Less than 12 hours removed from the culmination of an entertaining First Four games, the 2021 men's NCAA Tournament formally begins Friday.
No. 1 seeds Baylor and Illinois will be in action during the afternoon, with other intriguing matchups sprinkled throughout, in the first true day of March Madness in nearly two years. And if Friday's games rival the First Four in terms of down-to-the-wire finishes and drama, college basketball fans will be in for a real treat.
Follow along from the first tip to the final buzzer for the latest updates, reaction and analysis from USA TODAY Network reporters, editors and columnists.
Ranking (and picking) Friday's first-round games
Which matchups are the most enticing? USA TODAY Sports' Eddie Timanus breaks down all the matchups on today's schedule, tells you which you just can't miss and picks the winners that will advance to the Round of 32 on Sunday.
Everything you need to know for Friday's games
Check out our cheat sheet: matchups, start times, television channels, streaming options, odds and more HERE.
NCAA acknowledges difference between men's, women's tournament
Pictures surfaced Thursday showing the stark differences in gifts that were presented to women's basketball players compared to men's. Stanford sports performance coach Ali Kershner posted photos of the facilities inside the Indianapolis-area bubble (where the men are playing) compared to the San Antonio bubble (where the women are).
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A post shared by Ali Kershner, MS, CSCS (@kershner.ali)
The NCAA acknowledged the discrepancy in amenities, citing space limitations — although those on the ground quickly disputed the point — and said "we want to be responsive to the needs of our participating teams, and we are actively working to enhance existing resources at practice courts, including additional weight training equipment."
The men's tournament had outdoor space at a nearby minor league baseball stadium, while the lone opportunity for fresh air on the women's side is the walk from the team hotel to coronavirus testing sites. There is even a sizable quality difference between the "swag bags" men's and women's players received.
Contributing: Chris Bumbaca, Scott Gleeson
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