The first Thursday of the NCAA tournament, an occasion regarded as basketball Christmas, had already spilled into Friday before it bore its one great gift: an upset of No. 3 New Mexico by No. 14 Harvard, which had never before won a tourney game. Siyani Chambers, the Crimson's point guard, punctuated it by slamming the ball to the floor as time ran out at 12:15 a.m. eastern; the freshman with the first name meaning "relinquish" had helped ensure that Harvard did not relinquish its lead after a late, 7-0 run, and rewarded those of us who stayed up late, hopeful that the day would not be defined by its early letdowns.
Basketball Christmas did not get off to a festive start. Charles Barkley, the NBA studio star who moonlights as a CBS studio analyst who has barely watched any college basketball, sputtered through his pregame show takes, including one about the weakness of the non-Indiana-or-Michigan Big Ten, before the network mercifully took us to the 12:10 p.m. opener, between No. 14 Valparaiso and No. 3 Michigan State in Auburn Hills, Mich. Despite the proximity to East Lansing, there were an alarming number of vacancies in the seats, and Valpo—a mid-major that held some promise, given that it was the most experienced team in the country, had an efficient Dutchman in the post and a coach, Bryce Drew, who is synonymous with March magic—was barely present. The Spartans bullied them so thoroughly in an 11-point win that the margin felt like 20, and this sent an early message: it might be a cruel day for underdogs.
It was cruel for Davidson, the No. 14 who briefly captured our hearts in Lexington, by leading No. 3 Marquette by six points with just over a minute left and then by one with 10.6 seconds left ... only to make two plays that had every non-Marquette fan screaming at their TV screen in frustration and disbelief. De'Mon Brooks committed a hot-potato turnover in the backcourt when he should have just allowed himself to be fouled, and then the Wildcats gave Golden Eagles guard Vander Blue—the obvious last-shot taker—a lane to the rim off of a high ball screen. Layup good, game over. Would the only breaks in the chalk be a couple of No. 12s from the Pac-12, Oregon and Cal, reminding the selection committee (especially in the Ducks' case) that they were horribly underseeded?
But hope sprang from Salt Lake City, where the magic has been historically strong. Its previous tourney-hosting experience was Butler's Final Four-clinching win over Kansas State in 2010, and on Thursday, something bigger than Butler magic was in the works. No. 16 Southern—whose coach, Roman Banks, said of its gameplan, "This system is made for when you play a team one time"—flirted with the granddaddy of all upsets, leading No. 1 Gonzaga in the first half and staying neck-and-neck with the Zags in the second, only to be devastated by a late Kevin Pangos three. Southern lost by six, and No. 1 seeds' streak of 113 straight wins over No. 16s continued. Someday, it will happen. Thursday was not that day.
And so the nation turned to Harvard, in the Salt Lake nightcap, for its one true upset: a 68-62 stunner of New Mexico, in which the kings of the Mountain West were gunned down from long range by one Laurent Rivard. Harvard will not be everyone's darling—the school inspires the same kind of loathing and/or jealousy for its academic elitism that Duke does for its basketball elitism—but you have to respect the improbability of this win. The Crimson were 11-point underdogs, and Chambers, the freshman floor general from Minnesota who dribbled out the clock, was only starting this season because the team's two senior captains, point guard Brandyn Curry and projected Ivy League Player of the Year Kyle Casey, had to withdraw from school after being implicated in an academic scandal.
In the Harvard locker room late on Thursday night, Chambers could barely grasp what had happened. "I was expected to come in and be learning [this season]," he said, "but now being here and being able to win a [tournament] game is amazing."
Chambers had seven assists, and Harvard made 8 of its 18 three-point attempts (including five by Rivard), spreading the floor and exploiting the one suspect part of New Mexico's defense: Its inability to guard beyond the arc.
Harvard took the floor Thursday night just minutes after Southern's near-miss upset. The Crimson coach, Tommy Amaker, often told his team this year, "Why not us?" And before the game, he said, "Go out, be ourselves, and be in the moment."
This was a not a season in which Harvard was expected to thrive. It was figured that they would have to wait until next season, when Curry and Casey were allowed to return to school, and top-100 recruit Zena Edosomwan was arriving, to make any noise in the NCAAs. You do not lose your two best players to an academic scandal in September and recover to win a league title, and then win the first NCAA tournament game in school history, over the best team from the highest-RPI conference in the land ... but that's what Harvard did. It lived in the moment. And on a cruel day for the underdogs, it delivered the one true moment of joy.
Now, For Southern Appreciation
In the opening minutes of its near world-shocker against Gonzaga, No. 16 Southern was only being appreciated for the audaciousness of its baby-blue jerseys and the quality of its pep band. The Jaguars' jerseys are legit—they're a modernized version of Colorado's wild 1985-86 duds, which can be seen trying to guard Danny Manning on this SI cover—and their band is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as VCU's. But their actual basketball product deserves to be appreciated, too, after giving a No. 1 seed the closest scare since Purdue only edged Western Carolina by a bucket in 1996.
Roman Banks took over as head coach at Southern two years ago, when his alma mater was coming off a 4-26 season and had scholarship reductions due to substandard Academic Progress Rate scores. Over the past two seasons he's overseen the biggest improvement, in terms of points per possession, of any team in D-I:
This year's version of the Jaguars is 34.14 points per 100 possessions better than the 2010-11 version. They couldn't pull off a miracle upset, but that is a miracle turnaround.
The way in which Davidson allowed Marquette to complete its comeback was particularly painful, only because the Wildcats had to know what was coming. Just 12 days earlier, the Golden Eagles were in a similar situation—tied and holding the ball for a final shot against St. John's in overtime. Their coach, Buzz Williams, said that "St. John's and all the people watching" knew what was going to happen: Vander Blue was driving to the rim. He did exactly that, coming off a high ball screen that drew shot-blocker Chris Obekpa away from the basket, and hitting a right-handed bank shot from just outside the lane —and just beyond Obekpa's fingertips:
Marquette essentially ran the same play against Davidson with 6.7 seconds left, only with Blue going to the left side—and the Wildcats neither denied him the ball, nor hedged hard off the screen to prevent him from getting a driving lane. And so this is how it went down:
If Brad Stevens gets in the same situation against the Golden Eagles on Saturday, I doubt he lets Blue get anywhere near the paint.
Here's a secret: Butler's full-season defensive numbers are mediocre. The Bulldogs came into the NCAA tournament ranking 52nd in defensive efficiency, a far cry from their top-five, lockdown level of 2010. And yet this stuff should be ignored, because when the lights come on, Butler might be the best big-game team in the country, and Brad Stevens the best big-game planner.
Put the Bulldogs on national TV against undefeated Indiana in December? They push IU around, Andrew Smith outplays Cody Zeller ... and Butler wins. Put them on ESPN Gameday against Gonzaga? They keep Kelly Olynyk in check, Roosevelt Jones makes a miracle steal-and-layup ... and Butler wins. Put them in the first round of the NCAA tournament against a Bucknell team that our survival model actually favored? They suffocate 6-foot-11 Mike Muscala, maybe the best small-school big man, so thoroughly that even though Butler shoots 3-for-17 from long range ... it still wins.
Muscala plays such a massive role in Bucknell's offense, in terms of possession usage and assists, that he was the most pivotal post player in the whole tournament:
Butler proceeded to hold Muscala to nine points on 4-of-17 shooting—his worst game of the season, by a wide margin. Multiple Bulldogs defended him, primarily Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall, and managed to push Muscala around enough to keep his post moves off-balance. He had a season-low offensive rating of 54.6 while using a typically huge 31.3 percent of possessions. This chart shows just how out of character that offensive rating was for Muscala:
Not surprisingly, this led to Bucknell scoring just 0.875 points per possession, its lowest rate of the season. Butler's interior D shows up in the biggest games. Marquette's Davante Gardner and Chris Otule are up next. Miami's Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson could be waiting after that. And then? Maybe Zeller in Washington, for a rematch with the one defense Indiana hoped not to see again.