There’s nothing quite like those first two days of the NCAA Tournament, and this year, as usual, that included the next two days. Where Thursday and Friday were wild marathons of close games and upsets, Saturday and Sunday were filled with beat-downs and expected winners.
There were two surprises in the South Sunday — 11th seed Temple abusing No. 3 Florida 75-54 and seventh seed Penn State beating No. 2 North Carolina 82-74 — but for the most part, the teams that were supposed to win did win, and nobody needed a buzzer beater to do it.
Counting a lower seed beating a higher seed as an upset, there were seven in 16 games Thursday, six in 16 games Friday, but only three in 16 games over the weekend. (The other was USC, the sixth seed in the East, beating No. 3 Boston College Saturday, though most observers thought those teams were a pretty even match going in.) Twelve of the 16 games over the weekend were decided by 10 or more points, and two more were decided by eight and nine points. There were only six blowouts Thursday, 11 Friday.
Not that there wasn’t some excitement. Southern Cal and Boston College went back and forth wildly, with the Trojans dominating early and then again in the second half, but the Golden Eagles using a full-court press to spark a furious rally late in the first. Boston College could have tied the game with a three-pointer in the final seconds, but inexplicably drove to the basket, a move defended by coach Al Skinner, a stand-up guy who gets points for defending his players but who was, as CBS studio host Greg Gumbel surprisingly and refreshingly pointed out, “dead wrong on this one.”
The weekend’s biggest thrills came courtesy of St. Joseph’s of Pennsylvania, the ninth seed in the West, who gave top-seed Stanford a scare for the ages. With the Cardinal cruising 56-46, the Hawks proceeded to go on a 21-6 run — has anyone done that to Stanford all year? — led by junior guard Marvin O’Connor, who put his team on his back and turned in the game of the Tournament so far, scoring 37 points. Even with St. Joe’s up 67-62, you had the feeling Stanford would settle down and win, which they did, but they’d been exposed.
St. Joe’s showed that if you take the Cardinal out of their game by running, and you hit your three-pointers, you can beat them. The Hawks were done in by a lack of depth. Beyond O’Connor, who ran himself to the point of exhaustion before fouling out, Jameer Nelson and Na’im Crenshaw, they just don’t have anyone who can score. But a team with an athletic, good-shooting backcourt and some depth — probably not Cincinnati, the Cardinal’s next opponent, but maybe Maryland, their likely foe after that — could do the trick.
So now we go to the Sweet 16. The top seeds are all still alive, but half of the twos and threes are gone. For fans of the underdog, Georgetown in the West and Temple and Gonzaga in the South are the remaining double-digit seeds.
Here’s a look at the regionals.
East (Thursday in Philadelphia): Duke vs. UCLA; USC vs. Kentucky.
Duke is my pick to win the whole thing. The Blue Devils had their hands full against a pretty good, and emotional, Missouri team (Missou coach Quin Snyder is a Mike Krzyzewski protégé), and UCLA is playing about as well as anybody, but it’s hard to pick against Duke until somebody knocks them off. At which time it’ll be too late to pick against them, is the way it works.
USC is the damnedest team in the country. They’re either great or awful, and there’s no telling, not just game to game but minute to minute, which it’s going to be. The Trojans’ game against B.C. was a perfect example: They were brilliant for 10 minutes, building a 26-13 lead, and then they looked like the Washington Generals as they gave up a 14-3 run. Playing at their best for 40 minutes, the Trojans can beat Kentucky, but there’s no reason to believe that’ll happen. Duke should handle whichever team wins.
CBS might be happy with two upsets Thursday night, which would set up a UCLA-USC match Saturday, ensuring big ratings in the No. 2 market.
West (Thursday in Anaheim): Stanford vs. Cincinnati; Maryland vs. Georgetown.
Stanford did have some weaknesses exposed Saturday, but Cincinnati’s not the team to exploit them, and Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery is one of the best in the business. Five days might be enough time to make the needed adjustments. Maryland vs. Georgetown is interesting geographically, but that’s about it. The Hoyas scraped past an ordinary Arkansas team, then got a break by getting to play Hampton rather than Iowa State.
If Stanford goes to the Final Four, as expected, their semifinal game would likely be against Duke, a rematch of a December thriller won by the Cardinal.
Midwest (Friday in San Antonio): Illinois vs. Kansas; Mississippi vs. Arizona.
This is the only region where the top four seeds made it through. Kansas looked very good against Syracuse Sunday, but Illinois has just been abusing people. If Sergio McClain and Brian Cook shoot Friday the way they did Sunday, Kansas is in trouble, and the Jayhawks aren’t going to outrebound the Illini 56-23, as they did Sunday against the Orange.
Arizona might be playing the best basketball in the Tournament, but it’s hard to tell since they’ve only played Eastern Illinois and Butler. Mississippi has struggled mightily against Iona and Notre Dame. The Rebels won’t be able to stay with the Wildcats, who ought to be able to beat whoever wins the Illinois-Kansas game and go to Minneapolis.
South (Friday in Atlanta): Michigan State vs. Gonzaga; Temple vs. Penn State.
Michigan State gets the closest thing to a free ride as there is in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga likes to play giant killer, but not this giant. And whoever wins the intriguing Nittany Lions-Owls matchup — Temple in an upset, it says here — better enjoy it, because they aren’t going to beat the Spartans.
Play of the weekend: No single play stood out above the rest. There were no buzzer beaters, no truly spectacular plays that were significant to the outcome of a game. So this highly coveted honor goes not to one play but to Marvin O’Connor’s entire second half against Stanford. The St. Joseph’s guard was simply unstoppable as the Hawks went on a run that got them back into the game and put them into the lead. He ran out of gas, and then fouled out, but he’d scored 37 points when he was disqualified, and even the Stanford fans gave him a standing ovation.
A sequence: Hampton’s Tarvis Williams blocks a shot by Georgetown’s Trenton Hillier, who had driven the lane. After another shot, Williams gets the rebound and throws an outlet pass to Marseilles Brown, who feeds Cleveland Davis for a fast-break alley-oop dunk, tying the game midway through the first half and sending the crowd into fits as Davis leaps up and down for joy. How about Hampton! Great while it lasted.
Another sequence: A three-pointer by Na’im Crenshaw and then four more threes by Marvin O’Connor highlight a St. Joe’s rally that puts the Hawks ahead of Stanford in the second half.
Brian Scalabrine to Jeff Trepagnier on the fast break for a reverse dunk. USC when things are going right.
Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich skips a pretty pass down the lane to Drew Gooden, who catches it to the right of the basket, dribbles underneath and scoops up an improbable reverse layup without benefit of the backboard.
Trailing Mississippi by two with eight seconds to go, Notre Dame’s Matt Carroll rises up at the corner of the key to pass to a wide-open Ryan Humphrey, making a back-door cut to the hoop. Rebels guard David Sanders blocks the pass and Ole Miss picks up the loose ball to preserve the win.
Kareem Rush keeps Missouri in the game against Duke with five three-pointers, and Jason Williams of Duke puts Missouri away with five threes of his own.
Williams again, whipping a pass down the lane to Shane Battier for an easy bucket. It’s during garbage time, but what a pass.
Best finish: Mississippi over Notre Dame.
Almost as good: USC over Boston College.
Best line: “Tired? How old is this guy?” — Bill Walton, wondering about St. Joseph’s center Alexandre Sazonov asking to be taken out of the game at a key moment. Walton’s general disgust with anyone who doesn’t live up to his hard-nosed, high-energy standards is both amusing and refreshing in the never-criticize-anybody world of TV sports commentary.
Worst line: Greg Gumbel’s entire opening bit on the pregame show Sunday, which name-checked a bunch of Rolling Stones songs. Sample: “Do these youngsters know you can’t always get what you want? Or is a chance to move on to the Sweet 16 just a shot away? … Start me up!” The Rolling Stones? Far out, Greg. Way to get away from CBS’s reputation as the geriatric network.
Runner-up: “12 seeds went 2-2 in the first round.” — A CBS “Tournament summary” graphic. Uh, guys? Thirteen seeds went 2-2 also. Isn’t that even more significant?
Most pathetic sight: NBC’s NBA game on Sunday. This is a tough time of year for the poor NBA. While college basketball is churning out raging waves of excitement, the thrills and chills in pro basketball revolve around the jockeying for home court advantage; whether woeful Boston or awful Indiana will get the last playoff spot in the East; and whether mediocre Minnesota can hold off ho-hum Houston for the last spot in the West.
Wake us up in five weeks, NBA, when those riveting dramas have played themselves out.