2014 NCAA Tournament: Title contenders Louisville and Florida show warts in close wins

Uneven performances by two of the top title contenders made for an interesting first day of the NCAA Tournament in Orlando. Can Louisville and Florida get it together when the tougher competition arrives?

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

ORLANDO — If there were apples handed out for good coaching on the first day of the NCAA Tournament in Orlando, they would belong to Albany's Will Brown and Manhattan's Steve Masiello. And they practically swiped them off the desks of the decorated coaches on the other side: Florida's Billy Donovan and Louisville's Rick Pitino.

Both Florida and Louisville would eventually prevail, with the Gators forcing enough turnovers for a 67-55 win over the Great Danes and the Cards pulling away for a 71-64 win over the Jaspers thanks to two threes from Luke Hancock. But those results were expected. The struggles of both national championship contenders were not.

Albany frustrated Florida by taking its time and forcing the Gators to take theirs. The Great Danes ran pick-and-pop plays for midrange jumpers by their big men — shots Florida's defense happily concedes — and sunk everything early. The Danes also had dynamo D.J. Evans running ace defender Scottie Wilbekin ragged and defenders shadowing Florida sniper Michael Frazier II so well that he didn't attempt a three until the second half. It didn't help that Florida came out of the gates sluggish, trailing 9-5 at the under-16 timeout and never fully waking up.

The Gators compensated for their woes with fantastic big-to-big passing underneath that helped get Dorian Finney-Smith 18 points off the bench and produced Patric Young's first double-double of the season (yes, really). But this was a lackluster effort from Florida, grading out at a C at best. Donovan said he was "baffled" by the performance after the game, and sounded it.

I didn't hear what Pitino said after Louisville's game, but it probably wasn't much different. Manhattan had the Cardinals' offense under control for much of the night, denying threes and funneling drivers into difficult shots while collapsing to the rim to prevent easy buckets for Louisville's bigs, even on their 16 offensive rebounds. The Cardinals made 20 of 55 shots on the night and just eight field goals in the second half.

And Louisville had a significant edge in the officiating. After Manhattan couldn't get a call in the first half, which saw several Louisville steals on some contact and a number of Jaspers misses down low despite contact, the Cardinals got even more calls in the second half, scoring 17 of their 36 second-half points at the charity stripe. Manhattan fans howled at the refs to whistle the same contact on both teams; that never quite happened, though the Jaspers would finally get calls from the middle of the second half onward.

How Manhattan prepared for Louisville.

Manhattan was in this game late, unlike Albany, which never got closer than seven points after Florida responded to a 39-39 tie with a 9-0 run. After falling behind 58-55 and giving the Jaspers a chance to go up by two possessions with a miss, Russ Smith bombed a three to tie the game, only for Louisville to give up another bucket and trail 60-58 with 2:35 to play. But then Wayne Blackshear got a layup to fall, Hancock hit two free throws and two threes and Louisville had the game in its grasp with a 10-2 blitz that took an eternity to arrive, but happened in the blink of an eye. For the formerly red-hot Cards, this was the result they needed, but not the performance they wanted.

Brown had nothing but praise for Florida after his team's valiant loss, but he has to know his team played a fantastic game. Masiello, a former Pitino assistant, had words of praise for his seniors. They, especially rising star Masiello, may one day find themselves in the positions Donovan and Pitino are in now, tinkering with established title contenders to spark something or clean up messy play.

On this day, they deserve credit for putting their putative superiors in them.


Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

That sinking feeling

I don't know how N.C. State fans do it.

The Wolfpack's 83-80 overtime loss to Saint Louis came in a game that was excruciating to watch for a neutral observer and featured what had to be an exquisitely painful final stretch for State fans. The Pack frittered away a 16-point lead over the game's final 8:13 and let ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren go entire possessions without touching the ball after he staked State to much of its lead. In the final eight minutes, they played the sort of wishy-washy basketball that has incensed fans while Mark Gottfried has been State's head man, the same style of basketball that incensed them under Sidney Lowe, and Herb Sendek, and Les Robinson.

Maybe they do it by remembering Jim Valvano?

For its part, Saint Louis did well to make its comeback, turning on the jets — and not just Jordair Jett — latet and furiously running all the offense it had failed to run for the game's first 32 minutes. The Billikens mirrored a target ripe for a "second"-round upset for about a month and looked very much like that team early.

More on N.C. State's collapse

But when they turned it on, they showed flashes of the playmaking and defense that got them a 25-2 record and a brief stay in the top 10 of the polls. Jett was bullish and fearless, Rob Loe contributed threes and drives and the Billies clamped down on a State attack that had driven and kicked them into their deep hole.

And yet: N.C. State should absolutely have won this game. It had what seemed like dozens of free throws (actually 21) to stanch the bleeding or seal the victory in the final five minutes and sank very few (just nine). And giant Jordan Vandenberg, a dreadful free-thrower, missed three of four of them, despite Saint Louis' glee at fouling him and not anyone else.

State capitalized on mistakes to build its lead, but never enough to totally protect itself from a comeback. It got a shot at a game-winner and ceded that shot to the diminutive Tyler Lewis, who missed a fading foul-line jumper that almost went. And it inexplicably left Warren, the only transcendent State player, in for a fair few overtime defensive possessions that he really didn't need to play, which helped get him disqualified ... though the four fouls he committed from the 3:06 mark of the second half to the 0:27 mark of overtime were really more his fault.

There will be plenty of blame and recrimination to go around in the Triangle over this loss, which was unequivocally more an N.C. State collapse than a Saint Louis charge. It will be justified.

But I imagine there was also much drinking last night as a means of coping with a failure like this. It, too, would have been justified. State fans were probably as prepared for that as they are to call in to radio shows today.


David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The pit

I walked into the (gorgeous) Amway Center at halftime of Colorado-Pittsburgh because two of my greatest skills are taking more time than I anticipated to write something and failing to get out of my apartment in a timely manner before a longish road trip. I got to use both yesterday.

I couldn't believe the score on the boards: 46-18? Really? I know Colorado's been bad and Pitt is really efficient, but ...

Then I watched the second half and understood. The Panthers were hot, aggressive and savage at the defensive end, swatting shot after shot at the tin -- and outscored the Buffs by just a one-point margin the second half. It was a pick-your-score contest by the time I arrived, and Pitt did in front of a bored crowd that was mostly waiting for Florida to play.

The Panthers could have really tried in the second half and won by 50. They could have rested every starter for every second of the half and won by 15. This was a mismatch on paper that turned into a blowout on the court. Combined with Florida's struggles with Albany, it turned Pitt over Florida into the upset pick everyone wishes they saw. I'm not convinced that happens — if I know these Gators, who were visibly pissed at their efforts after their win and tend not to let one truly poor game affect them much, they will at least be a little more blowout-resistant than Colorado — but I'm certainly happy to know I'll be in the building to see it on Saturday.

And I'm pretty sure I won't be late this time: I'm not driving.


David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Odds and ends

Best fan of the day: An N.C. State shirt-wearing child who was getting it with disco points to Shakira's "Objection (Tango)" ... as played by the Louisville band during the second half of Louisville-Manhattan.


Best band of the day: Albany's, which played "Crazy Train" (with a drum!) and "All the Small Things," and had multiple members in at least their 40s. There was also a "Praise Helix!" sign in that band; as I made a Super Mario RPG reference in print earlier this week, I can respect a Twitch Plays Pokemon reference.


Dance team of the day: Florida's Dazzlers. And I'm not just saying that because of my obvious homerism: Louisville's dance team has a slightly better rep, despite not helping produce Erin Andrews, because of the Cards' cheerleading rep, but they did just a decent routine to "This Is How We Do It" that I swear I've seen the Dazzlers do. Meanwhile, the Dazzlers reprised a raunchy halftime dance to Nelly's "E.I." from earlier in the season, inspiring a grandmotherly usher near me to absolutely kill it. Sports!


One of my pastimes at big games is noting all the college apparel worn by fans who aren't fans of the teams playing. Here's the full(ish) list of the teams I saw at least once on hats and shirts yesterday:

  1. Maryland
  2. Siena
  3. New Hampshire
  4. Florida College
  5. Florida State
  6. Georgia
  7. Colorado State (huh?)
  8. Dayton
  9. Wright State
  10. Vanderbilt
  11. Notre Dame
  12. VCU
  13. Boston College
  14. Marquette
  15. Tennessee
  16. Michigan (there is always at least one Michigan fan at every U.S. sporting event; he is always wearing a Michigan shirt)
  17. Kansas
  18. Kentucky
  19. Ohio State (including a kid I saw in Ohio State garb with Gators parents)
  20. Syracuse
  21. Virginia
  22. Grinnell (!)
  23. Maryland-Baltimore County (worn by a couple, too!)
  24. Illinois State
  25. Alabama
  26. UCF
  27. UConn
  28. Harvard
  29. Purdue (walking with an Indiana fan?)
  30. Indiana
  31. Iowa State
  32. Cincinnati
  33. USF
  34. Stetson (which hosted the event)
  35. Texas
  36. Princeton
  37. Oklahoma
  38. Mercer
  39. Wisconsin
  40. Duquesne
  41. Kansas State (including one guy who I chatted with about Lon Kruger)
  42. West Virginia
  43. MIT (!!!)
  44. California
  45. Duke
  46. Michigan State
  47. NYU (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
  48. Miami (FL)
  49. Villanova
  50. UMass

Add that to the eight teams that were all well-represented, and there was almost an NCAA Tournament's worth of teams in the building — and I started keeping this list on paper after the Florida-Albany game. I know there's at least one more team I can't recall that I saw walking out of the building at 1 a.m.

But the best shirt I saw was a Cook Out shirt in N.C. State red and white. I told the guy wearing it "Your shirt makes me hungry, so thanks for that" and got a high five in return.


The Amway PA guy was a little verbose all night, but nothing bugged me more than his signoff: "Good night, and good morning." It was still stuck in my craw when I pulled into my apartment complex's parking lot at 3:15 a.m.

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