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What to watch the first week of the NCAA Tournament

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was wiped out by the coronavirus, robbing the sports world of one of its greatest spectacles.

After a chaotic season through a pandemic, March Madness is back.

You know the players are ready. So are the coaches. The fans, too.

This year’s bracket will be like no other, played entirely in Indiana over a span of three weeks.

There’s no Duke, no Kentucky, but plenty of new favorites and upstarts who have waited a long time for their chance.

To get you ready, we’ve got a rundown of the teams, players and games to watch for when the bracket fires up with the First Four Thursday in Bloomington:

THE FAVORITES

Gonzaga. Wire-to-wire No. 1 pursuing the perfect 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

Illinois. Tough, talented, loaded. Ayo and Kofi may be the bracket’s best 1-2 punch.

Baylor. Shooters everywhere, tenacious on D, lost once all year.

Michigan. Wolverines have done great things in a short period under Juwan Howard. Hopefully Isaiah Livers’ foot injury won’t cause them problems.

Iowa. Hawkeyes can light it up when they’re on and have one of the nation’s best players in Luka Garza.

NEW FACES

Hartford. The Hawks are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 27 years as a Division I program after winning the America East Tournament.

Grand Canyon. Bryce Drew worked some quick magic in the desert, needing one season to lead the Antelopes to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years in DI.

Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights had their dreams crushed last season when the NCAA Tournament was canceled. They got a second chance and made the most of it, playing their way into the bracket for the first time since 1991.

Drexel. The Dragons won 12 games all season, but three of those were in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, putting them in the bracket for the first time in 25 years.

STAR PLAYERS

Luka Garza, Iowa. Big Ten beast ready to bull through the bracket.

Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois. Athletic, clutch, poised to become the latest one-name NCAA Tournament star.

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga. The sharpshooter makes the Zags go.

Jared Butler, Baylor. Shoots, leads and plays D, too.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State. Potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft is a scorer, distributor, dominator.

TOP GAMES

Colgate vs. Arkansas, South Region, Friday. Leave the couch for a minute and you might miss a basket — or 10. And take the over, whatever it is.

Michigan State vs. UCLA, First Four, Thursday. Two of college basketball’s storied programs will help kick off the tournament right.

Texas Tech vs. Utah State, South Region, Friday. Baskets will be hard to come by between these two defensive-oriented teams.

Loyola Chicago vs. Georgia Tech, Midwest Region, Friday. Ramblers are back for the first time since their 2018 Final Four run. Georgia Tech was the surprise ACC Tournament champ. And hopefully Sister Jean gets a chance to go to Indy.

Oregon vs. Virginia Commonwealth, West Region, Saturday. VCU plays stifling defense. Oregon can light up the scoreboard. Strength v strength.

UPSET POTENTIAL

No. 12 UC Santa Barbara over No. 5 Creighton, West Region. There’s a chance the Bluejays could shoot the Gauchos out of the gym. If they’re off, watch out for UCSB, which has lost once in the new year.

No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova, East Region. The Wildcats are without point guard Collin Gillespie for the rest of the season. The Eagles have lost once all season.

No. 10 Rutgers over No. 7 Clemson, Midwest Region, Friday. The Scarlet Knights may not have been here for a long time, but oddsmakers made them a favorite over the Tigers.

No. 12 Georgetown over No. 5 Colorado, East Region, Saturday. Workers at Madison Square Garden finally figured out who Patrick Ewing is after Hoyas won the Big East title. The Buffaloes may find out, too.

No. 13 Ohio over No. 4 Virginia, West Region, Saturday. The Cavaliers had to bow out of the ACC Tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test and have been bounced early before. The Bobcats have some upset history, too, beating Michigan on the way to the 2012 Sweet 16.

MID-MAJOR MONSTERS

Max Abmas, Oral Roberts. Led the nation with 24.2 points per game and shot 43% from 3 while majoring in biomedical chemistry. He’s going to be all right after the tournament no matter what happens.

Jason Preston, Ohio. Might be the best player non-diehard college hoops fans don’t know. Averaged 17.1 points, 6.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds.

Neemias Queta, Utah State. Absolutely dominating force inside at both ends.

Camron Krutwig, Loyola Chicago. The beefy, agile-footed, deft passing center of the Ramblers’ Final Four is still playing.

Isaiah Miller, UNC Greensboro. Can hurt with his scoring (19.3 ppg) and will get up in your grill on D.

___

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer

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