The "opening-round" game in Dayton Tuesday night, in which Niagara knocked off Florida A&M for the right to take on No. 1 seed Kansas in Chicago Friday night, marked the "official" start to the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Of course, Thursday afternoon is when folks hunker down in front of big screen televisions – be it in living rooms, sports bars or Las Vegas sports books – and get serious about watching the next 63 games in the event that wraps late April 2 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Before taking a quick spin around the four sites (in Buffalo, Lexington, Sacramento and Winston-Salem) at which first-round action gets under way Thursday, my projected Final Four field is made up of a single No. 1 seed, defending champion Florida, a couple of No. 2s, UCLA and Georgetown, and a No. 3, Texas A&M.
And I'm going with the Gators knocking off the Bruins again (this time in the semifinals), with the Hoyas outlasting the Aggies in the other half of the Georgia Dome double-header on March 31.
And the national champion will be. . . Florida, winning back-to-back titles for the first time since Duke did so in 1991 and '92.
A QUICK LOOK AT THURSDAY'S FIRST-ROUND GAMES
(Tip-offs are Eastern Time)
EAST REGIONAL (East Rutherford, N.J./March 23-25)
AT WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.
Frank Says: Both teams struggled down the stretch. This one will come down to whose "supporting cast" will come up bigger. We'll say it will be Jackson's, most notably wing Martin Zeno.
No. 2 Georgetown (26-6) vs. No. 15 Belmont (23-9), approximately 2:55 p.m.
Frank Says: Belmont runs a version of the "Princeton-style" offense, ala Georgetown. But the Hoyas run it with a much better caliber of player.
Frank Says: The loss (hand injury) of guard Jerel McNeal, the team's most explosive scorer, will be too much for Marquette to overcome.
No. 1 North Carolina (28-6) vs. No. 16 Eastern Kentucky (21-11), approximately 10:10 p.m.
Pay attention to: The depth of quality players on the Tar Heels' roster. There is nothing like it in the college game right now.
Frank Says: The Colonels will hit some jumpers and get some layups in transition – just not nearly as many as will Roy Williams' club.
AT SACRAMENTO, CA.
No. 3 Washington State (25-7) vs. No. 14 Oral Roberts (23-10), 7:20 p.m.
Frank Says: The Cougars play exceptional defense and force you to play just about as well, defensively, or they will get layups or open jumpers. The Pac-10 club advances to Round 2.
Frank Says: Coach Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt team advanced to the Sweet 16 three years ago. This one has the opportunity to do the same thing.
SOUTH REGIONAL (San Antonio, March 22-24)
AT LEXINGTON, KY.
Pay attention to: The (twin) Brothers Lopez, Brook and Robin, of the Cardinal, and how Stanford reacts to Louisville's full-court pressure.
Frank Says: If Stanford isn't rattled by the Cardinals' pressure defense, and a humongous "home-court" advantage, Trent Johnson's youthful (but big and talented) team, the Pac-10 will pick up another first-round win.
No. 3 Texas A&M (25-6) vs. No. 14 Pennsylvania (22-8), approximately 3:10 p.m.
Pay attention to: The teams' best players, Acie Law of the Aggies and Ibrahim Jaaber of the Quakers. Jaaber was the Player of the Year in the Ivy League; Law would have bagged that honor in the Big 12 if not for a player named Kevin Durant.
Frank Says: Law will help the carry the Aggies to the second round – and beyond.
No. 1 Ohio State (30-3) vs. No. 16 Central Connecticut State (22-11), 7:10 p.m.
Pay attention to: Buckeyes' center Greg Oden. It can be mesmerizing watching him dunk and swat shots.
Frank Says: The Buckeyes are more vulnerable than some might think – just not in this game.
No. 8 Brigham Young (25-8) vs. No. 9 Xavier (24-8), approximately 9:30 p.m.
Pay attention to: The marvelous shooting of the Cougars (40 percent-plus on 3's) and the Musketeers' 5-7 but oh-so-dynamic point guard, Drew Lavender.
Frank Says: The team from the Mountain West Conference prevents a reunion between OSU coach Thad Matta and his former program.
MIDWEST REGIONAL (St. Louis, March 23-25)
No. 4 Maryland (24-8) vs. No. 13 Davidson (29-4), 12:20 p.m.
Frank Says: The Wildcats have operated below the national radar while winning 25 of their past 26 games. Led by Curry, that isn't going to be the case after they pull off the day's biggest upset.
No. 5 Butler (27-6) vs. No. 12 Old Dominion (24-8), approximately 2:50 p.m.
Frank Says: Old Dominion came oh-so-close to knocking off Michigan State two years ago. Coach Blaine Taylor's team picks up the school's first-ever NCAA win in this one.
WEST REGIONAL (San Jose, March 22-24)
No. 6 Duke (22-10) vs. No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth (27-6), 7:10 p.m.
Pay attention to: One of the most skilled post players in the country, the Blue Devils' 6-10 Josh McRoberts, and Rams' point guard Eric Maynor, a terrific playmaker (7.2 assists per game) and determined defender.
Frank Says: Does Duke lose a first-round game for the first time since 1996? No, it doesn't.
No. 3 Pittsburgh (27-7) vs. No. 14 Wright State (23-9), approximately 9:40 p.m.
Pay attention to: Senior forward Levon Kendall, perhaps the Panthers' best all-around player, and 5-11 guard DeShaun Wood of the Raiders, as good as any sub-six footer in the country.
Frank Says: This should be a much tighter game than many probably imagine it will be. But Coach Jamie Dixon's team will stick around Buffalo for another couple of days.
No. 2 UCLA (26-5) vs. No. 15 Weber State (20-11), 7:25 p.m.
Pay attention to: Bruins' sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who was sensational during his team's Final Four run of a year ago, and the Wildcats' skilled senior post player, David Patten, who is from Southern California and has played in a lot of Pauley Pavilion pick-up games.
Frank Says: The Bruins improve to 5-0 in NCAA Tournament games they've played in California over the past two seasons.
Frank Says: Assuming both teams play as well as they did over the final couple of weeks of the regular season, Gonzaga will get through this rematch of an second-round game from a year ago and get a rematch with the program (UCLA) that eliminated the Bulldogs with a stunning rally in Oakland in 2006.
Inducted into the USBWA Hall of
Fame in April, 2005, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is
also a columnist for the