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SPOKANE — Friday in the NCAA tournament was madness. Friday featured a half-court game-winner that was sunk just before the final buzzer for Northern Iowa to topple Texas. And Friday supplied a dunk from Cincinnati that would have tied Saint Joseph’s but was slammed milliseconds after the final horn. Friday produced upsets from a 15-seed (Middle Tennessee), a 14 (Stephen F. Austin), a 13 (Hawaii), an 11 (Northern Iowa) and two 10s (VCU and Syracuse).
It seemed like the NCAA tournament might continue this way until a champion is crowned in Houston at NRG Stadium on April 4. That’s because of how the 2015–16 college basketball season unfolded, in a fashion best described as chaotic and uneven, leaving few clear favorites—many of which are flawed. One of those darlings, Michigan State, fell to Middle Tennessee, seemingly confirming the wobbly state of the field. That also happened Friday. Naturally.
Then the Saturday games tipped off, and Saturday wasn’t madness. Saturday was calm. Saturday was chalk. O.K., so a No. 11 in Gonzaga destroyed a No. 3 in Utah, leaving the Pac-12 with only Oregon remaining from among the seven teams the league sent to the tournament. And Indiana, seeded fifth in the East region, did down a presumed contender in Kentucky, but the Wildcats were seeded fourth.
Saturday, the tournament waved goodbye to a trio of Cinderella hopefuls in Arkansas-Little Rock, Wichita State and Yale. While the Trojans were beaten handily by Iowa State in the Midwest Region, the Shockers and Bulldogs, both playing in Providence, fell behind by more than 20 points before mounting impressive comebacks but ultimately losing to Miami and Duke, respectively. Saturday saw three No. 1 seeds advance in Kansas, North Carolina and Virginia.
Those who expected the unexpected got the opposite on Saturday. But they did get a noteworthy surprise—Indiana’s victory over Kentucky—with significant implications.
It felt, according to those in attendance in Des Moines, more like a Final Four game than a second-round contest, with the Wildcats and their eight national championships going against the Hoosiers and their five titles. The power programs, universities located on opposite sides of the Ohio River in neighboring states, had played at least once every season from 1969 to 2012. John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, was charged in some quarters for ending the series four years ago over a disagreement as to where any future games should be played, and the schools have been unable to work out a solution.
They cannot avoid each other in the tournament, though, where they last met in the Sweet 16 in 2012. The Wildcats won that game en route to their most recent national title. They did not win this one. Indiana freshman center Thomas Bryant scored 19 points and senior point guard Yogi Ferrell added of 18 of his own. The Hoosiers made 13 of 24 shots in the second half, and Bryant sealed the 73–67 victory by making two free throws with 10.4 seconds left.
Aside from a one-and-done NIT trip in 2013, this was Kentucky’s earliest exit from the postseason since Calipari’s arrival before the 2009–10 season, and it marked the first time the Hoosiers had beaten the Wildcats in the tournament since 1973. The history, the rivalry, the cancellation of the series, and the fact that Indiana coach Tom Crean had critics calling for his job this season, combined for a win that meant more than most second-round wins mean.
Fred Glass, Indiana’s athletic director, admitted as much. Asked by reporters if beating Kentucky made the triumph sweeter, he said, “Yes,” while admitting that “I know the politically correct thing to say is it doesn’t matter.”
But it did matter. Of course it did. It put the Hoosiers in the second week, although the East region, with top-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Xavier still alive, is one portion of the bracket that hasn’t been busted much. Yet, anyway.
Early Saturday, two ACC power programs in Duke and Miami nearly joined the brigade of teams that suffered upsets. The Blue Devils, in a contest of future world leaders, stretched their lead over Yale to 27 points, only to watch the Ivy League champion claw its way back. Late in the second half the Bulldogs trimmed the Blue Devils’ advantage to three points, as one of their fans, clad in a Santa Claus hat, provided a national television audience with a double-barreled middle-finger salute.
So Saturday also gave us the Yale Santa Middle Finger Guy.
Duke survived what coach Mike Krzyzewski expected—that his inexperienced team would lose focus with that large of a lead—because he deployed a 1-3-1 zone in the second half. That zone slowed Yale just enough. Sophomore guard Grayson Allen’s performance embodied Duke’s on Saturday. He scored 22 points in the first half—and seven in the second.
The Blue Devils will meet either top-seeded Oregon or eighth-seeded Saint Joseph’s in the Sweet 16 of the West Regional. Miami advanced there, too, with a win that was nearly identical to Duke’s victory. The Hurricanes, seeded No. 3 in the South region, saw their 21-point lead evaporate in the second half. They needed 28 points from senior guard Angel Rodriguez to hold off the Shockers, a team whose fans did not wear Santa hats but instead shouted, “We Shock! We Shock!”
The Hurricanes fans countered with shouts of “Sweet 16!” as the final seconds ticked away. They’ll be joined by yet another ACC team in Virginia, which bested ninth-seeded Butler, 77–69, in the Midwest Regional. And by Iowa State, which battered Little Rock, 78–61, to set up a meeting with the top-seeded Cavaliers next week in Chicago. Senior forward Georges Niang scored 28 points and snagged six rebounds for the Cyclones, same as he did against Iona in the first round. He had perhaps the most impressive first week of the tournament for any single player.
The final day of the first week of this NCAA tournament tips off Sunday, with eight more games that will decide which teams round out the regional semifinals. What Friday and Saturday taught us was to not only expect the unexpected but that it’s O.K. to sometimes expect the expected, too. That’s worth a Santa hat and two middle fingers, easy.