The first full day of the 2015 NCAA Tournament was littered with close, down-to-the-wire games. If it felt like an extraordinary day for the consistency of the fantastic finishes, that’s because it was.
Thursday saw 11 of the 16 first round games decided by eight points or less. Eight were decided by a single possession. Five were decided by a point, a record for a single day in the tourney. Two went to overtime.
As far as drama goes, it was as about as good as it can get. But there’s also a good chance that such games aren’t going anywhere and are going to be the norm this year. And maybe for the foreseeable future.
The reason is because, as exciting as they were, Thursday’s games also were equally marked by the bugaboo that has been of concern in the sport the last couple years now: a thorough lack of scoring.
Of those 11 games decided by single digits, the highest-scoring one was Ohio State’s 75-72 overtime win over VCU. Not a single other team in those games scored over 70 points. Six of the games had teams scoring in the 50’s.
In all, just six of the 32 teams playing on Thursday scored at least 75 points. Four of those teams won games decided by at least 19 points. A fifth reached that mark in overtime.
Watching the games, it didn’t feel like most of them were necessarily at a slow pace. Arkansas and Wofford was not a slowdown game. Neither was Utah against Stephen F. Austin, or Iowa State against UAB. Yet in all three, the teams struggled to reach 60 points.
Cold shooting was a part of that for several of those teams (among Iowa State, UAB, SFA and Wofford, the best shooting percentage was the Cyclones’ well-below-normal 36.9%). But it’s also hard to make shots when an offensive player has 2-3 bodies and 4-6 hands in contact with them almost every time they shoot. It doesn’t matter how skilled your players, or what length your shot clock is, it’s just going to be that hard to score.
Not to belabor a point that have been making all year, but scoring is low because the way the sport is called right now drastically favors defense. Every single game on Thursday was undeniably physical. Defensively, a number of teams pressured full court or at least in the halfcourt, with hands and arms regularly slapping at those with the ball. And yet, an average of just 15.8 fouls were called per team, even including two overtime games.
The lack of scoring has nothing to do with the shot clock being too long. The fact that the NCAA rules committee has members on it from smaller colleges-a really weak theory that somehow is getting a lot of play right now in a press that is trying to come late to this issue but refuses to do any significant research into it, like looking at the history of scoring in relation to the shot clock-is not the reason why scoring is down.
The low scores and sheer difficulty in scoring is helping keep games close. It’s awful hard for teams scoring 56, 57, 60 points to blow out anyone. It’s a true double-edged sword.
On the one side, of course we love close games. The competition of March, and getting to see just how closely matched so many teams are, is what it is all about.
On the other side, though, we also love watching teams score points, we love beautiful offense, and we love variety. One supposes that if we’re going to have a lack of variety, though, one fantastic finish after another is a fab way to go.
14 seeds steal show on Thursday:
The day opened with a pair of wins by 14 seeds, with UAB’s 60-59 win over Iowa State and Georgia State’s 57-56 comeback victory over Baylor, making this just the third time since the tourney expanded to 64 teams that two teams seeded 14th have won a first round game (previous instances: 1986 and 1995).
This year’s tournament bracket is rather uneven in its distribution of quality along seedlines. While the top five or so seed lines are strong, the middle of the bracket is generally as weak as it’s been in a long time. But once one gets to the lower seeds, the quality picks up again, as this year’s bracket includes a host of solid teams on the 13, 14 and 15 seed lines, and even some on the 16 line (notably, Coastal Carolina).
All of this is to note that, while their wins were undoubtedly big surprises on Thursday, Georgia State UAB are not your average 14 seeds.
The Panthers feature an NBA talent in R.J. Hunter, as well as two more players who could play professionally in Ryan Harrow and Kevin Ware. Indeed, it was Hunter who was the difference down the stretch, coming alive with 12 points in the final three minutes, as well as the game-winning 30-footer.
UAB most likely does not have an NBA first-round draft pick in waiting, but the Blazers do play in Conference USA. Even as it has had to react to numerous conference changes in recent years, C-USA is still a top 15-quality league, and any team from the league is going to be a threat in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s safe to say now: absolutely no team in the country has come farther from November to March than UAB. The Blazers rebounded from an awful start to the non-conference season to actually challenge for their conference title. UAB defeated league champion Louisiana Tech twice, including in the conference tournament. In that regard, while they were fairly rated as a 14 seed based on the entire season, the Blazers’ play actually was easily at the level of a 12 seed or so by late in the year. Either way, it’s still a terrific story for a team that struggled so much early to now be in the Round of 32.
NCAA Tournament Round Up:
- Top seed Villanova performed with gusto in its opener, never giving Lafayette a chance in a 93-52 rout in Pittsburgh. The Wildcats were bullies, powering through and around the Leopards at will, and were arguably the most impressive team of the day.
- Villanova will face N.C. State, which got a basket from BeeJay Anya just before the buzzer for a 66-65 win over LSU. The Tigers will go down this season as the team that looked the part so often, but couldn’t close when it counted. LSU led by 16 in the second half and couldn’t hold it. Great win for the Wolfpack, but an awful loss for LSU.
- Georgetown trailed early, went on a big run against Eastern Washington and then held off a late rally by the Eagles for an 84-74 win in what was a rather bizarre game. The final margin seemed right, but how it got there was not expected. The Hoyas withstood some three-point bombing early by Eastern and asserted themselves inside while EWU went cold from outside, and the result was a 38-9 run and a 23-point lead early in the second half. The Eagles got back in it late, but could never break the 9-10 point barrier down the stretch. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera scored 25, while national scoring leader Tyler Harvey lit it up for 27.
- Stephen F. Austin is a really good team that is terrific on offense and defense and had another outstanding season, but the one thing the Lumberjacks are not is big. That showed in early season losses to Xavier and Baylor, and it cost them in the NCAA Tournament. Utah-which, by the way, is a really good team, too-made life tough inside for SFA big guys Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup, and the result was a 57-50 win. Jakob Poeltl had 18 points, eight rebounds and five blocks and was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field.
- The moral of the story regarding UCLA right now? Apparently it must be that, no matter what mistakes others make, it doesn’t mean those benefitting from them can’t have or create some good from them. That’s about the only way to rationalize the unbelievable luck the Bruins have right now. First, they were gifted an NCAA Tournament berth by the selection committee almost solely based on their brand name, were not even placed in a play-in game, and then drew a favorable first matchup against an SMU team that can go through serious struggles offensively. Then, they beat the Mustangs 60-59 on Thursday after SMU found creative ways to blow a sizeable lead late, the final of them being a questionable at best goaltending call on a fall-away 25-footer for what turned out to be the winning points. (In fairness, the Bruins also coughed up a 10-point second half lead earlier) And now, thanks to UAB’s upset of Iowa State, the Bruins will be a favorite in their Round of 32 game, with a very good chance of advancing to the Sweet 16. Few teams have ever received so much good fortune. Bryce Alford was outstanding with 27 points, including 9 of 11 three-point shooting, including the goaltending call which may have been a fair call, but almost certainly was not the right one.
- Kentucky had little trouble with Hampton, rolling 79-56. The Pirates gave it their best shot and hung close for the first 10 minutes or so. Karl-Anthony Towns scored 21 and grabbed 11 boards for the Wildcats, while Quinton Chievous, son of the Band-Aid Man, former Missouri star Derrick Chievous, scored 22 and added 10 caroms for Hampton.
- Notre Dame and Northeastern tipped off the real first round of the tourney with a game that epitomizes the NCAA Tournament every year: highly competitive, regardless of the seeds. The Fighting Irish held on for a 69-65 win, despite the Huskies having a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds. The difference was 1) ND’s Zach Auguste tearing it up inside (season-high 25 points) and 2) turnovers (Northeastern committed 16 of them). This was a good test for Notre Dame, though, and the Huskies acquitted themselves quite well in their first NCAA tourney game since 1991.
- Butler is next up for the Irish after a 56-48 win over Texas. This one was not pretty. A lot of missed shots, but the Bulldogs’ Kellen Dunham hit just enough biggies to get Butler to the second round. As far as the Longhorns, this should’ve been no surprise for anyone was paying attention all season and wasn’t blinded by their “eye test” or “advanced metrics” that place too much emphasis on just playing close and blowing out bad teams, as opposed to actually beating good teams. It was proven throughout this year: Texas was regularly good enough to play with good teams, and rarely good enough to beat them.
- Cincinnati outlasted Purdue 66-65 in overtime in another teeth-rattler of a game. If the Bearcats’ season ends in its next one against mighty Kentucky, one has to say 23 wins and making the second round of the NCAAs is a success for a team with no stars but a lot of grit.
- Arizona made a pretty good team look like easy pickings in its 93-72 win over Texas Southern. The Wildcats shot 60.4%, dominated the glass and also shot a superb 88.9% (24 of 27) from the free throw line. The Tigers are not a bad team-and, in fact, they did a quality job in the second half of not allowing the No. 2 seed to blow it open even further than their 21-point halftime lead.
- North Carolina held off Harvard 67-65, thanks to a terrific run out after the Crimson missed a shot while tied with less than 30 seconds left. The Crimson played well here, stepped up much more than many expected.
- It was sickening seeing Arkansas get a three-point play on a phantom foul call that turned out to be the winning basket in its 56-53 win over Wofford. Alandis Harris drove right at Karl Cochran for a layup, who was backpedaling out of the way, made no contact with the hands or arms and barely grazed him with the body. It was an absolutely dreadful foul call, and the free throw forced the Terriers to go for a three instead of a two on their final possession. It was a highly competitive contest-neither team led by more than a possession in the entire second half-that deserved better than to have an awful touch foul called late. Of course, Wofford also could’ve been in better shape if it had not missed three crucial free throws late in the game.
- Xavier was quite impressive in its tourney opener, jumping on Mississippi early and never letting the Rebels seriously threaten in a 76-57 win. The Musketeers now will be a favorite in their second game and have a chance to add onto a way-too-unsung record of recent tourney success. If X can win its second round game, it will advance to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in 11 years. If you’re going on postseason accomplishments, this should be one of the premier programs in the country.
- Ohio State and VCU was not always a pretty game and was marred by technical fouls, flagrant foul calls made and missed, as well as an incredible four-step travel by D’Angelo Russell in overtime that somehow was ignored. That said, the Buckeyes earned the win in this one with more clutch shots and taking better care of the ball down the stretch. The Rams had their chances, but missed a layup at the end of regulation and another in overtime.
- The final game of the first round of the CIT saw Tennessee-Martin go on the road and hammer Northwestern State 104-79. Not that it means a whole lot, but the Ohio Valley Conference is now 4-0 in postseason games in the NIT and CIT.
Today’s Menu: The remaining 16 NCAA Tournament first round games are up
- It’s a busy day in the East region with six games. All six of them could very easily resemble so many of the games of yesterday. No. 2 seed Virginia takes on a good 15 seed in Belmont, and the Bruins can make this one stressful for UVA if they can get their quite productive offense going, though that’s no small feat in this year’s tourney. Third-seeded Oklahoma will have size advantages everywhere against Albany, but the Great Danes never back down in March and are always fun to watch on this stage. Expect Louisville to try to run, run, run against UC Irvine and its centers of 7-foot-6 and 7-2. The Anteaters can win if they can establish tempo and get some clutch shots from Luke Nelson. Northern Iowa was given a tough first round matchup against Wyoming, and while it’s possible Larry Nance Jr. could outplay Seth Tuttle, the Panthers should have too many offensive weapons to fall here. Providence and Dayton should be one of the most entertaining first round games of them all, while Michigan State looks poised for yet another of its March runs. The Spartans could easily wind up with a favorable draw in this region-if they can get past Georgia in the first round.
- The top two seeds in the South are in action as Duke takes on Robert Morris and Gonzaga plays North Dakota State. The Blue Devils could get challenged for a while by the plucky Colonials, while Gonzaga will not want to let the Bison hang around. NDSU has tourney experience from beating Oklahoma last year, and the Zags’ burden could get heavy very quickly if this game is close in the second half. The 7/10 game between Iowa and Davidson should be another of the more fun games to watch today, while the first team to 50 should win when San Diego State faces St. John’s…if either team reaches 50.
- The Midwest includes what on paper is the very best first round game of them all with West Virginia going against Buffalo. The Bulls will need to handle the WVU pressure, but also keep an eye on UB’s defense as well, which is very good. Maryland opens with Valparaiso, and don’t overlook this game, either. Champions from top 15 conferences almost always are tough outs, and though they are offensively challenged, the Crusaders are good enough defensively to take this one down to the wire. Also in Omaha, Kansas opens against a New Mexico State team that has been injury-riddled this year but is still athletic and tall enough to cause trouble, and Wichita State plays Indiana in a game that will be dominated by guards. The Shockers’ being tourney tested would figure to be a difference, but is no guarantee for a team that can really struggle at times offensively. And if Yogi Ferrell gets going, this one could quickly sway in the Hoosiers’ favor.
- The West region finishes up with top seed Wisconsin against Coastal Carolina and Oregon against Oklahoma State in the 8/9 game. The Badgers under Bo Ryan almost never lose first round games, so we don’t expect them to here, but Coastal is a very good 16 seed. And Okie State can only hope that by the time of its game that it and rival Oklahoma aren’t the only two teams left from the Big 12.
Have a terrific Friday, and enjoy the games again!