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Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer 248d

Northwestern made its NCAA tournament debut worth watching

Men's College Basketball, Northwestern Wildcats

An inexplicable intentional foul. A locker room dance party 78 years in the making. Doug Collins' face.

In a few years, or even a few weeks, this is what we'll remember about the first (real) day of the 2017 NCAA tournament: not just that Northwestern won its first NCAA tournament game, but how, and the blitz of emotion that accompanied it.

And, yeah, you know what? That's pretty much it.

The first 16 games of the 2017 bracket produced some decent basketball, a bunch of close first halves (including slow starts by Gonzaga and Villanova), some occasional second-half jitters, the end of the sport's two longest winning streaks (Vermont and Princeton), a bunch of thrilled Northwestern fans, and 14 wins by seed favorites.

Let's just say it: Thursday wasn't the NCAA tournament's best work.

The only two "upsets" of the day earned those scarequotes twice over. One landed in Orlando, where No. 11 Xavier beat a No. 6-seeded Maryland team favored by only two points in Las Vegas, which many metrics (including adjusted efficiency and ESPN's Basketball Power Index) pegged among the weaker at-large teams in the field.

The other hailed from Milwaukee, where No. 12 Middle Tennessee beat No. 5 Minnesota 81-72. Come on! A 12 over a 5? That's an upset! Nah: By tipoff, the Blue Raiders were 1.5-point favorites in Las Vegas. Dispute this distinction if you like; pretty much every advanced metric, not to mention the gulf in resources between the Big Ten and Conference USA, agreed Minnesota was the better team this season. At the very least, though, the public saw Middle coming. Neither was the stuff great "One Shining Moment" montages are made of.

The Blue Raiders' businesslike win was a far cry from the one they unleashed on an unsuspecting populace one calendar year ago. That first-round win over a higher-seeded Big Ten team came as a lowly No. 15, one boasting the C-USA's seventh-most efficient offense, that scored 90 points in 68 possessions against a No. 2-seeded Michigan State that many thought should have earned a No. 1. That was one of the craziest, least forseeable results in tournament history. That was an upset. That was a singularly lustrous moment.

The difference there sums Thursday fairly well. Yes, Middle Tennessee-Michigan State came Friday afternoon last year. By that point, though, the first day of 2016's festivities had already produced Arkansas Little Rock's bonkers double-overtime comeback win over fifth-seeded Purdue, which in and of itself contained more classical March drama than this year's entire first day combined. Then, of course, there was No. 12 Yale's rebounding clinic against Baylor, Gonzaga's 11-6 takedown of Seton Hall (back when Gonzaga was a bubble team, and not a national title favorite) and, for good measure, Wichita State's post-First Four handling of Arizona, plus wins by No. 9 seeds Butler and UConn, if you're feeling generous. First Thursday 2016 set the tone for one of the better first weekends in tournament history, one rife with the improbable and the mathematically impossible in equal measure. (And that was just Northern Iowa.)

Maybe that was the issue Thursday: tone. If so, blame the ACC. More precisely, blame Notre Dame and Virginia, who opened the day in that vaguely vulnerable early window against trendy upset picks Princeton and UNC Wilmington, respectively. Notre Dame was in even-handed but reachable control for most of the game until, almost inevitably, Princeton made its late push. The Tigers trailed by only one in the final seconds, and Devin Cannady -- a Mishawaka, Indiana, native, no less! -- clanged what would have been a career-defining 3 off the iron. Virginia, meanwhile, trailed Wilmington early, had to go super-small to match up, and needed a 19-3 run to close the first half just to get the game back within reach, before dropping Cinderella to an 0-2 start to 2017.

Having taken its cue, the rest of the day proceeded accordingly. Florida led East Tennessee State (and its head coach's fiery pregame speech!) by one at halftime; it pulled away in the second. West Virginia refused to put Bucknell away but was never in real jeopardy late. Like Notre Dame, which broke the second-longest winning streak in the country (Princeton's 19 straight), Purdue eventually ended the longest, muscling Vermont into first defeat in 22 games. Saint Mary's kept VCU at arm's length. Butler beat Winthrop by 12. Florida State fended off the angry ghost of Dunk City. Arizona's lead dipped into the single digits against North Dakota, ultimately to no avail. Ho-hum.

A day of relentless, unfulfilled upset teases perhaps reached its finest form in the most unlikely settings possible. Forget the rest of the day: If a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 for the first time in history, well, Thursday would automatically go to an 11. Villanova missed its first eight shots against Mount St. Mary's; the defending national champs and this bracket's top overall seed took a 30-29 lead into the half; the Mount looked more poised and athletic than your average No. 16. Uh-oh! Then the fever broke. Villanova won by 20. Mark Few's team led South Dakota State, a midtable Summit League team, 26-22 after 20 agonizingly awkward minutes. The Zags, too, won by 20.

Thursday was the first opening round since 2000 in which no underdog of more than two points managed a win. FiveThirtyEight's win-probability lines were eerily inelastic.

Then, mercifully, there was Northwestern.

The Wildcats' presence, to paraphrase Kanye West, was present enough Thursday. This was, as you might have heard, Northwestern's first NCAA tournament appearance, after its first 21-win season, its first Big Ten season with a record above .500, its first Big Ten tournament semifinal appearance. At this point, Chris Collins and his players had already earned legendary status. They ended the most miserable, embarrassing record in college basketball. Northwestern's fans, celebrities and countless media members and the thousands of regulars who swarmed Salt Lake City this week, were already over the moon. Anything more was just a bonus.

Instead, Northwestern went ahead and knocked another first -- its first NCAA tournament win -- off the list. The way in which it did so was, at least for most of the afternoon, solid but unremarkable. The Wildcats led for 38 minutes (and one second) of the 40 it played against Vanderbilt. The Commodores, the most 3-point reliant team in the tournament field, struggled to find its long-range rhythm. Then, down the stretch, those shots started to fall -- not in waves, but just often enough. At the 1:36 mark, a Riley LaChance 3 made it 62-61, Vandy's first lead of the day.

The lead would change six more times before the buzzer sounded. With 17 seconds to play, LaChance made it 66-65. A broadcast shot of Doug Collins -- former coach, ESPN NBA analyst and father of Northwestern coach Chris Collins -- somehow held every emotion humans are capable of in one unmistakable expression.

Then, disaster. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt's most important player on the day -- he had a team-high 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting -- completely lost track of the fact that his team was, in fact, winning the basketball game. Inexplicably, 70 feet from the basket, Fisher-Davis reached for Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh in the unmistakable way players do when they are intentionally trying to commit a foul. Instead of a hard-fought, possibly season-ending possession, Northwestern got two free throws. McIntosh made both. The Commodores didn't get a quality look on the other end. Game over.

The crest of celebration that followed -- Julia Louis-Dreyfus mouthing "Oh my God," Doug Collins suddenly hugging everyone in sight, Chris Collins, drenched with water, leaping like a kid as he ran back to Northwestern's locker room -- was made more meaningful by the reprieve it represented. And as with all great tournament drama, it was highlighted by the deep despair on the other side.

On Thursday, Northwestern wasn't just in the NCAA tournament. Northwestern was the best thing about the NCAA tournament.

That such a statement is possible is a testament to the Wildcats -- with a Fisher-Davis-level assist from the opening day that surrounded it. Everywhere else, Thursday ranked among the quietest, least dramatic, and least surprising first-round sessions in years.

So congrats to the Wildcats -- and to anyone with a conservative, chalk-covered bracket. (You're off to an ideal start.)

But also, hey, NCAA tournament? You're better than this. Step it up.

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