At long last, it's finally time for the NCAA tournament. It's one of the best sporting events on the calendar. Between the fact that every game is a must-win for a team to keep its season alive, filling out brackets and fan loyalty, it's a special phenomenon every year.
After the complete bracket, filled with 68 teams from around the nation, was released on Sunday (printable version here), a couple matchups for the round of 64 immediately stood out. Amidst the numerous mismatches, there were several intriguing games.
Here's a look at the round-by-round schedule for the tournament, followed by a closer examination of three games that all college basketball fans should be looking forward to during the first full round of play. It starts on Thursday.
First Round (Play-in Games): March 19-20
Second Round: March 21-22
Third Round: March 23-24
Sweet 16: March 28-29
Elite Eight: March 30-31
Final Four: April 6
Championship Game: April 8
Best Round of 64 Games
North Carolina vs. Villanova
North Carolina didn't receive much attention this season due to its pedestrian 24-10 record. If you dig a little deeper, however, you will see the Tar Heels didn't suffer any truly bad losses all season. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat.
The same can't be said for Villanova. The Wildcats lost multiple games to teams outside the top 50 and even lost to lowly Columbia, which went 4-10 in the Ivy League. They also lost three of their last five games, including one to Seton Hall (3-15 in Big East).
When you combine those factors with the fact North Carolina has three players averaging more than 14 points per game, led by James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels should have the edge. A victory sets up a likely meeting with Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the South region.
Wisconsin vs. Ole Miss
Same old story for Bo Ryan's Badgers. They play at an incredibly slow pace and are poised on the defensive end, which means it will take an efficient offensive showing to knock them out. Ryan does a great job of finding recruits that hit his system.
Ole Miss presents a matchup problem for Wisconsin, though. The Rebels are basically the direct opposite in terms of their approach. They love to get out and run, as illustrated by their seventh-ranked scoring average of over 78 points per game.
A clash of styles is usually decided pretty early when the game's tone gets set. If there's a lot of up-and-down basketball being played, Ole Miss has the edge. If both teams are running a lot of half-court sets, Wisconsin will be happy. The slight edge goes to the Badgers.
Butler vs. Bucknell
Don't overlook this game. It has buzzer-beater potential. Butler has lost its sleeper status due to recent tournament success, but the Bulldogs are actually overrated this season. While they are a solid team, a No. 6 seed is a stretch.
It gives Bucknell a real chance to pull off the upset. The Bison are riding a seven-game winning streak and have won 12 of their last 13. They also have a true go-to scorer in Mike Muscala, who will cause serious issues for the Butler defense.
This game definitely falls into the toss-up category. Butler's roster features more talent from top to bottom, but Bucknell has enough firepower to keep pace. It wouldn't be a surprise to see it go right down to the final possessions, with the Bison moving on.
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.