Yes, Bo Ryan, we agree: The most amazing first-round games in the NCAA tournament (taken from the era beginning with the establishment of the 64-team field in 1985) leave you in a state of disbelief. With help from freelance writer-researcher Chris Abshire, here are 10 first-round games (most of them when the first round was actually called the first round, as Mother Nature intended!) that rose above the rest. This list doesn’t claim to be a discussion-ender; this is very much a discussion-starting piece.
One important note at the outset: This identification of the “best” games is an attempt to measure the quality of play. In order to develop this point a little bit, consider the following claim: The best game of the 2013 NBA Finals in terms of pure quality was probably Game 1. Yes, Game 6 is the event basketball fans will always remember, but Game 1 was almost entirely free of turnovers, fouls, excessive stoppages, or any sort of ugliness. It was as clean a championship-level basketball game as humanly possible. With this point in mind, realize that while a few of the games below might endure in the public memory, several will not.
Oh, and one more note before the list begins: Enjoy the videos, hyperlinked to the listing of each game. Many more magical March Madness moments can be found here.
And awaaaaaay we go…
Of course, this game is remembered for the 15-over-2 upset it produced, but the 86-84 thriller was remarkably clean for such a frantic affair. The teams combined for fewer than 20 turnovers, and both shot above 50 percent from the field. Missouri’s inability to stop Norfolk State was alarming and conspicuous, but this was nevertheless an instance in which a 15 seed maintained its poise all the way through, perhaps flinching at times but never truly buckling. Norfolk State simply seized the moment. The Spartans remained in control of their emotions, hitting huge shots when their hearts must have been thump-thump-thumping with a level of excitement one can’t even begin to imagine.
This was not an aesthetically dazzling matchup on paper, but it produced memorable results, and it also prevented Florida from making a second straight Final Four under coach Lon Kruger. A player named Fred Hoiberg — ever heard of him? — scored 15 points for Iowa State, which mounted a comeback to knock off Florida. Both teams shot above 49 percent, made their foul shots and played crisply. Four Gators scored in double figures, as the defending East Region champions certainly didn’t blow the lead. Iowa State erased it.
Kentucky’s Brandon Knight rebounded from missing his first seven shots to make the game-winning runner against a gallant Princeton squad. This was a seesaw page-turner of a game, but that doesn’t mean it was wildly sloppy. It was extremely well-played. No team ever had a double-digit lead. Kentucky actually shot 51 percent from the floor against an engaged and active Princeton defense. The game was clean, free of flow-killing fouls, and low on turnovers.
Byron Eaton’s drive to win the game for the Cowboys may be the most memorable aspect of this 8-9 thriller, but it was far from a one-note contest. Oklahoma State shot a whopping 56 percent, but Tennessee’s clutch free-throw shooting kept it in the hunt.The two teams managed to avoid foul trouble, producing a free-flowing game that, it should be said, wasn’t a complete defensive letdown.
It’s a good thing there’s a full video available for this game, or it might have slipped through the cracks. “Pirates-Explorers” (what a great pair of nicknames, by the way) featured so much more than its winning shot. It was an attractive, up-tempo game that embodied the changing hoops landscape of the early 1990s, as college basketball settled into its shot-clock-and-three-pointer era. Each team was lethal at the foul line, and the two sides combined for 31 assists. Seton Hall shot 54 percent from the floor.
This was the last game of the 2003 first round, but it was also the best. This late-Friday thriller witnessed the survival of a Maryland team that was defending its 2002 championship. Drew Nicholas drilled a late three to ruin a brilliant performance by UNC-Wilmington in a 6-11 game. The Seawhawks limited turnovers, made timely threes, and pushed a talented Maryland bunch to the edge with tenacious defense.
The great games we remember — great in terms of quality and not just excitement — are won by the winner instead of being lost by the loser. This was just such a classic in Denver, as Syracuse’s Gerry McNamara hit 9-of-13 triples for 43 points, singlehandedly carrying the Orange (the defending champions that year) past a BYU team that played quite well.
The Mountaineers nearly made the Final Four this year, and their run to the Elite Eight started here. Led by some hustle plays and a block-turned-transition dunk, West Virginia eked past Creighton in a first-round donnybrook high on drama and quality. Both teams roared to big leads on different occasions, but the game circled back to loose balls. WVU corralled a few more to offset a few bouts with turnovers. This was also a game that started the Kevin Pittsnogle legend. Yes, Creighton — you got Pittsnogled!
This was another game that proved to be compelling for more than just a last-second game-winner. This was high-scoring, but it was also played under control and with two evenly-matched teams. Huskies-Golden Eagles also produced a big comeback before the final bit of heartbreak (and, for the winner, ecstasy). Marquette erased a 15-point deficit but lost in the final seconds. Both teams were sharp as could be from three-point range, shooting a combined 63 percent on triples. Ball movement was fluid in San Jose, Calif., and both offenses were prolific. Yet, each defense produced a few late stops to balance the scales.
In one of the all-time great individual performances of the first round, Weber State’s Harold “The Show” Arceneaux poured in 36 points and made the clinching free throws to oust North Carolina from the tournament in the opening game for the first time in 20 years. Beyond Arceneaux, the entire Weber State squad played a poised and composed game in Seattle, producing a 14-over-3 upset with the maturity of a 3 seed that had been accustomed to winning often in the NCAA tournament — in other words, a team such as North Carolina.
GREAT FIRST-ROUND GAMES FOR WHICH WE COULDN’T FIND VIDEO
* OREGON-MIAMI (OHIO) 2007
* EVANSVILLE-OREGON STATE 1989
* LSU-PURDUE 1986
* MICHIGAN STATE/WISCONSIN-GREEN BAY 1991