Every year, the first day of the NCAA Tournament is a stone gas, and all the TV commentators go, "Can the second day possibly live up to the first day?" They say this during the pregame show, right before you doze off. And every year, the second day lives up to the first. Why wouldn't it? You play 16 basketball games, there's bound to be some good ones (Golden State Warriors notwithstanding).
So not only did Friday live up to Thursday, duh, it surpassed that pathetic excuse for a first day before noon (PST) by becoming The Single Greatest Bracket-Filling Morning in the History of Me.
Alert readers will recall that I've filled out a bracket with my picks, but I have no money invested in any actual pools, so I'm free to root for underdogs even when I've picked the favorite to win. It's kind of a win-win way to watch a game, and probably violates some obscure gambling law.
But as Day 2 dawns, I've picked three underdogs -- No. 13 Indiana State over No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 12 Gonzaga over No. 5 Virginia in the South, and No. 9 North Carolina-Charlotte over No. 8 Tennessee in the Midwest -- so I can happily throw the entire weight of my support behind my teams. The other morning game is Northwestern State, which won a "play-in" game for the right to be the 16th seed in the Midwest, against top-seed Illinois. I can root all I want in that one and it isn't going to matter.
Illinois jumps out to a 10-0 lead, and the Illini are up 12-5 when CBS mercifully switches us to Gonzaga-Virginia. The Illinois game is notable, however, for announcer Tim Brando actually using the words "television timeout," words never heard on television. Announcers always act like those timeouts that exist specifically to insert commercials just happen somehow: "Timeout on the floor."
Everyone's watching out for the Zags (they're really the Bulldogs but the cool kids call them the Zags, I guess to remind everyone that it's Gon-ZAG-uh, not Gon-ZAH-guh) because they're known for knocking off high seeds in the first rounds. The Bullzags have gone to the Sweet 16 each of the last two years. Here's what you'd say about them if you were hosting a pregame show: They're not gonna sneak up on anybody!
Gonzaga jumps out to a 13-6 lead, but the Cavaliers get it together and they settle into an exciting, close holy cow look at that! Butler's leading Wake Forest 38-8! Temple's up on Texas 35-20. Gonzaga's down by one late in the half. I'm not counting my chickens, but I am starting to think, "Potatoes or stuffing?"
The Gonzaga-Virginia game is a humdinger down the stretch, and the Zags win on Casey Calvary's put-back with nine seconds left. Butler wins by 16. Temple by 14. Illinois wins too, of course, by 38. I am a genius! Three upset winners! The Single Greatest Bracket-Filling Morning in the History of Me! I crow to a colleague that I'd called the Gonzaga, Temple and Butler (Butler!) upsets. "Ah, but I did too," he e-mails back, "and I am in an actual pool!"
Shut up, he explained.
The next game, ninth seed UNC-Charlotte vs. No. 8 Tennessee in the Midwest, is making it hard to follow my policy of rooting for the guys in the road uniforms, the lower seed. I make a habit of rooting against teams called the 49ers, and they have those awful cap-sleeve uniforms. But then, so does Tennessee, so I'll try.
These 8 vs. 9 seed games ought to be the most interesting, since they pit the two teams in each region that are, in the selection committee's estimation, the most evenly matched. But they're usually kind of dull. Eight and 9 seeds tend to be second-tier major conference teams (Georgia, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and California this year) or pretty good small or "mid-major" conference teams (St. Joseph's, UNC-Charlotte, Fresno State). They're the kinds of teams that can reach up and bite a No. 1 or 2 seed, but they're not glamour teams, as a rule, and when they play each other, it's a little underwhelming.
If I'm going to get interested in two teams I don't care about, I need one of them to be a big underdog, as in most early-round games, or both of them to be outstanding, as in the final rounds. Eight vs. 9 games give me two evenly matched teams that are just, well, OK.
As I'm musing about all of this, CBS switches to No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 Eastern Illinois in the Midwest. The Wildcats are too much, so we move on. CBS doesn't want to settle on a game. We go to Indiana State-Oklahoma, 13 vs. 4 in the South, for a while. Then we get a look at 14th seed Western Kentucky vs. No. 3 Florida in the South. We stay with that one nearly to the end. Western Kentucky almost makes up for its cap sleeves with a cool nickname (Hilltoppers) and uniform color (reddish orange).
We switch back to Charlotte-Tennessee, with the 49ers up by three late. I picked them, and if they, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma all win, I'll be 8-0 for the day. Charlotte does win, but Oklahoma, we discover, is in trouble. I'd really like to stay undefeated, but hey, Indiana State is a 13 seed. (I'm really going to stop talking about this soon but) Indiana State's uniforms have improved drastically since the Larry Bird days. A much nicer, deeper blue. I have time to think about this because there's an injury delay just as we switch to the game. The Sycamores are leading 59-57 with 51.4 seconds to go.
Kelyn Block of Indiana State has lost three teeth to an inadvertent elbow from Hollis Price. Price's arm is injured in the bargain. Price is due to shoot free throws, but he's not able, so the Sooners bring in Tim Heskett, an 85 percent free throw shooter, who promptly misses two in a row, gets his own rebound and calls timeout so Oklahoma can get Price back in the game.
Wait a second. I thought if you were too injured to shoot your free throws you had to come out of the game for good. What's to stop teams from keeping a gym rat free throw shooting ace on the end of the bench and then, when their star who can't shoot free throws gets fouled at a crucial moment, having him fake an injury -- ooh, the pain! -- so the specialist can come in and sink the foul shots for him? Of course, this strategy wouldn't have worked for Oklahoma.
The Sycamores win in overtime. It's my first loss of the day, but watching the Trees celebrate, who can complain? And how about that second-round matchup: No. 12 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Indiana State, with the winner headed to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta.
Unlike Thursday, there's no game during this space between the afternoon and (East Coast) early evening games, so there's about two hours until the next game. My God! What's a guy to do?
I don't know about you, but I'm going to coo over my bracket sheet -- I'm 7-1 for the day, 18-6 overall and 7-1 when predicting upsets -- and contemplate an e-mail I've received from RJ, "a disgusted hoops fan," who has a theory that the Tournament and the Bush tax plan are two of a kind: The richest 1 percent get 43 percent of the benefits of the tax cuts, with some relief for the middle class and not much for the poor, RJ says, while in the Tournament 44 percent of the bids this year went to rich major conference teams, many of which don't deserve to go, as evidenced by all the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC teams getting bounced, while "mid-majors" get the rest and the "poor" -- the Winthrops of the world -- get nothing.
All of which makes me think: Does my downstairs neighbor ever turn his stereo off during the day?
When play resumes I get a Midwest game, Kansas against Cal State-Northridge, which is more of a baseball school. The 13th seed Matadors hang around until the No. 4 Jayhawks go on a 17-0 run at the end of the half. CBS stays with this game even though others -- Iona-Mississippi in the Midwest, Penn State-Providence in the South -- are close, for a while. I wonder why. Is this a West Coast thing? Does CBS think the West Coast cares about Cal State-Northridge? I don't think they even care about Cal State-Northridge in Burbank.
We stay to the bitter end before joining Iona-Ole Miss., a 14 vs. 3 game. Penn State has pulled away from Providence, and Michigan State, the South's top seed, is pounding Alabama State, which made a game of it for a while. With 50.8 seconds to go and the score tied, Mississippi's Rahim Lockhart, a 46 percent free throw shooter (that's worse than random chance!), is fouled and gets two shots. Now's the time to fake an injury! Grab the hamstring, Rahim!
Not thinking quickly enough, he shoots the free throws, making one of two. Iona mishandles its last possession and loses 72-70.
Now it's time for me to root for a team in white -- my alma mater, California, the eighth seed in the South. The Bears are playing Jerry Tarkanian's No. 9 Fresno State Bulldogs in Memphis. When we get to the game Cal's up 13-7. They quickly go up 15-7. It's not enough! Oh no! Oy, I'm a wreck. The winner has to play Michigan State, so this'll probably be the one chance to celebrate.
Cal coughs up the lead, and Fresno State leads by four at the half. After the break, the Bears begin bungling badly and fall behind 40-30. In the other games, North Carolina and Syracuse are winning big over Princeton and Hawaii, and Notre Dame isn't having much trouble with Xavier. Whatever. Like it matters. Now Cal goes on a run, pulls to within three! Yes! And how 'bout those other games! Exciting, huh? Fresno State builds the lead back to 11. Hawaii's closing in on Syracuse. Who cares. Basketball's a dumb game.
Cal makes a few little runs but never gets close. When's baseball season?
During the Cal-Fresno State game, for just a few moments, CBS takes the Fox approach. All of a sudden we're treated to extended views from a camera in the cheap seats behind one of the baskets, a location from which you'd move to better seats if they were available. This is a favorite tactic of TV directors: Let's give 'em a really cool angle, like from way up in the corner, or from the rafters, above the court, or looking between the coach's legs! The fact that we viewers can't see what's going on in the game is secondary to the fact that it's a really cool shot!
CBS has been remarkably good about not falling into this trap over the first two days of the Tournament, and after this brief flirtation with the nosebleed seats, we return to the camera at center court, that square, staid, boring angle that allows us to actually enjoy the game. Heads will roll at CBS, I'm sure.
Also worth noting is CBS's squad of announcers. Except for job applicant/curiosity Rick Pitino, who's teamed with Brando in Dayton, and I guess the Dick Enberg-Bill Walton team in San Diego, who were little heard-from Thursday, there are no big stars. It's a bunch of solid, unspectacular guys like Verne Lundquist, Gus Johnson, Jim Spanarkel and James Worthy. None of them add tremendously to one's enjoyment of the games, but most have something interesting to say now and then, and more importantly, they don't ruin the games with hyperbole, screaming and silly nicknames and catch phrases.
I'm a fan of Dick Vitale, baby! I like his enthusiasm and style. But when I'm watching 12 hours of basketball a day for four straight days, the last thing I want to hear is somebody going bananas every time somebody hits a hook shot, every time some freshman "diaper dandy" makes a play to prove he's a "PTPer," baby, a prime time player! Overkill city, baby!
CBS's guys are a little buttoned down, but they get the job done. I'm finding myself less annoyed during the course of the Tournament than during any other major sporting event telecast over the last year.
Here's what I've had enough of: commercials about anything having to do with anything wireless, especially that one for some sort of cellular company where the couple is supposed to be in couples counseling and the woman imitates the sound of the man's cellphone static. "What is that, Michael?" she says. God, what a shrew. Also, I'm officially tired of this device used in commercials: instant messaging.
Ah, but why harp on the negative? I ran the table in the Midwest, picked all eight winners. I was 13-3 overall for the day, bringing my record to 24-8 for the first round -- and hey, that's a good enough record to get an at-large bid.
Friday didn't quite live up to Thursday after all, to be honest, though it was hardly a major drop-off. Friday had no stunner like No. 15 Hampton over No. 2 Iowa State Thursday, but otherwise it was pretty close: There was one upset each by a 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th seed. Friday had no buzzer-beating shots -- there were three Thursday -- but it did have three games go down to the final seconds: Ole Miss over Iona, Gonzaga over Virginia and Indiana State over Oklahoma.
And so to the second round. Now the top seeds are over their jitters and the upsets won't come so easy. Now there's money on the table, as it were. The winners Saturday and Sunday earn another week of life, a trip to Philadelphia or San Antonio or Anaheim or Atlanta, two wins away from the Final Four, close enough to begin telling themselves that anything's possible, that this might be the year.
Play of the day: Hard to pick one. It seemed to me there weren't as many spectacular plays Friday as Thursday, though it could be I've grown jaded, or just cross-eyed. But here goes: Gonzaga's Casey Calvary, 25 feet away from the basket when teammate Dan Dickau lets fly with a three pointer, swoops down the lane untouched and dunks the rebound. It gives the Zags a 13-point lead over Virginia midway through the second half, and it's the kind of electrifying play that gives a team a lift, but not this time. Virginia immediately goes on an 11-2 run to get back in the game. Still, a hell of a play.
Best finish: Indiana State over Oklahoma, the biggest upset of the day and the only overtime game.
Almost as good: In descending order: Gonzaga over Virginia, Mississippi over Iona, UNC-Charlotte over Tennessee.
Best line: "Uh, my wife and kid are ranked right up there." -- Gonzaga coach Mark Few, asked if Dan Dickau, who transferred from Washington, was "the best thing that ever happened to you."
Second best: "I think one of the things we've learned in the first round of this Tournament, Rick, is that players that are outstanding, highly celebrated recruits at the major elite conference level, that are young, can't match up with mid-major players that are juniors and seniors that stay throughout their collegiate careers." -- Tim Brando, to broadcast partner Rick Pitino, on an interesting ramification of star players leaving college early.
Worst line: "If anybody needs any inspiration, they just need to call 1-800-Hampton." -- Pitino, the very first thing out of his mouth. Probably stayed up all night trying to think of it. Hey, Rick, call for you from the University of Louisville on line 2. Take the call, Rick.
Second worst: "Deigo Guevara." -- CBS's on-screen graphic for Diego "I Before E" Guevara of UNC-Charlotte as he shot free throws.
Best use of replay: With 7.1 seconds left and Indiana State and Oklahoma tied 61-61, CBS shows a replay of the last play of the first half, in which Kelley Newton of Oklahoma hit a shot at the buzzer. The replay clearly shows the shot was still in his hand when the horn sounded and shouldn't have counted, adding even more drama to the situation -- Indiana State's not just the underdog, but a one-point loss would mean the Sycamores wuz robbed.
Worst uniform: I have to give it to my own Cal Bears. Not only do they have (I know I promised to stop talking about) those ugly c-p sl--ves, but the numbers on their backs are so small, I can't tell one player from another, and I've been watching these guys all year.