The 2019 NCAA tournament features a lot of enticing first-round matchups filled with upset potential. But only a handful of the 32 first round games should be appointment television. Some games have incredible star power, others have soap-opera-level storylines and a few more are just intriguing games that should be close.
Here’s a look at seven must-see opening-round matchups as you’ll want to make these games the center of your attention when they come on.
1. No. 5 seed Marquette vs. No. 12 seed Murray State, Thursday, 4:30 p.m., Hartford
Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant in the first round is a major gift from the NCAA tournament Gods.
Both All-American point guards are electric to watch. You could even argue that besides for Zion Williamson, that they are the two most fun-to-watch players in all of college basketball. Marquette’s Howard is a noted perimeter shooter who can heat up quickly enough to drop 50 in a game or 40 in a half. Murray State’s Morant is more of a downhill driver and athlete who throws down vicious dunks with insane athleticism. Morant has elevated into a potential top-three NBA draft pick, as this will be a major national showcase for his draft stock as well.
The entertainment value of that lead-guard matchup alone is worth the price of admission. But this overall game should also be a really fun No. 5/No. 12 matchup. Marquette has struggled down the stretch as they’ve lost five out of six games. Murray State has won 11 straight games as they enter this field as one of the hotter teams.
2. No. 7 seed Louisville vs. No. 10 seed Minnesota, Thursday, 12:15 p.m., Des Moines
Are there any direct flights from Greece to Des Moines? That’s probably doubtful. But let’s face it, Louisville vs. a Pitino is an amazing first-round subplot.
It’s hard to say if Rick is going to try to attend this game while he’s busy coaching pro ball in Greece, but he’ll certainly be supporting his son Richard go against his former employer. Louisville and new head coach Chris Mack could not have been pleased when they saw this draw.
Rick Pitino is not only suing Louisville for wrongful termination, but he recruited and coached most of the current players on the Cardinals roster. Minnesota is going to get as many helpful tips from Rick can give to his son as that subplot alone makes this game a must-watch.
3. No. 5 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 12 seed Oregon, Friday, 4:30 p.m., San Jose
Matchups between No. 5 and No. 12 seeds are already fun to watch but this one is particularly intriguing because of the Big Ten/Pac-12 dynamic.
Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten’s better teams this season in an insanely deep league. Oregon emerged late to win the Pac-12 conference tournament to sneak into the field with the autobid. The Ducks have been underwhelming this season — particularly after the loss of freshman star big man Bol Bol. It’s also important to remember that Oregon has the talent to compete with Wisconsin as freshman Louis King has grown more comfortable since joining the lineup.
The coaching matchup between Wisconsin’s Greg Gard and Oregon’s Dana Altman will also be a fun chess match for basketball junkies as they are two of the most highly-regarded coaches in the entire field.
4. No. 6 seed Buffalo vs. No. 11 seed Arizona State or St. John’s, Friday, 4:00 p.m., Tulsa
This game has the potential to be the Bobby Hurley Bowl as the Arizona State head coach left Buffalo to join the Sun Devils three years ago. Even if Arizona State falls to St. John’s in Wednesday’s First Four game in Dayton, this game should be wildly entertaining.
All three of these programs aren’t afraid to push the tempo as this should be some of the more aesthetically-pleasing basketball for casual fans during the first round. There’s also the strange role reversal of mid-major Buffalo being the favored No. 6 seed while the No. 11 seeds will be underdogs hailing from power conferences.
And the Bulls are legitimately really good. They already knocked off No. 4 seed Arizona last season, so they’ll be experienced and hungry enough to make a potential run this season. Arizona State has an athletic and explosive freshman in guard Luguentz Dort while St. John’s junior guard Shamorie Ponds is one of the more potent scorers in the country.
5. No. 7 seed Wofford vs. No. 10 seed Seton Hall, Thursday, 9:50 p.m., Columbia
Yet another mid-major team in a higher seed than a power conference team. Wofford is a ton of fun to watch thanks to senior guard Fletcher Magee and his potent three-point shooting. The Terriers will let it fly in this one as they were the second-best three-point shooting team in the country this season. Wofford has also won 20 consecutive games as they’re arguably the hottest team entering the NCAA tournament.
Seton Hall has figured things out just in time for the Big Dance as guard Myles Powell is one of the hotter individual players in the country. The Pirates have won four of their last five games entering the tournament with the only loss coming to Villanova during a controversial Big East title game. With strong guard play and both teams trending in positive directions, this has the makings of a memorable battle.
6. No. 8 seed Utah State vs. No. 9 seed Washington, Friday, 6:50 p.m., Columbus
This is one of those dream matchups we probably wouldn’t see in the regular season. A top Pac-12 program facing a very credible Mountain West team usually doesn’t happen because it’s generally a no-win situation for the Pac-12 school.
But we get to see it here in the first round as perhaps the best No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup. Utah State probably would have made the Field of 68 as an at-large but they took the safer route of just winning the Mountain West autobid instead. Junior guard Sam Merrill is also one of the field’s most underrated individual scorers as he’s putting up 21.2 points per game.
Washington gets a chance to show the Pac-12 was entirely pathetic this season by advancing to the Round of 32. The Huskies struggled late in the season in two losses against Oregon, so it’ll be interesting to see how Washington fares against another NCAA tournament-caliber team. A win here would be huge for the Mountain West when it comes to bragging rights.
7. No. 7 seed Cincinnati vs. No. 10 seed Iowa, Friday, 12:15 p.m., Columbus
This game should already be unique because it’s a clash of styles between the traditionally slow and rugged Bearcats against the more offensive-minded Hawkeyes. It should also be relatively close game compared to many first-round matchups.
But the antics on the sidelines between Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin and Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will be worth watching — particularly since this is the first game on the schedule on Friday. The last time McCaffery was in Columbus, he cursed out Big Ten officials during an ugly Iowa loss at Ohio State that led to a two-game suspension.
Cincinnati was gifted an in-state game in this matchup and it could make for some explosive McCaffery quotes in the postgame presser if things don’t go his way.