Here's hoping for a more mad Friday
The oft-repeated March Madness advertisement is a yearly tradition. Every year, the TV viewer sees a handful of commercials over and over again. Some are hilarious. Some are grating. Most are pretty nondescript.
One of 2012's more frequent ads features a pair of alliterative rhetorical questions: "Is it March Monotony? March Middle of the Road?"
The punch line, of course, is "No -- it's March Madness!" But on Thursday, the viewer at home could be forgiven if he or she replied to either of the first questions with a resounding yes.
There's no way of getting around it. This was March monotony.
How blasé was this day? For the first time since 1996, when Princeton upset UCLA in one of college basketball's all-time classics, a defending national champion -- in this case, the Connecticut Huskies -- lost its first NCAA tournament game. The 40 minutes that preceded it were so lifeless and incoherent, even UConn fans had to shrug.
That may be the resounding storyline of this day: How does a UConn team with so much talent, led by a Hall of Fame coach coming off a brilliant national title run, turn in such a meandering postseason performance? How does a team with two likely first-round NBA draft picks -- Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond -- sleepwalk for four months, including the most important game of the season?
Many analysts expected UConn to flip a switch, to put their mediocre, disappointing season behind them in time to beat Iowa State and challenge national title favorite Kentucky in the second round. But by the time this game ended in fitting fashion -- when Lamb, apparently oblivious to his team's 13-point deficit, embarrassed his team by clanging a too-fancy tomahawk dunk attempt off the rim -- there was no mistaking it: UConn had no switch. This team wasn't challenging Kentucky or making a run. It wasn't doing much of anything, actually.
Which brings us to the biggest and most resounding question of the day: Was this Jim Calhoun's last NCAA tournament game? The Huskies are banned from tournament play in 2013, the result of repeated Academic Progress Rate violations under the NCAA's new, harsher rules governing players' academic standing. Calhoun will turn 70 in May. His health kept him away from his team for much of the Big East season in 2012, and other health issues -- Calhoun is a two-time cancer survivor -- have cost him sideline time three times since 2008.
The coach who built Connecticut from an also-ran in the Big East to a national brand is always brash and defiant; he thrives on competition and loves to be told he can't do something. In 2011, as many questioned whether he should retire, Calhoun overcame health issues, NCAA sanctions and a recruiting slump to take an unranked team to the top of college hoops for the third time in his career.
There is now another roadblock for Calhoun to overcome, another chance to prove that his fire burns as bright as ever, another opportunity to silence the doubters and the critics and the career eulogists once more. Or will next season's tournament ban signal that this old hand's time is finally at an end?
We'll learn the answer to that question in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, there was plenty of Thursday basketball apart from UConn's drama, and thank goodness for that.
Even so, the chalk was rampant. Of the 16 games we saw Thursday, only two resulted in wins by teams seeded lower than their opponents. There were some close games in the mix -- Kansas State got a run from Southern Miss, Long Beach State played New Mexico tight -- but these were exceptions to the rule, a rule that saw Wisconsin, Louisville, Marquette, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Baylor, Indiana, Iowa State and Ohio State roll to relatively (and in some cases surprisingly) casual wins.
Even the most notable upset of the day -- No. 12-seed VCU's win over No. 5-seed Wichita State -- had a decidedly un-upset feel. Make no mistake: It was an upset. Wichita State was a very good team throughout the season, one that caught a brutal matchup against the scrappy, steal-happy, Shaka Smart-led Rams. But VCU's 2011 run made the Rams a popular "upset" pick in the first place. Point guard Darius Theus' savvy play (he made the game-sealing bucket over 7-footer Garrett Stutz on the penultimate possession) and Smart's "HAVOC" defense (which pestered the typically efficient Shockers into wasteful offensive possessions) hardly came out of left field.
In any case, this was one mid-major upsetting another mid-major, the kind of result that hardly gets the nation's hoops blood boiling. Again: Princeton-UCLA this was not.
Thursday's other "upset" came in the form of No. 11-seed Colorado's 68-64 win over UNLV. Unexpected? Sure. But that might say more about the Pac-12's historically awful season than anything else. After earning just two bids to the tournament -- and watching regular-season champion Washington become the first power conference team in NCAA history to not make the field -- the Pac-12 opened postseason play with California's downright horrific First Four loss to South Florida on Wednesday. (This came at the same time, mind you, that Arizona was losing at home to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT.)
Colorado is in its first season as a Pac-12 member, and it flew its new league's banner proudly Thursday; its demolition (and late survival, as the Rebels came storming back in the second half) of one of the best teams from 2012's best West Coast league (the Mountain West) may be a small point of pride for the Pac-12's devoted followers.
But we're not supposed to call a Pac-12 team winning a Round of 64 NCAA tournament game an upset. And this was Thursday's most unexpected result?
I love you, NCAA tournament, but it's like I don't even know you anymore.
And still, even on one of its most mundane first Thursdays in recent memory, this glorious competition very nearly gave us history.
The best chance for a classic came -- as it usually does -- from the most unexpected place: 1-seed Syracuse's 72-65 win over No. 16-seed UNC Asheville. Eddie Biedenbach's team played the Fab Melo-less Orange perfectly. It opened an early lead and never faltered, never succumbed to the typical second-half separation we usually see when any No. 1 seed feels remotely threatened. Instead, the Bulldogs lived up to their name. They kept making shots, kept getting stops, kept rebounding the ball, kept fighting and scrapping and working their way past the obscenely talented Orange.
Then, disaster: Down by four with 1:20 remaining, the Bulldogs fouled Scoop Jardine, a 49.1 percent free throw shooter. Jardine clanged the first, and Asheville easily secured the rebound. But a lane violation call on guard J.P. Primm, who crossed the 3-point line before the ball hit the rim, gave Jardine another chance at the 1-and-1. He made both, and Syracuse's lead increased to six.
But that wasn't the end of the controversy. After a made 3 that cut the lead to just three points, Syracuse guard Brandon Triche clearly deflected a baseline inbounds pass out of bounds. Asheville's bench erupted in delight. But the referee ruled that Asheville had knocked the ball out of bounds, and while there was contact on the play -- it was either a foul or Asheville's ball -- NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams later characterized the contact as "incidental." The possession went back to Syracuse, which slowly iced the game in the final minute, and that was that.
The Bulldogs fought so hard, and for so long, and they nearly created a timeless memory. But they were robbed in the end -- by bad officiating, by a devastating 1-for-13 night from star guard Matt Dickey, by the cursed basketball gods themselves.
Instead, the top-seeded Orange survived. Nothing to see here. Ho hum.
The best hope is that the Bulldogs can take some solace in their effort -- in the knowledge, as Biedenbach put it after the game, that his was the "better team tonight." (Jim Boeheim's oh-so-graceful reply? "That's why they make scoreboards." Nice.)
Likewise, as fans, perhaps we can remember what Asheville nearly did, the history it nearly made, the way it almost turned this otherwise unassuming Thursday into one for the ages. We should remember the way this tiny school from a quirky, liberal outpost nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains -- with none of the massive financial or institutional resources of its opponent -- nearly changed the way we view the first round of the NCAA tournament forever. There is merit in that. We shouldn't soon forget it.
And if that doesn't do it for you, here's a positive spin: If your bracket was heavy on the favorites, you're looking like a basketball genius. That's something, right?
In the end, the true glory of the tournament lies not only in wild upsets and unforgettable buzzer-beaters. It can also be found in the sheer quantity of the action on offer, on a unique promise -- if today was merely mediocre, tomorrow is destined to be better.
Yes, yes. Thursday was March Monotony. March Middle-of-the-Road. March [insert your own alliterative adjective here].
On Friday, we get back to March Madness. Oh, basketball gods, let it be so. Let there be Madness.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
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