College Basketball: How First Round of NCAA Tournament Might Have Played Out -- Day 3

Jake Curtis

We are on to Day 3 of our fictional NCAA tournament, and today, Thursday, March 19, and tomorrow, Friday, March 20, are the most exciting days of the sports year. That's because 16 emotion-packed games are crammed into each day with the players knowing that one loss ends their dream.

Upsets are unavoidable and buzzer-beating game-winning shots are common.

The actual men's NCAA basketball tournament would have been in its third day on Thursday, March 19, but the tournament was canceled becasue of concerns about the novel coronavirus.

So we decided to provide a substitute, a scenario of how the tournament might have played out. We started with the preliminary-round games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and now get into the heart of the event.

We used the bracketology and pairings projected by Jerry Palm at, partly because he predicted that seven Pac-12 teams would be in the tournament.

first four
first round
first round 2

So here we go with our projection of how the first day of first-round play may have gone.

Day 3, Game 1

No. 1 seed Kansas (28-3) vs. No. 16 seed Robert Morris (21-14) at Omaha, Neb.

Preview: Robert Morris Colonials held off North Carolina Centeral in a preliminary-round game after finishing second in the Northeast Conference and winning the NEC tournament. AJ Bramah, a San Leandro resident, was a second-team all-conference pick.

Kansas finished the season on a 16-game winning streak and was ranked No. 1 in the country in the final poll. Jayhawks center Oduka Azubuike was the Big-12 player of the year.

The game: The Jayhawks are a little tight at the start, as a lot of heavy favorites are in the opening round. Robert Morris stays in the game in the first half, trailing just 30-27 at intermission.

But the Jayhawks turn up the defensive pressure in the second half. Devon Dotson, who leads the Big 12 in scoring and steals, gets two steals within 90 seconds, turning both into layups. Kansas begins to get the ball inside to Azubuike, and the Colonials have no answer. The 2018 Virginia Cavaliers team is still the only No. 1 seed to lose its opener (they dropped a 72-52 decision to 16th-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County).

Final score: Kansas 79, Robert Morris 57

Day 3, Game 2

No. 4 Louisville (24-7) vs. No. 13 Liberty (30-4) at Tampa, Fla.

Preview: The Louisville Cardinals finished in a three-way tie for second in the ACC, but went 3-4 over its final seven games. Jordan Nwora was a first-team all-ACC pick.

The Liberty Flames finished tied for first in the Atlantic Sun Conference and won the conference tournament. They won 11 of their last 12 games, and Caleb Homesley was named ASun player of the year.

The game: The Cardinals have trouble scoring against Liberty, which is second in the country in scoring defense (53.8 per game) and 11th in field-goal percentage defense (38.7). The game is tied at halftime, and Liberty, a team experts picked to pull off an early upset, seems comfortable while Louisville is pressing.

The Cardinals rely heavily on Nwora for their offense, and the Flames are bottling him up. With three minutes left, the score is tied, and first-year Louisville coach Chris Mack tries to stay calm during a timeout.

Liberty starts to show the pressure of the situation and fails to score on three consecutive possessions. Louisville isn't much better, but they have Ryan MacMahon, a 93.2 percent foul shooter, at the line of a tie game with 10 seconds remaining. He sinks both free throws, and Liberty throws the ball away with two seconds to go.

Final score: Louisville 62, Liberty 60

Day 3, Game 3

No. 4 Oregon (24-7) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State (25-6) at Sacramento

***Cal coach Mark Fox talks about Oregon following the Bears' loss to the Ducks

Preview: The Oregon Ducks won the Pac-12 title with a 13-5 mark, and guard Payton Pritchard was named conference player of the year after leading the Pac-12 in scoring and assists. Chris Duarte, who missed the final two weeks with a broken finger, is back for the tournament.

New Mexico State entered the tournament on a 16-game winning streak after winning the Western Athletic Conference championship. The Aggies had no one on the first-team all-WAC team, and none of them averages more than 13.2 points. They are in the Big Dance for the eighth time in nine years.

The game: The Aggies rank sixth in the country in scoring defense, and they are frustrating Oregonat the outset. New Mexico State's patient offense and dominance of the boards help the Aggies take a seven-point lead at halftime.

In the second half, Oregon speeds up the game by applying fullcourt pressure, forcing five New Mexico State turnovers in the first 10 minute. That helps the Ducks get within a point, but they cannot take the lead. 

Trevelin Queen hits a three-point shot to put the Aggies ahead by four, before Pritchard nails a 30-foot three-pointer to make it a one-point game with 50 seconds left. After a New Mexico State miss, Dana Altman calls timeout with 21 seconds to go. He puts the ball in the hands of Pritchard, who dribbles along the perimeter before finding a hole and driving down the left side of the lane. He tosses up a left-handed shot with two Aggies defenders coming over to help.

Pitchard's shot at buzzer falls through, and Oregon survives.

Final score: Oregon 65, New Mexico State 64

Day 3, Game 4

No. 7 Michigan (19-12) vs. No. 10 Utah State (26-8) at St. Louis

Preview: The Michigan Wolverines were impressive at the start of the season under coach Juwan Howard, but finished only ninth in the Big Ten. Zavier Simpson, who is third in the nation in assists and is one of five Wolverines averaging in double-figures in scoring, was a second-team all-conference pick.

The Utah State Aggies finished tied for second in the Mountain West and beat San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament championship game. Guard Sam Merrill was named to the first-team all-conference squad.

The game: The Aggies get rolling early, as Merrill, a 41.0 percent three-point shooter, nails three shots from beyond the arc in the first half. His 13 first-half points help Utah State take a five-point lead at halftime.

Simpson leads a brief Wolverines surge early in the second half, getting Michigan within a point. But Justin Bean, who averages 10.4 rebounds per game, and Neemias Queta dominate the paint down the stretch and increase the Utah State lead. Trailing by six with two minutes left, Michigan gets frantic and turns the ball over on two of its next three possessions. Utah State closes out the mild upset by hitting its free throws at the end.

Final score: Utah State 72, Michigan 64

Day 3, Game 5

No. 8 seed Arizona State (20-11) vs. No. 9 seed Florida (19-12) at Omaha

***Arizona State's Alonzo Verge Jr. is not a starter but he is a finisher.

Photo by Casey Sapio - USA TODAY Sports

Preview: The Arizona State Sun Devils finished tied for third in the Pac-12, but they lost three of their last four games. Remy Martin was the conference's second-leading scorer and an all-Pac-12 pick.

The Florida Gators wound up tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference, and Keyontae Johnson was an all-conference selection.

The game: Arizona State seems frazzled at the outset, and turns the ball over 10 times in the first half, helping the Gators to a 34-28 halftime lead.

But Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. score six points apiece in a 14-4 ASU run that puts the Sun Devils ahead by two with nine minutes to go. Florida's Noah Locke hits from beyond the arc to put Florida back on top, but Martin and Verge quickly erase that with another ASU run. The Sun Devils lead by eight with two minutes left, and despite some sloppy turnovers in the closing moments, ASU hangs on to advance.

Final score: Arizona State 74, Florida 69

Day 3, Game 6

No. 2 San Diego State (30-2) vs. No. 15 Eastern Washington (23-8) at Sacramento

Preview: The San Diego State Aztecs won their first 26 games and finished first in the Mountain West, but they lost in the conference tournament to Utah State. Malachi Flynn, who does a little bit of everything, was conference player of the year.

The Eastern Washington Eagles won the Big Sky regular-season title, and are sixth in the nation in scoring at 80.6 points per game.

The Game: The Aztecs are third in the nation in scoring defense, and they put the clamps on Eastern Washington's high-scoring offense from the outset.

The Eagles never get a chance to make San Diego State anxious about the outcome, as the Aztecs lead by 10 points at halftime and expand the margin to 18 points midway through the second half. The Eagles' Jacob Davidson heats up late in the game and scores 10 points in the final nine minutes, but the Aztecs stay comfortably ahead.

Final score: San Diego State 61, Eastern Washington 50

Day 3, Game 7

No. 5 seed Auburn (25-6) vs. No. 12 seed Akron (24-7) at Tampa, Fla.

***Frustrating day for Auburn coach Bruce Pearl

Photo by Randy Sartin - USA TODAY Sports

Preview: The Auburn Tigers finished tied for second in the SEC, and Samir Doughty was a first-team all-SEC pick. The Tigers were great at home but just 4-5 in SEC road games.

The Akron Zips finished first in the Mid-American Conference and won eight of their last nine games. Point guard Loren Christian Jackson was the MAC player of the year.

The Game: As soon as San Diego State wraps up its win, TV channels switch to the Auburn-Akron game, where a major upset is brewing.

Auburn is a streaky team and its troubles away from home are repeated in the NCAA tournament. Jackson, who has scored 35 points twice in the past four games, is running the Auburn defense ragged, collecting 15 first-half points as the Zips take an eight-point halftime lead.

Auburn, which got to the Final Four last year, is getting tighter and tighter as the first several minutes of the second half play out. Akron increases its lead to 12 points before Doughty leads an Auburn surge that cuts the deficit to five with four minutes left.

But the poised play of Jackson keeps the Zips in front. An 87.7 percent free-throw shooter, Jackson makes all four foul shots in the final minute while a frazzled Auburn team fails to get good shots. The first major upset of the 2020 NCAA tournament is complete.

Final score: Akron 72, Auburn 65

Day 3, Game 8

No. 5 Wisconsin (21-10) vs. No. 12 East Tennessee State  (30-4) at St. Louis

Preview: The Wisconsin Badgers tied for first place in the Big Ten and finished with an eight-game winning streak. The Badgers had no one on the first-team or second-team all-Big Ten squads.

The East Tennessee State Buccaneers won the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament title. They enter the postseason on a 12-game winning streak and own an 11-point road win over LSU. Bo Hodges was a first-team all-conference selection.

The game: Experts have been saying, "Watch out for the Buccaneers," and Wisconsin gets an early dose of ETSU basketball, as the Bucs sprint out to a six-point lead midway through the first half.

Micah Potter hits two three-pointers late first half to close the gap to two at intermission, but ETSU starts the second half on a 12-4 run that puts the Bucs up by 10.

The Badgers close to within four points at the five-minute mark, but ETSU's Tray Boyd II, who scored in double figures in every game during the team's 12-game winning streak, hits two clutch baskets and finishes with 22 points as the Buccaneers hold on for another major upset.

Final score: East Tennesee State 70, Wisconsin 65

Day 3, Game 9

No. 1 Baylor (26-4) vs. No. 16 Boston University (21-13) at Omaha

Preview: The Baylor Bears finished second in the Big 12 after spending much of the season as the nation's No. 1 team. But they lost three of their last five games. Guard Jared Butler was a first-team all-Big 12 pick.

The Boston University Terriers tied for second in Patriolt League, but they won the conference tournament. Forward Max Mahoney was named to the first-team all-conference team.

The game: Baylor is a little skittish at the start, but its strong defense prevents the Terriers from making any headway. The Bears hold a 28-21 lead at halftime, and Jared Butler get the Bears rolling early in the second half with a couple of hoops.

Baylor stretches its lead to 10 points five minutes into the second half and as the anxiety dissipates, the Bears look more dominant. BU has no answers in the final 10 minutes.

Final score: Baylor 75, Boston University 57

Day 3, Game 10

No. 7 Providence (19-12) v. No. 10 LSU (21-10) at Tampa, Fla.

Preview: The Providence Friars finished fourth in the Big East, but ended up just one game out of first. They won their final six games, including wins over Seton Hall (at home) and Villanova (on the road).

The LSU Tigers tied for second in SEC, but went 4-6 over their final 10 games. The Tigers rank eighth in the country in scoring (80.5 per game) 

The game: LSU is still showing the signs of a mediocre finish to the season as the Friars jump out to a 20-10 lead behind Alpha Diallo, a 6-foot-7 guard. The Tigers still trail by eight at halftime, but get back in the game early in the second half as Skylar Mays makes his presence felt.

A three-point bucket by David Duke increases Providence's lead from three points to six and starts a 12-4 run that puts the Friars in control. LSU scores a couple late baskets to make the final score close.

Final score: Providence 71, LSU 66

Day 3, Game 11

No. 4 Kentucky (25-6) vs. No. 13 Vermont (26-7) at St. Louis

Preview: The Kentucky Wildcats won SEC title, and Immanuel Quickley was the conference player of the year.

The Vermont Catamounts won the America East Conference and were 16-1 over their last 17 games. Anthony Lamb was named America East player of the year for the second straight season.

The game: Kentucky bursts out to a 10-2 lead, and the Catamounts cannot keep up with Kentucky's athleticism. Lamb is getting his points (he finished with 20), but no one else for Vermont is doing much offensively.

Nick Richards dominates inside, and Quickley is hitting from long range as the Wildcats stretch their lead to 16 points midway through the second half. Kentuckly gets a little careless down the stretch, but Vermont can get no closer than eight points the rest of the way.

Final score: Kentucky 75, Vermont 62

Day 3, Game 12

No. 5 Penn State (21-10) vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (28-3) at Saramento

***If Stephen F. Austin can win at Duke, it can win just about anywhere

sf austin 2
Photo by Rob Kinnan - USA TODAY Sports

Preview: The Penn State Nittany Lions finished tied for fifth in the final Big Ten standings, but they limped to the finish line, losing five of their final six games, including an 11-point loss to Northwestern in the finale

The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks won the Southland Conference title and has won 15 in a row entering the NCAA tournament. They are eighth in the country in scoring, averaging 80.6 points, and Kevon Harris was the Southland player of the year. And they beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season.

The game: Stephen F. Austin has a habit of pulling first-round upsets, eliminating fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in 2014 and shocking third-seeded West Virginia 70-56 in 2016 when SF Austin was a No. 14 seed.

The Lumberjacks take control of their game against Penn State from the outset. Harris hits three shots from long range to stake SFA to a five-point halftime lead, and he stays hot in the second half, finishing with 23 points.

Penn State's top scorer, Lamar Stevens, shot 8-for-39 from the field over the previous two games, and he contues to misfire against SFA. He finishes with 18 points but was just 5-for-17 from the field.

S.F. Austin rolls to the upset win, and can even clear the bench in the final minute.

Final score: Stephen F. Austin 81, Penn State 66

Day 3, Game 13

No. 8 Marquette (18-12) vs. No. 9 Arizona (21-11) at Omaha

Preview: The Marquette Golden Eagles finished sixth in Big East and lost six of their final seven games. They are led by guard Markus Howard, the nation's leading scorer at 27.8 points per game.

The Arizona Wildcats wound up fifth in the Pac-12 and lost four of their final six games.

The game: Two teams lucky to be seeded so high have trouble getting going in this first-round game. Howard has scored 30 points or more in each of the past five games and has hit 24-of-48 three-point shots in that span, but the Golden Eagles lost four of those games. His 15 first-half points help the Golden Eagles take a 30-25 lead at halftime.

Arizona clamps down on Howard in the second half, while Wildcats freshman Josh Green tallies 12 second-half points to help Arizona forge ahead.

Howard takes some ill-advised shots in the closing minutes, and Arizona point guard Nico Mannion takes care of the ball well enough to preserve the lead.

Final score: Arizona 67, Marquette 61.

Day 3, Game 14

No. 2 Florida State (26-5) vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky (23-9) at Tampa, Fla.

Preview: The Florida State Seminoles won the ACC title, but they had no one among the top 25 scorers in the conference..

The Northern Kentucky Norse finished second in the Horizon League, but won the conference tournament.

The game: Usually known for its defense under Leonard Hamilton, Florida State has a potent offense this year, although no player averages more than 12.7 points. And the Seminoles roll to a 34-26 halftime lead.

Many of Northern Kentucky's players played in the NCAA tournament last year, when the Norse lost to eventual runnerup Texas Tech by 15 points. That experience does Northern Kentucky no good, though, as the Seminoles never let the Norse feel like they have a chance.

The margin grows to 15 points midway through the second half, and the Seminoles cruise to victory.

Final score: Florida State 72, Northern Kentucky 50

Day 3, Game 15

No. 2 Creighton (24-7) vs. No. 15 Belmont (26-7) at St. Louis

Preview: The Creighton Bluejays finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big East and they won seven of their final eight games. Ty-Shon Alexander was named a first-team all-conference player.

The Belmont Bruins enter the tournament on a 12-game win streak after finishing in a tie for first in the Ohio Valley Conference then winning the conference totunament title game by a point over Murray State.

The game: Both teams average better than 78 points a game, and the score increases rapidly in this contest. Creighton holds a 40-37 lead at halftime as Alexander pumps in 13 first-half points.

Both teams depend on their three-point shooting, but the Bluejays are more accurate from long range early in the second half. That helps them improve their lead to seven points and the midpoint. 

Belmont's Tylor Scanlon has been hot and cold from distance late in the season, but he has a run of seven straight points to pull the Bruins within two with a minute left.

After Creighton fails to score on its next possession, the Bruins opt to hold the ball for the last shot, deciding to win or lose on the final possession. Adam Kunkel, the Bruins' top scorer, takes the final shot with three seconds left, but it bounces off the rim, and Creighton grabs the rebound.

Final score: Creighton 72, Belmont 71

Day 3, Game 16

No. 7 Iowa (20-11) vs. No. 10 Xavier (19-13) at Sacramento

***Iowa center Luke Garza was the Sporting News national player of the year

Photo by Mike Carter - USA TODAY Sports

Preview: The Iowa Hawkeyes finished in a three-way tie for fifth in the Big Ten, and they feature the Big Ten player of the year, center Luke Garza.

The Xavier Musketeers wound up tied for sixth in the Big East, and finished with a three-game losing streak.

The game: This is a national coming-out party for Garza, who is well known in the Midwest but not in the rest of the country. Despite Xavier's efforts to converge defensively on Garza, he collects 10 points and six rebounds in the first half and ends up with 24 points and 10 rebounds, which are just about his season averages in both categories.

Xavier continues the slump that ended its season, failing to get any closer than six points in the second half.

Final score: Iowa 74, Xavier 64.

Whew, that's the end of Thursday's frantic first-round action. Come back Friday for 16 more first-round games.