The foul took place in Salt Lake City. It resonated at least as far east as Tulsa, Okla.
Surely well beyond, actually. But in a BOK Center locker room, Tom Izzo caught sight of Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis fatefully reaching out and drawing a whistle with his team up one in the waning seconds against Northwestern. He saw the infraction lead to go-ahead free throws from the Wildcats’ Bryant McIntosh and then to a missed Commodores three-pointer and finally to a galling, gutting loss. The Michigan State coach saw, once again, the caprices and pressures of March in action.
“Probably for most people you'd say, how can that happen,” Izzo said. “I told my team, it happens easy. That's the aura of the one-and-done in the NCAA tournament. And that's what makes it so good.”
What’s good is, of course, also bad. After Day 1 of the main NCAA tournament draw on Thursday, it was instructive to remember that March memories celebrated by some will haunt others. One side’s exhilaration is another side’s enduring pain. Nineteen springs earlier, in fact, Vanderbilt’s coach took a touch pass and a leaning three-pointer and became a legend. “I’ve never gotten tired of it,” Bryce Drew said, when it was posited to him that The Shot he hit for Valparaiso against Ole Miss in 1998 entered him into a small cadre of athletes who have done things no one will ever forget.
Late Thursday afternoon, he was in charge of consoling another such player, albeit for far more agonizing reasons.
Fisher-Davis’s foul of McIntosh after a go-ahead layup by teammate Riley LaChance with 18 seconds left will live in infamy. As Fisher-Davis explained it to reporters, he simply lost track of the score and thought coaches pointing to McIntosh were asking for a foul. “You know, from Day 1, we teach our guys that we're a team,” Drew said in his postgame press conference. “And one play at the end or one or two plays at the end doesn't lose a game for us. There's plays throughout the whole game that coaches can call better, that players can play better, we've had that pattern through the whole year with our guys. I'll talk to Matt more in depth at some point. He's down about it. It could have been a miscommunication. He looked over at me before. But one play doesn't lose the game for you. And I'm proud of the guys fighting back and being in that situation. Without him we're not even close to being in that situation at the end.”
As for other assorted musings from the first day of play as the field was whittled to 48 …
• It was a big day for the Big East. So, yes, Villanova may have hit the snooze button for far too long against Mount St. Mary’s. The defending champions’ one-point halftime lead over a 16 seed was startling, but the eventual 20-point margin of victory surely was not. Meanwhile, the league notched two very solid wins elsewhere, including a by-the-seed upset. Butler had been sized up as a possible first-round upset victim…and then it promptly downed Winthrop by 13. And Xavier suddenly resembled the team that was chasing Villanova and a league title before injuries decimated those chances. Trevon Bluiett hit five three-pointers in a 21-point effort in a win over Maryland that continued his All-America-level play in the last month since a comeback after an ankle sprain. And have the Musketeers uncovered a March X-factor in 6’10” Sean O’Mara? The junior scored 18 points in 21 minutes off the bench, his second double-digit scoring outing in three games—after recording just two such performances since December.
If Xavier is back at full strength—or at least what qualified as full strength after Edmond Sumner’s ACL tear—then we might have a legitimate threat masquerading as a No. 11 seed.
• This could be (should be?) Randy Bennett’s last NCAA tournament at Saint Mary’s. Pulling away from VCU for a an 85–77 victory should only reconfirm that the Gaels coach ought to be on the radar for openings at Cal and Washington. This is a situation where the schools need not overthink things. Maybe bigger names (like Tom Crean, recently deposed at Indiana) will surface now that the hiring landscape has changed. But more or less keeping pace with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference is not an easy thing to manage. The guy can coach. Don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be, Pac-12 schools.
• Devin Cannady, native of Mishawaka, Ind., plays summer basketball against the guys on the roster for Notre Dame, located one town over in South Bend. He’s tight with V.J. Beachem, the Fighting Irish’s second-leading scorer. And he had the ball in his hands early Thursday with the chance to dispatch his neighbors in the first round. The Princeton sophomore missed a look at a potential go-ahead three-pointer, however, and Notre Dame escaped with a 60–58 victory. “I got my feet set, ball came in my shot pocket,” Cannady said at a news conference. “I looked at the rim, and when the ball left my hand, I thought it was good. It didn't go in and that's what happens when you take those shots. It either does or doesn't. In this case it didn't.”
Speaking of shots that didn’t go in: Beachem and senior Steve Vasturia combined to miss 17 of 21 shots against Princeton. There is absolutely zero chance Notre Dame can defeat West Virginia without an uptick in their production, so consider that a second-round storyline to watch in the West Region.
• Maybe no one will score in the second-round matchup between Florida and Virginia. Both were deemed possible upset victims. Neither was. And now we have a matchup featuring two of the most efficient defenses in the country. After Thursday’s action, Virginia ranks second and Florida ranks fourth, per kenpom.com. The most consequential part, though, may be what the meeting portends for the following weekend. The winner is theoretically rolling with a defense that is fully connected. And the next step might be stopping…Villanova, the reigning champs, in the Sweet 16.
• It might not be feasible to get a read on the Big Ten from this tournament. The selection committee decided the Big Ten wasn't all that impressive. It then doled out low and/or odd seedings. And because the Big Ten teams have low and/or odd seedings, they will have tougher roads in this event. So we're supposed to judge a league by its performance in a tournament in which the odds are already stacked against it?
All that said, it wasn't a terrific first day for the league. Two teams didn't hold serve: No. 6 seed Maryland lost to No. 11 seed Xavier, and No. 5 seed Minnesota lost to No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State...though the latter result wasn't much of an upset, in the eyes of the oddsmakers and anyone who understood that the Gophers were over-seeded anyway. Purdue and Wisconsin, meanwhile, won as higher seeds. A mixed bag, yes. But we didn't need the NCAA tournament to tell us that the league was susceptible to some significant ups and downs.