1 p.m. EST: I'm dug in. I should have done a better job stocking the joint with food and drink. I live in a St. Louis neighborhood that's traditionally Irish, and St. Patrick's Day is a big deal here. As the Tournament gets underway around 11:20 a.m. local time, my street is blocked off and there are green-haired revelers drinking beer as they pass by my front window on their way to the parade.
But I'll be OK.
I'm watching on CBS broadcast. I know that as a big-shot sportswriter I should have four big-screen TVs and the satellite package to watch every game simultaneously, but we're doing this together, so I'm watching the Tournament the same way the vast majority of you are, taking whatever game CBS thinks I'd be interested in based on where I live. That means I'll get a steady diet of Big 12 games, but CBS usually does a good job of switching to whatever game is heating up.
So while I'm headed for Niagara-Oklahoma momentarily, the first game of the day is Kentucky-Eastern Kentucky, a 2-15 matchup with obvious geographical meaning as well as the story line that the Colonels' coach, Travis Ford, was a star guard at Kentucky.
In the first minute, Matt Witt comes away with a long rebound and leads a two-on-one break. Making a good decision, he pulls up at the elbow and hits a 15-footer. Eastern Kentucky has the lead! It's 2-0! The first bucket of the Tournament goes to a prohibitive underdog!
Two minutes later it's 8-3. But Eastern Kentucky hangs around. By the first media timeout Kentucky gunner Patrick Sparks has picked up his second foul and the score is only 10-9 Kentucky. A minute later Eastern Kentucky takes an 11-10 lead. Could this be an upset, right off the bat?
I don't think so, but by this time Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Alabama have started, and the 12th-seeded Panthers are off to a 14-9 lead. My whistle is officially whetted.
It's 22-13 Kentucky by the time CBS switches me to the Niagara-Oklahoma game, a 14 vs. 3. Look! Niagara's 3-pointers are falling, and the Purple Eagles build an early 11-6 lead ...
- - - - - - - - - - - -
What is it with national chain restaurants and weird racial quotas in their commercials? A TGI Friday's ad in heavy rotation has three guys sitting at a table. From left to right the boys are white, black, white. They look up and -- whoa! -- three smokin' hotties coming this way! From left to right: ... you're ahead of me, right?
The spot looks like a recent Outback Steakhouse ad in which three women are sitting at a table in the same formation. They look up and smile as three hunky waiters bring their food: White, black, white. What would have happened if one pair in any of those four trios had switched places? I bet much research was done on that question and the answer wasn't pretty.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
2:55 p.m. EST: Niagara hung with Oklahoma for a good while, but with about 13 minutes to go, the Sooners scored on back-to-back alley-oops to go ahead by 11, as if to say, "We're the athletic, big-conference team around here."
Niagara not only doesn't have major-conference athleticism, outside of Juan Mendez, who's been spending the afternoon impressing millions of people who've never seen him before, it doesn't even have a band. A local high school band sits in.
Shortly after those alley-oops, CBS switches over to the Kentucky-Eastern Kentucky game, where the Colonels are within five in the final four minutes.
A 15 seed hasn't won a game since 2001, when Hampton beat Iowa State, and it's only happened four times since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, so this is worth a look no matter how unlikely.
I'm trying to ignore that Milwaukee-Alabama game, where the Panthers are maintaining an 11-point lead as the clock ducks under four minutes, because of my prediction that no 12 would beat a 5 this year. I'm already getting e-mails jacking me up for that one.
Kentucky holds off its neighbor for a 72-64 win, a little closer than the Wildcats would have liked, and Pacific gets some TV time with a look-in. Pittsburgh, the 9 seed, had been down to the No. 8 Tigers by 15 at the half, but they've closed to 58-51 with seven minutes to go. Could you have imagined before this season Pittsburgh and Pacific playing in the Tournament and Pacific wearing the white uniforms of the higher seed?
Now it's off to that 5-12 game. Milwaukee leads Alabama 74-65 with a little over two minutes to go. Even though I made that dumb prediction -- which, by the way, was based on nothing, I just made it for the hell of it -- I'm not going to sit here and root for Alabama over a team from the Horizon League, no offense to my friends from Alabama or anything.
I like to see my bracket picks do well as much as the next guy, and I'd love to win this column's Pool o' Experts, which I've never come close to doing. But I like rooting for the underdog even more. One of the great pleasures of sports fandom is thrilling to upset victories in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Brackets are forgotten soon enough, but who can forget Coppin State?
CBS is bouncing madly back and forth between the Pacific-Pittsburgh and Alabama-Milwaukee games, which, as Pool o' Experts champion Tim Brando, calling the former game in Boise, points out, are similar. In both, the smaller conference team took a huge lead and is trying to hang on down the stretch.
Alabama is fouling and Milwaukee's missing free throws. An Alabama turnover underneath the basket, down by six with 50 seconds left, looks like a bad one. Boo Davis of the Panthers gets fouled and hits a pair for an eight-point lead. Alabama turns it over again! This baby's over. Glad I don't have to suffer through two days of that 5-12 prediction. Humiliation is better when swallowed quickly.
The Panthers win 83-73. First upset of the Tournament.
Pacific and Pitt are still at it, the Tigers up by five, but because I live in St. Louis, I have to watch the Tournament on a split screen for a while. Hadn't counted on this. Mark McGwire is testifying before the House committee hearing on steroids. St. Louis has to hear Big Mac.
He's wearing reading glasses, and his voice is already shaky as he reads a prepared statement saying he's not going to name any names or answer any questions. We'll get back to him later when the members start asking questions he's not going to answer.
Pacific holds on through one of those interminable college basketball final minutes, 79-71.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
4:30 p.m. EST: St. Louis is secondarily Big Ten territory, so happily for me, Iowa falls behind Cincinnati 21-5, freeing me from having to sit through that dog of a 7 vs. 10 game and giving me a better chance at seeing more of the two concurrent games that look more interesting: No. 4 Boston College vs. No. 13 Pennsylvania in the Chicago region and No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 UTEP in the Austin.
Washington, the controversial top seed in the Albuquerque region, is also playing in this time slot, against Montana.
Well, that's how I thought it was going to go, but after Penn hung close with Boston College for a few minutes, the Quakers went stone cold shooting and the Eagles cruised to a big lead. So did Washington. Utah and UTEP struggled their way through the first half with the Utes leading by five at the break.
And meanwhile, Iowa, down by as many as 18, crawled to within 32-22 at halftime, and then rallied to within three early in the second half. Look at that, Iowa-Cincinnati looks like the best game of the late afternoon.
Or it did before Cincinnati scored 12 straight points to reestablish control. At the moment Cincinnati's up by 14, Boston College by 15, Washington by 17. It's looking like Utah and UTEP are going to have a whole lot of people watching the second half of their game.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
5:45 p.m. EST: I forget, in between NCAA Tournaments, how much the Blue Man Group annoys me.
Meanwhile, Mark McGwire and the other baseball figures are being grilled by the House Committee on Government Reform, and it's McGwire, not the blowhards on the committee, who's looking and sounding like an oily politician.
The paradox of the Fifth Amendment is that invoking it makes you look even guiltier than if you just admitted your guilt. McGwire's way around that uncomfortable problem is to answer every question with some variation of "I'm not here to discuss the past, I'm here to be positive about this subject."
It plays really badly on TV. McGwire is making Jose Canseco, seated a few chairs over and contradicting his own just-released book with every utterance, look distinguished.
UTEP is on a 13-2 run to pull to within two of Utah at 46-44. Andrew Bogut has been the whole team for Utah, just about, and the Utes suddenly can't seem to get him the ball.
The crowd is going nuts for the Miners. The NCAA's pod system, introduced three years ago, endeavors to keep high seeds close to home, but UTEP, a No. 11, couldn't have asked for a better first-round location than Tucson, which is only about 315 miles from El Paso. I don't know this, but I'm guessing that if you live in El Paso, 315 miles is nothing to you. You'll drive that far to get french fries.
Seven and a half minutes to go as UTEP's Giovanni St. Amant intercepts a pass and ties the game with a layup. With the other three games still lopsided, this one is looking for the moment like it might be the first big finish of the Tournament -- but only if the Utes can recover.
Giovanni St. Amant has the best name in the Tournament. Is he a guard or a Renaissance painter?
The Utes do recover, and at the last TV timeout, Utah leads by two. With about two and a half minutes to go and Utah leading by one, an errant pass by Bogut goes into the backcourt. It's going to be UTEP's ball anyway, but St. Amant decides to chase it down on the sideline and head for the basket. But he steps on the sideline after catching the ball. A turnover.
UTEP's fans boo lustily after a replay is shown because it looks to them like St. Amant's foot isn't on the line. It is. The sideline area is blue, but the sideline itself is white, too subtle a difference in shading from the blond wood of the court to show up on an arena screen. There's a cautionary tale there that you should remember next time you're booing a call you've just seen replayed on the big screen. Boo anyway, but remember that.
With about a minute to go, Omar Thomas of UTEP, a 6-5 forward, ties the game by going one-on-one with Bogut in the low post and just abusing him, beating him for an easy bucket. I know he won't have to guard 6-5 guys, but I just don't see how NBA people are looking at Bogut as a No. 1 pick. He's slower than evolution.
Utah goes ahead on a jumper by Marc Jackson. It's a timeout festival, but eventually UTEP starts a possession with about 40 seconds left and runs the clock down to 15, then Filberto Rivera, driving, has the ball stolen by Tim Drisdom, a nice play. UTEP fouls, and Drisdom hits both for the four-point lead. Rivera drives around Bogut but misses a layup, perhaps because of Bogut, who grabs the rebound. Ballgame.
Jackson hits a couple of free throws for the 60-54 final score. It's not a fantastic finish, just an OK one, but it's the best of the eight so far.
The Washington-Montana game, which the Huskies win 88-77, has gotten precisely one CBS look-in, for precisely 16 seconds.
Now, a break until 7 p.m. EST. Have I mentioned that aside from the drunken revelers parading up and down my street, I'm also missing the first nice day of the year? Poor me. Poor, poor me.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
8:35 p.m. EST: The upsets are brewing at last.
During daylight -- I found out after the second set of games ended that there was daylight today! -- there was one meager upset in eight games, 12th-seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee dumping No. 5 Alabama in the Chicago Region. And we're all so jaded about 12s beating 5s that that doesn't even seem like an upset anymore, even to me, who predicted it wouldn't happen this year.
It wasn't a terrible day of action, but it wasn't exactly what we tune in to the Tournament for. We want to see some Cinderellas, dammit.
So it's a nice moment late in the first half of the early evening games when all four underdogs are leading. It happens with 1:02 left in the half of the game I'm watching, the 8-9 Chicago game between Texas and Nevada. Nevada's leading 25-21 despite offensive leader Nick Fazekas scoring just two points.
The score bugs along the top of the screen show Albuquerque Region 15-seed Chattanooga leading No. 2 Wake 23-21, though a minute ago it was 23-15, and No. 14 Winthrop leading No. 3 Gonzaga 18-16. And in the Chicago Region No. 14 Utah State leads No. 3 Arizona 26-24.
The moment doesn't last long. Gonzaga hits a 3-pointer to take the lead. I probably shouldn't count on all four to hold up, but I'm encouraged that we'll at least get some good finishes, and maybe a big upset or two, though it should be noted that a 9 beating an 8 can't really be considered an upset.
Nevada has a 25-24 lead at the half. Wake closes to 27-24 at the buzzer on a 3-pointer from Chris Paul, who takes a pass from Justin Gray, who traveled but got away with it. I know, guys travel all the time, but this was one of those stumble, fall, drag the pivot foot around deals that always gets called. But not this time. Not a good sign for the Mocs.
Utah State hangs on to its lead over Arizona at the half, taking a 29-26 advantage into the locker room, where the Aggies will all look at each other and pretend they knew this was how the game would go. So it's up to Winthrop, pride of the Big South, to keep its lead and make it a perfect half, all four underdogs going into the tunnel on top.
Gonzaga takes a one-point lead with a little over a minute to go, but Torrell Martin hits a high, high-arching three from the corner for 35-33. The teams trade possessions without scoring and the half ends on a strange little play.
The shot-clock buzzer sounds just as a Zag shot hits the rim with about two seconds left -- and almost everybody stops playing, thinking it's the horn to end the half. Only Gonzaga's David Pendergraft keeps going. He picks up the bouncing ball and launches a jumper from the left baseline, but misses, so Winthrop has the lead at the half, a four-way underdog parlay, so far.
If these babies hold up, it's going to wreak havoc with everyone's brackets, with the possible exception of my son, Buster, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America, who has picked Chattanooga to beat Wake, though he has Arizona and Gonzaga winning.
Even with a few rules in place to limit the upset picks, Buster still has Creighton beating Michigan State in the Championship Game, though the rest of his Final Four is Oklahoma State and North Carolina.
Poor Chattanooga! Imagine getting past Wake Forest, only to run into the eventual champions. Creighton.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
9:45 p.m. EST: Well, it was wise not to count on those halftime leads by all four underdogs -- "underdogs," in Nevada's case -- to hold up.
Nevada is the second higher seed to get a win in this Tournament, which is now 12 games old, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Alabama is still the only real upset.
By the midsection of their second halves, Arizona and Wake Forest had established control, taking big leads over Utah State and Chattanooga, but Winthrop kept hanging around Gonzaga. The Eagles tied the game with about seven and a half to go. And even after a furious Texas rally led by reserve center Jason Klotz, Nevada was only down to Texas by one with a minute left.
Nevada took the lead on a hellacious play by Kevin Pinkney, catching a pass in traffic, absorbing a foul and making a shot underneath. He missed the free throw and Texas took over down by one with 40 seconds left. Nevada had two fouls to give and used one with 31 seconds left, meaning the Longhorns had the last possession if they wanted it.
They didn't. Daniel Gibson hoisted a three with 27 seconds left. Rebound Ramon Sessions of Nevada. Texas fouled and he made one of two. 59-57. Gibson fed Klotz in the lane, but he missed a short bank shot. Brad Buckman followed. No. Nevada rebounded, and two free throws later it was a 61-57 win.
Can't call it an upset, but it's a road uniform winning.
So it was off to Tucson, where Winthrop, the 14-seed in the Albuquerque Region, had led most of the way over No. 3 Gonzaga. But Gonzaga was up by three by the time we got switched over, and we arrived just in time to watch Adam Morrison nail a "no way" 3-pointer for 66-60, the Zags' biggest lead of the game, with 3:02 remaining.
By this time Wake had beaten Chattanooga 70-54, and Arizona was leading Utah State by 11 in the last minute. Winthrop kept the pressure on, but Gonzaga held on. A scare, nothing more.
A lot of people are looking for upsets in the late games. Illinois, the top seed in the Tournament, is playing Fairleigh Dickinson. Nobody's expecting a surprise there, but there are two 6-11 games, Texas Tech-UCLA in the Albuquerque Region and LSU-Alabama-Birmingham in the Chicago. A lot of brackets I've seen have had UAB and/or UCLA winning those games, and UCLA over the Red Raiders is the biggest upset I've picked.
There's also an Albuquerque game between No. 7 West Virginia and No. 10 Creighton, and, as you'd expect with a 7-10 game, the 10-seed is a popular upset choice. I have Creighton winning too.
America is looking for a miracle. We're desperate for an underdog-pile at center court. Go, dogs, go.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
12:25 a.m. EST: Two upsets, two good finishes. That's what the first day of the Tournament came to.
That's a lot of basketball for not a lot of payoff, but I'm not complaining. A lot of that basketball was pretty good, even if the end games weren't to die for. At some point in the evening, the St. Patrick's Day revelry outside my window died down too. That made it a little easier to enjoy the hoops.
Fairleigh Dickinson put a little scare into Illinois in the late game, going in at halftime down by only one after Tamien Trent hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. But Illinois put a lid on the basket in the second half and won easily, 67-55.
CBS made all of us presumed Illinois fans in this part of the country sit through that one to the bitter end, even though the orange-clad Illinois fans in the RCA Dome had pretty much cleared out by the middle of the half. Mercifully, the Knights were far enough behind not to prolong the inevitable with fouls and timeouts.
In the meantime, West Virginia and Creighton, the 7 and 10 seeds in the Albuquerque Region, were playing a tight game and Texas Tech, No. 6 in Austin, was maintaining a steady lead over No. 11 UCLA, my biggest upset pick. Alabama-Birmingham charged out to a big early lead over LSU and led by 20 points and more on the way to an 11-over-6 win, also in the Albuquerque bracket.
Creighton and West Virginia went down to the wire. Creighton got a fast break dunk by Tyrone Sally with 2.4 seconds left for a 63-61 lead following a missed desperation 3-pointer at the shot-cluck buzzer by Nate Funk.
Creighton responded by doing exactly what it had hoped to do: The Blue Jays inbounded to midcourt and called timeout with 1.7 seconds to go. Then the inbounds pass came to Funk, Creighton's best player, who got a halfway decent look at a three but missed.
It would have been a finish for the ages had that shot gone. It was still the best finish of the day, better than the previous best, Utah over UTEP.
UAB pulled off the day's second upset, beating LSU 82-68 despite a fairly healthy late comeback by the Tigers, who had simply fallen too far behind.
That result seemed to surprise most of the experts, but it's not an upset of the whoda-thunk-it variety. I don't think the Blazers were figuring to lose, just happy to be here, never in a hundred years seriously believing they could beat the Tigers. That might describe Fairleigh Dickinson or Montana, not Alabama-Birmingham.
The Tournament's first day wasn't terribly cruel to my conservative bracket, but I did lose two Sweet 16 teams, Alabama and LSU, which ought to teach me to have faith in SEC schools. I also missed two other upset picks, UCLA and Creighton. I'll get you up to date soon on the rest of the Pool o' Experts.
Friday it's another 11 hours of hoops. North Carolina and Duke play, and there are three of those interesting 5-12 games: Georgia Tech-George Washington, Villanova-New Mexico and Michigan State-Old Dominion. Now that my "no 5 will lose" prediction is in the ditch, I'm excited about those games.
There won't be any drunken revelers flopsing across my yard, but I'll try to find something else to complain about.
Previous column: Tournament preview
- - - - - - - - - - - -