Monday, March 19, 2012

Trifone: First-Week Recap of NCAA Tournament

Although there haven't really been a lot of true buzzer-beaters that we are accustomed to seeing this time of year, this has been one of the most exciting first weekends of the tournament in recent memory. There have been a lot of double-digit seeds advancing, or at least contending for a full 40 minutes. Often times, a 15-seed comes out of the gates on an 8-2 run, only to get trounced by 25 points, and be out of the game by halftime. Not this year.

Thursday was chalk city, with the only real upset being VCU in the 12/5 matchup with Wichita St. Tough to call that too big of an upset, though, as Shaka Smart led the Rams to the Final Four last year. I was disappointed to see them get knocked out in the second round by Indiana, after leading the majority of the game.

Friday brought some history to the March Madness tournament, as for the first time ever, two number 15 seeds advanced to the round of 32. Up until this year, only four 15 seeds have ever knocked off a number two, and two more happened on Friday. First it was Norfolk St., upsetting the mighty Missouri. I have to say, this one shocked me. After following Mizzou for a lot of the year, they had all the talent in the world to make a deep run, and contend for the title. It was reminiscent of 2001 when a Marcus Fizer-led Iowa St. team that had similar aspirations got bounced in the first round by Hampton. As I had Missouri in my Final Four, I was not pleased with the outcome, although I couldn't help but feel torn, rooting against such a massive underdog.

The second major upset was less of a surprise to me. I felt Duke was largely overrated all year, and in fact picked Xavier to knock them off in the second round in my bracket. Still, the way in which it happened was quite surprising. Lehigh pretty much led from start to finish, and Duke never really got back into it. Every time Duke started to make a run, Lehigh had an answer, and down the stretch, losing the lead was never really in jeopardy for the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh came out strong against Xavier, but eventually blew the lead and were unable to become the first ever 15 seed to advance to the sweet 16.

Florida St. gave me a good scare, but were able to fend off the Bonnies and advance. Other notable first round upsets were Ohio over Michigan and South Florida over Temple, as 13 and 12 seeds respectively. Ohio moved on to the Sweet 16, after a strong second-half effort against the Bulls.

Saturday was mostly chalk again, but had some highly entertaining games with some tight finishes. Louisville won by three over New Mexico, Marquette used a late surge to defeat Murray St., who led most of the game, and Ohio St. had it's hands full with Gonzaga. After a close first half, the Buckeyes pulled ahead by double digits, but with under four minutes to go, the Zags managed to tie the game. Still, the higher seeds ended up coming out on top, returning to the normalcy we witnessed on Thursday.

Sunday saw a one seed taken to the the brink, as Saint Louis gave Michigan St. all it could handle. This one didn't really have the feel of an upset because Michigan St. led the whole way. But they just couldn't seem to pull away, and it was a two-point game with about three minutes to go. Michigan St. held on, though, for a four-point win. They play a tough Louisville team next.

Billy Donovan has thus far, been coach of the tournament in my mind. In what should have been a tough matchup against Virginia in the 10/7 game on Friday, the Gators destroyed the Cavaliers by 26 points. In the second round, they played in what can only be accurately described as a shoot around session against the same Norfolk team that knocked out one of the best teams in the country two days before. Donovan must have watched that game and come up with a game plan that Florida executed perfectly. They absolutely crushed Norfolk St. 84-50, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates.

North Carolina St. was another double-digit seed to make the final 16, upsetting Georgetown in a game that was pretty close throughout.

Purdue ALMOST pulled off another big upset, leading the game just about wire to wire. Kansas took a one-point lead with under three minutes to go, and Purdue hit two consecutive buckets to go back up three. With under a minute, Kansas made some great defensive plays and took the lead for good, winning a thriller by three. Purdue had a decent look to tie it when they inbounded it cross court with 2.5 seconds to go, but it bricked out as the buzzer sounded.

The final game of the night was a war of attrition between Cincinnati and Florida St. This was a true bracket buster for me since I had Florida St. going to the Final Four, whereas most others have Ohio St. No team led by more than five points until the final minute, but Cincinnati came out on top, making the state of Ohio an incredible 8-0 in the tournament this year.

Overall, some great action so far. Hopefully we'll see some true buzzer-beaters and some more good games next week as well.

[Editor's note: John Trifone (@JohnnyT0122), the author of this post, is currently tied for first place in our 98-entry March Madness group. In other words, feel free to follow him on Twitter and mock and heckle him.]

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