Can you take 10 big stories from 52 games, 48 of which were played in a span of 84 hours? Sure, you can.
You just have to be choosy, and you have to bundle a few stories together. Your mileage may vary, but broadly speaking, these were the 10 top stories from one of the best weekends in sports. When we move to the Sweet 16, the tournament begins to breathe, and the level of focus on individual games begins to increase to a considerable extent. After the first weekend of the Big Dance, though, the challenge is to find the larger trends… or refute the notion that a larger trend can be found.
The top 10 list begins now.
10 – UNDERDOGS TOOK PUNCHES AND STILL PREVAILED… ONCE
The underdog teams from one-bid conferences got in their share of upsets. Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State, and especially Mercer earned their days in the sun, but what’s notable about their wins is that they did not cruise to the finish line, rattling their opponents and never encountering any real bumps in the road. No — all three teams fell behind well into the second half and appeared to be in big trouble at a relatively advanced stage of the proceedings. They overcame a ton of in-game adversity to forge their upsets. (Harvard was able to win its game against Cincinnati without falling behind down the stretch.)
Yet, it’s also worth noting that the expenditure of physical and mental effort needed to produce those magnificent conquests left each team spent in the round of 32. This is not a knock on any of those teams; if anything, such a reality magnifies the extent to which the Lumberjacks, Bison and Bears poured their hearts out to gain a piece of March glory. The three greatest Little Guys of this tournament forged moments that will be remembered forever in Nacogdoches, Tex.; Fargo, N.D.; and Macon, Ga.
9 – THE SEC SCORES A TOUCHDOWN (7-0)
The SEC was not a good conference during the regular season. One team — Florida — does not a good conference make, and one really good game (Kentucky’s win over Louisville; Tennessee’s demolition of Virginia) does not a 30-game resume make, either. Neither Kentucky nor Tennessee played close to their considerable potential during four months of regular season ball.
They are now.
This happens in March. It will happen again. Just don’t allow it to influence your views of conference strength. There are better examples of how March should affect or change a verdict on a given conference. Speaking of that…
8 – THE BIG EAST IS IN BIG TROUBLE
The decisive round-of-32 losses by Villanova and Creighton were bad enough.
However, seeing Buzz Williams leave Marquette — a storied program forged by Al McGuire, and a program Buzz himself guided to the Elite Eight ONE YEAR AGO! — for the Virginia Tech Hokies suggests that this is a league without a future.
Creighton, of course, begins the post-Doug McDermott era next season. Butler faces an uncertain future with Brad Stevens no longer able to create blackboard magic.
If Georgetown, Xavier and St. John’s don’t get cracking (especially Georgetown, the most national brand of all), what will the new Big East have to look forward to, pray tell? This was a disastrous weekend for the Catholic-flavored league, whose own requiem mass might not be too far away.
7 – THE ACC IS DOWN… BUT NOT FOR LONG
The ACC just wasn’t very good this season.
Such a statement can be made with considerable confidence after Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina State were all taken out on the first weekend, leaving the ACC with only one team — Virginia — in the Sweet 16. It can similarly be said that Virginia won the league in part because its opponents had flaws that could be exploited (also because of an imbalanced schedule).
Make no mistake — Virginia is a legitimate No. 1 seed and worthy of lavish praise. Yet, in assessing a whole league, let’s circle back to the notion that one team being great does not give a conference the right to tout itself as a whole. The ACC has a much higher standard to meet. The TV-ratings magnet conference in college basketball knows this.
Fortunately, unlike the Big East, the future looks promising. With Buzz Williams joining Virginia Tech and vacancies at Boston College and Wake Forest sitting out there for good coaches, the ACC is accumulating a deeper pool of quality coaching talent than any other league in the country. Louisville and that Pitino guy will join next season. Yeah — don’t weep for the ACC. It will rock and roll in due time.
6 – TIMEOUTS, FOULS, FREE THROWS — ENOUGH ALREADY
Unending endgame sequences — no one likes them, and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament reminds us of this reality every year. Shouldn’t something(s) be done about the matter? We’re going to write a heckuva lot more on this subject in the coming days, so stay tuned… after this media timeout.
5 – KNOCKDOWN SHOOTERS: YOU NEED ONE IN MARCH
The Kansas Jayhawks found their knockdown perimeter shooter, their zonebuster supreme… when it was just a little too late.
The Syracuse Orange watched as their key perimeter marksman, Trevor Cooney, turned into a pumpkin after being so relentlessly excellent through the middle of February.
You need that one knockdown shooter in March. Florida has Michael Frazier. Virginia, Joe Harris. Michigan State has Gary Harris with help from his teammates at times. Iowa State’s Naz Long was the true catalyst of the Cyclones’ stirring late comeback against North Carolina. Wisconsin just might make the Final Four this year because its shooters are better, to the extent that the Badgers can overcome a less formidable defense.
Baylor has Brady Heslip. Kentucky threw down the three better than it had all season long in its takedown of Wichita State. Michigan buried Texas with triples. Tennessee is finally getting reliable perimeter shooting from non-Jordan McRae sources. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Are there highly complex components of basketball… and of basketball analysis? Sure. Yet, never forget that this is a game in which the object is to put that round orange thing through the twine. Kansas and Syracuse didn’t have enough guys who could do it. They’re at home. Two plus two still equals four.
4 – THE MILLERS ON CBS… AND IT’S NOT THE SITCOM
Sean was supposed to be here. Archie, though, has crashed the party, and he did so by beating Ohio State and Syracuse, taking out Thad Matta and Jim Boeheim in the process. There’s a new coaching family in town, and it seems poised to make as many NCAA tournaments as it damn well pleases in the decades to come.
Side note: How wonderful was it to see the success-starved and frequently gut-punched community of Dayton respond to its Sweet 16 appearance with such joy?
3 – STARVING PROGRAMS: THOSE THAT FELL, AND THOSE THAT REMAIN
Some programs simply can’t shake their own shadows, doomed to repeat the same stomach-punched scenario over and over again. New Mexico looks so tough and so solid in Mountain West play, but as soon as it gets to March Madness with neutral officials and a tighter whistle… POOF! Gone.
Arizona State, like New Mexico, has never made a Final Four. The Sun Devils’ history of coming up short was affirmed against Texas, extending yet another long sports drought in a desert region that knows them well. If Arizona football’s Rose Bowl-free existence weighs heavily on the locals in Tucson, ASU’s Final Four-less college basketball program is a source of lamentation in Tempe.
Creighton has never made a Final Four, and the Bluejays’ prospects look bleak after their last Doug McDermott team was annihilated by an NBA talent-laden Baylor squad.
Saint Louis, Gonzaga, BYU — also without Final Four appearances — do not seem ready to get there in 2015, having lost on the first weekend. Saint Louis put up a very brave fight against Louisville on Saturday, but let’s acknowledge that the Billikens needed North Carolina State to miss 27,614 foul shots in order to climb past the Wolfpack on Thursday.
The two schools in the Sweet 16 that have never made the Final Four are Tennessee (Midwest Regional) and San Diego State (West Regional). Both have the talent to win two games, but neither will face ideal matchups, especially in the regional semifinal round. We’ll see if a member of college basketball’s starving class can break through.
2 – COACHES WHO SAVED THEIR REPUTATIONS, AND PROBABLY THEIR JOBS IN THE LONG RUN
Almost every March, a young hotshot coach wins one or two games as a 12-15 seed and parlays that big-stage success into a higher-profile gig. Manhattan’s Steve Masiello seems poised to land a high-major job even though he didn’t beat fourth-seeded Louisville on Thursday night. (He obviously came very close and deserves the attention he’s getting from other schools.)
The other side of the coaching coin is that some bench bosses save their careers and reputations with one huge week when everyone’s watching. Johnny Dawkins probably would have been fired at Stanford if he hadn’t made the Dance in this, his sixth season on The Farm. Yet, he got in as a 10 seed, and boy, did he make the most of his opportunity. He’ll have a great chance to advance to the Elite Eight. He’s now well off the hot seat.
Cuonzo Martin was not going to be pushed out at Tennessee after this season, but with Bruce Pearl landing at Auburn, there’s no question Martin needed to do something to get Tennessee fans off his back, creating the path toward a much smoother existence in 2015 and beyond. Martin has definitely done that over the past week, and now he can breathe so much more easily. Dawkins and Martin have done what Andy Kennedy did at Ole Miss last year: strike NCAA tournament gold just when large portions of the fan base had just about had enough.
1 – KENTUCKY-WICHITA STATE, A COLLEGE BASKETBALL CLASSIC:
WHY THE SHOCKERS DESERVE NOTHING BUT PRAISE IN DEFEAT
The point must be made plainly and repeated until the end of time: Though college sports are a win-or-lose entertainment business, how well you play should always be the measure of how you’re remembered in history.
There’s a funny (not funny-humorous, but funny-strange) thing to notice about the four top seeds in this NCAA tournament: One of them faced an 8 or 9 seed that actually played like an elite team this past weekend.
Pittsburgh (against Florida)? No — CLANG, BRICK.
Memphis (against Virginia)? No — hoist here, panicky pass there, Josh Pastner coaching up a storm of aimlessness over there.
Gonzaga (against Arizona)? Hell, no — whoops, where did that ball go (after yet another turnover)?
The story of the four top seeds is in many ways the story of how the 8/9 seeds played against them. Kentucky, after failing to find itself for four long months, finally found itself on Sunday. Wichita State was the luckless victim, narrowly losing to Big Blue despite playing a game that — in a classroom — would have been given straight As by everyone…
… everyone, that is, except that curmudgeonly contrarian who thinks that if you give up more than 75 points, you automatically played horrible defense and should be laughed out of the room for failing to uphold a No. 1 seed into the Sweet 16 at the very least.
Don’t be that guy.
Wildcats-Shockers 2014 was and is (and will be remembered as) a genuine college basketball classic. It was an embodiment of the sport at its best, a representation of athletic competition as high art and ultimate drama. The occasion was heightened by the fact that a 35-0 team finally lost… and a storied program notched one of its more memorable victories without making the Final Four or winning the national title… yet.
If you’re reserving your intellectual or emotional energy today for the bashing and/or diminishment of Wichita State, you really need to reconsider the way in which you evaluate sports. Just tip the cap to Kentucky — sometimes, the opponent is just too good.
Sometimes, your very best — as great as it is — isn’t as great as your opponent’s best. That’s just how life can be.