Breaks go against underdogs in chalk-filled Day 2 of NCAA tournament
The unpredictability of the NCAA tournament is not limited to its scores. Who could've imagined that the defining scene of 2015's Round-of-64 Thursday, one of the wildest days in the history of the tournament, would be that of a coach falling off his stool? Georgia State's Ron Hunter, immobilized by an Achilles' injury and overwhelmed by his son, R.J., having hit the dagger that beat Baylor, was the face of an unforgettable 13-hour run to open the dance. And as we waited … and kept waiting ... for some of those thrills to carry over into Friday, another peculiar scene, once again just outside the boundaries of the court, offered some hope: that of a retired coach, in the first row of the stands, drawing a play on a random piece of paper during a timeout.
It was Homer Drew who, as head coach of Valparaiso in 1998, called a full-court, buzzer-beating play that will never get bumped from One Shining Moment's Greatest Hits. It was called "Pacer," and it bounced 13-seeded Ole Miss from the opening round of the NCAAs. His son Bryce was Valpo's shooter in '93 and is the Crusaders' coach in 2015, and now they were in a situation with 13-seed over 4-seed upset potential, down 65-62 to Maryland with 13.7 seconds left in Columbus, Ohio. If the images of Homer Drew improvising a game-tying set, and then Bryce Drew drawing up a three-point look in a huddle couldn't inject magic into the second full day of the tourney, nothing could.
Valpo inbounded the ball in its frontcourt on the left sideline, and with 7.5 seconds left, tried to run a cross-screen for its star, Alec Peters, to get him a catch-and-shoot three-point attempt on the left wing. Maryland sniffed it out and switched the screen. It was an obvious play without a clear second option, and Crusaders guard Keith Carter was forced to attempt a last-ditch three in the left corner. He was hacked on the right wrist by Terps guard Varun Ram, blatantly and with a ref looking on from just a few feet away, but the ref remained silent.
No whistle. No free throws. No shot at overtime.
An unjust and un-magical conclusion that was representative of Friday as a whole: a day that, faced with impossible odds of one-upping its predecessor, responded with only a few half-hearted attempts at drama.
Among the other fizzle-outs was the 4-13 game in Seattle, where UC-Irvine, in its NCAA tournament debut, had a promising upset bid in the works against Louisville. Luke Nelson was looking like a tourney hero-in-the-making; the British sophomore hit a clutch floater over the outstretched arms of Cards forwards Montrezl Harrell and Chinanu Onuaku to put the Anteaters up 55-53 with a minute left, and had the ball again with Irvine trailing by two on the final possessions. The Thursday Finish of this game would've been a three at the buzzer, and a Vine-able mob scene at halfcourt.
The actual, Friday Finish of this game was Nelson committing a turnover when Louisville's Terry Rozier, knowing he had fouls to give, made an aggressive attempt for a steal, bumping into Nelson's shoulder while also getting a hand on the ball to deflect it into the backcourt. Just as in the Valpo finish, there was no whistle. The only minor miracle in the final minute benefitted the No. 4 seed, as Cardinals wing Wayne Blackshear tied the game by driving into the body of 7'6" center Mamadou Ndiaye and somehow scoring through Ndiaye's flailing arms, a shot that did not seem logistically possible.
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Eleventh-seeded Dayton de-chalked Day 2 by beating No. 6 Providence after midnight in Columbus, but it was a footnote on a long run of teases. In Charlotte, No. 15 Belmont, a program long overdue for its first tourney upset, was within two points of No. 2 Virginia with 4:36 left … only to lose by 12. And Wyoming (against Northern Iowa) and Buffalo (against West Virginia) failed in their upset bids, making No. 12 seeds winless for the first time since 2007.
Something feels lacking about a bracket without a No. 12 in the round of 32, just as something feels lacking about an end-game scenario that involves two Drews and yields nothing indelible. Bryce said later that he "should've used" that play Homer drew up. I know Bryce was joking, but … I still want to see what was on that piece of paper.
The uplifting thing, after a dud of a Friday, is that opportunities remain for the underdogs. No. 13s Georgia State (which faces Xavier on Saturday) and UAB (vs. UCLA) have realistic shots at making the Sweet 16, but it's No. 7s that might do the serious bracket-busting. Michigan State was an overlooked team in a Big Ten race defined by Wisconsin's dominance and Maryland's breakthrough, but the Spartans are playing their best basketball in March. They beat Georgia 70-63 on Friday and, given the quality of their offense of late and Tom Izzo's track record in quick-turnaround tourney games, are more than capable of ending No. 2 Virginia's season.
Meanwhile, Wichita State, which won an 81-76 shootout against Indiana, is the last No. 7 seed that Kansas wanted to see in the second round. Not only because the Jayhawks have avoided scheduling the Shockers in the regular season, but also because Wichita has one of the few tourney point guards who's better than Frank Mason (Fred VanVleet, who had 27 points and committed just one turnover in 37 minutes against IU), and because Wichita's defense is nearly as good as it was last season when the team went 35-1.
The national perception of the Shockers has changed—they've ceded center-of-tourney-attention status to Kentucky—but they remain a threat to make a deep run. Maybe even a run all the way to a rematch with Kentucky in the Elite Eight, which would be appropriate given the bracket the Shockers were dealt last season. They're still on the second tier of college basketball's caste system. As Gregg Marshall said Friday, "We're not the 'blue blood,' so to speak" that teams like Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky are, but the NCAA tournament is the great leveler.
The bluebloods are all there waiting for the Shockers, a team that might be more dangerous as a spoiler than an unbeaten.