March Madness kicks off with First Four games and teams looking to do some bracket busting

Howard Seth Towns (31) reacts to a foul against Delaware State with less than a minute left in the game. Howard defeated Delaware State 70-67 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday in Norfolk, Va. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Boise State forward O'Mar Stanley (1) shoots next to San Diego State forward Jaedon LeDee (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 8, 2024, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

DAYTON, Ohio — A year ago, Fairleigh Dickinson landed in the First Four and by the following weekend became one of the most improbable bracket-busters in NCAA Tournament history.

After routing Texas Southern in Dayton, the 16th-seeded Knights — one of the shortest teams in the tournament facing the tallest — upset No. 1 seed Purdue 63-58, only the second time a No. 16 seed had beaten a top-seeded team.


“Anybody has a chance. Anything can happen, no matter what’s going on,” said Donald Copeland, the coach of an injury-depleted Wagner team that opens this year’s First Four against Howard on Tuesday night. “Now our path is probably different, but it gives you motivation to want to hopefully achieve something like that.”

The winner of that game will advance as the No. 16 seed to face top-seeded North Carolina on Thursday in the West Region.

In an unusual twist, the First Four brings together both Colorado and Colorado State. Both finished 24-10.

Six Pac-12 teams went into the tournament ahead of Colorado, despite the Buffs being the runner-up in the conference tournament. They play Boise State (22-10, 13-5 Mountain West) in the late game on Wednesday, with the winner moving on as the 10th seed to face seventh-seeded Florida in a South regional.

Colorado State draws Virginia (23-10, 13-7 ACC) in the late game on Tuesday for the right to move on as the 10th seed in the Midwest to play No. 7 seed Texas. Virginia has made 10 NCAA appearances in the last 12 seasons under coach Tony Bennett and won the national title in 2019.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to kind of test ourselves and see where we’re at as a program. At this point there are no cupcakes,” said Isaiah Stevens, Colorado State’s top scorer at 16.5 points.

“The way I look at this is, we’re a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and we just get to play one more game than everybody else,” said Rams coach Niko Medved. “That’s a pretty cool deal.”

Making a name

Wagner, a school with around 2,000 students in Staten Island, New York, returns to the NCAA Tournament after a drought of 21 years.

Howard — the Seahawks’ opponent on Tuesday — was in last year, but hopes to make a better showing this time around.

Wagner (16-15, 7-9 Northeast Conference) finished in sixth place in the conference in the regular season. After losing their final two regular-season games, the Bison won three straight in the NEC tournament, beating Merrimack in the final, despite Copeland’s rotation being down to seven players because of injuries.

In fact, it got so bad that Damen Mazil, the quarterback of the Wagner football team, was added to the roster in February for some depth.

“A small island, and we’re back here after 21 years,” Wagner guard Javier Ezquerra said. “It’s amazing.”

Howard (18-16, 9-5 MEAC) was 9-14 in early February but roared back, winning nine of its last 11 games, including the conference tournament.

“You go in with certain expectations, and this year was just like really rocky for us in a lot of ways,” said Howard forward Seth Towns, who averaged 14.2 points. “So to come together at the end of the year, like we did, in the last five or so games and then in the tournament, I think it’s a testament to the leadership of the coaching staff and just to the incredible guys who were never willing to give up.”

Welcome to the show

Grambling State is making its first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament after winning nine of its last 10 games, including the SWAC regular-season title and the conference tournament.

Grambling (20-14, 14-4 SWAC) is facing Montana State on Wednesday to advance as the 16th seed in the Midwest for the right to play top-seeded Purdue on Friday.

Montana State (17-17, 9-9 Big Sky) is fortunate to be in the tournament for the third straight season. The Bobcats were 13-17 on March 2 before winning their last four games to pull even. They beat Montana in the Big Sky tournament to earn the automatic bid.

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