Many Agonizing Moments in Bracketland
A review of a riveting and agonizing first weekend of the NCAA tournament ...
Four days and four dozen hours of tournament basketball, and not one buzzer-beater was willing to fall. Where have you gone, Bryce Drew -- or even Danero Thomas or Matt Howard? The 2012 bracket's would-be heroes have hit everything but net.
Purdue's Ryne Smith had a running, three-point heave that would've tied No. 2 Kansas on Sunday night; it would not go in. Georgetown's Jason Clark got a clear look at a long three that would've tied No. 11 NC State earlier Sunday; it was an airball. VCU's Rob Brandenberg received a kick-out pass for a spot-up trey that would've beaten No. 4 Indiana on Saturday night; that was when the Rams' magic ran out. Vanderbilt's John Jenkins came off a screen and hoisted a trey that might have beaten Wisconsin earlier on Saturday; even one of the nation's most dangerous long-range shooters could not connect.
Friday brought five fails in the final seconds: Missouri's Phil Pressey missed a three that would've stopped Norfolk State from making 15-over-2 history; St. Mary's Rob Jones rimmed a three that would've tied No. 10 Purdue; Alabama's Trevor Releford had his game-winning attempt grazed by No. 8 Creighton's Josh Jones; St. Bonaventure's DaQuan Cook inexplicably took a pair of two-point attempts while down three to No. 3 Florida State; and Notre Dame's Jerian Grant committed a lane violation during the first of two potentially game-tying free throws against No. 10 Xavier. On Thursday, there was just one, when Wichita State 7-footer Garrett Stutz was forced into a step-back fadeaway that would've tied No. 12 VCU. When it bricked, who knew that it would be the start of a tantalizing last-second trend?
Fans saw so much rim, so much backboard and so little magic. What they're left with through three rounds is a tournament lacking in indelible highlights but rich in big-picture results. March 16, 2012, was the greatest Round-of-64 day ever because two No. 15 seeds slayed No. 2s (Norfolk State over Mizzou and Lehigh over Duke), and six double-digit seeds in all pulled off upsets. There were comeback stories abound: Indiana rose from the depths to reach its first Sweet 16 since 2002, and NC State knocked off San Diego State and Georgetown to reach its first Sweet 16 since 2005, making Mark Gottfried's debut season a smash hit. Xavier and Cincinnati, who marred December with the Crosstown Punchout, both reached the second weekend, and a tinier team from the same state -- the No. 13-seeded Ohio Bobcats -- became the first such seed to make a Sweet 16 since Bradley in 2006.
In a tournament as good as this one, it may be greedy to yearn for buzzer-beaters. But something needs to replace this compilation of Many Agonizing Moments:
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Luck, Cruelty and the Title Picture
The third round was when the world-shockers (Norfolk State and Lehigh) exited stage left, and all the serious title contenders (including four No. 1 seeds) survived. Kentucky remains in the bracket, and freshman point guard Marquis Teague -- its biggest question mark heading into the tournament -- had one of his best games of the season against Iowa State. That means there's no reason to change my stance from Selection Sunday. The Wildcats are still the sensible pick to win it all.
Who, then, should be considered No. 2? Michigan State made the best impression; as long as Draymond Green keeps delivering, the Spartans seem headed for a duel with Kentucky in New Orleans. Kansas, after surviving a real scare from Purdue on Sunday, is my No. 3. The Jayhawks can handle NC State in St. Louis, and they received a gift -- not a gift any real competitor wants, but a gift nonetheless -- when North Carolina's Kendall Marshall broke a bone in his right wrist after a hard foul from Creighton's Ethan Wragge on Sunday. What was setting up to be a No. 1-vs-No. 2 epic in the Midwest Regional final could be ruined by the absence of the nation's preeminent pass-first point guard.
When I heard the sickening Marshall news on Sunday, I was reminded of a conversation with Tar Heels coach Roy Williams from back in November, when his team was the consensus preseason No. 1. He'd lost his best three-point shooter and sometimes backup point guard, Leslie McDonald, to an ACL injury in the offseason, and when I asked Williams about the national title race, he said, "You have to be awfully lucky to get there at the end. You have to stay healthy, and we've already had one major injury. We can't afford to have any more."
But Carolina's backcourt was cursed. In January, the Tar Heels lost their starting two-guard, Dexter Strickland, for the season with an ACL tear. They still managed to earn a No. 1 seed, but they could not under any circumstances afford an injury to Marshall -- and that's exactly what happened. His potential replacement is either senior Justin Watts, who's not a point guard, or freshman Stillman White, who's not seasoned enough for an NCAA tournament setting. As successful as Williams and the Heels have been, they've suffered an overwhelming amount of bad luck at tourney time. As SI's Ted Keith wrote in his report on the Marshall mess from Greensboro:
The Tar Heels have seen this all before. In 1969, 1977, 1984 and 1994 otherwise excellent North Carolina teams have seen their seasons derailed by late-season injuries to their starting point guards. Williams has experienced it too; his 1997 Kansas team carried a 34-1 record into the Sweet 16 but lost there to Arizona, in part, due to a broken wrist suffered by starting shooting guard Jerod Haase, now a UNC assistant. And the Tar Heels are already in the midst of their fifth consecutive season of losing a player to a season-ending injury.
The news on Marshall dropped shortly after the Heels' win over Creighton, while they were still in their locker room. Their mood went from joyous to devastated, and Marshall, who was nearly in tears, said, "I'm not hurt that I can't play; I'm hurt that I can't help my team." It's unlikely that the Tar Heels can get past the Elite Eight without him.
Re-picking the Bracket
I predict that there will be a buzzer-beater next weekend, and that the four regions will play out like this:
South: Kentucky over Baylor. The Wildcats have been dwelling on their loss to Indiana for so long that I cannot fathom a scenario in which they don't show up to play. Baylor is great at beating mid-level teams (such as Xavier) but it's incapable of beating elite teams (such as Kentucky).
West: Michigan State over Marquette. The Spartans have a defense that's as good as Louisville's, but they actually score points, too. And State has too much on the interior for Marquette to handle. Second-chance buckets will let Draymond and Co. squeak by and advance to New Orleans.
East: Ohio State over Wisconsin. Syracuse won't be able to pressure Jordan Taylor into committing enough turnovers, and the Badgers will pull off a very Butler-over-'Cuse-like Sweet 16 upset ... before losing their rubber match with the Buckeyes, whose point guard, Aaron Craft, has rediscovered his scoring ability.
Midwest: Kansas over North Carolina. I suspect Marshall will try to play in a cast, but a one-handed point guard, even with full use of his good hand, won't be able to run the show against the Jayhawks. While defenses keep smothering Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor will step up and be the region's M.O.P. The version of him we saw in late February and early March wasn't a fluke.
Four fond farewells from the dance:
• To Purdue's Robbie Hummel, who didn't deserve to go out like he did on Sunday, with the Boilermakers' upset bid against Kansas collapsing in the final minute. In a just world, Hummel's three-point attempt with eight seconds left goes in; he finishes with 29 points rather than 26; and he gets the chance to make a run at a Final Four after missing out on two earlier ones with a pair of devastating torn-ACL injuries. He cried on the bench last year when his recruiting-classmates E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson were upset by VCU, and cried again on Sunday, when he tried to -- but could not -- will Purdue to the Sweet 16. I suspect many Purdue fans cried along with him. There was nothing fair about the way his career had to end.
(One of the most heart-wrenching visits I've made for SI was to interview Hummel's parents in Valparaiso, Ind., three days after his second ACL injury, in October 2010. The trip had been planned weeks in advance, because the magazine was planning on putting Hummel, Johnson and Moore -- one of our top three teams for that season, and a real title contender -- on a preview-issue cover. After Hummel blew out his knee in Purdue's first official practice, our cover plans had to change, but his parents, Linda and Glenn, still invited me into their home to talk about how they were coping. Linda even insisted that I take a to-go bag of chocolate-chip bars for the drive down to Purdue, where I interviewed Robbie the next day. He said he was having trouble sleeping, thinking about the season he was about to lose. But he showed up for practice every day, acting as a sort of player-coach while plotting his comeback for a fifth season. His play in 2011-12 exceeded almost everyone's expectations -- who averages 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds on two repaired ACLs? -- but the tournament Gods did not reward him for his perseverance. My hope is that Hummel finds his way onto a good NBA roster, finds a niche as a glue guy, and wins a handful of rings.)
• To the Norfolk State Spartans, who shocked the world, delighted a nation of upset-hungry viewers, and had the good sense to film their celebration and post it on YouTube:
• To VCU, which never plays a dull game. Its team, its coach, its band and its fans bring more collective energy than anyone else in the bracket. "Rock, Chalk" is my favorite blueblood chant, but "You don't want to go to war! With the RAMS! Don't start no stuff won't be no stuff! is my favorite newblood chant. I'm a sucker for stuff that reminds me of radio-cleansed Lil Jon.To the Extreme Lehigh Sign Guy superb, sophomoric screengrab material