young Wildcats, who looked much improved in last week's SEC Tournament, to salvage their season.
36. The enigma that is Oregon
The Ducks started 13-0 and it was cool. They then went 2-8 and it was less cool. Then they finished 8-1 with wins over UCLA and Arizona, and it was cool again. Their uniforms are probably going to be cool.
37. Coaches hiding drink logos with NCAA cups
Because the tournament rules about non-approved products are ridiculous and the results that come from coaches who can't go without diet coke or coconut water during games is hilarious.
38. Steve Alford's attempt to shake his tourney stigma
Alford has been at the helm of a number of solid squads, but has never been to a regional final and has made the Sweet 16 just once in seven tries. He's got a talented UCLA squad and a fan base that's dying to be shown something ... figuratively.
I'm just messing with you. They're home watching Frozen for the fourth time.
I call this one: "DePaul in a Screenshot" pic.twitter.com/mBzmeRBp5T— Brendan Prunty (@BrendanPrunty) February 13, 2014
40. The Big East's streak
The Big East has sent at least one team to the Final Four in each of the past five seasons, but this Big East isn't the old Big East. It is, however, a league that has both a two- (Villanova) and a three- (Creighton) seed in this year's field.
41. A top seed from a power conference with a hoard of doubters
There has likely never been a dual ACC champion, including Miami last season, that has received less NCAA Tournament respect than the Virginia Cavaliers. A large part of that is the memory of UVA's non-conference season, which included a road loss to Green Bay, a loss to Wisconsin in which the Cavaliers scored only 38 points, and a loss to Tennessee by 35. It probably also doesn't help anything that Virginia hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2007 and hasn't made it out of the first weekend since 1995.
42. The conference championship streak
Over the last 25 years, there has been exactly one national champion that failed to capture either its league's regular season title or its conference tournament title. That team is the 1997 Arizona Wildcats, which played in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) at a time when the conference didn't hold a postseason tournament.
If you want to find the last team to be in a conference with a tournament and fail to win either league championship before going on to win the national title, you have to go all the way back to 1988. That year, Larry Brown's champions from Kansas finished third in the Big 8 standings and lost to Kansas State in the league tournament semifinals.
All told, 34 national champions have played in a conference that crowned both a regular-season and tournament champion, and only two of those teams failed to claim either: Kansas in 1988 and the famous Villanova team from 1985.
43. The lip tattoos on Chris Walker's neck
Photo: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports
44. Tulsa basketball and football continuing to curse one another.
This doesn't have anything to do with the actual tournament, per se, but it's too crazy not to mention. Since 1991, the Golden Hurricane have been to nine NCAA Tournaments and nine bowl games, but those things have never happened in the same year. As long as they can keep Danny Manning around (no small task), they'll have a good shot at taking care of the basketball part more frequently.
45. Iowa State's next-level trio of talent
46. The yin and yang of the Florida Gator defense
It's a beautiful thing, and it's broken down tremendously by our very own Jeffrey Haley.
47. Sim Bhullar
48. Someone (probably Oklahoma State) will win "The Arizona"
I have very few "bracket rules," but the only one I follow religiously is to pick against the underachieving 8/9 seed that everyone says has the potential to upset a No. 1 seed in the round of 32. It never fails, and the team that achieves the feat receives an award I've decided to call "The Arizona" for the tremendous work in the field that the Wildcats have provided in seasons past.
Three weeks ago, I stated that this year's recipient of The Arizona was going to be a resurgent Oklahoma State team that would be facing Gonzaga for the right to play Wichita State. Instead, it'll be the Cowboys and the Zags for the right to face ... Arizona. It's almost too perfect. Pick Gonzaga.
Also, don't be afraid to pick against Kentucky.
49. T.J. Warren
One of the nation's best pure scorers played his way into the
field second round on Tuesday, and the viewing public is better for it.
50. The uncertainty surrounding Kansas
The Jayhawks have been viewed as one of the top three or four contender for the national title all season, but they enter the NCAA Tournament with as many question marks as they've had all season. That's because freshman big man Joel Embiid, the likely top pick in the draft whenever he choose to come out, has been sidelined for the last two weeks with back issues. Disruptions like this one in March are typically deadly blows. See North Carolina and Kendall Marshall a couple of years ago.
51. The battle for state supremacy
Four states -- California, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas -- all had four teams make the field of 68 this year. Ohio is already down to three after Xavier's loss on Tuesday.
52. One Shining Moment
Because the ironic love you pretend to show for it is actually genuine.
53. Jim Natz's championship line
He's reeled it wayyy in the last few years, so I'm thinking (and praying) that we're going to get something ultra-Nantzy in two-and-a-half weeks.
This will be he farewell tour for one of the most unique college basketball personalities in recent memory.
55. Can Texas bottle the McConaughey magic
The Longhorns were one of the more pleasant surprises in the Big 12, which is a nice change of pace for Rick Barnes. A takedown of Michigan (DiCaprio) on Saturday would stun the world. All right, all right.
56. Maurice Creek will finally get a chance to shine
Few players have had worse luck over the past three years than Creek, who endured multiple injuries during his college career, including a stress fracture in his right knee in 2011. The injuries put a damper on what started as a promising career at Indiana; Creek averaged 16.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 25.4 minutes per game as a freshman in 2009-10. Last season, Creek averaged just 1.8 points and 0.9 rebounds in 7.8 minutes per contest before opting to transfer. He landed at George Washington, where he's averaged 14.3 ppg and helped lead the Colonials back to the NCAA Tournament.
57. The Providence Friar
Photo: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
This should not have been on here.
58. Duke might lose to Mercer
The Devils are probably not going to, but they might. Remember Lehigh? That was fun.
59. Someone you've never heard of is going to be a household name by the end of the month
I don't know who they are or what they're going to do, but someone nobody is talking about right now is going to do something over the course of the next three weeks that everybody talks about.
60. The Final Four is at Jerry World
61. Sean Kilpatrick
If there were a Most Valuable Player award in college basketball, it's hard to imagine someone other than Kilpatrick winning it. No team is more reliant on one player more than Cincinnati is on its senior star. Kilpatrick led the American Athletic Conference in scoring at 20.7 points per game, in addition to averaging 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals. Those numbers come despite playing for a Bearcat team that wins with defense, and which ranks just 226nd in the nation in points per game (69.1). Despite playing for UC since 1997, he's only been to the Sweet 16 once.
62. Cory Jefferson will dunk
That's good news for everybody.
63. North Dakota State could conceivably make the Sweet 16
The Bison are farm strong and you should love them.
64. There will be basketball either to watch or talk about all day, every day until April 6
Could be the worst tournament ever, and that's still pretty fantastic.
It's not going to be the worst tournament ever, though. I promise.