The time everyone has been waiting for is finally here. The First Four gets the blood flowing, but March Madness does not truly start until the first round of the NCAA Tournament tips off Thursday. It's wall-to-wall action across four different networks (CBS, TBS, TNT, TruTV) and March Madness Live our field of 64 will be cut to 48 across 16 first-round games throughout the bracket. Thursday has plenty of blue-blood action with North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas all kicking off their 2024 NCAA Tournament campaigns, as well as a trio of feisty two-seeds with Arizona, Tennessee and Iowa State all eyeing deep runs in the bracket. 

Some of the teams in action on Thursday have already been playing spoiler in their conference tournaments, while others see an upset opportunity given their opponent. We know the first two days of the NCAA Tournament have unexpected results lurking around the corner, but what's unknown is whether those games are going to come where you most expect (like Thursday's lone No. 5-vs-12 with Gonzaga and McNeese State) or perhaps where you least expect it like last year which saw both No. 1 and No. 2 seeds get bounced in the first round. 

The only way to know how it's going to play out is to clear your schedule and get dialed in for a day of NCAA Tournament hoops. It's the best time of the year, so let's get into some of the big storylines to know for Thursday's first-round action. 

Kansas limps into the tournament 

Some of the biggest news of the week dropped Tuesday night when Bill Self told reporters that Kevin McCullar Jr. has been shut down for the year as his lingering knee injury has not improved even after sitting out the Big 12 Tournament. Injuries have been an issue for McCullar throughout the back half of the season, missing five of the team's last 11 games in the regular season. He'd play through the pain, obviously laboring, but still found ways to contribute in spots. When Kansas announced that he and Hunter Dickinson, who suffered a shoulder injury in the regular season finale against Houston, would miss the Big 12 Tournament the news was delivered with the expectation that the Jayhawks would be as healthy as they had been in weeks when the NCAA Tournament starts thanks to the layoff for their two stars. 

But while Dickinson is back to full contact practices and looking good to go, according to Self, McCullar's absence presents all kinds of issues for Kansas' plan to make it out of the weekend. This was already a team with depth concerns, and now you've removed the most important player from the rotation. That's a problem in the matchup with Samford (9:55 p.m. ET, TBS) because the Bulldogs have one of the deepest rotations in the country, ranking 3rd nationally and No. 1 among NCAA Tournament teams in bench minutes percentage. Bucky McMillan's style is lovingly called "BuckyBall," but playing against Samford is anything but lovely. The Bulldogs use their deep rotation to keep fresh bodies on the floor and apply relentless pace and pressure on the opponent. So now Kansas, with one of the shortest rotations in the tournament, has to play Samford, with one of the deepest rotations in the tournament, in a game where the Bulldogs will want to run and press as much as possible. 

Oh yeah, and did I mention they are playing the game at altitude in Salt Lake City? A big challenge lies ahead for Self and Jayhawks. 

Tom Izzo begins 26th consecutive campaign 

Struggles in the final weeks of the season seemingly put Michigan State's tournament status in jeopardy, but having been revealed as a No. 9 seed perhaps those concerns were overblown. But the Spartans making the tournament allowed Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo to extend his record of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 26. The big question for the matchup against No. 8 Mississippi State in the first game of the day (12:15 p.m. ET, CBS) is whether he will be able to extend his record of winning tournament games as the higher seed. 

Izzo's tournament success is well-documented and a part of college basketball culture — "January, February, Izzo, April, May," for example. But one aspect to his success that is often overlooked is how well he has done compared to Michigan State's seed expectation in the tournament. Izzo is 55-23 overall in the NCAA Tournament but in those wins are 16 victories when his team has been the worse seed, which is the most all-time. He set the new record last season when the Spartans, as a No. 7 seed, took down No. 2 Marquette in the second round, breaking a tie with Jim Boeheim. 

The oddsmakers have made Michigan State a narrow favorite (-1.5) over Mississippi State heading into Thursday so it's not like a win would be an upset, but it would add to his record of success as the lower seed. It would also potentially set up yet another colossal showdown between the Spartans and No. 1 North Carolina in the second round, as the Tar Heels have their tournament debut in the second game from that West Region Charlotte pod against No. 16 Wagner (2:45, CBS) after the Seahawks win in the First Four. 

Will the thievery continue? 

NCAA Tournament selection committee chair Charles McClellan said on CBS that this year's tournament process featured five instances of a bid thief, which would be a team from outside the tournament picture crashing in with an automatic bid from a league that already has at least one team with an at-large worthy profile. That's notable and unusual, he said, because in the last two years there have only been three bid thieves combined. 

For example, the Atlantic 10 had one team with a profile worthy of an at-large bid, and so when Dayton — which plays Thursday afternoon against Nevada (4:30 p.m. ET, TNT) — was knocked out of the conference tournament the winner was going to take a spot in the tournament that would have gone to the Flyers if they had won the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

The winner of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, Duquesne, is one of those five bid thieves and one of three in action on Thursday. All three of these teams are entering the first round with an immense amount of confidence from winning multiple games in a row on the way to a conference tournament title, and all three are in a true "house money" situation since their postseason fortunes prior to last week did not include the NCAA Tournament. No. 11 Duquesne gets the stay started in the earliest window against No. 6 BYU in the East Region (12:40 p.m. ET, TruTV), then No. 11 Oregon has an afternoon tip from Pittsburgh against No. 6 South Carolina (4 p.m. ET, TNT) in Midwest Region action. The final window of the day includes the ACC champs, No. 11 NC State, in a battle with Texas Tech in the South Region (9:40 p.m. ET, CBS).  

So which one of these three teams, all No. 11 seeds and all outside the tournament picture prior to the start championship week, will be able to extend their season into the weekend? It's a challenge to come off that high of cutting down nets and earning the bid to now playing for your season against some of the best teams in the country. You could almost fill an entire day dedicating one screen to the bid thieves, so let's see whether the A10, ACC or Pac-12 champs can keep the good times rolling.