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What to Watch For: The first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament

Four teams from the SEC are in action on the first day of the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Championship-Tennessee vs Kentucky Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament fully gets underway on Thursday afternoon. The anticipation is just about over, and the SEC will have a heavy presence. As you well know by now, the conference is sending a record amount of teams (8) to the Big Dance. As we all know, though, that could mean big things... or it could all blow up in their faces by the end of the weekend. They don’t call it March Madness for no reason.

Here are a few storylines to watch for on Thursday:

WILL CALIPARI’S RUN OF SUCCESS CONTINUE?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Georgia Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

There are several people out there who say that John Calipari is an overrated coach. Whether or not those people are worth listening to or enabling is a question in it of itself. But Coach Cal has certainly done his damnedest to remain a constant fixture in the NCAA Tournament.

All eyes will, once again, be on the Wildcats as they rounded into form and won the SEC Tournament this past weekend. And the eyes will be on Calipari because he has had a tremendous run of success at UK. Only once in the last seven appearances in the NCAA Tournament has Coach Cal not seen the second weekend. That year was 2016, when the Wildcats were bounced by their rivals, the Indiana Hoosiers, in the Round of 32.

We haven’t quite reached that point yet. But, we do know that Cal has been as safe a bet as you could make in the Round of 64. As a coach, he’s gotten his teams to the NCAA Tournament 18 times. The amount of times that he’s lost in the Round of 64? One. Back in 2003, the Arizona State Sun Devils knocked off Calipari’s Memphis Tigers 84-71 out in Oklahoma City. It’s been a long time since they’ve taken an L on one of the first two days of the tourney. Will Bob McKillop’s Davidson Wildcats join that exclusive rank? We’ll see how it plays out in Boise. Don’t bet the house on it, though.

WILL COLLIN SEXTON AND THE TIDE GET THEIR MOJO BACK?

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it: Collin Sexton and the Alabama Crimson Tide earned their way into field of 68. Despite losing five straight to end the regular season, ‘Bama bounced back in a big way in the SEC Tourney. The Tide won in dramatic fashion over the Texas A&M Aggies. Then, they knocked off the No. 1 seed, the Auburn Tigers (who just so happen to be their arch rivals, of course) by nearly 20 points.

They were dethroned by Kentucky in the semifinals. But, it’s clear that they were able to show that they can hang with the top dogs. Whether or not that near 20-point defeat to UK has an effect on them is yet to be seen. They will be battling with the ACC’s Virginia Tech Hokies in Pittsburgh Thursday night. VaTech has proven themselves worthy, too, as they registered wins over the Virginia Cavaliers, North Carolina Tar Heels, Clemson Tigers AND Duke Blue Devils this season. Chris Clarke will be one to watch for the Hokies. But whether they can tame Sexton and the Tide, if they do indeed get their mojo back? Well, that’s yet to be seen.

WHICH TENNESSEE WILL WE SEE?

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The co-regular season champion Tennessee Volunteers have been a bit up-and-down over the last few weeks. They defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs 76-54 back on February 27. They then had two close calls to the Georgia Bulldogs on March 3 and then against Mississippi State in the Quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. But, they followed that up with a demolition of the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Semis and played Kentucky close in the Final.

Tennessee, a 3 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, start off with the Wright State Raiders. On one hand, Wright State shouldn’t inflict too much fear in Vol fans if you look at the numbers. Tennessee ranks 40th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Wright State... ranks 246th. The Vols rank 162nd in PPG, with 74.2. The Raiders... rank 224th, with 72.1. So they are a bit deficient on offense. The problem is, as we touched on: Tennessee’s offense has sputtered in recent weeks. And the Raiders play pretty good defense. They rank in the Top 30 in PPG allowed (65.7, good for 27th in the nation) and rank 54th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

If the Vols that we saw for most of the year, the ones who made the push to the top of the SEC appear again, then they should be able to handle WSU. However, if the plodding Vols appear, the ones who can’t really score at will, then the Raiders could keep it close. And if it comes down to a game of inches, there’s no telling what that means for the 3-seeded Volunteers.

CAN FLORIDA REKINDLE THE GOOD VIBES AT THE LAST MOMENT?

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be real: the Florida Gators underachieved quite a bit this year. Sure, they finished 3rd in the SEC. But the Gators’ aspirations were much loftier this year. After going to the Elite Eight last season, they were expected to be title contenders. They fell short of that in the 2017-18 campaign, and as a result, they’re a 6 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Florida’s road in the NCAA Tournament starts up against the St. Bonaventure Bonnies. The Bonnies defeated the UCLA Bruins, another team who may have missed set expectations this year, on Tuesday in Dayton in the First Four. Dallas will play host to this matchup, and the 11-seeded Bonnies will no doubt be upset-minded as they roll into the American Airlines Center. This veteran group in Gainesville will try to get their poise back and again attempt to make a run. As UF fans may tell you though, they might not be so confident after what they’ve seen this season.