Friday March 18th, 2011

What we learned on a thrilling opening day of the NCAA tournament (the real opening day, since that forgettable First Four didn't count):

Demonte Harper

Demonte Harper's clutch three helped Morehead State stun No. 4 Louisville. (J. Edmonds/Getty Images)

1. The country met Demonte Harper on Thursday. For the past three seasons -- the entire time Morehead State has been on the map in college basketball -- the Eagles have been synonymous with one name: Kenneth Faried. They were essentially Faried State, and for good reason -- he broke Tim Duncan's all-time NCAA rebounding record this season, led the nation in boards per game, and is the school's only famous athletic product since Phil Simms. But when it came time for Morehead's Shining Moment, what should go down as the greatest play in the history of that institution and its 6,000-person town in Kentucky's Daniel Boone Forest, the 13th-seeded Eagles had to depend on Harper, their senior point guard. And he delivered the three that knocked No. 4 Louisville out of the dance.

I wish I'd had the foresight to predict this for Harper. In November, the week after Thanksgiving, I went to visit Faried's mother, Waudda, at her apartment in a Newark, N.J., project, with plans to listen to a Web cast of a Morehead State game being played at SIU-Edwardsville. I was doing early reporting for what would become a magazine story on Faried, and had not yet familiarized myself with the rest of the Eagles' roster. (My campus trip didn't come until later that week.) During the course of the Edwardsville game, Waudda -- a very boisterous woman -- celebrated each one of her son's 20 points and 20 rebounds, but one Eagle's name was being called out on the radio even more than his: that of Demonte Harper, who would finish with a career-high 35 points.

At Morehead's next home game, against Tennessee-Martin, I was there (along with a few NBA scouts) to see Faried, but also witnessed a short, pregame ceremony for Harper's 1,000th point -- which he had scored against Edwardsville. It became clear that while Morehead State was Faried, it was actually he and Harper who were the cornerstones of the program. They came in to the tiny Ohio Valley Conference school together as overlooked recruits in 2007, as part of coach Donnie Tyndall's first full recruiting class after taking over in the spring of 2006. Faried was a two-star forward out of Newark, N.J.; Harper was a two-star combo guard out of Nashville. Under "Areas for Improvement" on his profile were the words, "perimeter shot."

Faried and Harper live together in a triple-sized Morehead State dorm room that's divided into sections by shower curtains. I watched them go through their standard, pre-practice routine -- playing networked Call of Duty: Black Ops on XBox 360 -- after which Faried, in an interview, said that Harper "was like a brother to me." Faried has dealt with an incredible amount of family heartbreak -- his mother's long-term battle with Lupus is what drives him to rebound the way he does -- and he said that Harper's family had embraced him, taking care of him in Nashville during holiday breaks when he couldn't return to Newark.

Faried said that Harper had become his best friend. On Thursday against Louisville, with the Eagles holding the ball down 61-59 and less than half-a-minute left, Tyndall put his faith in Harper. Faried is the Eagles' star, but he does his work on the glass and the low-low post, and is not a one-on-one creator. Harper needed the ball. Because he was 0-for-5 from long range up to that point, the logical decision would've been to have him drive to the rim for a tying two -- and give Faried a shot at a short put-back if it missed -- but Tyndall insisted on going for the win instead.

He told Harper, "I dreamt about this last night, this exact position we would be in. ... I'm going to put it right in your hands. I don't want you to drive to the hole, I want you to pull up and win the game off a three-pointer." Harper told Tyndall he would hit the shot. And Faried told his co-star, "We believe in you."

What Harper did while isolated atop a 1-4 flat set -- run down the clock to under 10 seconds, approach the three-point line, give a hard stutter-crossover to Peyton Siva, then pull up over him for the three -- is now part of tourney legend. Faried's ballsy block of Mike Marra's counter-three attempt at the buzzer sealed the NCAA tournament's biggest stunner to date. Faried and Harper, roommates and best friends, will be forever linked on highlight reels of the upset. Now, there are two household names at Morehead State.

2. While Butler's Matt Howard hit the day's first buzzer-beater to sink Old Dominion (see Tim Layden's column on that), and Harper owned the day with his dagger, Temple's Juan Fernandez created an incredible moment of his own. His game-winner -- an up-and-under move around Penn State defender Tim Frazier, followed by a low-arching, one-footed leaner that went through the net with 0.4 seconds left -- was from a shorter distance than Harper's, but required a higher degree of difficulty. It also ended the 11-game NCAA tournament losing streak that had dogged his coach, Fran Dunphy. Dunphy was kind enough to give the Tourney Blog an inside look at his scouting report of Penn State, which yielded this post about the Battle with Talor Battle, and the following video from inside the locker room, just before tip:

[wpvideo nx5nMR4I w=590]

Next up for the Owls is San Diego State, a team they can beat if they get repeat, brilliant performances from Fernandez (23 points) and Ramone Moore (23 points), as well as a huge showing from quiet giant Lavoy Allen. I fear, though, that this could be the game where missing Michael Eric, their former starting center who suffered a season-ending knee injury in February, will finally be a problem. Having his 6-foot-11 presence available to combat the Aztecs' fearsome frontcourt would greatly enhance Temple's chance for an upset.

3. Richmond had more hype entering the NCAA tournament last season, when it was a No. 10 seed with the backcourt duo of Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez, but the Spiders' postseason inexperience showed in a first-round loss to St. Mary's. This year's Richmond squad, even though lower-seeded as a 12, looked far more prepared for the dance, with Anderson playing like a savvy, tournament-seasoned senior, scoring 16 second-half points (to finish with 25) in an upset of Vanderbilt. The Spiders' Saturday meeting with Morehead State could be a matchup of two coaches who'll land bigger gigs over the next month. Richmond's Chris Mooney has turned the school into an A-10 power, and his Princeton pedigree -- combined with the ability to tailor the Princeton offense to feature athletic playmakers -- has to be attractive to BCS-conference athletic directors. Meanwhile, Morehead's Donnie Tyndall has earned credit as a revival artist (the Eagles' program was moribund before he arrived), giant-killer, and identifier of under-the-radar talent such as Faried and Harper.

Jordan Taylor

Jordan Taylor's 21 points lifted UW to a convincing 72-58 win over Belmont. (Harry How/Getty Images)

4. On a day of vulnerability -- with Louisville and Vanderbilt losing, and Kentucky getting a scare by Princeton -- which team looked the strongest? Fourth-seeded Wisconsin barely flinched against the pressure of No. 13 Belmont, which was underseeded given its record (30-4) and efficiency profile (No. 22 ranking on Junior point guard Jordan Taylor delivered another All-America-level performance, scoring 21 points (and dishing out six assists against three turnovers) in a 72-58 victory. If the Badgers continue to play this efficiently -- they shot 54.5 percent from long-rage, and held the Bruins to 27.3 percent -- they need to be considered a serous threat for the Final Four. The Southeast Region is wide open, and UW would certainly be comfortable in a grind-it-out showdown with Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. 5. What you should care about Friday: The return of Kyrie Irving, no matter if it's just for a few minutes in a cakewalk win over Hampton, is sure to dominate the news. Duke, if you recall, was the best team in the country -- even better than Ohio State -- when it had Irving running the point, and he could very well have been a first-team All-America had not suffered a toe injury against Butler in December. Will he be able to make cuts at full speed? Will he disrupt the Blue Devils' chemistry, or throw off Nolan Smith, who became the ACC Player of the Year while Irving was out? The nation will be watching. And the Blue Devils will no doubt be watching the Texas-Oakland score with great interest. The 13th-seeded Golden Grizzlies are the best Cinderella candidate left in the dance, and if Keith Benson & Co. were to knock off the Longhorns, it would be smooth sailing for Duke to an Elite Eight appearance in Anaheim. If the Blue Devils can nurse Irving back to full health by then, and have him in the starting lineup for the Final Four ... they might just be your repeat national champions.

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