Much the same as the NFL season opening on Thursday or Major League Baseball beginning on Sunday night, the NCAA Tournament beginning with play-in games on a Tuesday night-starting with two 16 seeds against each other-will never feel right.
That said, as long as the NCAA continues grabbing for dollars with its still-unnecessary First Four, as it’s called, then Tuesday night was a pretty good start for a tourney. Both games were very competitive, and one even came down to the end. Not bad for a testing of the waters in the 2017 tournament.
The leadoff spot saw Mount St. Mary’s nip New Orleans 67-66 in a terrific little game, one that may have lacked for name brands but not for quality. The Mountaineers built an 11-point lead late in the first half and then played the Roadrunner to the Privateers’ Wile E. Coyote the rest of the way, answering every time UNO drew close in the second half.
Mount guard Junior Robinson-all 5-foot-5 of him-scored 23 points, and then was a hit after the game with his politeness and class, and his team moves on to a first round game against defending champion Villanova. The Mountaineers have won 19 of their last 23 games since a 1-11 start, making this season a success regardless of whatever result comes against the Wildcats.
For New Orleans, this season was a success, too. It was great to see UNO back in the Big Dance after a 21-year absence and following all the travails the program has been through. Nothing changes, that, not even the brief fight between teammates in the second half where Travin Thibodeaux confronted Christavious Gill, which received some attention after Thibodeaux put his hands around Gill’s neck and was benched for the rest of the game.
The night’s second game was a surprisingly high-scoring one. Kansas State outlasted Wake Forest 95-88 by shooting 66%, easily its best shooting performance of the season and easily the worst allowed by the Demon Deacons all year.
The more burly Wildcats dominated in the paint in scoring (42-24 advantage) and rebounding (29-21 edge). Just like Mount St. Mary’s, K-State took the lead late in the first half and was in tenuous control the rest of the way, even as Wake was within two with just five minutes left.
D.J. Johnson (8-for-9, 18 points) and Wesley Iwundu (6-for-9 from field, 11 of 13 from the line for 24 points) give the Wildcats a formidable frontcourt, and Kamau Stokes also hit five three-pointers in this one. This is certainly a team that can stick around for a little while if it gets hot, as it seems a First Four team seems to do every year.
- The 80th annual National Invitation Tournament opened with a good amount of seeding carnage. Two 6 seeds, a 7 seed and an 8 seed won, and in all road teams were 5-3 on the night. The biggest surprise was eighth-seeded Cal State Bakersfield pummeling top seed California in the first half and then held on through an ugly second half to win 73-66. Seventh-seeded Oakland also rallied from 20 points down at Clemson in the second half without star Jalen Hayes to win 74-69, and now the Golden Grizzlies will play Richmond, which won at Alabama 71-64. Another game for T.J. Cline is never a bad thing. No. 6 seed Boise State also came back to win at Utah 73-68 in a game where it literally sounded like there were more Bronco fans in Salt Lake City than for the Utes. Also winning were Colorado State (81-74 over College of Charleston), Georgia Tech (75-63 as a home 6 seed against Indiana) and Mississippi (91-83 at Monmouth), plus Illinois routing depleted Valparaiso 82-57. Obviously early NIT results often have to be taken with a grain of salt, but still…
- One scheduled NIT game wasn’t played Tuesday as Syracuse’s home game against UNC Greensboro was postponed due to the snowstorm in the Northeast. The game was rescheduled for Wednesday night (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Maybe if they had played in Greensboro…
- The CollegeInsider.com Tournament continued with three games. St. Francis (Pa.) continued a nice night for the NEC, winning at Jacksonville 78-76, and Samford edged Canisius 78-74. The other winner was Campbell, which ran away from Houston Baptist 98-79 as Chris Clemons scored 39 for the Camels. Clemons is the player who lit up UNC Asheville for 51 in Campbell’s Big South Tournament upset, and an explosive scorer all year is averaging 35.8 points in five postseason games.
- One bit of coaching news from Tuesday was South Florida hiring former Dayton and Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory. It’s an interesting pick, given Gregory’s success at Dayton, firing at Georgia Tech, but also his heavy connections with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and was known for running a clean program and graduating players. USF is going to be a major rebuild, and reports were that Akron coach Keith Dambrot turned the job down because of just how heavy of a reclamation project it will be. Gregory will certainly provide stability for a program that desperately needs it right now.
- The remaining two First Four games take place, starting with North Carolina Central against UC Davis (6:40 p.m., TruTV). In past tourneys, these teams would’ve been good enough in quality to serve as 15 seeds. The following game has USC against Providence, with these two squaring off in the NCAAs for the second straight year. Just like last year, it should be a very even matchup again.
- The NIT continues with its remaining eight first round games. It’s a quite appealing schedule, with games including Belmont at Georgia, Colorado at Central Florida, Akron going to Houston (7:30 p.m., ESPNU), Fresno State at TCU, top seed Illinois State hosting UC Irvine (9:30 p.m., ESPNU), plus Texas-Arlington on the road at BYU (11 p.m., ESPN2).
- The College Basketball Invitational opens with seven first round games. The best just might be San Francisco at Rice, two teams who were pleasant surprises this season and may be the favorites in this field. Eastern Washington at Wyoming certainly should be entertaining as well.
- The CIT continues with four more games, including Ball State at IPFW and Stephen F. Austin at Idaho.
Have a great Wednesday.