MINNEAPOLIS -- There's no day more exciting and more highly anticipated than First Round Thursday, and there's no 12 hours quite as difficult to get through. As soon as the games begin, the NCAA Tournament teaches a hard lesson about the perfection that's necessary to compete against enemies with more available resources.
There's no margin for error for teams on this side on the line, none at all. The shot
has to go in. One series of mistakes, three bad minutes within 40, and it's the end of the line. It can come early on, like the 9-0 deficit that Butler found itself in
before any other games had started, or the four quick turnovers by Northern Iowa
that began its contest. It can come late, as happened to undaunted American
or brave little Cal State Northridge
or tough overachievers Akron
. In all cases, a single stretch was the difference between historical footnote and national headliner, why each season epitaph is the standard "These coaches, players, fans and community should be proud of this team. These guys played their hearts out today, they have nothing to be ashamed of." They were not perfect. And that is why these days are so very cruel indeed.
At least it was better than last year
. The fat lady didn't
sing (we chose the right Buffalo Wild Wings this time), but both of us were very difficult to be around. We had to wait until the very end -- well past 1 a.m. Eastern time -- for a team that showed just enough
perfection, as Western Kentucky held the line and eliminated Illinois
in Portland. So there's one team through to the weekend, and we hope that Friday is as bountiful as last time. In fact, we're counting on it: our season ends when none of our teams are left.  Stephen F. Austin vs.  Syracuse
- 12:15 pm ET
South Region - Miami, FLAthletic Budgets (2008): SFA: $11,203,279 SYR: $44,702,832 (-$33m/25%)
One of the biggest red flags for a mid-major champion coming into the NCAA Tournament is a reliance on tempo and defense -- it's safe to assume that a top-conference team will simply ignore such stats and play however the hell it wants. SFA won its first-ever Southland title by milking the clock and compiling the third-best defensive efficiency in the land (.871 points per opponents' possession), but Syracuse will likely play fast and shoot the lights out. But... and this is a very big but... the Orange is sloppy and gives up a lot of layups. SFA, using the time-honored weapon of ball control, will get extra possessions with its 17 percent turnover rate, which means more opportunities to get it down low to SLC POY Matt Kingsley. Upsetability: Medium-low.
 North Dakota State vs.  Kansas - 12:30 pm
Midwest Region - Minneapolis, MN
Athletic Budgets (2008): NDST: $11,535,056 KU: $65,707,112 (-$54m/17%)
How can Bison Fever survive and advance to become Bison Epidemic? One key factor will be that this is a home game. Minnesota and North Dakota are both in Twins Territory, and thousands of NDSU fans descended on the Metrodome to watch the Bison shooters adjust to the sightlines. This team's perfection will have to start with Bison ball control, and capitalize on inevitable Kansas koughups (the young Jayhawks were the Big 12's worst ballhandling squad). The nation's 12th best team in that category (11.2 topg, 16.4 percent turnover rate) has to hold on to the handle and run plays for a bunch of shooters that bang in 41.2 percent of their 3's. And it bears repeating: this team was engineered for this moment, and isn't scared of brand-name teams. Upsetability: I don't want to jinx this.
 Utah State vs.  Marquette - 12:30 pm
West Region - Boise, ID
Athletic Budgets (2008): USU: $13,205,337 MARQ: $23,677,426 (-$10m/57%)
Efficiency geeks are all over the Aggies -- USU is the nation's top shooting team (49.8 percent), a ball control festival on wheels and one of the best teams in the entire land in converting possessions into points (56 percent of times up the court, Utah State scores at least one point). So you have to like their chances against a defensively-challenged Marquette team that's been prone to embarrassing nights (Dayton! South Florida!) The key to a win here will be 40 minutes of vigilance -- do not give up the second-half run that the Golden Eagles are counting on making. Be perfect, be consistent, and always remember where to hit the wheel. Upsetability: High.
 Temple vs.  Arizona State - 2:45 pm
South Region - Miami, FL
Athletic Budgets (2008): TU: $27,478,056 ASU: $52,904,828 (-$25m/52%)
This will be a matter of containment -- James Harden is a ridiculously good player, and he has to be on every page of the game plan. And the whole ASU team is all about paint ownership, getting any shot they want 10-feet or closer and stopping same. As in our first three games, handle is key -- Temple survived a rough regular season and marched to the title largely on the strength of a 10 topg average. While Dionte Christmas will have to play well, it's not a team that gets by on its shooting. The key to a win here is getting points out of Ryan "Halloween" Brooks and Lavoy "Arbor Day" Allen. Upsetability: Medium-low.
 East Tennessee State vs.  Pittsburgh - 2:55 pm
East Region - Dayton, OH
Athletic Budgets (2008): ETSU: $5,185,600 PITT: $39,741,620 (-$34m/13%)
Murry Bartow broke through and won an Atlantic Sun title that ETSU's fan and boosters have not only demanded, but required for the last four years. The team did so with a fast, fun style that featured a high-flying attack with Courtney Pigram, Mike Smith and Kevin Tiggs (54.6 ppg combined). It's easy to visualize an exciting 10-2 Buc run that gets the non-Pittsburgh fans in the house getting Buc Wild for a few minutes, but this is a big, tough team that likes to stomp small things. Avert your eyes. Upsetability: Very low.
 Dayton vs.  West Virginia - 3:00 pm
Midwest Region - Minneapolis, MN
Athletic Budgets (2008): UD: $16,832,124 WVU: $49,052,708 (-$33m/33%)
Our second game in Minneapolis is a matchup of total statistical freakshows... both teams won plenty of games they shouldn't have. Both teams shoot badly, but are both deep with role players and expert in the art of finding interesting new ways to score and win. Get this: Dayton and WVU are both outside the top 200 in shooting percentage (UD: 42.8 pct/216th; WVU: 43 pct/207th), but are both top 50 in floor percentage... that is, percent of possessions that end in at least a point (UD: 52.1 pct/49th; WVU: 54.3 pct/12th). So expect a game in the 50's that's decided by bench points. One thing is to completely avoid a free throw shooting contest at the end: West Virginia is one of the best one-point shooting teams in the country, and the Flyers, um... notsomuch. Upsetability: Medium.
 Cornell vs.  Missouri - 3:00 pm
West Region - Boise, ID
Athletic Budgets (2008): CORN: $17,794,180 MIZZ: $48,793,768 (-$31m/35%)
Cornell hasn't played since March 7th, right around the time conference tourney autobids were just starting to be given out. And don't forget about the biggest drawback of the Ivy's ancient policy of not holding a conference tourney: the Big Red is the only team on this page that hasn't played an elimination game. Repeat champion Cornell is all about great shooting and ball control in a placid, leafy, moderately-paced setting, and Missouri likes to push tempo and score the crap out of the ball. The Tigers are vulnerable to a bigger team, but this isn't the opponent that can deal that punishment. Upsetability: Medium-low.
 Morehead State vs.  Louisville - 7:10 pm
Midwest Region - Dayton, OH
Athletic Budgets (2008): MORE: $5,786,194 UL: $53,146,468 (-$48m/9%)
On Tuesday, Morehead State won the OVC's first NCAA game since 1989, breaking Division I's longest and oldest winless streak (it's the SWAC's turn now: 1993). The school made the Tournament for the first time since 1984 and ignited basketball fever in a little town we've visited. And Donnie Tyndall is a helluvaguy who says I look like Rick Barnes. We love Morehead State. The NCAA tries to avoid matchups in early rounds that are repeats of regular-season games. Tries to. But we have this 79-41 blowout from Nov. 22 that gives a clear indication as to how this one's going to go. (Bonus fun fact: Morehead's 1984 NCAA path was a win over a HBCU followed by a loss to UL). Upsetability: Very low.
 Portland State vs.  Xavier - 7:25 pm
East Region - Boise, ID
Athletic Budgets (2008): POST: $9,322,591 XU: $12,815,704
Finally, we come to the only true non-exempt Red Line cannibalization game of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, the only one where we can't really pick a side. Xavier's continued success is worthy of the highest adulation, and is all the more remarkable because the Musketeers haven't captured the national imagination or showed up regularly on television. Portland State won the Big Sky tourney out of a No. 2 seed, and got a higher NCAA seed than when they were double-champs last year (No. 16) despite winning the same number of games (23)! Respect, baby! PSU, use your balanced scoring; Xavier, don't turn the ball over. And both teams, play nice.
 Siena vs.  Ohio State - 9:40 pm
Midwest Region - Miami, FL
Athletic Budgets (2008): SIE: $8,970,217 OHST: $98,981,208 (-$90m/8%)
Siena got a four-seed bump from its Round of 32 run last year, and are an exemplary example of the lesson that all mid-major teams that catch any March fire at all (or are snubbed) should get into a neutral-site Multi Team Event. Seriously, it helps a lot. The MAAC champions are up against a turnover-prone, defensively-challenged, generally soft power-conference runnerup for the second straight year, but will have to overcome two large mountainous challenges. One is the crowd: we saw back in 2006 what an arena full of brainwashed idiots yelling "O! H! I! O!" can do. Second is the Buckeyes' shooting: it's real good. If the Saints can be disruptive and push tempo, which they can do against a team like this, that'll shut the crowd up. Upsetability: Medium-high.
 Cleveland State vs.  Wake Forest - 9:40 pm
Midwest Region - Miami, FL
Athletic Budgets (2008): CLST: $8,759,138 WAKE: $39,599,164 (-$31m/21%)
Wake Forest is superfast and supergood, and we observed the Demon Deacons wear down another gutty and gritty Horizon League team, Wright State, back in December. The Vikings will have to find some way to gum up a high-octane machine and slow things down, which is exactly the script the team followed in its famous takedown of Syracuse. But they'll have to avoid the 15-3 run that will occur if they fail to control the tempo for 40 minutes. If it's close at the end, they have the big-time shooters that can hit the big-time shots, and this could be the game where sophomore Norris Cole tosses off the yoke of inconsistency and becomes the star he's destined to become. Further advice: pack it in on defense, and let their outside shooters shoot. They won't hit 'em (31 percent from 3). Upsetability: Medium.
 Robert Morris vs.  Michigan State - 9:50 pm
Midwest Region - Minneapolis, MN
Athletic Budgets (2008): RMU: $10,647,726 MSU: $62,397,816 (-$52m/16%)
Robert Morris, the school with the lager logo, is back in the Dance for the first time since 1992. It's a shame the Colonials drew the only Big Ten team that really scares us. The Spartans are big, tough, athletic, and superior in rebounding and defense -- and they have a key strength in 3-point shooting that matches with RMU's biggest problem, which is perimeter D. But there are cracks that can be exploited: MSU will turn it over, has occasional issues finishing down low, and fouls a lot. If there's going to be magic in the late game, the Colonials will have to play 40 perfect minutes and get a giant game from 6-8 junior Rob Robinson, who is assigned with the task of standing up to MSU's tough front line. Upsetability: Low.