Another 16 goes down, but not without a fight, in a great afternoon of basketball.
3:05 p.m. PDT Ah, well, it didn’t work out for East Tennessee State. The Panthers had just enough No. 1 mojo to take control of the game down the stretch and win 72-62. It was the closest 1-vs.-16 game since 1997, the last time a 1-seed failed to beat a 16 by double digits.
The good news around here is that I actually picked the upset that did happen in the second batch of games, No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 West Virginia in the Midwest. The Flyers took that one 68-60. In the other two games, No. 3 Missouri fought off a first-half challenge by No. 14 Cornell for an easy 78-59 win in the West and Arizona State overcame an off day by its best player, James Harden, to beat the one-man team Dionte Christmas — who plays under the name Temple — 66-57.
A pretty swingin’ day of basketball so far. No upsets for the ages, but almost-upsets are almost as good. Upsets for the ages wouldn’t be for the ages without the almosts. And it’s nice when those middle of the bracket games, the ones between teams that don’t have much better odds of winning the Tournament than North Dakota State or Stephen F. Austin, turn out to be good ones, as today’s Tennessee-Oklahoma State and Utah State-Marquette games were.
Breaktime now. Two more sets of games in prime time. Morehead State will meet Louisville and try to keep the losing streak of 16-seeds from reaching 100. And don’t miss Cleveland State, the 13-seed in the Midwest, against No. 4 Wake Forest. The Vikings’ wins over Indiana and St. Joe’s, bringing them to the Sweet 16 as a 14-seed in 1986, helped put the NCAA Tournament Cinderella run on our cultural map.
Enjoy the rest of the weekend’s games.
1:35 p.m. PDT East Tennessee State — famous in my house as the team my son Buster picked to go all the way a few years ago — is giving Pittsburgh all it can handle. The Buccaneers are the latest 16th seed trying to win a game for the first time ever.
From here, and I’m doing that same thing of trying to watch four games at once and not really getting the whole story of any of them, it looks like the Panthers are vastly superior, as you might expect, but they just aren’t working that hard.
Pitt’s Jermaine Dixon had a runout a few moments ago. He was all alone downcourt with one defender. He missed the layup, and all the other players on the floor were so slow getting there that Dixon was able to get his own rebound on a bounce. A few seconds later the other four East Tennessee State players arrived, and there were still no white uniforms in sight.
After that, Levance Fields of Pittsburgh had an easy layup, but he went up soft and a streaking Greg Hamlin swooped in from behind and swatted the ball away.
It’s a story as old as sports. The heavy favorites think they have an easy win. They figure they throw their jocks out on the floor and there shouldn’t be a problem. The big underdogs play their hearts out, hang close, start to believe, and next thing you know it’s a real fight. Most of the time, the favored team is able to wake up, go on a run — it’s often late in the first half, as noted earlier — and take care of business. But once in a while, the underdog can keep the magic going for 40 minutes.
It’s never happened for a 16-seed in 98 tries since the Tournament went to a 64-team format, including the two games yesterday.
Funny thing about things that have never happened, though. Once they happen, it’s not true anymore.
Thirteen and a half to go. Pitt by one.
12 noon PDT That was fantastic. The kind of moment I think about when I think about watching the NCAA Tournament.
North Dakota State gave a valiant effort but didn’t force Kansas to the wire, finally falling by 10. Still, I don’t know what else is going on in Fargo tonight, but those guys ought to get a hell of a welcome home.
The other two, though, roaring to the final buzzer a few minutes apart, were thrillers. This column was frantically clicking between the games, and so was CBS. It was a game of hide and seek there for a minute.
Byron Eaton of Oklahoma State decided the game against Tennessee with a great drive and score, and one, with 6.7 seconds to go to give the Cowboys a 77-75 lead. Tennessee had a look at a 3-pointer in the final seconds, but it didn’t go.
I think those 8-vs.-9 games, which the TV guys always say are great matchups because, hey look, they’re so evenly matched, are mostly dogs. They tend to match mediocre also-rans from big conferences, teams that would be seeded well into the double digits if they had the exact same talent and results but played in smaller leagues.
Oklahoma State-Tennessee fit that description. Neither is in the top 25. The Cowboys finished in a four-way tie for fourth in the Big 12. The Volunteers tied South Carolina for the lead in the SEC East, but overall their 10-6 record was in a three-way tie for second best in a very down league. The SEC’s best team, LSU, is also only an 8-seed, and is ranked 21st in the nation.
But mediocre also-rans from big conferences can stage a humdinger every now and again too, and these two did.
Utah State rallied, took the lead, fell behind, then fell just short in another late rally, losing by one to Marquette thanks to a get-’em-close 3-pointer at the buzzer. A 3-pointer by Pooh Williams of Utah State with 23 seconds to go brought the Aggies to within two, and it would have been one of those indelible Tournament moments if Utah State had found a way to win. He picked up a loose ball, turned and fired. It banked in.
One more thing I liked in the last hour. Late in the North Dakota-Kansas game, Jayhawks guard Sherron Collins was walking the ball upcourt slowly, burning some clock, and CBS’s Gus Johnson said, “Collins taxis into the front court.”
11:25 a.m. I am loving this! A classic Tournament hour. Kansas has pulled away a bit from North Dakota State, but it’s still a single-digit game. Meanwhile Utah State and Marquette have been nip and tuck, with the Aggies just now going on a run to take the lead, 49-46 at this writing.
For most of their second halves, those two games and Oklahoma State-Tennessee have been within five points, and within two minutes of each other. I wish I could tell you exactly what’s been happening in each of these games but I’ve been flipping back and forth and forth and back among them and I have only an impressionistic view of all three.
I hadn’t noticed this until Utah State started burying 3-pointers and the crowd in Boise went bananas, but the Aggies, an 11-seed, have gotten a geographical break similar to North Dakota State’s. From Logan, Utah, to Boise is only 300 miles.
Hang on, triple fantastic finish could be coming. At least a double. Tennessee and Oklahoma State are tied.
10:45 a.m. PDT Forget everything I just said! The Aggies and the — looks it up again — Bison! Go Bison! have both come out strong in the second half. For the moment, three close games!
Wait, that’s too many. I can’t keep up with three games at the same time, can you?
10:25 a.m. PDT Tennessee and Oklahoma State are playing a pretty good, if entirely too orange, game in Dayton. At the half it’s 38-34 Oklahoma State. There’s a decent chance that as the four second halves of this first set of games progress, the Vols and Cowboys will be the only close game.
Syracuse is beating up on Stephen F. Austin, 38-22 at the half. North Dakota State — Go Bison! — is hanging around with Kansas, though the Bison are living by the three — they’re 7-for-13 so far — which tends not to last for 40 minutes, though you never know because sometimes it does. North Dakota State also has one player Kansas can’t stop, which is even less sustainable. But in the meantime, Ben Woodside has been fun to watch.
Kansas went on a little run at the end of the first half, which overdogs tend to do. The underdog will hang around for most of a first half, and then, bing-bang, the favorite will put together a quick little run and that close game will all of a sudden be a 10-point margin at the break, and it takes the wind out of the underdog’s sails. The Jayhawks’ lead is 43-34. Let’s see how NDSU responds in the second half.
Marquette, the 6-seed in the West, was expected to struggle without injured point guard Dominic James. The Golden Eagles are a dismal 1-5 since James broke his foot, including the game in which he got hurt in the opening minutes. But Marquette’s held on to a solid lead over No. 11 Utah State for the entire first half. It’s 26-18 at the half.
I know I said Oklahoma State-Tennessee has a decent chance to be the only close game over the next hour, but I wouldn’t stray too far from Utah State-Marquette.
9:40 a.m. PDT A pair of 14-seeds are up in the early set of games as the NCAA Tournament’s second day begins.
Stephen F. Austin — that’s a whole team, not just one guy — is up first, and the Lumberjacks have quickly fallen behind No. 3 Syracuse in a South region game in Miami. A 3-vs.-14 game in the Midwest has the North Dakota State Bison — had to look it up — challenging Kansas in Minneapolis.
The Bison get a break here, and of course they need it. The NCAA’s pod system puts high seeds close to home whenever possible, and while actual home games aren’t allowed, there are a lot of quasi-home games in the first two rounds. Villanova playing in Philadelphia, for example. North Carolina and Duke in Greensboro. Even Washington in Portland.
There are first-round games being played in Kansas City, which is reachable from the KU campus on a county bus, but the Jayhawks have had to travel to Minneapolis, a day-long drive from Lawrence but only four hours from North Dakota State’s campus. That’s in Fargo. Had to look that up.
Jayhawks travel for basketball, so Kansas figures to have its share of support, but a game-opening 3-pointer by Mike Nelson revealed the Bison have a solid contingent in the Metrodome. That figures. Not only is it a fairly short drive, but, as CBS’s Len Elmore points out, a lot of NDSU grads llive in the Twin Cities.
Kansas’ first bucket, a jumper by Cole Aldrich, drew only a tepid cheer. Of course all the neutrals in the building are rooting for the underdog, but it’s sounding like North Dakota State is benefiting from its first-ever Tournament game being so close to home.
Approaching the first media timeout, the Bison are hitting their threes and they’re up 11-10. Not so good for Stephen F. Austin. they trail Syracuse 18-4.
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