It wasn’t the chalkiest opening Thursday in the history of the NCAA tournament, but it was close. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
While a handful of games that came down to the final minute and two double-digit seeds punching their ticket to Saturday might not have been enough to satiate the hunger of the guy at work who kept saying “I thought this was supposed to be March Madness,” it was still better than just about every other day of the year on the sports calendar.
For 12 straight hours, we got to watch 32 of the best college basketball teams in America go at it in the most ruthless, unforgiving, and exciting postseason this country has to offer. That formula is never going to result in a bad day.
Here’s the best and the worst of everything that went down.
5 BEST GAMES
1. (8) Northwestern 68, (9) Vanderbilt 66 (West)
After waiting thee billion years or whatever to play its first NCAA tournament game, it’s only fitting that the Northwestern Wildcats’ first foray into the big dance was a highly competitive contest with a remarkably bizarre finish.
We don’t have the space here to rehash the entire thing, so let’s fast-forward to the final 96 seconds, because that’s where things got really fun.
After trailing by 15 points with 13:24 to play, Vanderbilt staged a furious rally that allowed it to claim a 63-62 advantage with just 1:36 to go. The Commodores had not held the lead since the score was 5-4.
Between that point and the 18 second mark, the lead would change hands four times between the two teams. Included in that sequence were made free throws by Northwestern big man Derek Pardon, who gave the Wildcats a 65-64 advantage with 26 seconds to play. A 52.0 percent free-throw shooter on the season heading into the game, Pardon would hit all six of his attempts in the game’s final four minutes.
Following Pardon’s free throws, Vanderbilt’s Riley LaChance responded with a nice driving layup to swing the lead back in the Commodores’ favor with just 18 seconds to go. Then, inexplicable disaster.
Not realizing what the score was and being confused when coach Bryce Drew pointed at Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, Vanderbilt junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis shocked everyone by intentionally fouling McIntosh, who shoots 86.1 percent from the stripe. McIntosh made both, and LaChance misfired on a deep three-pointer in the final seconds to seal the deal.
Obviously, all the talk in the immediate aftermath was surrounding the foul. Fisher-Davis admitted that he didn’t know the score of the game and referred to his foul as some variation of a “dumb mistake” to at least three different reporters:
Fisher-Davis in Vandy locker room didn't offer a great explanation other than: "I made a dumb-ass foul."— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 16, 2017
The bizarre finish did not, however, completely distract fans from the fact that Northwestern is still undefeated all-time in the NCAA tournament. It’s a mark that’s destined to stand for at least another 24 hours before the Wildcats take on top-seeded Gonzaga.
2. (5) Notre Dame 60, (12) Princeton 58 (West)
College basketball fans have lucked out in recent years when it comes to the quality of the first game to tip on opening Thursday. This year was no exception, as Notre Dame and Princeton Tigers played the sort of clean, efficient, and competitive game that you would expect to see from two programs that have built their reputation on those characteristics.
The Fighting Irish, the only team in the tournament that has been to a regional final in each of the last two years, led for almost the entire game, but made things interesting at the end. Clinging to a narrow lead in the game’s final minute, Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell uncharacteristically missed both a short jumper and a free throw to give the Tigers the ball, down one with a chance to win.
Instead of going with a back cut like the one they used to beat UCLA in 1996, the Tigers settled for an outside jumper like the one that was blocked by Alonzo Mourning of top-seeded Georgetown in 1989. The result was closer to the latter one:
After the game, Devin Cannady said he thought for a moment that he was about to become a March Madness legend.
"I looked at the rim and when it went out of my hand, I thought it was good," said Cannady. "But it didn't go in. It happens when you take those kinds of shots."
Cannady finished the game just 2-of-10 from beyond the arc for Princeton, which finished its season with a 23-7 record. Notre Dame will face fourth-seeded West Virginia in what should be a terrific clash of styles in the early game on Saturday.
3. (5) Virginia 76, (12) UNC-Wilmington 71 (East)
With Isaiah Wilkins sidelined because of an illness and UNC-Wilmington making everything it was throwing up from the outside, it appeared for a moment in the first half that Virginia was destined to become the latest in the long line of 12/5 upset victims. Instead, London Perrantes stepped up like senior leaders are supposed to in March, and Marial Shayok came off the bench and played the game of his life.
Trailing 28-14 with just a little over six minutes to play, Perrantes and Shayok went to work. They fueled a vicious 16-1 rally that allowed the Cavaliers to carry a 30-29 advantage into the locker room and stun a UNCW team that looked like it never fully recovered from the rally. Virginia led for the vast majority of the second half, although the Seahawks were always within striking distance.
Perrantes scored 19 of his game-high 24 points in the second. Shayok, meanwhile, poured in a career-high 23. His biggest basket came on a beautiful bank shot with just 26 seconds to play that allowed Virginia to stretch a two-point lead to four. UNCW would throw the ball away moments later, all but sealing its fate.
The biggest question for Wilmington now becomes the future of head coach Kevin Keatts, who has surfaced as a potential candidate for virtually every coaching vacancy in college basketball right now. If that was Keatts’ final game with the Seahawks, he will have left the program in a much better place than he found it.
UNCW hadn’t won a conference title in a decade before Keatts arrived and had produced just one winning season over that same time span. In three years under his guidance, the program produced three regular season conference championships and made back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament, losing close games to a pair of ACC powers (Duke in 2016 and Virginia in 2017).
4. (8) Wisconsin 84, (9) Virginia Tech 74 (East)
Don’t let the final score fool you. Before Virginia Tech went ice cold in the game’s final minute and continued to foul unnecessarily, this was a contest where the two teams were rarely separated by more than four points.
Wisconsin was able to win it thanks in large part to the play of perennial March superhero Bronson Koenig. The senior guard who beat Xavier at the buzzer in the second round of last season’s tournament hit a school-record eight three-pointers and scored 28 points. Fellow veteran Nigel Hayes chipped in 16.
Wisconsin’s 12 wins in the NCAA tournament over the last four years are more than anybody else in the country, They get reigning national champion and the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, Villanova, on Saturday.
And yes, Buzz Williams sweat a lot and lost his jacket before the 10-minute mark of the first half. Congratulations if you had the under. Always take the under.
5. (3) Florida State 86, (14) Florida Gulf Coast 80 (West)
Florida State controlled this one for most of the second half, but it’s still getting the nod over West Virginia-Bucknell because of how enjoyable the style of play was. Both teams had athletes and scorers all over the court, and all those athletes and scorers had ample opportunities to showcase all that they’re capable of.
You might translate that last sentence as “both teams were playing lackluster defense,” but whatever. It was enjoyable, and I appreciated it even more since the game was being played during the final session of a long day.
The only thing that would have made the experience more aesthetically pleasing would have been if FGCU’s high-flying — and weird free-throw shooting — Demetris Morant hadn’t gone down with an injury during the second half. With Morant out, the Eagles seemed out of sorts on both ends of the court. But leading scorer Brandon Goodwin did enough to keep them from falling too far behind the much larger Seminoles.
Goodwin scored a game-high 28 points for FGCU, but he also took 27 shots and turned the ball over five times. The best player on the court was Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon, who turned in 29 points on 11-of-17 shooting and nine rebounds. Bacon’s play, as well as FSU’s superior size, proved to be an insurmountable combination for Dunk City. Florida State outrebounded FGCU 37-19, and also blocked nine shots to the Eagles’ one.
3 TEAMS THAT WON IT THE BEST
1. Middle Tennessee
If we’re talking in literal terms based on the work of the Selection Committee, 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee defeating fifth-seeded Minnesota was the first upset of the 2017 NCAA tournament. But can we really call it an “upset” when the Blue Raiders were favored to win in Las Vegas and when seemingly everyone had them advancing in their brackets?
None of that changes the fact that Kermit Davis’ team lived up to the hype and then some on Thursday. Four different MT players scored in double figures, and from the opening tip on, the double-digit seed out of Conference USA looked like the power conference squad with a single number next to its name. The Blue Raiders dominated the game from start to finish, and they did so without getting a particularly solid effort from C-USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams.
This isn’t the Middle Tennessee team that stunned Michigan State a year ago. This squad is much, much better. It’s insane to think that this team was likely one conference tournament loss away a weeks ago from not even being invited to participate in this event.
We love to praise the underdog, but too often we don’t throw enough time and energy in the direction of the teams who fend off their “us against the world” opponents.
Playing without the services of big man John Egbunu and going up against an ETSU team with a number of veteran athletes, Florida was a trendy upset pick during the first half of this week. While they received an ample scaring in the first half, the Gators ultimately composed themselves at the break and pulled away from the Buccaneers in the second half like a top four seed is supposed to.
Florida won the game by 15 points despite a horrendous 1 for 11 shooting effort from star guard KeVaughn Allen. That can’t happen again if the Gators want to keep playing for at least another week.
3. Iowa State
Saint Mary’s could have easily landed in this spot as well, but we’re going with Iowa State because the Cyclones held onto more of its sizable halftime advantage than the Gaels did.
Monte Morris has had a remarkable college career, and he clearly doesn’t want it to end this week. The one true point guard scored 19 points, dished out eight assists, and also snagged eight rebounds to lead the Cyclones to an 84-73 win over another dangerous 12 seed in Nevada.
Love this stat: Monte Morris could record 59 straight turnovers w/out an assist and still set NCAA career assist-to-turnover ratio record.— CJ Moore (@CJMooreBR) March 14, 2017
As a team, Iowa State shot 55.6 percent from the field and assisted on 17 of its 30 made baskets. The team connected on eight of its 19 attempts from beyond the arc.
If they look as good against Purdue as they did Thursday night, then the Cylones over Kansas (assuming the Jayhawks win their first two games) figures to become something of a trendy Sweet 16 upset pick. Since they already beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence this year, it stands to reason that the Cyclones wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the prospects of facing KU in Kansas City.
3 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS
1. The No. 1 seeds
Both Villanova and Gonzaga allowed their 16 seeds to race out to early leads, and both held very slim advantages at halftime — ‘Nova by one and the Zags by four. They both won by 20, but anyone who watched a chunk of either of their games knows the truth.
It’s disappointing to see that type of opening round effort from both teams, but for different reasons.
For Villanova, the Wildcats that they didn’t win a national title last season because they were the most talented team in the field. They know they won it because they worked as hard as any team they played, they were a team where everyone understood their roles, and they had multiple players get hot at the perfect time. If they want to repeat, they have to know that meeting the initial part of that formula is step one.
For Gonzaga, it’s a little simpler. You know that every other person watching this tournament thinks you’re a fraud. You know that the last time you were a No. 1 seed, you struggled in your first game and got beat in your second. With that being the case, how can you not come out wanting to set the world on fire? And maybe that was the issue; maybe this team was pressing because it was so desperate to prove its worth under the brightest of lights.
Ultimately, both teams won by about the average margin that a No. 1 seed wins its first game. And ultimately, both teams will likely be fine and move on to the tournament’s second weekend. That doesn’t mean they weren’t disappointing on Thursday though.
It feels wrong to classify a 13 seed who lost to a No. 4 seed by 12 as “disappointing,” but I really thought Winthrop would beat, or at least hang with Butler right until the end. Instead, the Bulldogs seemed to have the game well in hand from the opening minutes on, and cruised to a 76-64 win.
I’ll miss you the most, Keon Johnson.
This also feels wrong, but only because I didn’t expect enough from the Terps for them to be overly disappointing. They’re here because they were a No. 6 seed that lost by 11 to Xavier, another team that I didn’t expect very much from heading into this tournament.
Purdue and Wisconsin saved “The Big Ten” from occupying this space by itself. So you know, maybe send them a quick note when you have a few spare minutes. Let ‘em know their work didn’t go unappreciated.
ALL-DAY 1 TEAM
Devin Robinson, Florida
The junior forward matched a career-high by scoring 24 points in Florida’s 80-65 win over Winthrop. He also grabbed seven rebounds and blocked a pair of shots. His effort was even more vital with leading scorers KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry both having off games.
Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern
In addition to hitting the game-winning free-throws, McIntosh scored a game-high 25 points to go with four rebounds and three assists. He was 10-of-16 from the field and knocked down 3-o- 5 from beyond the arc.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
The numbers were relatively pedestrian for him: 16 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists in Purdue’s 80-70 win over Vermont. But Biggie gets the nod here because his 27th double-double of the year set a new single season Big Ten record.
Bronson Koenig, Wisconin
Tied a school record by drilling eight three-pointers and scored a game-high 28 points to lead the Badgers past Virginia Tech.
Marial Shayok, Virginia
If Shayok doesn’t score 23 points and play the best overall game of his college career to date, then Virginia’s season is more than likely finished right now.
5 DAY ONE JEERS
1. Missed dunks
If you’re gonna miss, miss cool. Don’t do what these three guys did.
Minnesota’s Amir Coffey:
Florida Gulf Coast’s Brandon Goodwin:
Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo (twice!):
Lotta people watchin’ these games, guys. Layups are safe.
One of the prevailing themes of Day 1 of the dance was turnovers. You expected a team like Bucknell to throw the ball away (at least) 15 times against West Virginia’s trademark pressure. What you didn’t expect were things like Villanova’s mostly unforced 13 giveaways against Mount St. Mary’s or the 32 combined turnovers between Florida and East Tennessee State.
Let’s tighten it up, gents.
3. Demetris Morant’s free-throw style
The kid’s a tremendous player, and I hate that he got injured Thursday night. But man, what is this?
If this were working for him, then it would be a cool little idiosyncrasy like Canyon Barry’s underhanded style. But Morant shoots just 63.5 percent from the line, which means it’s just bad.
4. The lack of upsets
Sure, this is most basic complaint possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Thursday had just two higher-seeded teams advancing, a number which matches the record low for a first round day over the tournament’s last decade.
Also, zero teams that were underdogs in their respective game won by more than two points. That hadn’t occurred on an opening Thursday or Friday of the tournament since all the way back in 2000.
So that just means we’re geared up for complete madness on Friday, right? Right?
Don’t make it weird. Just give us the upsets.
5. Players being hit in the face with balls
First, there was West Virginia’s Elijah Macon, who appears to have had the unfortunate foresight to be able to see what fate had in store for him moments before his moneymaker got rocked.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) pic.twitter.com/FDucH6e9k1— SB Nation (@SBNation) March 16, 2017
Then there was this sequence in FGCU-Florida State, in which the Eagles went from potentially making it a one possession game to giving up a crucial, momentum-shifting dunk...all thanks to an inadvertent face pass:
Missing dunks and/or shooting awkward free throws might actually be the better route.
Whichever reporter led off Villanova’s postgame press conference with this line of questioning:
“Don’t think of me as, like, a lame, old reporter. I’m, like, a cool reporter. I was drunk the whole time I was in college. Hey is Crazy Larry still workin’ the door over at McFinnigan’s? Never heard of McFinnigan’s? Ahhh, you gotta get out more, bro. Catcha at the open p on Fri.”
5 DAY ONE CHEERS
1. Everything about Northwestern’s victory celebration
From Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Doug Collins to Chris Collins getting showered with water to Pat Fitzgerald somehow being more excited than anybody, the whole thing was great to follow.
The best part of the celebration though? Probably the official NU account ethering Skip Bayless:
Breathe it in.
2. The state of Indiana
While the Hoosiers were busy getting rid of Creepy McLosestoomuch, their in-state brethren were bagging bodies in the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame bested Princeton, Purdue won its first tournament game since 2012 by taking down Vermont, and Butler rolled over Winthrop. This could all make the idle conversation among the four programs a little awkward at next year’s Crossroads Classic.
3. Sensual dancing VCU band man
I long to be, is it wrong to be...
People have tried to tell me that’s a mellophone, but honestly that sounds made up. All I know is I like the dancing. It’s also all I care about. The dancing.
4. Mike White’s secret love of Migos
Florida players came onto the court before their game against East Tennessee State in an obvious uproar over something that they had found hilarious. The reporters picked up on this, and during the postgame press conference. they asked Devin Robinson and Kevarrius Hayes what the deal was.
They didn’t know how to respond at first:
The best part is the “you guys can throw me under the bus.”
Keep pipin’ it up, coach.
5. The FSU cameraman
If you’re going to get absolutely trucked by a major college athlete, you had better get a decent shot out of the experience. This guy did, and he was proud of it.
Jay Wright spending some time in the Bucknell locker room after its loss to West Virginia:
Coach Jay Wright '83 addresses the team in the locker room after the game. Great to have his support! pic.twitter.com/SJqQGiDgj1— Bucknell Athletics (@Bucknell_Bison) March 16, 2017
The Bucknell grad reportedly wanted to share with the team how proud he was watching the effort against West Virginia.
DOUBLE BONUS CHEER:
Carsen Edwards breaking ankles:
If you’re going to shed the label of tournament underachiever, you may as well do it in style.
3 BEST DAY ONE DUNKS
1. Calvin Hermanson, Saint Mary’s
VCU just got dunked on by a dude named Calvin.— Troy Machir (@TroyMachir) March 17, 2017
Saint Mary's def. VCU via KO. pic.twitter.com/b8gJE8soc7
2. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
3. Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech
5 BEST DAY ONE IMAGES
1. The agony and the ecstasy.
2. Nervous sports dad always knows not to celebrate until that clock hits zero:
3. Rick Pitino guarding the in-bounder this time:
4. The North Dakota Fighting Hawks showing appreciation for their fans after their first NCAA tournament game:
5. So much reaching, no connecting:
5 NOTABLE QUOTES FROM DAY ONE:
1. "I didn't know the score, to be honest. I Saw Coach Drew point at my man. He was just telling me my matchup, and I got it confused with the foul. That was it." —Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis
2. "That 1-16 game, someone else can have that from here on out. I've served my time in it. I'll go ahead and land somewhere else." — Gonzaga head coach Mark Few
3. “Well, we weren’t very good today.” — West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins
4. "We think we belong on a national stage. I knew we'd play well and we did so today." — Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis
5. "We gave everybody a show, right? We escaped. We've been in a lot of games like that where game situations need a big defensive stop. We've been there. I'm proud we're still alive." — Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey
FULL FRIDAY SCHEDULE
I found all of this extremely enjoyable, and my vote is that we do it again.
Michigan vs. Oklahoma State: 12:15, CBS (Indianapolis)
Baylor vs. New Mexico State: 12:40 p.m., TruTV (Tulsa)
Arkansas vs. Seton Hall: 1:30 p.m., TNT (Greenville)
Oregon vs. Iona: 2 p.m., TBS (Sacramento)
Louisville vs. Jacksonville State: approx. 2:45 p.m., CBS (Indianapolis)
SMU vs. Providence/USC: approx. 3:10 p.m., TruTV (Tulsa)
UNC vs. Texas Southern: approx. 4 p.m., TNT (Greenville)
Creighton vs. Rhode Island: approx. 4:30 p.m., TBS (Sacramento)
Kansas vs. NC Central/UC Davis: 6:50 p.m., TNT (Tulsa)
Dayton vs. Wichita State: 7:10 p.m., CBS (Indianapolis)
Duke vs. Troy: 7:20 p.m., TBS (Greenville)
Cincinnati vs. Kansas State/Wake Forest: 7:27 p.m., TruTV (Sacramento)
Miami vs. Michigan State: approx. 9:20 p.m., TNT (Tulsa)
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky: approx. 9:40 p.m., CBS (Indianapolis)
South Carolina vs. Marquette: approx. 9:50 p.m., TBS (Greenville)
UCLA vs. Kent State: approx. 9:57 p.m., TruTV (Sacramento)