Two of the best days in American sports are set to get underway Thursday with the 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament's round of 64. The combination of nonstop action and the upsets make for an experience unlike anything else sports fans witness throughout the year.
Of course, one of the main reasons March Madness generates so much interest is the popularity of filling out brackets. Everybody from serious fans of college basketball to casual viewers attempt to predict the tournament and then watch to see how it all plays out.
Knowing that, let's check out all of the key information for this year's bracket, including a link to where you can follow along with the latest bracket updates. The list is followed by a breakdown of a trio of key games on tap for Thursday.
All Your Bracket Essentials:
- Download the Printable Bracket
- Follow the Latest Bracket Updates Live
- Play the Free Bracket Challenge
Saint Louis vs. N.C. State
Games featuring a No. 5 seed going up against a 12 seed are always a focal point for upsets, and that hasn't changed this year. N.C. State survived an opening-round challenge from Xavier to earn a spot in the final 64 and now sets its sights on Saint Louis.
How many lower seeds will win on Thursday?
The fifth-seeded Billikens are a very strong defensive group. They are giving up just 61 points per game, but struggled down the stretch. They lost four of their final five games heading into the big dance and the scoring average against jumped by more than seven points over that span.
In contrast, N.C. State finished strong. The Wolfpack won five of their final six contests, highlighted by a win over Syracuse. They are led by T.J. Warren, who ranks third in the nation in scoring, but improved play by the supporting cast has allowed the team to excel down the stretch.
The biggest question mark is whether the time off between games allowed Saint Louis to get its defensive approach back on track. If so and it can prevent Warren from taking over the game, it will have a good chance to advance. But recent trends point to a Wolfpack win.
Pick: N.C. State
Texas vs. Arizona State
Texas bounced back from a forgettable campaign that saw it end up in the College Basketball Invitational last postseason to qualify for the big dance. The Longhorns will face an tricky challenge from Arizona State in a typically close 7-10 matchup.
Head coach Rick Barnes is confident about his team's chances. Gerry Ahern of USA Today passed along comments from the longtime leader of the Longhorns and he believes playing in the Big 12 prepared his squad for the tough games ahead:
Am I confident? Absolutely. I think we are coming out of a league that has prepared us. It's like anything in basketball you have to go out and win it. You're not going to talk yourself into it.
Barnes' group will need to overcome an Arizona State team with a very strong lead trio. The Sun Devils are led on the offensive end by Jahii Carson and Jermaine Marshall, who combine to average more than 33 points per game, and defensively by Jordan Bachynski, who averages four blocks.
Texas is a more balanced team, though, and that usually bodes well in the tournament. Between Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley down low as well as Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix on the perimeter, the Longhorns should have too many weapons for the Sun Devils to contain.
Oklahoma vs. North Dakota State
Another matchup between a fifth seed and 12th seed that's a popular upset pick. The Bison are one of those mid-major teams that dominated a smaller conference over the past couple months, but the question is whether that will translate to success against tournament foes.
They face off with a high-scoring Oklahoma team that has struggled with consistency, which makes the game even trickier to forecast. One person that likes the chances of an upset is Myron Medcalf of ESPN, who views North Dakota State favorably in their first section of the bracket:
Watch out for North Dakota State. Can beat every team in that pod.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 16, 2014
What makes the Bison dangerous in this particular matchup is their offensive efficiency. They lead the nation in shooting percentage at nearly 51 percent. That bodes well heading into a game against an uptempo Sooners squad that's mediocre defensively.
Of course, if Oklahoma is having one of its lights-out shooting games the opportunity for an upset obviously decreases significantly. But if the Sooners have an average performance, the door opens for the Bison to advance.
Pick: North Dakota State