- The first full day of the 2019 NCAA tournament lacked big-time upsets. It did not lack for Ja Morant and Murray State highlights.
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At least we had Ja. While most of Thursday’s first full day of NCAA tournament action may have lacked much shock, it did have awe in the form of Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant. The projected top-three NBA draft pick put up the ninth triple-double—17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds—in tourney history to run Marquette off the floor in a 19-point win in which the victorious 12th-seeded Racers looked like nobody’s idea of an underdog.
Alas, that was Thursday’s only notable upset. Besides two No. 10s—Florida and Minnesota—winning largely dramaless games against slightly favored No. 7s (Nevada and Louisville, respectively), the first day of the first round played out in atypically straightforward fashion. Bradley took a one-point lead over Michigan State into halftime and Vermont entered its break tied with Florida State; both lost decisively. Goliaths Kentucky, Gonzaga, Michigan and Kansas cruised without even a moment of doubt. A strong second half couldn’t close Yale’s gap with LSU. Purdue rolled. Bombs-away Wofford, led by deadeye star Fletcher Magee’s 24 points, won its first NCAA tournament game in program history, but with the season the Terriers had—undefeated since mid-December—that too did not register as surprising.
There were two chances for the kind of first-round moment on which this event has built its stature. New Mexico State, a No. 12 seed, trailed Auburn by two points in the final seconds before a wild closing sequence—an open layup opportunity being kicked out for a three, a foul on the attempt, a Tigers defender knocking a missed free throw out of bounds, and the Aggies missing an open three at the buzzer—left them one point short and out of time. (Auburn alum Charles Barkley took in the action as animatedly as you might expect.) Later in the afternoon, 11th-seeded Belmont had the ball down one on the final possession against Maryland when it ran its signature “panic” backdoor play for star forward Dylan Windler, only for the Terrapins to tip the pass and intercept, securing the win.
And so the day belonged to Morant, a favorite of college hoopheads and NBA draftniks, but to many casual sports fans more a name than a player before Thursday. If anyone wondered whether he was a big fish in a mid-major pond, Morant justified every word of his hype with a series of probing drives, crafty dishes, and thrilling dunks. Said Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, a Duke player and assistant coach for 19 seasons: “He's as good as any guard that I've coached against, or played against, and I've coached against and played against some outstanding ones.”
After the game, Morant tweeted, “RELAX ‼️ i’m not done yet.” That’s good news for everyone looking for more madness to come. So is the fact that ahead of us lies another slate of 16 games, stretched out over some 12 hours. It’s a schedule that includes a surging underdog nicknamed the Anteaters (UC-Irvine), a memorable first-round Cinderella of recent vintage (Georgia State), and ... Virginia playing a 16-seed. Don’t be shocked if it packs a few more thrills. — By Dan Greene
• Ja Morant stole the show on the first full day of the NCAA tournament, raising expectations for how far Murray State can go. (By Laken Litman)
• Kentucky has enough talent to advance to the Sweet 16 without PJ Washington, but his injury clouds the Wildcats’ path. (By Andy Staples)
• Trevelin Queen almost became a buzzer-beater hero, but his shot clanged off and left New Mexico State with no regrets. (By Michael McKnight)
• Fletcher Magee's unorthodox turnaround three that finished off Seton Hall? Wofford sees that every day from the new three-pointer king. (By Andy Staples)
• Virginia is out to prove that it shouldn’t be defined by last year’s UMBC loss. (By Charles Pierce)
• Richard Pitino and Minnesota kept the story about Rick as little as possible in knocking off Louisville. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Should CBS avoid or address the college basketball scandals during March Madness? (By Jacob Feldman)
• Everything you didn't know you needed to know about all 68 teams that made the 2019 NCAA tournament. (By Dan Gartland)
• One paragraph about every game of the NCAA tournament's first full day of action. (By Eric Single and Molly Geary)
• Thursday's newsletter: How to fill out your bracket with as many NCAA scandals as possible. (By Dan Gartland)
Best Thing We Saw
HARTFORD, Conn. — Turns out, Murray State head coach Matt McMahon is a big WWE fan. He also shares the same last name as WWE chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon. For some added inspiration before No. 12 Murray State upset No. 5 Marquette 83-64 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday, Matt McMahon brought in three championship belts and propped them up against the whiteboard. Naturally, the players loved it.
“Those are our championship belts,” sophomore forward Devin Gilmore says, explaining exactly what they are. “Every other day we get a new belt.”
The Racers received two for winning the Ohio Valley Conference, and the other, Gilmore says, was a gift.
“If we keep winning, they might make an appearance on the court,” he says. — By Laken Litman
Pick 'Em: Friday's Slate of 16
SI's Dan Greene makes his picks for the second full day of the 2019 NCAA tournament.
No. 7 Cincinnati over No. 10 Iowa: The Bearcats, rejuvenated by a conference title run, are practically at home against the fading Hawkeyes.
No. 8 Ole Miss over No. 9 Oklahoma: A toss-up between limping high-majors goes to the team with the better-shooting backcourt.
No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 14 Northern Kentucky: The Norse won’t be the ones to crack the Red Raiders’ smothering defense, nor have an answer for Jarrett Culver.
No. 13 UC-Irvine over No. 4 Kansas State: Reversing my original pick with Dean Wade sidelined; the red-hot Anteaters (16 straight wins) have the size, experience, depth to wear Wildcats down.
No. 2 Tennessee over No. 15 Colgate: The sharpshooting Raiders (39.0%) could give Volunteers trouble, but Tennessee is a talented team of vets that can withstand some strong shooting.
No. 1 Virginia over No. 16 Gardner Webb: Doubtful a top seed has ever had more reason to lock in for its first game before. De’Andre Hunter will show what was missing vs. UMBC.
No. 6 Buffalo over No. 11 Arizona State: Bobby Hurley will know well what he’s up against against his former squad and assistant Nate Oats, but the Bulls will outrun even that insider prep.
No. 5 Wisconsin over No. 12 Oregon: As high as the Ducks have been flying lately, the Badgers have the D to ground them, though Ethan Happ will be shouldering a heavy burden on O.
No. 8 Utah State over No. 9 Washington: If Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, and Diogo Brito can shoot over the Huskies’ zone, they should earn more comfort than most teams can muster against UW.
No. 1 Duke over No. 16 North Dakota State: The Bison haven’t seen anyone like Zion Williamson. To be fair, no one has.
No. 3 Houston over No. 14 Georgia State: Kelvin Sampson’s squad defends and rebounds too well for 2015 meme star Ron Hunter to have another shining moment.
No. 12 Liberty over No. 5 Mississippi State: The A-Sun champs are efficient on offense; the Bulldogs can be plagued by turnovers. Lovell Cabill and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz can knock down big shots.
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 16 Iona: Pace-pushing Tar Heels play a similar style to the always entertaining Gaels, but with ACC talent.
No. 9 UCF over No. 8 VCU: Banged-up Marcus Evans is bad news for the Rams; 7'6" Knights senior Tacko Fall is worse.
No. 6 Iowa State over No. 11 Ohio State: The mercurial Cyclones are better than any team the Buckeyes have beaten in four months and clicking after Big 12 tournament title run.
No. 4 Virginia Tech over No. 13 Saint Louis: The return of point guard Justin Robinson from injury means full-strength Hokies will be a strong No. 4 seed.
Money Shot: Friday's Best Bet
UC Irvine +4.5
Kansas State star forward Dean Wade is unlikely to play, and that is bad news for a Wildcats offense that has struggled mightily without him on the floor this season (0.93 points per possession without, versus 1.06 PPP with). UC Irvine has the best two-point defense in the country, and Wade’s absence is extra important here since he stretches the floor as the team’s best three-point shooter. The Anteaters are bigger, deeper and have plenty of experience, and I think they pull off the upset outright. It also doesn't hurt that the game is in San Jose, a nice travel advantage for the underdog. — By Max Meyer
One subregional site will make up for Thursday by going bonkers with upsets and/or dramatic finishes. My pick: San Jose, where Liberty, UC-Irvine and Oregon are all strong candidates to bust some brackets. — Dan Greene
At the Buzzer
Before you go, watch Ja Morant's father answer where he thinks his son should be picked in the NBA draft. There is no pick before No. 1. There is, however, a bit of bragging we would like to do.