Things just keep getting better
Can a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1? It has to happen eventually, right? Why do No. 12 seeds always beat No. 5s? Is playing in the First Four an advantage? What's the meaning of life? Why are we here? Where does Craig Sager even find a tie like that?
These are the questions you might find yourself pondering in your fifth or seventh or 12th straight hour of opening-weekend NCAA tournament action. The mind wanders. Existential inquiries surface.
The first Friday of the 2014 NCAA tournament stirred all of the above and at least one more: Is this the best opening weekend of the NCAA tournament ever?
Actually, that one might be the easiest to answer: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Or: If it isn't, we'd like to see the one that was.
No, really. When have the first two days been this good? When was the last time the first Thursday of the tournament -- the first four-overtime day in NCAA tournament history -- was so brilliant in its own right? And when was a day that went bonkers so rapidly followed up by a Friday afternoon result like Mercer 78, Duke 71? Or one that spent its prime time filled with three concurrent seat-clutchers, each more thrilling than the last? Or that wound down -- ha, "wound down" -- with a No. 1 seed wheezing into halftime trailing by five to a No. 16?
That No. 1 seed, Virginia, eventually figured things out against Coastal Carolina. The Cavaliers' defense resumed its customary, months-long dominance in the second half. Joe Harris -- who had just three points in the first 30 minutes of the game -- hit a series of difference-making 3s down the stretch. Eventually, Coastal Carolina looked helpless, the way a No. 16 seed is supposed to look. But for most of the game, the world was buzzing: After 122 straight wins, would a No. 1 seed finally lose to a No. 16?
It was a crazy prospect, but why not? Nothing in the previous three hours suggested anything less.
When Virginia was still just beginning its first-half fumbles, its commonwealth brethren, No. 5 seed VCU, was suffering one of the most dramatic collapses in recent tourney history. The first 36 minutes of the Rams' game against No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin went mostly as expected: Two of the nation's three best turnover-creating defenses traded up-and-down possessions, giveaways and a fair number of fouls. SFA was really good -- the Lumberjacks' last loss came in November -- but VCU was just a little bit better. With 3:38 left to play, Shaka Smart's team led 60-50.
And then the lead went poof. SFA guard Thomas Walkup made a layup, and the Jacks immediately forced a turnover. Jacob Parker made a 3. Another turnover. Deshaunt Walker scored inside. Just like that, the 10-point lead was reduced to three. Still, despite a series of missed free throws, VCU entered the final 10 seconds up four. Even a 3 wouldn't hurt the Rams.
By now, you know what happened next: Desmond Haymon rose in the corner and sank that 3, but as he did, VCU freshman JeQuan Lewis went floating past, grazing Haymon on the way, earning the a nightmare whistle at the worst possible time.
Whatever you thought of the call -- and it was an awfully tough call -- there was no reason for Lewis to risk the foul at that point in the game. Haymon made the free throw to send it to overtime, and by then, SFA's ascendance started to feel predestined. Haymon hit a cool step-back 3. Parker hit an 18-footer after a loose ball bounced through a VCU defender's legs. By the time Lewis had his chance at redemption on the final play, you know the poor kid's shot wasn't going. When it didn't, the Lumberjacks danced. Lewis laid on the floor and cried.
The same sudden sorrow VCU once inflicted on unsuspecting favorites had turned around on the Rams. The unfeeling cold of the tournament comes for everyone eventually.
In 2011's First Four-to-Final Four run, no one had much reason to see VCU coming. The Rams at least had the recent history of the No. 5 seed to give them pause. The 2014 tournament is, after all, the 27th in 30 years in which at least one No. 12 has pulled off the upset. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 36.1 percent of all No. 5-No.12 matchups end in an upset. Since 2001, No. 12s are 26-30 against No. 5s. What is it about that line on the bracket that creates so much chaos? Are No. 5 seeds routinely overseeded? Are No. 12 seeds better than we think? What gives?
Again, this is just one of the questions Friday inspired. Here's another: How does a third-seeded Duke team shoot 15-of-37 from the 3-point line and still lose to No. 14-seeded Mercer?
Defense, or lack thereof, is the best available answer. The Blue Devils never quite got to their typically elite defensive level this season. They got better over four months, sure, but they never got great. And so even when Duke kept splashing 3 after 3, the Mercer Bears responded with bucket after bucket. By the end of their 78-71 loss, the Blue Devils' interior defense had been thoroughly exposed.
At some point after Mercer's Kevin Canevari Nae Nae'd his way into tourney-highlight immortality, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, winner of 983 career games, visited the Mercer locker room. "If we got beaten, at least we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team," Krzyzewski told the Bears.
Would Providence agree? It might have to: Bryce Cotton threw everything he had at UNC -- 36 points, eight assists, five rebounds, two steals -- in 40 brilliant minutes and UNC still did enough on the offensive glass to dispatch the Friars 79-77 in yet another of Friday's brilliant games.
And there was so much more: Tennessee suddenly playing unstoppable offensive basketball and blowing out UMass; Marcus Smart's college career likely ending in a horribly ugly loss to Gonzaga; Kansas figuring out, and winning, a dunkfest against scrappy Eastern Kentucky; Memphis guard Michael Dixon sinking clutch free throws to hold on against George Washington; Kentucky suddenly looking like a real threat to No. 1-seed Wichita State.
There were lots of questions and few answers. The tournament is as confusing as it is exciting -- and we're still wondering where Sager scores those ties.
But of all the queries Friday provoked, none was more sweeping than: Is this the best first weekend of any NCAA tournament ever?
By the end of the night, with two more days left, the answer was definitive: Yes.
Happenings In San Diego
Deciding factor: Arizona wasn't convincing against Weber State, but it got the job done thanks to its shooting -- inside and outside the arc the Wildcats were better than 50 percent.
Player of the game: Aaron Gordon. His first time on the NCAA tournament stage and he posted 16 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and blocked 5 shots.
Key stat: Gordon and teammate Nick Johnson went a combined 13-for-23 from the floor and scored 34 points.
Deciding factor: Gonzaga limited Le'Bryan Nash to 6 points. He averages 14.2 and usually provides a solid second option to Marcus Smart.
Player of the game: Kevin Pangos. He controlled the game, scoring a game-high 26 points and going 12-of-14 from the free throw line.
Key stat: Sure, Smart got his points; he scored 23. But he went 5-for-14 from the floor and, even worse, 12-for-19 from the line.
Deciding factor: VCU had this one wrapped up and done until Desmond Haymon hit a 3 and was fouled with 3.6 seconds left in regulation.
Player of the game: Haymon. Sure, Jacob Parker led the Lumberjacks with 22 points, but it was Haymon's four-point play and 17 points that played the biggest role in the OT win.
Key stat: Stephen F. Austin overcame its 17 turnovers by shooting 52.9 percent from the field.
Deciding factor: Tulsa hung around for a bit, but UCLA rode Jordan Adams to pull away in the second half.
Player of the game: Adams. He scored 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and passed out four assists.
Key stat: UCLA ratcheted up the defense, coming with 11 steals. Tulsa, meanwhile, had just two.
Happenings In San Antonio
Deciding factor: Nebraska got off to a slow start and never recovered, and Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles wasn't even around to see it end. He was ejected in the second half.
Player of the game: Terran Petteway. He finished with a game-high 18 points and did most of his damage at the line, where he went 8-for-10.
Key stat: Miles' two technical fouls didn't cost Nebraska the game, but they didn't help in the second half, that's for sure.
Deciding factor: Creighton could never fully get away. Had it done a better job at the free throw line (the Bluejays went 11-21) maybe it would have been over earlier.
Player of the game: Doug McDermott. Who else? But he had to work hard to get his 30 points and 12 rebounds. He went 13-for-23 from the floor.
Key stat: Both teams took care of the ball, turning it over only 10 times between them.
Deciding factor: North Carolina withstood a late charge from Providence and a huge effort by Bryce Cotton (36 points) to advance.
Player of the game: Cotton. Yes, he was on the losing team, but without all 36 of those points the Friars wouldn't have been around at the end.
Key stat: Roy Williams is now 24-0 in round of 64 games.
Deciding factor: Iowa State wasn't really challenged, mostly because its five starters all went for at least 14 points to offset the 28 from NCCU's Jeremy Ingram.
Player of the game: Georges Niang. He led the Cyclones with 24 points, six rebounds and four steals.
Key stat: The Cyclones shot a preposterously good 35-for-55 from the field (63.6 percent)
The Latest Dish
Mercer started Friday with a bang, knocking off third-seeded Duke. Getting one of its teams to pull a stunner isn't new to the Atlantic Sun.
Perhaps you remember last year's entrant: That would be Florida Gulf Coast. Here we go again.
Happenings In Raleigh
Deciding factor: Mercer wasn't impacted by the pro-Duke crowd in Raleigh and made plays down the stretch, while the favored Blue Devils looked frazzled.
Player of the game: Jakob Gollon. He scored a game-high 20 points for the 14th-seeded Bears.
Key stat: Mercer just didn't miss. The Bears went 25-for-45 from the field and gave the Atlantic Sun another Cinderella. Last year, it was Florida Gulf Coast. This time it's Mercer.
Deciding factor: UMass never had a chance, falling behind big early and never recovering against a suddenly hot Tennessee team.
Player of the game: Jarnell Stokes. The Minutemen had no answer for him. He scored a game-high 26, hitting 11 of 12 from the foul line.
Key stat: Tennessee went to the free throw line 31 times; UMass went to the line just 11 times.
Deciding factor: Memphis avoided heading to OT when George Washington star Maurice Creek missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
Player of the game: Isaiah Armwood. He made his shots, going 9-for-12 from the floor, and grabbed five rebounds in the loss.
Key stat: Memphis' players helped each other out; the Tigers had 19 assists compared to the eight by the Colonials.
Deciding factor: The final margin isn't really indicative of what happened; Virginia was in trouble. More trouble than the 11-point margin, but it got just enough breathing room.
Player of the game: Anthony Gill. He came off the bench and made sure this Virginia team didn't go down in infamy. Gill finished with 17.
Key stat: Virginia had zero offensive rebounds. No, really, zero offensive rebounds.
Happenings In St. Louis
Deciding factor: Stanford started the game on a 20-4 run. It was over early, right? Nope. New Mexico made a push, but late free throws kept the Cardinal from the collapse.
Player of the game: Chasson Randle. He scored 21, marking the fifth time in six games he's gotten at least 20 points.
Key stat: Stanford didn't shot very well inside the 3-point line; it shot 38.8 percent. But beyond the arc, the Cardinal were 8-for-15 (53.3 percent).
Deciding factor: Kansas' turnovers allowed Eastern Kentucky to make this interesting before the Jayhawks hit some free throws late to make the margin look bigger.
Player of the game: Andrew Wiggins. The freshman had a few highlight-reel dunks during his 19-point effort. Expect more.
Key stat: Kansas won despite not making a 3-pointer. It went 0-for-7 from deep.
Deciding factor: Concerned about Wichita State's long layoff? Well, you can stop now. The Shockers started strong and never let up against Cal Poly.
Player of the game: Cleanthony Early. He was the only Wichita State player in double figures. He scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Key stat: Cal Poly made 12 shots ... all game. The Mustangs missed a bunch and finished shooting just 20.8 percent (12-for-58).
Deciding factor: Julius Randle was, again, the difference for Kentucky, which has been a common theme this season. He went for 19 points and 15 rebounds.
Player of the game: Randle. While the Wildcats have been all over the place this season, Randle has been a steady, double-double machine. It happened again against K-State.
Key stat: Yes, Kentucky won, but it has to be concerning that guard Andrew Harrison committed six turnovers against five assists.