Guards like Arkansas-Little Rock's Josh Hagins and Yale's Makai Mason dominated on another thrilling opening day of the NCAA tournament.
In his last game before the NCAA tournament, Arkansas-Little Rock's Josh Hagins scored five points on seven shots against Louisiana-Monroe. You didn’t even notice him on the court, especially if, like me, you weren’t watching the Sun Belt championship game and had no idea who Hagins was. But I know now.
Hagins scored 31 points against Purdue on Thursday, but that’s like saying Usain Bolt won the Olympic 100-meter dash or a hockey locker room stinks. It’s true, but it still feels like a massive understatement. The Trojans trailed Purdue 63-49 with 4:06 left. Hagins scored 11 points in that 4:06, including a three-pointer from Steph Curry territory to force overtime. Later he hit a floating, leaning two that should have counted for four. Little Rock won, 85-83.
Day 1 of the NCAA tournament was not an all-time classic, but a) that just means Day 2 probably will be, and b) Day 1 was still pretty great.
Highlights? Providence hit a game-winning open layup off an inbounds pass with 1.5 seconds remaining to beat USC. Indiana whipped Chattanooga the way Indiana does—no team gets hot like the Hoosiers. Duke almost lost to UNC-Wilmington, but didn’t and might not for a while. Virginia coach Tony Bennett collapsed from dehydration and Arizona's Sean Miller set a record for perspiration. (I don’t know what Miller could even do about his over-sweating. Bathe in Right Guard? Starch his chest?)
To be fair: Wichita State could give a lot of coaches the night sweats. The Shockers sent the Wildcats and Miller packing, preferably with fresh shirts, and if you were surprised, you must be on the selection committee. The Shockers are No. 9 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (Arizona is No. 16) and are an established national power at this point. (Wichita State’s last three tournaments: Final Four, loss to eventual finalist Kentucky, Sweet 16.) Making Wichita State a No. 11 seed was unfair—not just to the Shockers, but to Arizona.
Speaking of non-surprise “surprises": Officially, 12th-seeded Yale stunned Baylor in the West Regional, but really: Were you stunned? Have you ever watched the Bears in the tournament? With each passing minute, Scott Drew looked more like Marco Rubio, and that’s not a political cheap shot: He really did look kind of like Rubio to me. I couldn’t tell if it was the hair or the fact that he came in with so much hype and showed no ability to adjust in key moments. Yale looked just as good as Baylor, and better if we’re evaluating uniform designs, and if you’re wondering how Yale outrebounded Baylor, you shouldn’t be surprised. Yale is a terrific rebounding team, ranking 20th in the nation in rebounds per game. Yale vs. Duke on Saturday should be a blast.
The performance of the day, though, belonged to Hagins, who joins Bryce Drew and C.J. McCollum and Kemba Walker and Tyus Edney and, well, you can insert nine other names off the top of your head. We have to move along before Friday’s games start.
Safe to say, though, that the names you come up with will be guards. This is a guards’ tournament. This has been true for a long time. Tim Duncan made one Elite Eight in four years at Wake Forest. Shaquille O’Neal won one tournament game in three years with LSU. That was eons ago (Shaq averaged 27.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and five blocks as a sophomore, then returned to school—imagine THAT today) but the tournament has not changed as much as you might think.
Purdue earned a No. 5 seed thanks to a bruising inside game led by 7-footer A.J. Hammons and 6'9" freshman Caleb Swanigan, who is so big that his nickname is “Biggie”. That’s just not a recipe for NCAA tournament success.
Teams that rely heavily on one or two great post players usually don’t last long. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, by the time a 7-footer rounds out his game, he is usually in the NBA, and for another, the three-pointer has traditionally been a bigger factor in college games (though that has changed). Guards rule in March. We saw this clearly when Hagins hit those ridiculous shots, and when Purdue had the ball late in regulation and nobody knew how to dribble it.
There are exceptions, but really: Not that many. This is why the people who picked Stony Brook to beat Kentucky didn’t really think it through. You don’t beat a team with several future NBA players, including an outstanding college point guard (Tyler Ulis) with a team led by one impressive big guy (Jameel Warney), unless the team with all the NBA players is shaving points, drunk or both.
Look around Thursday, and you saw great guards making big plays. Wichita State had Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Butler had Kellen Dunham. Yale had Makai Mason, who drained all 11 of his free-throw attempts on his way to 31 points. There are 16 more games waiting to be unwrapped Friday. Enjoy.