- What did we learn from the first day of the NCAA tournament? It's been a great start for the SEC ... and not so much for the Pac-12.
The defining moment of the first day of the 2018 NCAA tournament was, at once, fantastic and foreseeable. No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago was a popular pick to upset No. 6 Miami at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Thursday. The Ramblers had already won at Florida in December. They rated out as one of the top 25 defenses in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. They had rolled through the Missouri Valley Conference with only one loss since early January. Loyola-Chicago may be a little-known mid-major, but it did not stun the college hoops world by beating the Hurricanes.
What it did do was provide a dose of thrilling, game-swinging drama on a chalky day in which favorites mostly held serve*. As other potential Cinderellas saw their March dreams dashed—from No. 13 UNC-Greensboro (No. 4 Gonzaga) to No. 12 Davidson (No. 5 Kentucky) to No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (No. 3 Texas Tech) and everyone in between—the deep, buzzer-beating three-pointer from 6’6’’ Ramblers senior Donte Ingram that sent Miami packing guaranteed one underdog’s passage into the second round. When it comes time to assess this tourney in full, that shot will be lumped into an iconic montage of highlights. On Thursday, it didn’t have much company.
Here are SI’s biggest takeaways from Day 1 of the NCAAs:
- The Pac-12 was going to have a hard time coming out a winner from this tourney no matter what happened on Thursday. It placed only one team in the final AP Top 25 Poll, had only two teams—Arizona State and UCLA—earn at-large bids, and both of them failed to make it to the first round by losing their First Four games to Syracuse and St. Bonaventure, respectively. Thursday brought more bad news, in the form of a night-window tip in which the favorite definitely did not hold serve*. A tumultuous season for the West Coast-based league’s regular-season and conference tournament champion, Arizona, came crashing down in Boise. The No. 4 seed Wildcats were run off the court by No. 13 Buffalo in an 89–68 blowout that represented the second-biggest margin of victory for a team seeded No. 13 or worse since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first time dating to 1986 that the Pac-12 has failed to record a win in the NCAAs. Another ignominious first for the league: No high-major since 1996–97 had failed to put a team in the round of 32.
The Pac-12’s postseason demise may have happened sooner, and with less advance notice, than expected, but perhaps it’s preferable that the Pac-12 file away this dismaying season sooner rather than later. Commissioner Larry Scott indicated earlier this week that he was already looking to the future when he released a plan calling for “unprecedented reform” in men’s basketball. And besides, with only one squad having done enough in the regular season to avoid the play-in games, the Pac-12 had little hope of accomplishing anything of substance in this postseason that didn’t involve creating bad optics. The more Arizona won, the more national attention would be paid to its role in the FBI’s sweeping probe into corruption across college basketball.
- While the Pac-12 sputtered, a football-first league on the other side of the country shined. Less than a week after setting a league record by having eight teams earn invitations to the big dance, four of them took the court for first-round games, and four of them won first-round games. Tennessee got things rolling by crushing Wright State, 73–46, to move on to a winnable matchup against the aforementioned Ramblers in the second round. No. 5 Kentucky followed up by navigating a tricky matchup against an offensively potent Davidson team. Alabama did its part in a tough No. 8-No. 9 meeting with Virginia Tech thanks in large part to 25 points on 7-of-14 shooting from freshman point guard Collin Sexton. And Florida closed out the day by making easy work of a dangerous St. Bonaventure squad powered by prolific guard Jaylen Adams.
The SEC faces a far less favorable slate of matchups on Friday, including a pair of No. 7-No. 10 pairings against formidable Big East opponents: No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Providence and No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Butler. Plus, Auburn could get a serious challenge from Colonial Athletic Association champion College of Charleston in San Diego. Still, the SEC already had plenty to celebrate from a regular season that saw multiple outfits vastly outperform preseason expectations to snatch bids, and it hardly could have asked for a better start to the tourney. The conference may not have a viable national title contender in its ranks, but there’s no quibbling with its depth of quality. An additional bonus? Georgia made a promising hire to replace the deposed Mark Fox, plucking former Indiana and Marquette head coach Tom Crean from his gig as an ESPN television analyst.
- Who needs 3s? Not Kentucky. No. 5 Big Blue’s 78–73 win over No. 12 Davidson in the South region amounted to a repudiation of the virtues of Moreyball. Kentucky attempted only six long-range shots against Bob McKillop’s team and missed all of them, marking the first time since the now-defunct Great Alaska Shootout tournament in 1988 that UK didn’t hit even once from deep. (That ended a streak of 1,047 games.) Kentucky still managed 1.11 points per possession compared to 1.04 for Davidson, which knocked down 11 of its 33 tries from downtown. The Wildcats’ three-less victory would have been remarkable against any opponent in the NCAAs. That the win came against a team that ranks in the top 10 in Division I in the proportion of points it gets beyond the arc only added to the weirdness. Here’s guessing Kentucky will need at least one triple to make it past No. 13 seed Buffalo in the second round on Saturday.
- Tennessee’s miraculous turnaround is alive and well. At the risk of overreacting to a ho-hum win over an overmatched opponent, the Volunteers have an excellent opportunity to get to the second weekend after failing to qualify for the NCAAs the three previous years. Tied for the worst championship odds among No. 3 seeds as of Thursday, Tennessee smoked its opening-round opponent, No. 14 Wright State, to advance to a manageable matchup against a mid-major. Loyola-Chicago’s win over Miami did not have the feel of a one-off; the Ramblers are good enough to slay another high-major. That said, the Volunteers are one victory away from clinching a spot in the sport’s ultimate group of 16 teams only a few months after they were picked to finish 13th in their own conference. In related news, Rick Barnes was named a finalist on Thursday for the Naismith Coach of the Year award.