Day 1 at the Dance: Utter Madness
NEW ORLEANS -- Five things we learned from Day 1 of the NCAA tournament ...
1. Was this the best first day ever in an NCAA tournament? I've covered six of them, can remember 22, and this was the craziest. Eight of the 16 games went down to the final possession, the best being the Danero Thomas two-dribble buzzer-beater that lifted Murray State over Vanderbilt. Seven lower seeds won, the most improbable being No. 14 Ohio -- the nine-seed in the MAC tournament! -- knocking off No. 3 Georgetown in a game that didn't come close to the final possession, because the Bobcats were dominant. It made for a phenomenal day of television. Keeping tabs on it from New Orleans Arena was its own form of madness.
My Thursday timeline: Shake off the residual effects of a St. Patrick's evening spent on Bourbon Street, join about 500 total fans and media members in New Orleans Arena (it really was that sleepy) for Notre Dame-Old Dominion. Watch the 11-over-6 upset happen, while keeping online-video tabs on a Villanova-Robert Morris 2-15 game in which Scottie Reynolds didn't start as a "teaching point," and the Wildcats were struggling. Check out, in the ODU locker room, Frank Hassell's giant padlock t-shirt and the Cinderella reference coach Blaine Taylor left on the whiteboard. Talk with assistant coach Jim Corrigan about the Monarchs' zone, and learn in the course of that conversation that 'Nova is in overtime. Run back to the press-room TVs to see the Robert Morris team I covered in the NEC final on the verge of pulling off the upset of the dance -- until Karon Abraham's luck ran out and Reynolds started acting like Reynolds, with a little help from the refs. (It was a nice game, but the highlights that followed from BYU-Florida were better: That Jimmer Jam went to double OT. )
By then, third-seeded Baylor is on the floor here in New Orleans, playing a first half that ended with the third-seeded Bears trailing No. 14 Sam Houston State by one. And so the madness duties continue: Monitor that situation courtside. Queue up the online video of Vandy-Murray State just in time for Thomas' heroics. Put my arms in the air to honor the Murray State Magic. Feel, with some certainty, that the day couldn't possibly get any wilder. Be wrong on that front. Way wrong.
The Tournament Gods decide that two upsets and one buzzer-beater are not enough, and conspired to keep producing thrillers. Easy decision: Bail on Kentucky's 1-16 rout to watch TV in a tunnel. Change channels between UNLV-Northern Iowa (ends on Ali Farokhmanesh's last-second Maurice Newby impression, a killer shot), Marquette-Washington (a huge Huskies comeback ends on Quincy Pondexter's driving layup) and Georgetown-Ohio (ends with the stunned Hoyas exiting the dance). Walk back out to the court to catch Texas-Wake Forest in an 8-9 game that ends in the only appropriate way it could end: on an Ish Smith game-winner with 1.3 seconds left in overtime.
In the locker room, Smith tells me that he saw the Murray State shot -- but nothing else -- while hanging out at the team hotel earlier in the day. "I'm a huge Law & Order guy," he says, "so I was watching that to try to take my mind off the game." While he was immersed in reruns, the bracket was falling into all kinds of disorder.
Teammate L.D. Williams insists to me that Smith's shot was the best clutch moment of the day -- "because it happened to us." Either way, he says, "It was a great day for basketball."
And then he starts singing One Shining Moment. Thursday's madness had been enough to fill the entire montage.
2. To the powers-that-be at the NCAA who are considering a 96-team bracket: Consider this day a powerful message that the current format must be preserved. You don't want to be responsible for preventing something like this from happening again, do you? Tacking on an extra round would make matchups like Georgetown-Ohio and Vandy-Murray State less likely to happen. Please, please don't ruin this.
3. While the focus of opening day was on the drama, two mid-majors who didn't have to sweat out victories -- fifth-seeded Butler and 10th-seeded St. Mary's -- should be commended. The Bulldogs put on a second-half clinic against a UTEP team that I had picked to make the Sweet 16. Butler now has a very realistic shot at making the Sweet 16, where it could give Syracuse some trouble in Salt Lake City. The Gaels, meanwhile, steamrolled Las Arañas, whom I'd loved coming into the dance. Omar Samhan went for 29 points and 12 rebounds, and he's going to be a difficult matchup for Villanova in the second round. If the Wildcats play on Saturday like they did against Robert Morris, they'll get sent packing.
4. The Big East had an embarrassing day, going 1-3. Georgetown crumbled, Notre Dame fell to Old Dominion, Marquette blew a big lead against Washington, and Villanova barely escaped. Maybe it wasn't actually the nation's deepest league. But its rep will ultimately be defined by what Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova do down the stretch. Will the Orange justify their No. 1 ranking from earlier this season and make the Final Four? Will the Mountaineers give Kentucky a serious battle in the Elite Eight? And will Villanova recover and emerge from the weak South Region? The Big East still has a shot to put two or three teams in Indy, and that, to me, is what matters most.