Day 1 lacks usual flair

March, 20, 2009
It wasn't the kind of opening day we've grown accustomed to seeing -- or hope to watch -- in the NCAA tournament.

Only four of Thursday's 16 games were won by lower seeds, and none of them -- No. 9 Texas A&M over No. 8 BYU, No. 10 Maryland over No. 7 California, No. 10 Michigan over No. 7 Clemson and even No. 12 Western Kentucky over No. 5 Illinois -- was the kind of result that really gets the blood flowing.

No, the first day of the 2009 NCAA tournament was pretty predictable (and even boring). White shirts and chalk ruled the day. Clemson lost in the first round again.

Top seeds Connecticut and North Carolina rolled. The Tar Heels made easy work of No. 16 seed Radford, winning 101-58 in Greensboro, N.C. The Tar Heels were so dominant it seems they won't even need injured point guard Ty Lawson until the Final Four begins in Detroit in two weeks.

The Huskies didn't miss coach Jim Calhoun, either, as he watched his team's 103-47 rout of No. 16 seed Chattanooga -- the third-largest rout in NCAA tournament history -- from a hospital bed. Calhoun was admitted to a Philadelphia-area hospital Thursday and treated for dehydration, according to a news release from the school. The release didn't say whether Calhoun took an official sick day (if watchdog reporters were wondering).

The best drama of the day came from upsets that nearly happened. West Region No. 2 Memphis, which argued that it deserved a No. 1 seed, trailed No. 15 seed Cal State Northridge by six points with about 10 minutes to go in Kansas City, Mo., before closing with a flurry and an 81-70 victory. Sophomore guard Roburt Sallie, who came into the game averaging 4.5 points, scored a career-high 35 and made 10 3-pointers.

Villanova, the No. 3 seed in the East Region, was supposed to have one of the easier first-round games. The Wildcats played No. 14 seed American University in their hometown of Philadelphia. But Villanova trailed by 10 points at the half. The Wildcats outscored the Eagles 49-26 in the second half for an 80-67 victory.

South Region No. 4 seed Gonzaga played close to home, too. The Bulldogs played No. 13 seed Akron in Portland, Ore., and were figured to have a home-court advantage. But the Zags trailed the Zips 52-51 with less than 10 minutes to play. Gonzaga used a 19-1 run to finally pull away for a 77-64 win.

The best action of the day came in Thursday's final games. UCLA, the No. 6 seed in the East, nearly blew a nine-point lead against No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth. But Rams guard Eric Maynor, who beat Duke on a buzzer-beater in the NCAA tournament two years ago, missed a 17-footer at the buzzer in the Bruins' 65-64 victory.

A headline-worthy upset finally came as the clock neared midnight. South Region No. 12 Western Kentucky, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2008 NCAA tournament, upset No. 5 seed Illinois 76-72 in Portland. It was the 19th time in the past 21 years that a No. 12 seed toppled a No. 5. The Illini tried to mount a furious comeback in the final minutes, but even that game lacked the drama of the Hilltoppers' buzzer-beating overtime win over No. 5 seed Drake in Tampa, Fla., last year.

If you were reaching for your TV remote Thursday night, take out the batteries before Friday's games. The 2008 NCAA tournament began in very similar fashion. Only two of the first 16 games were won by lower seeds, and that included a No. 9 taking down a No. 8.

But the next day, six underdogs won, including four in the same city.

So beware, higher seeds in Boise, Dayton, Miami and Minneapolis.

History suggests the fun is about to begin.


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