All's Not Quiet On The Western Front
Before its season began, Harvard endured a surprising wound.
Its top two players, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, left the team last fall following the academic scandal that rocked the Ivy League campus. It was an odd predicament: a basketball team at one of the nation's most exclusive institutions of higher learning dealing with scholastic impurities.
And it created a sense of uncertainty within Tommy Amaker's program, months removed from its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. So the coach turned to a freshman point guard (Siyani Chambers), a sophomore wing (Wesley Saunders) and a sharpshooting junior from Quebec (Laurent Rivard) in 2012-13.
That trio led the Crimson, a 14-seed, to its first NCAA tournament victory, a 68-62 win over New Mexico, a 3-seed, in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
The West was king as the 2013 NCAA tournament commenced. The day didn't feature many classics. But its most captivating drama was generated on the left side of the country.
After their win, Harvard's players hugged each other, screamed and pumped their fists. Lobos coach Steve Alford's face conveyed confusion as he left the floor.
For months, Alford and his Mountain West colleagues had asked for more respect. Their Rodney Dangerfield routine echoed around the country.
"I'm amazed with the rankings," Alford told the Albuquerque Journal in January after the Lobos were the only Mountain West squad in that week's Associated Press poll. "Just looking at the rankings and we only have one team ranked. To be the third-best league in the country and only have one ranked team is bothersome, it really is."
The league's push for praise masked the most relevant fact about its prominence: The Mountain West had failed to make its mark during March Madness.
Colorado State was impressive as it cruised over Missouri, but with UNLV's loss to 12th-seeded Cal in the round of 64, the Mountain West is now 6-29 in the NCAA tournament against the "big six" conferences, per ESPN Stats & Information. Six wins. Twenty-nine losses.
New Mexico's loss to Harvard extended its individual and its conference's woes in the Big Dance. The Lobos were the patriarchs of a conference that earned five berths. They were Final Four sleepers to some. They were the team that would establish a new chapter in Mountain West postseason history.
But by the end of the night, they had simply preserved an old legacy.
The Pac-12, however, entered March Madness amid less optimism. In perception and seeding, it was little brother to the Mountain West. No team in the conference received anything above a 6-seed.
The selection committee's designations reflected the general assessment of the league: better than last year's Pac-12 but not on par with the Big East, Big Ten or MWC.
I even dared to predict that the conference would lose every matchup in the opening round of the Big Dance in my "10 bold predictions about the NCAA tournament" column. I've watched the Pac-12 all season. And its collective inconsistency and specific matchups in the tourney were not inspiring to me. All would lose, I figured.
So much for that.
The league ended Thursday with an unblemished record.
Its membership responded to its doubters and haters with the strongest showing of the day. Oregon's position was largely questioned on Selection Sunday, after it had finished second in the Pac-12 and won the conference tournament but received a 12-seed.
And then the Ducks went out and embarrassed an Oklahoma State squad that was a legitimate contender for the Big 12 championship for the majority of the season. Marcus Smart sputtered and the entire Pokes offense stumbled.
And then California equaled the performance of its Pac-12 peer when it too scored an upset over a No. 5 seed, UNLV. The Bears were also slotted as a 12-seed. And their opponent also unraveled when they made its best player, Anthony Bennett, uncomfortable. Bennett had his moments but he was 4-for-11 overall. UNLV shot a season-low 31.7 percent from the field.
Arizona had been questioned, too. At one point this season, the Wildcats were discussed as a possible No. 1 seed. But a series of losses in conference play prompted their tumble to a 6-seed. Of all the Pac-12 squads competing, Sean Miller's program was viewed by some as the most vulnerable team in the league. Arizona's mishaps had ruined multiple matchups that it should have won during the regular season. So some figured the Wildcats would make one too many mistakes against Belmont, a potent mid-major.
But the Cats were dominant from tipoff as they secured the Pac-12's third tourney victory of the day. So the Pac-12's best were undeterred by seeding or upset possibilities or criticism. Arizona, Oregon and Cal just proved their worth on the floor.
The latter was the platform for a storyline that will probably remain for the duration of the NCAA tournament. The haves and have-nots appear to be much closer to one another than they've been in past renditions of the Big Dance.
Southern wasn't even the best team in the SWAC. The Jaguars rolled through their conference tournament, but it did not include Texas Southern (NCAA violations) or Arkansas-Pine Bluff (low APR scores). The two schools were disqualified from postseason play.
So No. 16 seed Southern entered Thursday's matchup against 1-seed Gonzaga as possibly the second- or third-best team in its low-major conference. And had the Jaguars found some way to limit Kelly Olynyk (21 points, 10 rebounds), they may have slayed Goliath. Not that the Zags resembled past tourney titans.
Their six-point victory over Southern was the smallest margin of victory for a No. 1 seed since 1996 (Western Carolina lost to Purdue by two). Even worse, no 1-seed that's beaten a 16 by 15 points or fewer has ever won a national title.
Sure a win is a win, but every naysayer that doubted Gonzaga's standing as a No. 1 seed was comforted by Southern's ability to give them trouble.
It was all a great setup for Friday's matchups.
Thursday did not offer the buzzer-beating, overtime nailbiters we all craved -- although Vander Blue's game winner for Marquette with a second to go certainly brought the drama.
When the smoke had cleared, however, teams from the western portion of the country were in the middle of the scrum that moved us closer to an answer for the ultimate question: Which is the best team in America?
The Mountain West will remain in that conversation if San Diego State wins its matchup against Oklahoma.
But the Pac-12 is already victorious. Colorado and UCLA can extend the league's success in their respective Friday games.
My inbox is filled with "I told you so" emails following my 0-5 prediction for the league. Multiple tweets, too. The memos confirmed that the conference's fans clearly felt slighted by the seeding of its top teams and the persistent doubt of its overall potential.
That's no longer the case now. The Pac-12 attracted believers Thursday night.
The Mountain West, however, lost a few.
And Gonzaga, well Gonzaga didn't exactly quiet the doubters.
Roundup From Salt Lake City
MVP: Wichita State junior Cleanthony Early, who had averaged only five points in his previous three games, finished with 21. He shot only 7-for-15, and in a points-at-a-premium matchup like this, his bounce-back was key. Senior Malcolm Armstead led the Shockers with 22 points.
X factor: Pitt, which shot 36 percent from 3-point land for the season, finished 1-for-17 from beyond the arc. Its lone 3-pointer made was about three minutes into the second half, cutting its deficit to 30-26.
That was ... rugged: You wanted defense? You got it in this one, with both teams shooting worse than 40 percent and going a combined 3-for-37 on 3-pointers for the game. There were likely more bruises earned than shots made in this one.
MVP: Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga with 21 points and 10 rebounds but it was Kevin Pangos who allowed the Zags to exhale. Pangos scored 16 points and it was his 3-pointer with just under two minutes remaining that provided a four-point cushion. He also hit two free throws at the end to seal the win.
X factor: Southern hit 10 of 23 3-pointers to keep it in the game.
That was too close for comfort: Gonzaga's stint as a No. 1 seed almost ended in ignominious fashion but the Bulldogs made enough shots to advance to the next round, where they'll face No. 9 seed Wichita State. The Jaguars, meanwhile, did themselves and the SWAC proud with laudable effort.
MVP: Mark Lyons was the leader of a Wildcats team that needed him to play that role. The veteran guard scored 23 points (8-for-15).
X factor: Belmont just couldn't close the gap against the Wildcats, mostly because Arizona didn't miss many from beyond the arc, going 9-for-17 from the 3-point line.
That was ... experience: Belmont is a solid team, but Arizona held off every Bruins rally because the Wildcats are an experienced team that doesn't panic easily.
MVP: Harvard guard Laurent Rivard led his team with 17 points -- including a 3-pointer from the corner with 6:16 left that gave the Crimson the lead for good. He made 5 of his 9 shots (all 3-pointers).
X factor: The 14th-seeded Crimson made 8 of their 18 3 point attempts -- and shot 44.4 percent overall.
That was intense. The game pitted Harvard's four-guard, 3-point-loving attack against No. 3 seed New Mexico's bigger, grittier lineup. And although Lobos 7-footer Alex Kirk finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds -- even giving his team a 53-52 lead with about seven minutes left -- it wasn't enough against Harvard's more accurate attack..
Roundup From Auburn Hills
MVP: Memphis point guard Joe Jackson was the fastest player on the floor, able to cut through most of Saint Mary's defense with relative ease. No Gael had close to the foot speed to check him correctly. The 6-foot-1 junior finished with 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds, but his ability to control the game for Memphis was critical for the Tigers against the Gaels and star guard Matthew Dellavedova. Jackson, though, almost gave the game away with a turnover late but Dellavedova missed a 3-pointer to win.
X factor: Memphis forward D.J. Stephens. He made it near impossible for Saint Mary's to score inside the paint, recording eight blocks. He also had two major dunks -- an alley-oop in the first half from Joe Jackson and a one-handed dunk in the second half over Dellavedova which helped kill a Gaels run.
That was a major game for Josh Pastner The fourth-year Memphis head coach took over for John Calipari and kept things moving well with the Tigers in the regular season. In the NCAA tournament, though, he had been winless. Until today.
MVP: Derrick Nix was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and two steals.
X factor: Valpo didn't score for a six-minute period in the first half. Game over. The Crusaders just couldn't close the gap after that.
That was surprising: The fact that Valpo lost by only 11 points, that is. Based on how they started, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Crusaders had lost by 50.
X factor: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State's star, couldn't get into a rhythm against the Wolverines (10 points, 3-for-14). Hardaway, Robinson and Burke kept the pressure on the Jackrabbits' star all night.
That was ... balance: Burke is the headliner, the player that everyone talks about when they discuss Michigan's potential. But the team's win over South Dakota State gave the Wolverines a chance to prove that they have other talented players on their roster.
MVP: Troy Daniels had exactly the night VCU needed. The guard scored 23 points and shot 8 of 13 from the field, something the Rams will need when the level of competition steps up on Saturday with fourth-seeded Michigan.
X factor: The lack of an experienced point guard for Akron. Playing VCU requires experience and smarts at the point. Instead, Akron had three players with three or more turnovers. Meanwhile, the Zips couldn't force many of their own, as VCU had seven turnovers all game --- five coming in the final seven minutes with the game already well out of reach.
That was ugly: VCU's Havoc defense is usually a pain for opponents and opposing point guards. But when a team doesn't have its starting point guard it can become downright nasty. The Rams pressed, pressed and pressed, forcing 22 turnovers and dominated almost from tip to buzzer.
The Perfect Start
If this is it for the Atlantic 10 -- its one final shot at glory before Temple, Xavier and Butler pack up their bags for other conferences -- then the league is certainly enjoying the ride while it lasts.
The A-10 was a perfect 3-0 on Thursday, with all three victories coming by double-digits: Butler's 68-56 win over Bucknell, Saint Louis' 64-44 victory over New Mexico State and VCU's 88-42 destruction of Akron. And don't forget La Salle began the good vibes with a nine-point win over Boise State in the First Four on Wednesday.
So the conference stands at 4-0 with the Explorers (versus Kansas State) and Temple (versus NC State) aiming to maintain that perfection on Friday. It might be a bittersweet moment for the Atlantic 10, with three key members soon departing. But that day has not come yet. Right now the league is too busy winning.
To read Andy Katz's take from Butler's victory over Bucknell in Lexington, click here.
Seven Things To Know
That wasn't the only memorable stat from Thursday's Round of 64. In fact, we've compiled seven things worth knowing from the day.
To read the rest of the post, click here.
Roundup From San Jose
MVP: Billikens forward Dwayne Evans finished with 24 points, six rebounds, an assist and a block. He went 11-for-16 from the field.
X factor: New Mexico State fought back in the second half. But Saint Louis' defensive pressure was just too much, especially on the perimeter (New Mexico State went 2-for-16 from beyond the arc).
That was impressive: Yes, Saint Louis beat a WAC squad, not Louisville. But I think it confirmed the high hopes of prognosticators who believe that the Billikens can make a Final Four run. Jim Crews' squad is legit.
MVP: Arsalan Kazemi, who transferred from Rice during the offseason, finished with 11 points, 17 rebounds, two steals and two assists. Six of his boards were offensive rebounds. E.J. Singler, the brother of former Duke star Kyle Singler, is averaging 11.6 PPG for the Ducks.
X factor: Marcus Smart means so much for the Pokes. The first-year star, however, played like a veteran and a freshman (14 points, eight rebounds, four assists, five steals, five turnovers, 5-for-13) throughout the loss.
That was proof: Many suspected that Oregon had been improperly seeded by the selection committee. The Ducks' 13-point win over 5-seed Oklahoma State suggests that they were right..
MVP: Junior Allen Crabbe was a star for Cal. He finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal.
X factor: Anthony Bennett will make a lot of money in the NBA next year. But against Cal, he was as inconsistent as most freshmen in their first NCAA tournament appearances (13 points, 11 rebounds, 3-for-10 from the field).
That was more evidence: The Pac-12 recorded its second upset of the day in a matchup between a 12-seed and a 5-seed (Oregon beat Oklahoma State, too). Its members are competing like teams that felt slighted by their collectively low seeding from the selection committee..
MVP: Syracuse guard Brandon Triche finished with a game-high 20 points on 5-for-6 shooting. He added four assists. He pretty much was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted.
X factor: The Syracuse 2-3 zone -- and the players playing the system -- made life impossible for Montana, particularly when the Grizzlies turned out to be ice cold from 3-point range. Syracuse just had too much length and athleticism..
That was dominant in every way: Syracuse looked like a 1-seed playing a 16th seed. Montana was 5 of 25 from the field in the first half and 1 for 10 from 3-point range as the Orange took an insurmountable 38-15 lead. The second half was just academic..
Vander Blue Saves The Day
Roundup From Lexington
MVP: Vander Blue. Marquette's unheralded star scored the winning bucket with one second left in the game to beat Davidson. He finished with 16 points but those two will be remembered for quite some time. Blue hit that exact same shot to beat St. John's in Madison Square Garden on the final day of the regular season in New York.
X factor: Jamil Wilson nailed 3s and was a tough matchup for Davidson throughout the game. Wilson's key buckets continued to fluster the Wildcats and helped Marquette climb back to be in position to beat Davidson.
That was ... not a 14 seed: Davidson was not seeded correctly. Buzz Williams said as much on our Katz Korner special last Monday. He was right. The Wildcats were going to be a nightmare for any team and certainly for the Golden Eagles. Jake Cohen had a special season and career for Davidson. His passes were as magnificent at times as his clutch shooting performance.
MVP: Bucknell's Joe Willman. Yes, his team lost, but he was the best player on the floor for 40 minutes. He scored 20 points, and his perimeter shooting brought the Bison back in the game. He was the toughest matchup for Butler. Had he not had this type of game, Bucknell wouldn't have been able to make it close. So much was made of Mike Muscala, but it was Willman who was the hardest player to guard.
X factor: Butler's Rotnei Clarke. He scored 17 but was an enigma throughout the game. He was just chucking it in the first half but found his stroke in the second. That was enough to carry Butler when it needed big buckets late.
That was ... ugly: The Bison got back into it in the second half but went almost five minutes without scoring. Both teams shot under 40 percent from the field, including a combined 8-for-33 on 3s.
MVP: Russ Smith was back to being Russdiculous. Smith made big-time shots, forced turnovers and scored in transition. The Cardinals didn't need to rely on him to win, but he was back to being an offensive force like he was earlier in the season.
X factor: The Cardinals press. North Carolina A&T couldn't handle the Cardinals' pressure and made the mistake of trying to run with Louisville. The combination was too much for the Aggies and resulted in a slew of turnovers and Louisville transition points.
That was ... odd to see red in Rupp: Kentucky takes over Louisville for a game a year, but you don't see Louisville coming to Lexington with the Yum Center Palace. This is Big Blue Country. But for two days this March, it's all about Louisville.
MVP: Dorian Green. Phil Pressey was the more heralded lead guard on the court, but you wouldn't know it if you had never seen either team play. Green dominated the position. He played in control and with composure while Pressey was constantly forcing the issue. Green distributed the ball and made sound decisions.
X factor: The Rams dominated the backboard. This had been their strength throughout the season, and it shined in this game. Missouri couldn't get to the offensive glass. The Tigers continued to have empty or one-pass possessions. CSU was the most impressive MWC team of the first round so far.
That was ... a surprisingly strong showing by the CSU faithful: The Rams' fans flocked to Rupp and had a much more boisterous and numerous showing than Mizzou. CSU had a full section in green and gold here at Rupp.