Much of the 2013 March Madness materializes later this week, but Tuesday and Wednesday mark the beginning for eight teams, who are vying for four spots in the NCAA tournament's round of 64.
Two of today's winners will have the privilege of taking on a No. 1 seed and raising their program's profile in the process. The other victors could generate some serious momentum and even advance beyond Round 2.
(16) North Carolina A&T Aggies vs. (16) Liberty Flames—Tuesday at 6:40 p.m. ET
Somehow, despite starting 0-8 and ending the regular season with a horrible record of 10-20, the Flames ground their way into the First Four thanks to a stunning run through the Big South conference tournament.
After two big wins in the first two contests, Liberty held off a big rally by North division winner High Point to win 61-60 and held Gardner-Webb scoreless for the final 3:21 in the semis to pull out a three-point victory. From there, a decisive, higher-scoring triumph over heavily favored Charleston Southern punched the Flames' ticket to the Big Dance.
The Aggies also wound up with a losing record prior to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference postseason, but found a way through all four games to get to this position.
It's hard to pick against either of these resilient squads, but given Liberty's recently stellar defense and the woeful 39.9 percent shooting that North Carolina A&T posted as a team, the unlikeliest of NCAA tournament teams will move on to Round 2.
Look for Flames leading scorer and stat-sheet stuffer John Caleb Sanders to have a strong showing. Also keep an eye on sharpshooters Davon Marshall and Tavares Speaks to fill it up from beyond the arc for Liberty.
Prediction: Liberty 70, North Carolina A&T 57
(11) Saint Mary's Gaels vs. (11) Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders—Tuesday at 9:10 p.m. ET
Now for some strong teams to cap off this evening's action. The Gaels will be playing extremely hard, but should be even more driven in light of the recent NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations.
Although their postseason eligibility isn't jeopardized, the reduction in scholarships after next season and the suspension for head coach Randy Bennett to start 2013-14 will make the next few years tougher to compete at this high of a level.
It won't be easy against the Blue Raiders, either.
CBS Sports expert Seth Davis was incessantly adamant about Middle Tennessee State getting into the tournament. Its stupendous 28-5 record wound up outweighing a loss in the Sun Belt conference semifinals against Florida International.
The Blue Raiders are superbly balanced and sport underrated depth. Senior guard Marcos Knight puts up 12.5 points per game, yet no one else averages in double-figures. This bunch has seven players averaging six-plus points.
As ESPN points out, Middle Tennessee State notched 11 wins on the road this season, which was second most in the country. Traveling to Dayton for an extra play-in game shouldn't be an issue.
The Gaels are very deep too, although they do rank two spots lower than their opponent in the RPI rankings.
Four players average double digits in points for Saint Mary's, and Matthew Dellavedova is the catalyst (15.8 points and 6.4 assists per game).
This could very well be the most entertaining game of Round 1, and should be a tight contest between two experienced squads. However, the Blue Raiders will emerge victorious thanks to superior defense and be a legitimate threat to upset Memphis on Thursday.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee State 65, Saint Mary's 63
(16) LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds vs. (16) James Madison Dukes—Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. ET
The soaring offense of the Blackbirds, who average nearly 80 points per contest, should be the difference here. JMU simply doesn't have the firepower to hang with higher-scoring teams, and it makes just 42 percent of its shots from the field.
It is impressive how persistent the Dukes have been this season, however, considering they lost five of their first six games to kick things off.
To their credit, they beat regular season Colonial Athletic Association champion Northeastern in the conference tournament final to snap a 19-year absence from the Big Dance.
What's incredible about LIU-Brooklyn is that Julian Boyd, the reigning Northeast Conference player of year, was lost back in December to a season-ending knee injury. The Blackbirds could have been even more dangerous had he stayed healthy.
The senior tandem of forward Jamal Olasewere and guard C.J. Garner should push LIU-Brooklyn over the top.
Olasewere and massive James Madison forward Rayshawn Goins will be a fun battle to watch, but the Blackbirds should have a big advantage on the boards otherwise.
Prediction: LIU-Brooklyn 80, James Madison 68
(13) Boise State Broncos vs. (13) La Salle Explorers—Wednesday at 9:10 p.m. ET
Typically known for their powerhouse football program, the Broncos are making some noise on the hardwood in hailing from the underrated Mountain West Conference.
Boise had to compete with New Mexico—ranked No. 2 in the RPI—NCAA tournament No. 8 seed Colorado State, fifth-seeded UNLV and seventh-seeded San Diego State all year.
Although they went 3-6 combined against those teams, there is no doubting the Broncos' viability. An ambitious out of conference schedule included a close loss to Michigan State and a quality victory over Creighton.
La Salle hails from a strong mid-major conference of its own, the Atlantic 10. The league features the likes of recent Final Four squads such as VCU and Butler, as well as reigning champion Saint Louis.
The dynamic backcourt of the Explorers features Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren, both of whom shoot around 40 percent from three-point range.
Versatile Broncos sophomore Anthony Drmic creates matchup problems for guards with his 6'6" length and outstanding shooting range, so he should be difficult for La Salle to defend.
This should be a relatively high-scoring affair featuring plenty of ridiculous, clutch threes. The X-factor could be the absence of Explorers big man Steve Zack, who has a sprained foot and won't be able to play, according to head coach John Giannini (h/t The Idaho Statesman).
Zack's injury is big, because the Explorers won't be able to effectively thwart Drmic and Boise guard Derrick Marks from slashing to the hoop, and that should allow the Broncos to emerge with the win.
Prediction: Boise State 65, La Salle 58
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.