Five things we learned while wondering if Kansas State is really the best upstart this NCAA tournament can come up with:
• Accept it: this may just not be the year for upsets. Everything in the final minutes of Belmont-Duke was pointing toward a March upset for the ages. But this isn't last year's Duke team, and Gerald Henderson had tremendous poise on his game-deciding coast-to-coast run that gave the Devils a one-point win. Make no mistake: Belmont coach Rick Byrd had a winning game plan and his players executed it almost perfectly. Back-to-back first-round losses would have sent the proud Duke program into deep soul-searching mode. But now that this game is out of the way, I'm expecting the Blue Devils to get in gear in Round Two against West Virginia. Thursday's win took some serious stones. (For what it's worth, I'm convinced a Duke player would have stepped in to take the charge that Belmont's Matthew Dotson didn't take against Henderson on the winning play.)
• K-State's "other guys" were better than USC's "other guys."Michael Beasley got his 23 and 11, but 11th-seeded Kansas State became the first underdog to win a game because Bill Walker (22 points) and Jacob Pullen (11) were far better than O.J.Mayo's supporting cast, the foul-plagued Taj Gibson and Davon Jefferson. (Given how both teams played over the past few weeks, I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.) It was a big moment for Walker, who saved the Wildcats with 17 first-half points after Beasley got two early fouls. Think about it: Walker has been in the shadow of teammates Mayo (in high school) and Beasley (in college), but on the biggest stage of their careers (so far) it was Walker who stood out the most. Bonus points, too, for KSU coach Frank Martin, who has learned how to get something out of Beasley despite early foul trouble with smart substitutions in the first halves of games. This is the kind of win K-State really needs to build its program in the long term.
• More evidence that this is the worst crop of mid-majors in years: Only hours after Kent State tied a tournament record for futility by only scoring 10 points in a half, Winthrop needed a late three-pointer just to get 11 points in the second half of its 71-40 meltdown against Washington State. (Keep in mind, the game was actually tied 29-29 at halftime.) Then George Mason took the same court in Denver, only to lay a complete egg in a 68-50 loss to Notre Dame. And so we're left after Day One with only one double-digit-seeded victor, and it's not a mid-major at all but rather Kansas State of the Big 12. So much for Cinderella.
• Biggest surprisesPositive: Belmont. The Bruins had no fear of the so-called Duke mystique, and they were able to penetrate as well as shoot the three (8-23) against the No. 2 seed. Belmont had its chance to finish off Duke in the final minute but just couldn't seal the deal. Negative: USC. I thought the Trojans had what it took to reach the Elite Eight, but they reverted to their bad old selves of the early season, with Gibson committing silly fouls and Daniel Hackett throwing passes to nobody. So long, Mayo. Good luck in the NBA.
• More evidence that what passes through my mind during games isn't entirely normal. Do you think BobHuggins' tailor in Morgantown is getting any extra business from Huggy's attire choices these days? ... Has anyone noticed how many times the ball has gotten stuck in the area between the rim and the backboard? I counted at least three occasions on Thursday ... Could Wazzu get any bigger numbers for the back of its jerseys? ... Is it just me, or was the general level of play on Thursday pretty bad? Parts of the Arizona-West Virginia game were just plain ugly ... Hearing Kevin Harlan say JoshAkognon's name reminded me of Harlan calling the name of Christian (The Nigerian Nightmare) Okoye when Harlan was the Kansas City Chiefs radio guy during my childhood in K.C. ... Did Arizona's heartbreaking overtime loss to Illinois in the 2005 Chicago Regional Final exert some sort of long-term damage on the Wildcats program? These first-round losses are getting awfully common for the boys from Tucson ... Did I really hear announcers calling Xavier Egg-zavier today? ... Is it a good or a bad thing if one of my editors has decided to start calling me Psycho G?
Five things we learned while watching wall-to-wall games in New York City this afternoon (we're in the Big Apple for a change instead of getting caught at a tournament site where one can't see all the games):
• This may be the worst crop of mid-majors we've seen in a long time. This hit me right about the time Kent State drew an unforced 10-second violation while walking the ball up-court early in the Golden Flash-in-the-Pans' 71-58 loss to UNLV (in which Kent State tied a tournament record for futility with just 10 first-half points).
We're only one-fourth of the way through the first round (which means the landscape may change), but there hasn't been a single upset yet, and the only games that were even close to "upsets" involved teams from the hardly cuddly SEC (11-seed Kentucky and 14-seed Georgia).
All season long there have been signs pointing toward mid-major mediocrity -- e.g., the Missouri Valley getting only one NCAA bid -- but today's results (and victory margins) have been eye-opening. Even before Thursday's debacle, Kent State got far too much credit for winning at St. Mary's last month; was it really worth putting KSU in the Top 25 for that? In the end, it looks like the pressure may be on George Mason to carry the mid-major banner again tonight against Notre Dame.
• Jerel McNeal makes a huge difference for Marquette. Last year, in Winston-Salem, I watched Marquette look awful in a first-round loss against Michigan State, not least because the Golden Eagles were playing without the injured McNeal. But a healthy McNeal was the difference-maker in a 74-66 win against Kentucky.
McNeal played his usual lockdown defense and added some serious scoring punch (20 points), much of it coming on high-degree-of-difficulty shots. If Stanford beats Cornell, I can't tell you how pumped I'd be for a classic contrasting-styles matchup between perimeter-heavy Marquette and the trees of Stanford in the second round.
• Fatigue was indeed a factor for Georgia. All credit to the Bulldogs, who turned into the best story of the past week by winning four games (and two in one day!) to grab the SEC's automatic bid after going 13-16 in the regular season. But Georgia couldn't hold on to its 11-point lead against No. 3 seed Xavier, and it was obvious late in the game (as Sundiata Gaines struggled to make it upcourt) that the Dawgs were dog-tired.
One reason we picked Xavier to go on a long run to the West Regional Final is the Musketeers have a tremendous amount of maturity, and they proved it Thursday, never once panicking after going down by double-digits.
• If I want to host a weenie roast, I know who's on my guest list. We're on the record saying people make way too much out of journalists' bracket picks, but we can't let this one slip by: no fewer than four of our journo pals -- ESPN's Jay Bilas, Andy Katz and Digger Phelps and CBS' Clark Kellogg -- pulled the ultimate weenie maneuver and picked all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. Not only have four No. 1's never reached the Final Four before, but get this: it's even less likely to happen than a No. 16 seed upsetting a No. 1 seed (another unprecedented achievement).
According to the log5 calculations of Ken Pomeroy at Basketball Prospectus, there's only a 3.5-percent chance all four of this year's No. 1 seeds will reach the Final Four. But there's a 4.6-percent chance a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1 seed this season. In other words, our weenie pals are so amazingly conservative they're actually going out on a limb (without even realizing it!). For our tastes, we would have preferred that they had just picked a No. 16 seed to win.
• Random stuff goes through my head while watching games. A sampling of stream-of-consciousness from today's games: Ed Hightower's weave looks better than ever ... On the other hand, Georgia's Sundiata Gaines has joined the Otis Nixon All-Stars ... It's nice to see a guy named Dave Bliss (the Georgia version) being part of an inspiring college basketball story instead of playing a villain in one (like the old Baylor version in 2003) ... Yes, we picked Oral Roberts, Baylor and Kent State to win. Yes, our bracket is now up in flames ... I've always connected the start of the Iraq War with the 2003 NCAA tournament, and it gives you some perspective on how long the war has lasted that I can't imagine a single player from that 2003 tournament is still in college basketball (if you can come up with any, let me know).