By Emily Van Buskirk (@emilnem) and Josh Naso (@JoshNaso)
This year’s March Madness was clearly drunk for the first two rounds, or at the very least high on…life. And while college basketball went on a weekend-long bender, those of us watching barely had time to set our brackets on fire and hold on for the ride before things got utterly chaotic.
While it’s always nice to be right, sometimes it’s fun to watch the college basketball world burn and see the smiling Cinderella’s rise from the ashes. Every sport has its yin and yang so in an attempt to keep you balanced; we decided to highlight the highs and the normal, the expected and the unexpected in the first two rounds of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Like any good bender, let’s start with the highs.
We have to start with the historic 16-seed UMBC, which we now all know stands for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, upsetting the overall No. 1 seed Virginia. They shocked the college basketball world, in true Sports Fan Journal fashion, defeating the Cavaliers by 20 points and becoming the very first men’s no. 16 seed to upset a no. 1 seed. This upset gave us several great things: golden retriever Gif’s, a proper introduction to Jarius Lyles, the ability to watch a team out-offense Tony Bennett and the opportunity for all of us to burn our bracket together, right guys? UMBC’s run sadly came to an end after falling to Kansas State in the next round.
There were, of course, other upsets. No. 13 seed Buffalo routed Pac-12 Conference Tournament Champions and No. 4 seed Arizona. 11th seeded Loyola-Chicago defeated Miami (6) and then upset Tennessee (3) on a last-second shot from Clayton Custer. The Ramblers love buzzer-beaters for sure. No. 9 seed Florida State knocked out top-seeded Xavier in the second-round. The Seminoles brought a physicality that the Musketeers just couldn’t match. 13th-seeded Marshall upset Wichita State (4), which wasn’t unexpected if you read our TSFJ primer. So yeah.
But then there was No. 11 seed, play-in game winner Syracuse, who finished its season 20-13, 8-10 in the ACC. Many didn’t believe the Orange should have even made the cut. But if there is one thing people should believe in, it’s Jim Boeheim. Syracuse easily beat Arizona State, handled its business against TCU and then upset three-seed Michigan State, all in a matter of days. Syracuse should ride that 2-3 zone all the way to San Antonio if they can.
And then there was the Wolfpack. Nevada (7) defeated 10-seed Texas in the first round, which wasn’t too much of a shock. But the 75-73 defeat of No. 2 seed Cincinnati no one saw coming. Except for head coach Eric Musselman. “It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” Musselman told ESPN after the game. Adorable. I’m sure his wife and kids understand.
The Twitter Taunting
Another category we have to start with UMBC. The Retrievers Twitter exploded onto the #MarchMadness scene with several hilarious tweets. Zach Seidel, the man behind the moniker that night became the center of everyone’s universe for his entertaining entries. From cookies to taunting other teams, Seidel captured the stone-cold hearts of Internet folk everywhere. And like everything great on the interweb, it ended all too soon.
An unexpected Twitter war broke out after a Tennessee sports personality sent a very un-savory tweet out into the universe that involved a beloved Nun and an unloved expletive. The tweet is gone, thank God, but Chicago Tribune writer David Haugh sought out the man who wrote the tweet wanting to know what compelled him to do such a thing. The short answer: he thought it was funny. They are not all gems guys. Read Haugh’s story here.
The Unexpected Heroes
The Nevada Wolfpack, for so many reasons: They shot 60 percent and scored 61 points in the second half and overtime of the Texas victory. They rallied from 22 points down to Cincy in the final 11 minutes of the game to win by two. Cody Martin’s three-pointers. Caleb Martin’s blocks. (Yes, they are brothers). They outscored Cincy 32-8 with 11:37 left to play. They have trailed at halftime in five straight games and are still in the Sweet 16. And they committed only two turnovers against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Oh, and they rebound when it counts.
The Real MVP
The aforementioned Nun from that guy’s questionable tweet is actually our unexpected MVP of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola-Chicago’s 98-year old team chaplain, has become a beacon of inspiration for the Ramblers. Her chaplain duties date back to 1994, but she is also the biggest Loyola fan ever, having witnessed more than 50 years of Ramblers basketball. Since Loyola’s win over Miami, Sister Jean has been thrust into the spotlight, an unofficial blessed mascot for the Ramblers. She helps them keep the faith and even says prayers aimed at the referees. Can her prayers aide Loyola against Nevada on Thursday? God only knows.
Time To Even Out
While March Madness certainly lived up to its name, the opening weekend wasn’t total craziness. While the South region was getting blown to bits by UMBC, Kansas State, Loyola-Chicago and Nevada and some other Final Four contenders fell elsewhere, several other teams handled business to make expected appearances in the Sweet 16.
East Goes Chalk
Although Marshall shocked the Shockers (sorry) in the opening round, the East is almost all chalk. West Virginia ended the Thundering Herds' run, giving us teams seeded 1, 2, 3, and 5 vying for the regional title.
Villanova easily dispatched Radford and Alabama, making a strong case as the best surviving team. But its path to San Antonio won’t be an easy one, as the East largely avoided the madness.
West Virginia is never an easy out with its ability to disrupt teams. Sag Konate is an elite rim protector and that Jevon Carter guy is pretty good too, averaging 24.5 points per game in the tournament.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of that region, two-seed Purdue handled business despite losing 7’2” big man Isaac Haas to a fractured elbow. Vincent Edwards stepped up with 20 points in Haas’ absence to help the Boilermakers get past a game Butler team.
Third-seed Texas Tech handled business against Stephen F. Austin and Florida. The Red Raiders continued to play elite defense, allowing 63 points per game over the first weekend. Keenan Evans looks much closer to 100% than he had been during Tech’s late-season tailspin, putting up 22.5 points per game in the Red Raiders two wins.
Blue Bloods Control The Midwest
In the Midwest, Michigan State’s loss to Syracuse created some shockwaves, but top-seed Kansas and two-seed Duke did what was expected of them.
Duke poses a legitimate challenge to Villanova’s claim as the strongest remaining team. The Blue Devils advanced with easy wins over Iona and Rhode Island, and instead of getting Michigan State will get a battle of the zone defenses with Syracuse ahead of a potential clash with Kansas.
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, were less convincing after getting a scare from Penn in the opener and sneaking past Seton Hall in the round of 32. In that Seton Hall game, Devonte’ Graham struggled and Udoka Azubuike played only 22 minutes, but Kansas still got the job done. Kansas’ ability to keep winning through challenges and less than ideal circumstances has to be viewed as a strength at this point.
Plenty Of Favorites Survived The Wide-Open West
The West didn’t escape the chaos unscathed, but Michigan, a popular Final Four pick, survived the long layoff and a test from Houston and Gonzaga, a team we’ve been pushing all season long, battled through to the Sweet 16 as well.
The Wolverines took a while to shake the rust but eventually cruised to a double-digit win over Montana. They then needed some last-second magic to escape Houston, but almost every national champion uses a little magic along the way. Regardless, they got the job done and kept hope alive for those that chose to ride the hottest team entering the tournament to the Final Four.
Gonzaga looked less than convincing in a four-point win over 13-seed UNCG and a six-point win over Ohio State. But this isn’t a beauty contest, and the ‘Zgas have their expected spot in the Sweet 16. They won’t complain about getting Florida State instead of Xavier with a trip to the Elite 8 on the line, either.
The opening weekend delivered plenty of madness, but many of the tournament favorites delivered sobering blows to the upstarts. This week’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games promise more intrigue, so check back with TSFJ for a breakdown of those left standing and enjoy the show.
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