The real opening day of the 2014 NCAA Tournament felt special even before Cam Ridley killed Arizona State and Luke Hancock bailed out defending champion Louisville in what would have been the biggest upset of an already wild Thursday slate. A day that began with a last-second game-winner by a double-digit seed thanks to Vee Sanford and Dayton only seemed to get better as it went into the early hours of Friday morning. The good news: that was only half of the round of 64, and we're about to get to do it all over again.
Thursday's action didn't teach us anything so much as it reinforced what we already know: that no one's bracket is safe, particularly those who leaned heavy on chalk. Three teams with seeds in the double-digits advanced on the opening day, setting the stage for one or more of them to make a Cinderella run to the second week.
Friday's slate offers just as many intriguing matchups as the day before it. Here is what to watch for in the second day of the Big Dance:
1. Can Kentucky and Oklahoma State redeem underachieving seasons?
Kentucky's season started with the talk of the greatest freshman class of all-time, with some openly wondering if the Wildcats could be even better than they were in 2012 when Anthony Davis led UK to the national championship. Folks were selling blue 40-0 T-shirts before they ever saw Julius Randle and the Harrison twins play a game. Well, Kentucky stumbled in its third game against Michigan State and never truly looked like the behemoth that was expected. This was not a team that was supposed to lose six games in conference.
Now the Wildcats are in a spot no one saw coming in the preseason, having a No. 8 seed attached to their name for a dangerous game against No. 9 Kansas State.
Make no mistake, Kentucky is still a terrifying matchup. No one has the type of size and athletes UK boasts in the frontcourt with a pair of likely NBA draft lottery picks in Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein. If they can beat Kansas State, they'll set up the most anticipated matchup of the first weekend of the tournament with undefeated Wichita State. We're all rooting for it.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State had a pretty insane season itself. It started the moment Marcus Smart decided to forgo a surefire top five slot in the NBA draft and return for his sophomore season. Ever since, the Cowboys have been plagued by injuries, inconsistent play and the shitstorm that came from when Smart shoved a fan at Texas Tech and received a three-game suspension. Since Smart returned, though, the Cowboys have been rolling. They're a No. 9 seed against Gonzaga on Friday, but everyone knows they can do some damage.
Smart has been particularly hot over his last seven games, a 5-2 stretch for the Cowboys that overtime losses to a No. 3 seed (Iowa State) and a No. 2 seed (Kansas). Here's what his numbers look like:
Marcus Smart over the last seven games: 18.7 points, 6 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 steals per game, 37 percent from three.— Tyler Lashbrook (@lashy) March 19, 2014
The Cowboys would have enough athleticism and firepower in the backcourt to give No. 1 Arizona a tough game, should each team win Friday.
2. What does Doug do?
Doug McDermott didn't need Sports Illustrated to recreate that iconic late '70s cover of Larry Bird at Indiana State to have his place in college basketball lore cemented, but it didn't hurt. McDermott passed the 3,000 point plateau this year and has basically accomplished everything a college player can aside from a deep tournament run. He'll get his chance to start one on Friday against No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Bluejays were eliminated in the round of 32 each of the last two seasons. This is the best team McDermott has ever had around him, though, one that peaked in the AP Poll at No. 9 earlier this year, the first time the program has ever had a single digit ranking next to its name. McDermott's draft stock is sure to be heavily scrutinized once this tournament run ends, but the Bluejays star doesn't want to leave the college ranks without making one last memorable statement.
3. Stone Cold Stephen F. Austin gets its turn
We like Stephen F. Austin a lot here at SB Nation, and not just because the Lumberjacks share a name with everyone's favorite beer-smashing WWF wrestler from the '90s. Stephen F. Austin is really good, finishing the season as one of three teams to go undefeated in conference play along with Wichita State and Florida. The Lumberjacks have won 26 straight games and find themselves with a trendy No. 12 seed next to their name. That means a lot of people are picking them against No. 5 VCU.
VCU might be in a surprisingly strong Atlantic-10 conference now, but they still have a lot of the underdog charm they've held as a mid-major over the years. If Stephen F. Austin can come through with the upset, it won't be a fluke. The Lumberjacks lack size but play ultra aggressive defense, not unlike what VCU has been over the years.