<
>

What to watch in Friday's batch of NCAA tournament games

Day 1? Old news. Day 2? Unspoiled. Boundless. Stretched before us on the horizon, glittering with the promise of (probably) amazing basketball and (maybe?) self-affirming bracket fulfillment. The possibilities are endless.

Let's look at some of the best games, pivotal teams, and most interesting stories of a jam-packed Friday in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

Big day, Big Ten: Thursday was a mixed bag for the Big Ten. It was also a small sample. Just two of the league's seven tournament teams were in action on the opening day. Both were No. 5 seeds. Indiana thrived. Purdue did not.

Friday is a much bigger, and much more narratively diverse, day for the league. Though folks at the league offices will be hoping for a slightly higher winning percentage on Day 2, for the uninvested, a collective discussion of the conference (or even worse, conference strength -- ugh) is inherently less interesting than the individual stories and implications for the teams involved. Particularly for the teams in this league. Particularly this season.

The endlessness of possibility mentioned at the top might be especially appealing to Maryland, which entered the 2015-16 season as a top-five team, only to enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed. Yet as frustrating as the Terps have been at times (all together now: turnovers are bad), they remain as talented and rotationally balanced as any team in the country. Can they still figure it out? Wisconsin did, after all. A 9-9 start through Jan. 12 gave way to an 11-2 regular-season finish (one that earned interim coach and longtime Bo Ryan assistant Greg Gard the full-time gig) -- which, of course, the Badgers promptly followed with ... a neutral-court loss to Nebraska? Huh?

There's Michigan, too, eager to hang on to its narrow tournament existence in a not-terrible matchup with No. 6 seed Notre Dame. And there is Michigan State, kicking off what it hopes is another run to the Final Four -- and maybe the national title -- for coach Tom Izzo.

And then there's Iowa: Still looking for a weird, uncertain tournament debut? Does the Big Ten have a team for you!

As recently as Feb. 7, the Hawkeyes were ranked in the top five. They were 10-1 in the Big Ten, the lone loss a close defeat at Maryland, with sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue already under their belt. Coach Fran McCaffery's team was widely and rightly considered one of the nation's bona fide obvious national title contenders -- and a potential No. 1 seed. Then, naturally, the Hawkeyes lost six of their last eight games, ending a month-long malaise with a 68-66 loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament.

Unless the malaise isn't actually over. Or -- gasp -- maybe it wasn't a malaise at all? After all, none of Iowa's losses came by more than eight points; the average margin of defeat was just 4.8 points. Is this an underseeded power lurking dangerously in No. 2 Villanova's pod? Or a cautionary tale of peaking too early? Friday's first-round matchup with No. 10 seed Temple should at least offer a hint. Because honestly? We could go either way.

The Tyrone Wallace-less California Bears: What was supposed to be a triumphant week for Cal hoops -- back in the NCAA tournament, woo, and so on -- has basically turned into a nightmare. As if the controversy surrounding dismissed assistant coach Yann Hufnagel wasn't bad enough, this week the Bears learned they will enter this tournament without starting guard Wallace, who fractured his hand in practice on Wednesday. As in this Wednesday. As in two days before Cal's opening-round matchup with Hawaii. Can the Bears hang on?

Can Syracuse make the most of its inclusion? One of the more controversial bubble teams of the season -- what with coach Jim Boeheim's nine-game NCAA suspension and all -- nonetheless remains an intriguing one, given how varied the Orange's performance was under two different conditions. When their guards have shot the ball well, and/or Tyler Roberson was aggressive on the offensive glass (as in a midseason win at Duke), Syracuse has looked downright tricky. Absent those conditions, Dayton could roll.

Can Stephen F. Austin pull it off? Per-possession performance-wise, the Lumberjacks rate as one of the best mid-major teams in the field. They were an excellent upset pick before you saw the bracket. Then you saw the bracket, and saw that this team, which presses, runs and forces the nation's highest turnover rate, was facing West Virginia -- basically the major-conference version of itself. Like when Neo had to fight virus-Neo in one of the Matrix sequels. That happened, right? Those last two movies are a total blur.

In closing, the NCAA tournament is like the Matrix sequels if the Matrix sequels were good. Enjoy.