After a Long Two Years, the Big Dance Is Back

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Let the record show that, after 710 days between men's NCAA tournament games, the first Big Dance points in nearly two years were scored by Texas Southern’s John Walker III. The first game was won by the Tigers as the First Four tipped off what will be an all-Indiana tourney. Good to be back, after the hell of the last 12 months.

But this is college sports, which means controversy is an ever-present sidekick. We have two of them hovering over this tournament: the players’ #NotNCAAProperty movement, and lingering concerns over the rash of problems that emanated from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Several players—mostly from Big Ten schools—sent out social media messages with that hashtag Wednesday and Thursday. Among them was this from Rutgers standout Geo Baker: “The NCAA OWNS my name image and likeness. Someone on music scholarship can profit from an album. Someone on academic scholarship can have a tutor service. For ppl who say ‘an athletic scholarship is enough.’ Anything less than equal rights is never enough. I am #NotNCAAProperty"

There was even some rumination on a potential protest before the games, although nothing materialized Thursday night. Would anyone take it to the ultimate statement and boycott a game? It seems unlikely, but NCAA brass will be holding their breath before tipoff of every contest.

The fact that we are even having this upheaval hearkens back to the fact that the NCAA has continued to drag its feet in enacting name, image and likeness legislation that would grant athletes access to greater compensation. The association was set to move forward last spring, then realized it didn’t have its ducks in a row and essentially requested a Congressional bailout. The politicians since then have flooded the zone with bills and proposals, and it’s going to be quite a scrum getting to a point of passing something into law. That day is coming, but not soon enough to suit the players here at this tournament, who are living a hermetic hotel existence in order to help the NCAA cash in on the billion-dollar payday it missed last year.

Which brings us to part two of the unsettled aura over the Big Dance. The question: did playing the conference tournaments (which exist largely as cash spigots for the TV networks and conferences) add to the risks facing all involved parties?

Consider the wreckage from the Atlantic Coast Conference tourney: Duke had to withdraw after playing two games, due to at least one positive test; among the officials who worked that second game on March 10 was Roger Ayers, who has since tested positive; Ayers then worked the Georgia Tech-Miami game on March 11, and now Yellow Jackets star Moses Wright reportedly is out of at least the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Virginia also dropped out of the ACC tourney after one game due to COVID issues and isn’t even scheduled to arrive in Indy until Friday, with its first game scheduled for Saturday.

Is there a proven causal relationship between all those cases? No. Ayers also worked the Atlantic-10 tournament final, so he might have contracted it there—or in transit to Indianapolis. But there is at least the possibility that the ACC tourney was a super spreader of sorts, while producing little more than TV inventory and an unexpected title for Georgia Tech. (One that it would probably give back in exchange for having Wright in the NCAA tourney.)

Mar 18, 2021; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Norfolk State Spartans guard Daryl Anderson (13) celebrates their win over the Appalachian State Mountaineers in the First Four of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. The Norfolk State Spartans won 54-53.

ICYMI

Indiana is set to host a Big Dance unlike any other, evoking the madness and magic of another fabled basketball competition—the state's old high school tournament. (By Pat Forde)

These are the 10 men's teams most likely to cut down the nets on April 5. (By Pat Forde)

Think carefully before plugging any of these six men's teams into a deep tournament run. (By Jeremy Woo)

SI Gambling has identified three teams on "upset alert" for Friday, as well as two more for Saturday's first round of the men's NCAA tournament. (By Frankie Taddeo)

Best Thing We Saw

The two HBCU conferences both were victorious in the First Four, advancing to the main bracket. This is the first time both have won NCAA tournament games on the same night. Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference survived a hectic Appalachian State comeback, with Devante Carter making two free throws in the final 10 seconds for the lead and the win. Before that, Texas Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference rallied from a 10-point deficit at halftime to beat Mount St. Mary’s. The NCAA revenue units for advancing in the tournament are real money for the modest athletic budgets in those conferences.

Pick 'Em

SI's Pat Forde makes picks for eight of Friday's first-round games:

No. 10 Virginia Tech over No. 7 Florida: This is admittedly a leap of faith, having only seen the Hokies play five games since January.

No. 3 Arkansas over No. 14 Colgate: The Raiders are the darling of the NET ratings. But they haven’t seen anything like the Razorbacks’ athleticism.

No. 8 Loyola Chicago over No. 9 Georgia Tech: The pick here was the other way until the Yellow Jackets reportedly lost ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright.

No. 8 North Carolina over No. 9 Wisconsin: One of the most interesting games of the day. The Tar Heels have shown more in the last few weeks than the Badgers.

No. 10 Rutgers over No. 7 Clemson: Neither team has finished brilliantly, and this will be a rock fight of a game. But go with the Scarlet Knights due to having slightly better offensive options.

No. 6 San Diego State over No. 11 Syracuse: This Orange zone isn’t up to vintage standards, and the Aztecs will take advantage.

No. 3 West Virginia over No. 14 Morehead State: But it will be close, and every Power 6 program will be watching Eagles freshman center Johni Broome and hoping he hits the transfer portal.

No. 12 Winthrop over No. 5 Villanova: The most obvious 12–5 upset of the tournament is obvious for a reason. The Eagles are legitimately good, and the Wildcats are wounded.

Crystal Ball

Tom Izzo is going to be dogged by questions about his fiery interaction with Gabe Brown walking off the court at halftime of the Michigan State-UCLA game. Izzo has always welcomed debate with his players during games, perhaps more than any coach. But his hands-on coaching is less defensible by the year. Grabbing a player is the stuff of the 20th century, not the 21st. He will be asked about it more than he wants to be. Better have an answer ready.

At the Buzzer

Forty years ago, we had the wildest opening round in NCAA tournament history. That was back when the main bracket began on a Saturday, and the upsets rained down all over the place. Two No. 1 seeds lost at the buzzer (Oregon State and DePaul); two No. 2 seeds went down (Kentucky and Arizona State); so did a No. 3 seed (Iowa); and No. 4 seed Louisville was beaten by Arkansas on a half-court shot. Kansas State’s upset of 28–1 Oregon State on a baseline jumper by Rolando Blackman made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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