With all respect to the four teams eliminated in play-in games, Thursday always marks the start of the NCAA Tournament as most know it. As far as opening days go, this year’s opening day was somewhere in the middle.
There were no buzzer beaters, and really only one true upset. Maryland was a better team than Xavier much of the season, but the Terrapins are young while the Musketeers are one of the most tournament-tested programs of all. It didn’t take much at all to imagine a result like X winning 76-65.
Though there were no big surprises, that doesn’t mean underdogs didn’t provide theater. Princeton had a shot to win in the final seconds but fell to Notre Dame 60-58, while Virginia needed a career game from Marial Shayok (23 points, including a huge bank shot in the final minute) to stave off UNC Wilmington 76-71. Bucknell kept up with West Virginia, finally falling 86-80, Florida Gulf Coast fell to Florida State by the same score, and Mount St. Mary’s led defending champion and top seed Villanova almost until halftime before the Wildcats turned it on and won 76-56.
As far stars of the day, many suspected it might be someone like Winthrop’s Keon Johnson or East Tennessee State’s T.J. Cromer. And while Johnson scored 17 for the Eagles and Cromer 19 for the Buccaneers, it was players like Butler’s Tyler Lewis and Florida’s Devin Robinson who joined Shayok as unlikely difference-makers. Lewis had eight assists off the bench, controlling the game and delivering a series of deft passes in Butler’s surprisingly easy 76-64 win over Winthrop, while Robinson tied a career high with 24 points and added seven boards in the Gators’ 80-65 pull away from ETSU.
The Big Ten had a rough start, with 5 seed Minnesota (an 81-72 loser to Middle Tennessee State) and Maryland both losing before Northwestern and Purdue won and then Wisconsin saved some face with an 84-74 win over Virginia Tech (that was sewn up by some very un-Badgerlike excellent free throw shooting, of all things). Some have posited that this proved how poorly the committee seeded the Big Ten teams, but typically it’s silly to assume single game results in a tournament disprove seeds based on 30+ game seasons. If there was anything proven, though, it was just how hideously bad the committee did in seeding Middle Tennessee, and that their error punished both the Blue Raiders and the Golden Gophers.
The West Coast Conference meanwhile can crow, at least for now. Top seed Gonzaga shut down South Dakota State 66-46, while Saint Mary’s should’ve answered some questions about whether it can cope with athleticism in its 85-77 win over VCU. The Gaels will be tested on that front again in the second round when facing Arizona, which flew past North Dakota 100-82.
Gonzaga now will face Northwestern, which continued its banner season in one of the more bizarre ways. A game between two of the nation’s finer academic institutions ended up decided in the final seconds by a mental blunder. Vanderbilt guard Matthew Davis Fisher gave a foul with 15 seconds left-after his team had taken the lead. The Commodores still had plenty of time to make up for it after the Wildcats made two free throws, but Vandy lost 68-66.
- The CIT completed its first round with road teams winning three of the last five games. Furman rolled at South Carolina Upstate 79-57, St. Peter’s edged Albany 59-55 and Weber State won at Cal State Fullerton 80-76. Also, Texas State moved on with a 70-60 win over Lamar and Tennessee-Martin topped UNC Asheville 89-75.
- The one CBI game Thursday saw Illinois-Chicago edge Stony Brook 71-69. The Flames have shown nice improvement in Steve McClain’s second year.
- McClain is a former Indiana assistant, and that’s where the big off-court news was on Thursday with Tom Crean let go after nine years. The Hoosiers went to the Sweet 16 three times in five years from 2012-16 before this year’s injury-filled disappointment, but expectations are apparently higher than that from administration at IU. Indiana will no doubt go after a big name (and stories will predictably claim the school is embarrassing itself if it doesn’t get one, or don’t get one fast enough), but whether this is one of the top five blue blood jobs in the country…we’ll see.
- The schedule for the second day of the NCAA tourney first round is, frankly, not as appealing as the one for the first day. Three 1 seeds, three 2 seeds and three more 3 seeds all take the court, and the upset possibilities in those games are light, with the possible exception of New Mexico State taking on Baylor (12:40 p.m., TruTV). One of the best games will be the first one, with Oklahoma State and Michigan tipping off the day (12:15 p.m., CBS), while others very much worth watching should be Seton Hall against Arkansas (1:30 p.m., TNT), USC looking to defeat SMU for the second time this year (3:10 p.m., TruTV) and Rhode Island facing Creighton (4:30 p.m., TBS). The best games at night have Wichita State against Dayton (7:10 p.m., CBS) and Kansas State meeting Cincinnati (7:27 p.m., TruTV).
Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day.