Ranking every NCAA Tournament first-round game from No. 1 to 32

Figuring out which games to prioritize with your multi-view or multi-screen setup during the first two days of the NCAA Tournament can be a challenge. With four games often in progress simultaneously, your focus and bandwidth can be pulled in conflicting directions as the Big Dance begins.

It’s a great problem to have, and the volume of games within such a condensed timeframe helps ensure unforgettable moments get stacked on top of each other in a way that is unique to March Madness. Some would even argue this is the greatest weekend in sports.

To help you navigate it, we’ve comprised a ranking of all 32 first-round games, with No. 1 being the best game of the opening round. Of course, last year’s first round was another reminder that you can never tune out a game altogether. No. 1 seed Purdue vs. No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickenson landed as the No. 29 game on this list and proceeded to produce one of the most captivating upsets of NCAA Tournament history. No. 2 seed Arizona vs. No. 15 seed Princeton landed at No. 27 and also ended with a shocking result.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from 2023 is that every game of the NCAA Tournament’s first round has the potential to be the best game of the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

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  1. (1) UConn vs. (16) Stetson
    Friday | 2:45 p.m. | CBS
    UConn won every game in last year’s tournament by double digits on the way to a national title. Repeating that level of dominance in a loaded East Regional will be tough, but seeing the Huskies pour it on the overmatched Hatters will be fun for UConn fans (and few others).
  2. (2) Iowa State vs. (15) South Dakota State
    Thursday | 7:35 p.m. | truTV
    It’s Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger vs. his former school after he coached the Jackrabbits to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in a three-year tenure there from 2016 to 2018. SDSU coach Eric Henderson was an assistant under Otzelberger, so perhaps the Cyclones will have some mercy.
  3. (2) Marquette vs. (15) Western Kentucky
    Friday | 2 p.m. | TBS
    Western Kentucky lost its final four regular-season games and then won the Conference USA Tournament. College basketball makes no sense sometimes. WKU doesn’t look like a team Marquette should be particularly worried about, which is exactly why you should be worried.
  4. (7) Dayton vs. (10) Nevada
    Thursday | 4:30 p.m. | TBS
    Dayton big man DaRon Holmes II is among college basketball’s most underappreciated stars. But he’ll have his hands full with a Nevada team that won 10 of its final 11 regular-season games in a rugged Mountain West.
  5. (1) North Carolina vs. (16) Wagner
    Thursday | 2:45 p.m. | CBS
    North Carolina only led Radford 46-41 at halftime, and just 43-34 vs. Lehigh at the break, early this season. It went on to win both games with relative ease, but perhaps this one will be closer than expected at halftime.
  6. (3) Creighton vs. (14) Akron
    Thursday | 1:30 p.m. | TNT
    Akron is 0-5 all-time in NCAA Tournament games but should have some support considering this game is being played less than two hours from its campus. The Zips boast a great 3-point shooting defense, and will need it against a Bluejays team that hits 10.6 shots per game from 3-point range.
  7. (7) Florida vs. (10) Colorado/Boise State winner
    Friday | 4:30 p.m. | TBS
    Florida operated below the surface of national prominence for most of the season but is brimming with dark-horse potential out of the South Regional. But Boise State and Colorado are both capable teams, too. Ideally, this game will serve as a dramatic late-afternoon bridge that gets us through to the beginning of the Friday evening wave.
  8. (2) Arizona vs. (15) Long Beach State
    Thursday | 2 p.m. | TBS
    Arizona lost in the first round to No. 15 seed Princeton last season. The Wildcats have again shown the ability to lose against less-talented opposition this season. Long Beach State is allowing fired head coach Dan Monson to work through the end of the tournament. Maybe if LBSU wins this game, it will try to hire Monson back with a raise.
  9. (3) Baylor vs. (14) Colgate
    Friday | 12:40 p.m. | truTV
    Baylor is a No. 3 seed for the sixth time in the last 15 years, but it hasn’t always gone perfectly. The Bears lost an iconic game against No. 14 seed Georgia State to begin the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Colgate is making its sixth straight appearance in the Big Dance under coach Matt Langel and yearning to break through for its first-ever March Madness triumph.
  10. (1) Houston vs. (16) Longwood
    Friday | 9:20 p.m. | TNT
    Of the 1 vs. 16 matchups, this one has the most upset potential because Houston plays at a slow pace, which could allow Longwood to hang around. The Lancers started just 2-8 in conference play and are the ultimate underdog after winning the Big South Tournament as the No. 5 seed.
  11. (6) BYU vs. (11) Duquesne
    Thursday | 12:40 p.m. | truTV
    BYU ranks second nationally with 11.2 3-pointers per game, but Duquesne led the A-10 in 3-point defense during league play by holding opponents to just 29.5% from beyond the arc. A cold-shooting day from the Cougars will make this the first upset alert of the tournament.
  12. (3) Illinois vs. (14) Morehead State
    Thursday | 3:10 p.m. | truTV
    Illinois has lost to a No. 14 seed from the Ohio Valley Conference before. That was in 1987 against Austin Peay. Morehead State has played the role of Cinderella before. That was back in 2011, when the No. 13 seed Eagles knocked off Louisville. What bearing do those facts have on this game? None, really. But just remember that crazy things do happen in March.
  13. (1) Purdue vs. (16) Grambling/Montana State
    Friday | 7:25 p.m. | TBS
    Considering that Purdue lost to No. Seed 16 seed FDU last season, this will be a must-watch until the Boilermakers pull away. But Purdue will pull away, and there are other games worth watching in the same time window.
  14. (5) San Diego State vs. (12) UAB
    Friday | 1:45 p.m. | TNT
    Games pitting No. 5 seeds vs. No. 12 seeds are almost always interesting, but neither of these teams plays an aesthetically pleasing style. Perhaps the ending will be dramatic since the Blazers and Aztecs combined for nine overtime games this season.
  15. (6) South Carolina vs. (11) Oregon
    Thursday | 4 p.m. | TNT
    There’s nothing particularly captivating about this matchup in terms of star players or overarching storylines; however, it seems destined to be a close game given the physicality of these teams and the relatively slow pace at which they play.
  16. (6) Clemson vs. (11) New Mexico
    Friday | 3:10 p.m. | truTV
    Rick Pitino’s St. John’s team missed the field, but his son’s New Mexico team didn’t. Richard Pitino’s Lobos tore through the Mountain West Tournament and are a popular Cinderella pick as a No. 11 seed. Clemson has lost three of four entering the Big Dance, which makes the Tigers an easy target.
  17. (6) Texas Tech vs. (11) NC State
    Thursday | 9:40 p.m. | CBS
    This is the ACC’s chance to flex on the Big 12. The Wolfpack will try to bully the Red Raiders inside with 6-foot-9 bowling ball D.J. Burns, who is already something of a March sensation after helping NC State on a five-game triumph through the ACC Tournament.
  18. (2) Tennessee vs. (15) Saint Peter’s
    Thursday | 9:20 p.m. | TNT
    Only a couple of players remain from the 2022 Saint Peter’s team, but the Peacocks are a brand name because of how they toppled No. 2 seed Kentucky that season and became the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight. Given Tennessee’s reputation for struggling in March, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on this one.
  19. (5) Saint Mary’s vs. (12) Grand Canyon
    Friday | 10:05 p.m. | truTV
    Grand Canyon star Tyon Grant-Foster stepped away from basketball for 16 months after suffering a cardiac arrest during a game while playing for DePaul in November of 2021. His great comeback story will get the attention it deserves if he leads the Antelopes to their first-ever NCAA Tournament win. Saint Mary’s and its lockdown defense will provide significant resistance.
  20. (7) Washington State vs. (10) Drake
    Thursday | 10:05 p.m. | truTV
    Washington State guard Myles Rice is a cancer survivor who has helped the Cougars to one of their best seasons ever. Drake is led by a father-son tandem in coach Darian DeVries and star player Tucker DeVries. Feel-good stories to appreciate here in what could be a great game.
  21. (8) Utah State vs. (9) TCU
    Friday | 9:55 p.m. | TBS
    TCU has played some phenomenal games during the tournament’s first weekend over the past two years. Most recently, JaKobe Coles hit a game-winner with 1.5 seconds left to lift the Horned Frogs past Arizona State in last year’s first round. Hopefully ,TCU provides another thriller.
  22. (7) Texas vs. (10) Colorado State
    Thursday | 6:50 p.m. | TNT
    Colorado State star guard Isaiah Stevens vs. Texas leading scorer Max Abmas is a fun matchup. Both are undersized players capable of carrying their teams. The Rams dismantled Virginia in a First Four game on Tuesday to pick up some steam.
  23. (4) Alabama vs. (13) Charleston
    Friday | 7:35 p.m. | truTV
    Alabama’s 90.8 points per game is No. 1 nationally, but the Crimson Tide rank 356th in points allowed at 81.1 per game. Charleston averages 80.5 per game and will be happy to accommodate Bama’s preference of a fast tempo. Both teams rank among the top 10 nationally in made 3-pointers per game, which makes this contest an offense lover’s fantasy.
  24. (8) FAU vs. (9) Northwestern
    Friday | 12:15 p.m. | CBS
    FAU returned nearly every player and coach Dusty May from last year’s team, which reached the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. But Northwestern and star guard Boo Buie will be a challenge for the Owls. The Wildcats own wins over Purdue and Illinois, and Buie is an assassin.
  25. (8) Nebraska vs. (9) Texas A&M
    Friday | 6:50 p.m. | TNT
    This is an electric guard matchup with Nebraska’s Kesei Tominaga and Brice Williams taking on Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford. It also has an elite subplot. Texas A&M announced Trev Alberts as its athletic director on Monday after Alberts spent the last three years as Nebraska’s AD. The former Cornhuskers football player is going to look strange in maroon.
  26. (8) Mississippi State vs. (9) Michigan State
    Thursday | 12:15 p.m. | CBS
    It’s Tom Izzo, and it’s March. That should be enough to get your attention. This is his 26th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and he’s led the Spartans to eight Final Fours. To make another run, he’ll have to shut down Mississippi State star freshman Josh Hubbard, who can get buckets from anywhere.
  27. (4) Duke vs. (13) Vermont
    Friday | 7:10 p.m. | CBS
    Duke’s massive talent advantage should be enough to keep this one drama-free. Then again, Syracuse probably thought the same thing in 2005 when it fell to No. 13 seed Vermont in a first-round game. The Catamounts are making their third straight trip to the Big Dance, just like they were when they broke through in 2005 and stunned the Orange.
  28. (4) Auburn vs. (13) Yale
    Friday | 4:15 p.m. | TNT
    It’s a classic oil and water matchup. Auburn pits its up-tempo system of controlled chaos against the methodical, disciplined approach of an Ivy League school. Yale played Kansas and Gonzaga competitively early this season and will be looking to follow the example Princeton set while reaching the Sweet 16 from the Ivy League last season.
  29. (5) Wisconsin vs. (12) James Madison
    Friday | 9:40 p.m. | CBS
    Obvious upset potential here. James Madison began the season with a win at Michigan State and has won 13 straight to reach 31 victories. The Dukes won’t be intimidated by playing a Big Ten foe. Wisconsin found life again with three victories at the Big Ten Tournament but was awfully shaky in the second half of Big Ten play.

(3) Kentucky vs. (14) Oakland
Thursday | 7:10 p.m. | CBS
Oakland upset Xavier on the road and played competitive games with Ohio State and Illinois. Considering Kentucky lost to UNC Wilmington at home this season, the Wildcats aren’t 100% trustworthy against a team of this caliber. UK’s elite guards will make this one worth watching even if the Wildcats get up big.

  1. (4) Kansas vs. (13) Samford
    Thursday | 9:55 p.m | TBS
    With star wing Kevin McCullar Jr. out for the tournament, an already tough matchup is going to be even tougher for Kansas. The Jayhawks are perilously light on depth and must face a Samford team that is the deepest in the tournament and determined to press on every possession. Oh, by the way, the game will be played in the altitude of Salt Lake City, Utah.
  2. (5) Gonzaga vs. (12) McNeese
    Thursday | 7:25 p.m. | TBS
    Gonzaga is seeking to reach a ninth straight Sweet 16. McNeese, coached by the once-disgraced Will Wade, is seeking its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. These Zags have less zip than usual, and the Cowboys have the talent and path needed to win more than once in this tournament.

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