rick pitino
John Meore/The Journal News / USA TODAY NETWORK

Unfortunately, northeast basketball isn’t what it used to be. Most teams in the New York/New Jersey area are mid-majors or power conference teams who live on the bubble every year. The Big East is a shell of what it was at its peak and mid-major schools in the area rely on the automatic bid for NCAA Tournament berths.

In short, there aren’t many local schools for college basketball fans in the metro area to latch onto. Seton Hall and St. John’s weren’t even in the conversation for an at-large bid this year. Rutgers can claim the dubious title of the biggest snub from the NCAA Tournament, but they have only themselves to blame for that.

With all that said, there are five local schools heading to the Big Dance — UConn, Iona, Colgate, Princeton, and Fairleigh Dickinson. Here are the top storylines for each of these teams.

Is another first-round upset coming for UConn? In late 2020, UConn head coach Dan Hurley gave the rest of the world a warning.

The Huskies are on the rise after the Kevin Ollie era ended in disaster. This will be the third straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Huskies. UConn is back to being UConn … almost. Hurley’s Huskies still haven’t won a game in the Big Dance yet. Even worse, both of their losses came to double-digit seeds.

And Iona isn’t going to roll over in this game. The Gaels are looking for their first win in the NCAA Tournament with Rick Pitino as head coach (more on that in a moment). UConn will be the favorite, but Iona matches up well here. Nelly Junior Joseph can hang with the big boys like Adama Sanogo inside. Iona’s guards — Walter Clayton and Daniss Jenkins — can play with anyone in the country.

UConn is the favorite in this game. They are talented enough to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But that also means all the pressure is on them entering this matchup with Iona. This is one of the most intriguing first-round matchups.

(And yes, UConn is considered local. It’s an original Big East school and UConn fans pack out MSG more than any other college fanbase.)

Game Details: No. 4 UConn vs. No. 13 Iona — Friday, March 17, 2023 — 4:30 p.m. ET

Is Iona’s Rick Pitino on his way to Queens already? Pitino has tried to keep the focus on Iona’s first-round matchup with UConn, but the rumors are a runaway train at this point. St. John’s parted ways with Mike Anderson after the Big East Tournament and the Pitino rumors surfaced immediately. Given the close proximity of the schools, it would be a gut punch to Gaels fans if Pitino left without any memorable moments in the NCAA Tournaments.

Two regular-season MAAC championships, two MAAC conference tournament championships, and two NCAA Tournament trips aren’t a bad haul for three seasons. But no doubt Iona fans were hoping for more before Pitino inevitably jumped up to a more high-profile job at a power conference.

It’s hard to blame those Iona fans for wanting more, especially after MAAC rival Saint Peter’s made a run to the Elite Eight. A win over UConn would help to let Gaels fans down easy if Pitino tucks tail and runs for Queens.

Game Details: No. 4 UConn vs. No. 13 Iona — Friday, March 17, 2023 — 4:30 p.m. ET

Is this the year Colgate finally breaks through? Colgate is a mid-major school tailor-made for a memorable March Madness moment. It hasn’t happened yet, but they are brimming with experience, starting four seniors and one freshman. All five guys in that starting group averaged double-figures in scoring this year. The Raiders flirted with first-round upsets against Wisconsin and Arkansas in 2022 and 2021. Is the third time the charm for this experienced, balanced group?

Tucker Richardson is the Colgate player to watch. He was the Patriot League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged 13.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. But the fifth-year senior struggled in his last two NCAA Tournament appearances. He has one last chance to change that.

The backcourt trio of Marcus Carr, Sir’Jabari Rice, and Timmy Allen is going to be a tough matchup for Colgate. The Raiders might need to rely on the three-ball to stay in this game. They are 243rd in the country with 20.4 three-point attempts per game, but first in efficiency at 40.8%. The three-pointer and free throws can be great equalizers in NCAA Tournament upsets.

Game Details: No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Colgate — Thursday, March 16, 2023 — 7:25 p.m. ET

Does Princeton have any more west coast magic? The defining NCAA Tournament moment for Princeton basketball came in 1996 on a backdoor pass to beat UCLA in the first round. It was Pete Carril’s patented Princeton Offense on the biggest stage. Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson was actually on the floor for that moment.

The 2023 version of Princeton plays a bit faster than its 1996 counterparts, but they will need to slow the game down to hang with Arizona. The Wildcats are fifth in the country, scoring 82.7 points per game and playing at breakneck speed. If Princeton tries to outrun Arizona, this game will be over before the second half starts.

Game Details: No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 Princeton — Thursday, March 16, 2023 — 4:10 p.m. ET

Can we abolish 16 seeds in the First Four after Fairleigh Dickinson? FDU deserves credit for making the NCAA Tournament in Tobin Anderson’s first year at the helm, but they are making it on a technicality. Although Merrimack won the NEC Tournament, that’s the end of the line because of an antiquated rule barring first-year DI teams from the NCAA Tournament. So, congrats to FDU, but allow me to step on my soapbox for a moment.

Sixteen seeds should not have to play in the First Four. Teams that secure an automatic bid via a conference tournament championship shouldn’t be forced to play their way into the round of 64. At-large teams who needed the committee for a bid should be playing in Dayton. I realize the irony of making this argument for this year’s Fairleigh Dickinson team, but the point remains. The smaller schools deserve a chance at an unforgettable upset à la UMBC over Virginia in 2018.

Game Details: No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson vs. No. 16 Texas Southern — Wednesday, March 15, 2023 — 6:40 p.m. ET

Follow ESNY on Twitter @elitesportsny

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.