Ranking the Round of 64 (and First Four) games by watchability

Do you have a finite amount of time or control over the remote this weekend? If so, this might be the perfect list for you. Or perhaps it won’t be. I can’t predict how you feel!

Game watchability is assigned on a very arbitrary scale, but is essentially a mash-up of how close the game will be + how many points you should see. Close games are fun, but 51-49 games really aren’t. They’re sloppy.

Tiers are on a scale of 1 to 5 basketballs. There are no half-basketballs, and none of this is very serious.

First Four

Five Basketballs

  1. (11) UCLA vs. (11) Michigan State (9:57 PM ET, TBS)
  2. (11) Drake vs. (11) Wichita State (6:27 PM ET, TBS)

I’m being lenient here, but the NCAA Tournament is back for the first time in two years. Why wouldn’t you watch both of these games? As a bonus, UCLA/Michigan State single-handedly decides a pick in my bracket, so I’m really looking forward to that one. Drake/Wichita is also pretty intriguing, particularly now that it appears Drake will be closer to full strength than they’ve been in six weeks.

Three Basketballs

3. (16) Appalachian State vs. (16) Norfolk State (8:40 PM ET, TruTV)
4. (16) Texas Southern vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s (5:10 PM ET, TruTV)

I do feel bad for these teams. In a normal year, they would’ve gotten timeslots to themselves and a chance to tell the country who they are. Instead, they’re sort of the simultaneous undercard to games people would much rather watch. If you have to pick one of these to see a few minutes of, App/Norfolk is better. Norfolk is a very good deep-shooting team, while App’s defense has been fairly spicy lately. TXSO/MSM is useful because it’s the very first game of the Tournament and you can see how many offensive rebounds both teams get, as they both rank in the top 60 of OREB%.

Friday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

  1. (3) Arkansas vs. (14) Colgate (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Colgate is a total mystery; a team that only played five teams this year but dominated almost every single game they participated in. Arkansas is a tad overrated, per the metrics, and could be in trouble against a Colgate team that averages more points per game than any team not named Gonzaga. If nothing else, I fully think both teams are scoring 80+.

Four Basketballs

2. (6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State (1:45 PM ET, TNT)
3. (7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia Tech (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Texas Tech/Utah State is the most boring 6/11 matchup on the board, which means it’s still a good game. Neither team ranks higher than 180th in eFG%, and both teams have top-25 defenses, meaning this could be a game with <120 combined points. Florida/VA Tech is the first game of the tournament and features a pair of teams that have either looked fantastic or awful offensively depending on which game you’ve watched.

Three Basketballs

4. (1) Illinois vs. (16) Drexel (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Rare is the 1/16 game I actually think is worth watching, but I could include this one in said group. Drexel is easily the best 16 seed this year, and while I can’t really fathom them beating Illinois, it’s the only 1/16 that I could see being close at halftime. Drexel is an excellent shooting team that ranks top 50 in both 2PT% and 3PT% and plays very, very slowly, which is a really good recipe for keeping things close. Unfortunately, they also don’t force any turnovers and are a middling offensive rebounding squad. Still, the path is there to keep this within ten.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech (4 PM ET, TBS)

This still stands even with Georgia Tech’s first or second-best player out in Moses Wright. Loyola is one of the three highest-rated 8 seeds in the last 20 years, and they play an entrancing style of basketball that essentially chokes opponents out slowly for 40 minutes. Alright, I didn’t sell it very well. Anyway, both teams here are very good, and you get to see the most unusual elite basketball player in the sport in Cameron Krutwig.

Three Basketballs

2. (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Oregon State (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
3. (2) Ohio State vs. (15) Oral Roberts (3 PM ET, CBS)

Tennessee/Oregon State is the most boring 5/12 game, which, again, still means it’s somewhat watchable. The Vols do have two likely first-round picks in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, while Oregon State’s backcourt of Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas is also good. That being said, I can almost guarantee there will be a three-minute stretch where neither team scores. Ohio State/Oral Roberts would be higher if ORU were better. Oral Roberts has the leading scorer in basketball in Max Abmas, but they’re atrocious defensively and seem very likely to give up 90+. Worth watching if you like 92-74 final scores.

Two Basketballs

4. (1) Baylor vs. (16) Hartford (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Least interesting game of the day.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Wisconsin (7:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (4) Oklahoma State vs. (13) Liberty (6:25 PM ET, TBS)

That’s right! TWO five-ball games. UNC/Wisconsin features a hot UNC squad and a Wisconsin team that’s in the top 15 on most metrics sites. Will there be many points scored? Not likely. But it’s two very good teams that both could push Baylor hard in the next round. Oklahoma State/Liberty features Cade Cunningham, which is all you need to know.

Four Basketballs

3. (4) Purdue vs. (13) North Texas (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Normally a low-and-slow game wouldn’t be that intriguing, but I do think this one is. Purdue/UNT feels unlikely to even crack 65 possessions and will more likely be in the 58-62 range, which is a great recipe for a 13-over-4 upset. And everyone likes upsets.

Two Basketballs

4. (2) Houston vs. (15) Cleveland State (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)

Houston is simply far, far better than a Cleveland State team that had a great season. Houston has the best eFG% defense in the nation, blocks 14.5% of twos, and is going to demolish the boards in this one. Houston ranks #2 nationally in OREB%; Cleveland State, #302 in DREB%. It’s a bad recipe.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) San Diego State vs. (11) Syracuse (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (5) Villanova vs. (12) Winthrop (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

Everyone loves a plucky underdog! Those 11 and 12 seeds that come from small conferences to play with the big boys and are…somehow still coached by Jim Boeheim. Every year Syracuse gets in the field as a 9-11 seed, and every year, they pull an upset. I don’t expect this to go any differently. Meanwhile, Winthrop gets a Villanova team without Collin Gillespie, but Villanova still has a lot of firepower and can run with the Eagles if they so choose.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers (9:20 PM ET, TBS)
4. (3) West Virginia vs. (14) Morehead State (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

Clemson/Rutgers is an awful offensive matchup, but it should be fairly close and it’s quite nice to see Rutgers finally make the NCAA Tournament without it being cancelled. Meanwhile, both Morehead and West Virginia play moderately exciting styles of basketball, which seems pretty likely to result in West Virginia winning by 15 points.

Saturday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure (1:45 PM ET, TNT)

Could have a ton of points scored in this one, and it’s a coin-flip game. Either team could win, likely by a score of 79-78. Both teams were underseeded, and it seems like either will have at least some amount of a shot to beat Michigan in the next round. Very much worth watching.

Four Basketballs

2. (5) Colorado vs. (12) Georgetown (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Everyone’s favorite upset pick this year, which actually makes more sense if you remember how much of an advantage Colorado loses when it plays away from home. Colorado’s home court advantage, per KenPom, is the best in all of college basketball. They went 11-1 at home this year. When they’re on the road or at a neutral site, though, this evaporates. They went 11-7 away from home this year, still good but not nearly as dominant. Georgetown’s going to have a very good shot.

Three Basketballs

3. (3) Kansas vs. (14) Eastern Washington (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Eastern Washington plays a fun brand of basketball and has a uniquely talented center in Tanner Groves. The issue here is more with Kansas, who looks lost offensively from time to time and had their worst offense in Bill Self’s entire tenure this year. A Kansas win doesn’t feel exciting.

Two Basketballs

4. (4) Florida State vs. (13) UNC Greensboro (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Isaiah Miller alone should’ve pushed this to three basketballs, but the gap between FSU (the best 4 seed in the field) and UNCG (the worst 13) is simply too large to make this a higher-rated game. A UNCG upset would probably be more surprising than a 15 seed winning, to be honest.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (6) USC vs. (11) Drake (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
2. (5) Creighton vs. (12) UC Santa Barbara (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Drake’s got to beat Wichita to get here first, but if they do, it’s an utterly fascinating matchup with the best USC squad since O.J. Mayo was in town. Drake simply is a more interesting athletic match with the Trojans, who are pretty likely to beat either opponent but would face a greater point-for-point battle with Drake. Meanwhile, UCSB is the most enjoyable 12-seed this year and does an excellent job of doing all the little things that lead to upsets.

Two Basketballs

3. (2) Alabama vs. (15) Iona (4 PM ET, TBS)

Yes, a lot of points are going to be scored in this game. Iona doesn’t play as fast as they used to, though, and they commit a ton of turnovers. The Rick Pitino storyline is obviously hilarious, but if you don’t like watching top 10 teams beat overwhelmed opponents by 20 points in December, why would you now?

One Basketball

4. (1) Michigan vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern (3 PM ET, CBS)

The two worst 16 seeds in the field versus a 1 seed missing its best shooter. Pass.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (4) Virginia vs. (13) Ohio (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)
2. (7) Connecticut vs. (10) Maryland (7:10 PM ET, CBS)

How could you not be utterly fascinated by the Virginia Quarantine storyline? No one knows which UVA players will be available for Saturday’s game yet, and that’s before you get into Ohio being a fairly strong 13 seed who plays the right brand of basketball to pull an upset. Meanwhile, there’s also a UConn team that’s in the top 15-20 of every metric but somehow got a 7 seed.

Four Basketballs

3. (2) Iowa vs. (15) Grand Canyon (6:25 PM ET, TBS)
4. (8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Grand Canyon doesn’t exactly have a wonderful offense (it’s the 10th-worst in the field), but the question for the entire season has been this: can Iowa’s defense figure it out in time to help their offense out? The Hawkeye defense has climbed all the way to 50th after being at 130th on February 7th. That’s terrific; I’m also quite skeptical. Since the Ohio State loss on February 4, opponents have shot just 32.4% from downtown despite getting off an astounding 24.1 three-point attempts per game. Iowa doesn’t guard these particularly fiercely; a Grand Canyon team that makes 55.4% of their twos and will be taking 40% or more of their shots from deep could reasonably exploit this. Still a likely 10-14 point win for Iowa.

Oklahoma/Missouri was more intriguing before a key Oklahoma player was ruled out, but it’s still worth keeping track of.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) BYU vs. (11) UCLA (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene Christian (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

UCLA over BYU is the most likely 11-over-6 upset…but it requires UCLA to actually win in the First Four, which won’t be easy. That’s why I haven’t completed my bracket yet, as a Sweet Sixteen spot quite literally depends on that outcome. Texas/Abilene Christian is the most must-watch 3/14 game since West Virginia/Stephen F. Austin, simply because no 3/14 game has had this level of a turnover delta since. Texas averages a -2.3 turnover margin per 100 possessions; Abilene Christian is the second-best in all of basketball at +7.3. Averaged out to a 70-possession game, that’s almost seven extra possessions for Abilene. Can Texas make up for that? I’m excited to find out.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

I’m not sure I have a single thought either way on this game. It’s like the exact picture I have in my head of “replacement-level Round of 64 game.”

One Basketball

4. (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Norfolk State or Appalachian State (9:20 PM ET, TBS)

I have Gonzaga as roughly a 28-29 point favorite in this game, regardless of who they play.

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