Opening day of the NCAA tournament again exceeds all expectations
The first day of this NCAA tournament was so entertaining, it even stole a storyline from a previous NCAA tournament, just for the hell of it. There was Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury during Louisville’s 2013 title run, playing 29 minutes in 14th-seeded Georgia State’s 57-56 win over third-seeded Baylor.
It was a good thing, too. Without Ware on the floor, we would be stuck talking about the winning coach’s son finishing a 13-0 closing run with a three-pointer that caused his dad, who tore his Achilles tendon in a celebration last week, literally to fall off his chair, and how boring would that be?
This is the beauty of the tournament. You can rail against NCAA hypocrisy and wince at the scandals, but the tournament still seduces you. You can know college basketball so well that you call Robert Morris “Bob,” and the tournament still surprises you.
It would probably be hyperbole to call Thursday the best day in the history of the tournament, but this day certainly wouldn’t have to blush in the presence of any other. There were five one-point games. Five! Out of 15 games! (I don’t count Kentucky’s scrimmage with Hampton as a game.) There have never been five one-point games on a single tourney day, and it’s more than the entire tournaments in 2013 and 2014.
We had two No. 14 seeds beating No. 3s by a single point—along with Georgia State’s win over Baylor, UAB beat Iowa State 60-59. And we almost had a third No. 14 win, when Northeastern pushed Notre Dame down to the final seconds. Of course, Notre Dame losing in basketball is never as satisfying for people as Notre Dame losing in football. It’s like Alabama losing in basketball or the opposing political party losing a race for drain commissioner.
N.C. State beat LSU on a last-second jump hook by BeeJay Anya. Purdue blew a late seven-point lead and lost in overtime to Cincinnati by a point. Harvard almost beat North Carolina, which would have been one of the great stories in NCAA tournament history just a few years ago, but wasn’t even surprising this time. It would have been interesting, though, to see Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, a Dukie, beat UNC in March.
And we had UCLA and SMU bringing us a dose of insanity, starting with the matchup itself. UCLA’s place in this tournament is a mystery. Even some UCLA fans don’t seem to understand it. But you know what they say about a gift horse: If you walk behind it, watch your step. Also, don’t look it in the mouth. Anyway, after earning a bid by not really earning it, UCLA won its first game by missing a shot at the end, which is sort of perfect, I guess.
Officials called goaltending on SMU’s Yanick Moreira, giving UCLA’s Bryce Alford three points for taking an awful, ill-advised shot. From the overhead angle, it looked like they might have gotten it right, but from the side, it looked awful.
And yet, it is at least possible the officials made the right call. It was one of those refereeing moments when what you see seems grossly unjust, but it may have followed the letter of the rulebook, like when Dez Bryant’s catch was ruled incomplete in Green Bay in January.
Alford’s three-point non-play ended the season for SMU, and also for tortured genius coach Larry Brown, who is 74 and had a heck of a run. I don’t mean he had a heck of a run in his career, or even this season. I mean this week. He only coached one game, but Larry still gave us some classic Larry Brownishness. First he said he is “proud” of former assistant John Calipari, and "I don't want to put pressure on John," then added of Cal’s Kentucky team: “I think they'd honestly make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference if they were in the NBA.”
Why would that put any pressure on John? The only way Larry could have gone more Larry on us is if he added: “And if he loses, I’ll be heartbroken for the game and our profession but also interested in his job.” And speaking of the coaching profession, how about that Jim Boeheim? His team is done but he keeps holding press conferences. That’s media-friendly!
Boeheim began the day with a press conference to let everybody know that the NCAA sanctions against Syracuse are wrong and he is right and why do you guys hate foreigners so much? It was a vintage Boeheim. He doesn’t like practice and doesn’t really watch film, but he goes fist-first into an argument when somebody criticizes him. So many talk-radio callers wish they were coaches. Boeheim is a coach who really wants to call talk radio.
Boeheim also announced this week that he will retire in three years. He hopes likeable longtime assistant Mike Hopkins replaces him, but I wouldn’t count out Larry Brown.
Boeheim probably watches more games than any coach in the country; it is quite possible that, at age 70, he has watched more basketball games for his own enjoyment than any person in history. He just loves it. So I hope that he calmed down from his press conference, sat on his couch and soaked all this in. I hope he saw all of his favorite sport on one of its best days, including R.J. Hunter hitting that shot for Georgia State, and his dad Ron falling down. It was a reminder of the essential truth about college sports: From a distance, they seem so wrong, but up close, who can resist?
Your turn, Friday. Good luck matching what we just saw.