Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament was a day without buzzer-beaters, without stunning upsets. It was a day that had its moments, and plenty of great basketball, but none of those fantastic finishes that become part of the game’s lore.
The biggest upset of the day was 12-seed Manhattan beating No. 5 Florida in the East Rutherford region. I’ll give you an idea how much of a surprise that wasn’t. I’ve so far collected the brackets of eight typists and chatterers from Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, Fox Sports and CBS.SportsLine.com, which along with my own make up the Salon Pool o’ Experts. Out of nine brackets, eight of us picked Manhattan to win that game. That was no upset.
I actually heard the word “parity” uttered on TV Thursday. It’s come to that. I’ve long believed that teams seeded from about fifth to 12th are pretty much interchangeable, and they’re only seeded the way they are because of the particular prejudices of the NCAA Selection Committee. Your own prejudices would mean a different seeding.
But now there seems to be consensus that there isn’t a big gap between major-conference powers and schools from less glamorous leagues. It’s been well-documented that the siphoning off of the most talented underclassmen by the NBA has hurt the big conferences, but not the smaller ones, which don’t attract those high school-to-the-pros types anyway.
What this means — other than the startling fact that there are people out there agreeing with me — is that Manhattan beating Florida in the Tournament is no longer the shocking thing it once would have been. Even a Florida whose go-to guy left during the season to play pro ball in Europe.
In a way that’s a shame, because the shocking upset, the miracle win, is what makes the first round of the Tournament so special. If any old directional school or tiny conference champ can walk around thinking, “Sure, we ought to be able to beat Kansas or Duke maybe two out of every five games,” then maybe something’s being lost here. I’m not sure, though, because I don’t want to be the guy telling the Louisiana-Lafayettes of the world that they shouldn’t be as good as Kentucky.
And after all, we still have those 15 and 16 seeds, who almost never beat the 1s and 2s. Top seeds Duke, Stanford and St. Joseph’s all smoked their No. 16 opponents Thursday, and second-seeds Connecticut and Gonzaga pounded 15s Vermont and Valparaiso. Florida A&M is the last 16th seed that can make good on my prediction last year that a 16 seed would be the first to beat a 1 seed by this year. The Rattlers play Kentucky Friday, and if they win, well, that would be a big, honkin’ upset.
Other than 8 vs. 9 games, which can’t be considered upsets when the lower seed wins, the only other surprise Thursday was No. 10 Nevada coming from behind to beat No. 7 Michigan State in the St. Louis region. Four of us in the Pool o’ Experts had the Wolfpack winning that one, so it wasn’t exactly a shocker either, but it was a nice comeback by Nevada, which trailed the whole game and was down by as many as 16. The Wolfpack were down 63-56 with about six and a half minutes to go when they went on a 14-0 run that ended with 18 seconds left. It was their first Tournament win ever.
The closest thing to one of those amazing game-winning shots came in the Alabama-Southern Illinois game in the Phoenix region. The 8-seed Crimson Tide led by a few most of the way, but the No. 9 Salukis closed in the last five minutes. In the last half minute each team got a picturesque runner in the lane, first by Darren Brooks of Southern Illinois, then by Antoine Pettway of Alabama, whose shot put the Tide up by one with five seconds to play.
The Tide then did something that teams hardly ever do: They managed the clock well. Alabama actually had a foul to give, speaking of hardly ever, and they gave it with 2.8 seconds left, interrupting SIU’s final play. The Salukis then got the ball inbounded to Brooks, their best player, who got a good look and launched a 16-footer from just off the left corner of the key, but it clanked off. Would have been a doozy if it’d gone in.
I complain a lot about those 8-9 games being too evenly matched and too often involving dull, middling teams, but this hard-fought game was better than I’ve come to expect an 8-9 game to be. The Texas Tech win over North Carolina-Charlotte, another 8 over a 9, this one in the East Rutherford region, was pretty good too.
That game gives me a chance to do something I hardly ever do: Say something nice about Bob Knight. You know what I like about him these days? He keeps his butt on the bench. I’m so sick of coaches stomping up and down the sideline, flapping their arms, stepping out onto the court during action, constantly directing traffic and yelling. Boys: Sit down. Knight’s one of the few who ever does.
There were almost some decent upsets. Virginia Commonwealth gave Wake Forest a scare but lost 79-78 — it wasn’t quite that close, there was a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it was close. BYU led Syracuse for much of the game before falling by five. Air Force, playing in front of a huge near-home crowd in Denver, discombobulated North Carolina, as predicted, with its strict, grinding Princeton attack, but the Falcons ran out of gas in the last 10 minutes and lost by 11. UTEP came from way down to take the lead late against Maryland, and the Miners had a chance to tie at the end but couldn’t get a shot off.
The evening games tended toward the aforementioned high-seed blowouts, plus No. 3 Texas clocking Princeton in the Atlanta region, but Seton Hall came from way down to beat Arizona and DePaul went to double overtime to beat Dayton in entertaining games.
Friday almost everybody is predicting 11 seed Western Michigan to beat No. 6 Vanderbilt in the Phoenix region. I thought I was a real cowboy for taking No. 13 East Tennessee State over 4 seed Cincinnati — playing in Columbus, Ohio — in the Atlanta region. Six others in the Pool o’ Experts took the Bucs too.
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