Comebacks, upsets and Adreian Payne made Day 1 Madness hard to top
Late Thursday night, North Dakota State's Taylor Braun, a wide-eyed and charming fellow who appears to shave with a garden hoe, told a sideline reporter for TruBS TV, or whatever channel it was, that "I did not play good at all today." The honesty was refreshing but unnecessary. In the NCAA tournament, everybody and everything is good. Even bad is good. That's what makes it great. And this first day of full action was awesome.
Four games went into overtime Thursday, a full quarter of the docket. Some of them were pretty and others were not, but in March pretty is not the point. We are 16 games into this tournament (or 20 if you count the play-in games, but I vacated those a long time ago). We've seen enough to remember why this tournament is irresistible, even if you are one of those fans who only pays attention to college basketball in March, like Charles Barkley.
Exhibit A, and also Exhibits B, C, D and E, was the N.C. State-Saint Louis game, which seemed at times to be a thumb-wrestling match between men who have no thumbs. It was painfully beautiful and atrociously riveting. It was full of missed free throws and intentional fouls, and featured a North Carolina State collapse that will be dissected all summer by the Wolfpack fan base, which is one of those fan bases that is as crazy-intense but doesn't get noticed for it because the team isn't great, which only makes those fans even more crazy-intense.
It may not have been a well-played game, but it was incredible theater. It was worlds more fun than, for example, most of Canada's men's hockey games at the Sochi Olympics last month. The gold medal-winning Canadians were so good, they sucked the tension out of the air. College basketball in March never has that problem.
Who can say no to this? Connecticut scored 19 points in overtime alone -- for a 40-minute game, that would be a 152-point pace. Then there was the North Dakota State upset of Oklahoma, which checked all the boxes of a typical NCAA tournament upset: Absurd shots by players you never heard of, from a school you were not sure existed, to stun a team that you didn't really know was that good until it got a handsome seed last week. At one point, Braun scored and got kicked in the face, and after watching N.C. State-Saint Louis, I knew exactly how he felt.
Oklahoma is upset, but whether Oklahoma was upset is another question. North Dakota State looked just as good as the Sooners. This is the beauty of the seeding system: It makes almost every game seem like a bigger upset than it is. Combine that with the single-elimination format, the regional biases, alumni preferences and the sweet, innocent joy of gambling, and you have yourself a foolproof sporting event.
At 10:51 p.m., my TV showed me a 7-foot-5 bearded man from New Mexico State named Sim Bhullar, and I thought, "Oh, crap. My TV is drunk." But it was a happy drunk. It giddily showed Texas shooting a laughably off-target three-pointer to try to beat Arizona State, then showed Texas' Cameron Ridley grabbing the rebound and tossing in the rarely seen but always delightful buzzer-beating layup.
Then there was the scare that Manhattan put into defending champ Louisville, and the fake scare that American put into Wisconsin -- American led Wisconsin halfway through the first half and still lost by 40. America jumped on American, partly because Wisconsin's tournament history is not the best. But this is a different Wisconsin team, much more offensively potent than previous editions.
And there was the scare that Michigan State's Adreian Payne put in the rest of the field. Payne posted the line of the tournament, and it should hold up for three weeks: 41 points on 15 shots in 24 minutes.
We learned a lesson Thursday, or a lesson we should have learned long ago: The pre-tournament talk is mostly about seeding, but the actual tournament is about matchups. This was obvious roughly 30 seconds into Ohio State-Dayton, when an unnamed writer of this column looked up and said, "I can't believe I picked Ohio State." The Buckeyes struggled to score against pretty much everybody this year. That Dayton matchup looked like a toss-up, regardless of seeding, and it was, right until the end, when Aaron Craft missed a shot that could have extended his career. Craft may or may not play in the NBA, but he was something of a college basketball genius. If you love the sport, you should miss Craft, even if you disliked him.