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

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — 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 in the West Region to face top-seeded North Carolina on Thursday.

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

Colorado was the runner-up in the Pac-12 Tournament and will play Boise State (22-10) from the Mountain West Conference in the late game Wednesday, with the winner moving on as the 10th seed in the South Region to face seventh-seeded Florida.

Colorado State, also from the Mountain West, draws ACC regular Virginia (23-10) in the late game Tuesday for the right to move on as the 10th seed in the Midwest and play No. 7 seed Texas. Virginia has made 10 NCAA Tournament 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 per game.

“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," Rams coach Niko Medved said. "That’s a pretty cool deal."

MAKING A NAME

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

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

Wagner (16-15) finished sixth in the Northeast Conference during the regular season. After losing their final two games, the Seahawks won three straight in the league 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) was 9-14 in early February but roared back to win nine of its last 11 games, including the Mid-Eastern Athletic 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 appearance in the NCAA Tournament after winning nine of its last 10 games to take the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Grambling (20-14) faces Montana State on Wednesday for the right to advance as the 16th seed in the Midwest and play top-seeded Purdue on Friday.

Montana State (17-17) is fortunate to be in the tournament for the third straight season. The Bobcats were 13-17 on March 2 before winning four straight. They beat Montana in the Big Sky Tournament championship game to earn the league's automatic NCAA bid.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness