10 things I'm absolutely overreacting to after a wild Day 1 at the NCAA Tournament
That’s the one word I’d use to describe Thursday at the NCAA Tournament.
What other way to describe a day which began with heartache for Virginia’s Kihei Clark, an NCAA Tournament hero and a heartwarming triumph at his expense?
What other way to describe how Princeton, the alma mater of the great and gone-too-soon sports journalist and my friend, Grant Wahl, pulling the second enormous giant-killing upset in its prideful hoops history, and doing it again to a Pac-12 champion picked to win the whole thing in thousands of brackets?
What other way to describe how a splendid mid-major, Oral Roberts, known for explosive offense, failed to score for the first 9 minutes of its first round contest with mighty Duke in Orlando, proof that for all the romance of it, the slipper does not always fit.
The line between fiction and life is blurred every March and that’s why, more than anything, we love the NCAA Tournament, the greatest single sporting event in America. The first 2 days? Those are 2 of the best days on the global sports calendar, and the proof isn’t just in the perfect ball screen coverages Princeton ran to slow Arizona’s titan of an offense or the way Penn State looked the part of a 2 seed, not a 10, late Thursday night. The proof is in the tangible impact these days have on the American psyche and productivity. A recent Wall Street Journal report stated the first 2 days of the NCAA Tournament are 2 of the least productive days, from an American business standpoint, in the calendar year. We don’t work so much as we subsist and survive.
Which is exactly what 16 teams did on Thursday. Survived.
Here are 10 things I’m absolutely overreacting to after a wild Day 1 at the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Arizona.
The champion of the Conference of Champions, the Wildcats weren’t just a prolific offense (though they were that, having entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 8th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency). Tommy Lloyd’s team also featured one of the best, if not the best, frontcourt duo in the nation in Azoulas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo. Those players gave them the ability to protect the rim and play tough on defense, a shortcoming of too many Sean Miller Arizona teams. The Wildcats also would ball screen you to death and because they could pass so well (66% assist rate, 4th nationally entering the Big Dance), they punished switching teams ruthlessly.
If ever there was an Ivy League win, it was what Mitch Henderson did to the Wildcats.
Princeton figuring out how to upset Arizona pic.twitter.com/0mBjTnLSIL
— Josiah Johnson (@KingJosiah54) March 16, 2023
Want to stifle the ball screens? Switch your pick-and-roll coverages multiple times in the game, to stay one step ahead of Arizona.
Down 12 points with 11:46 to go in a low possession game? Don’t panic. Continue to dictate tempo and trust your offense to execute better.
Princeton’s scouting report was perfect.
Control tempo (67 possession), force Tubelis, Arizona’s biggest mismatch problem and their All-American, to defend in isolation on the other end, wearing him out, and double him constantly to prevent him from getting rhythm offensively. Tommy Lloyd’s team averages around 72.1 possessions per game (adjusted), which was the 12th-fastest tempo in all of college basketball this season.
Trust oak of a human Keeshawn Kellman to wall off Ballo, a master of the duck-in who was among the national leaders in effective field goal (19th, at 65%) percentage entering the game. “Stop the duck-ins, with the first big back helping in transition. Build a line around the rim. Hold it,” Kellman said after the game, describing his plan.
It was as perfect as if Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton coach and inventor of the “Princeton offense” who passed away last August, had drawn it up himself. Maybe he had a hand in it from above. You won’t convince me otherwise. Carril, of course, forged his own perfect upset, of mighty UCLA, in 1996.
Before that game, Carril read his team a poem, perhaps the most Princeton thing to ever Princeton. The poem closes:
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.
Princeton thought it could win on Thursday when no one — well, only 6.6% of the country — thought they could. They weren’t stronger or faster than the Wildcats.
Thursday? They were better.
9. Furman and its young head coach, Bob Richey, are special
Speaking of comebacks against long odds …
Furman rallying from being down 12 midway through the second half against Virginia is nothing short of Hollywood stuff. The Cavaliers are America’s best frontrunners. Tony Bennett’s team gets a lead and then wraps its defensive tentacles around you like a boa constrictor. They are built to play with the lead and keep it.
That’s what made Furman’s comeback, which also involved rallying from a 4-point deficit in the final 12 seconds, so astonishing.
How did they do it? Two ways.
First, Richey runs splendid offense. They cut beautifully, use complex Princeton offense concepts to confuse defenses, and they have an elite driver in Jalen Slawson. The Paladins’ ability to score was a big reason I pegged this upset before the tournament began. Slawson? He was magnificent, with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists. And Furman’s offense? It did just enough- posting 1.05 points per possession even as Virginia controlled tempo — to erase the 12-point deficit late.
Second, Furman fouled the right guy late and then forced a great player to make a rare mistake. The odds on these two things occurring were long, but Furman did them both in a matter of 20 seconds. First, they fouled Isaac McKneely, the talented Virginia freshman who showed that, well, he’s still a freshman, by missing a vital 1-and-1 to give Furman life. Second — they trapped Clark, whose only flaw as a basketball player is that he’s short, and forced him into a dire pass that led to JP Pegues’ moment that will live forever.
ARE YOU SERIOUS?! 😨
FURMAN WITH THE STEAL AND 3 TO TAKE THE LEAD WITH 2.2 SECONDS REMAINING #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/fSCNKUzboq
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
That was the lone 3-pointer Pegues made. No one will remember the ones he missed.
8. Furman will win another game
Next up for the Paladins?
San Diego State, which is basically Virginia-lite.
The Aztecs defend at an elite level, which is why it was always risky to take a Charleston team that had beaten no one all season over Brian Dutcher’s tough group. But San Diego State suffers at least one stretch where they struggle to score every game, and they are worse offensively (74th in KenPom Offense) than the Cavaliers, whom Furman just felled. San Diego State isn’t pure pack-line. They do get in the gaps like Virginia, but they will come out too, hedge you and ice ball screens. They also are masters at the stunt and recover, which allows them to shrink floor space and still recover to the perimeter.
They defend positionally in a flat triangle, which Saturday will mean when Slawson drives, a perimeter defender will step in toward him (stunt), but then recover after the first step to stop Slawson’s patented drive-and-kick actions that make Furman lethal.
This will challenge Furman a bit differently than Virginia, but Richey will know that too, and after figuring out Bennett’s pack-line in the second half (1.2 ppp), he’ll have a plan to get Furman to the Sweet 16 on the weekend.
7. My heart broke for Kihei Clark
A national champion, All-ACC team and multiyear All-ACC Defensive Team selection, Clark is one of the greatest players in Virginia basketball history. He’s Virginia’s all-time leader in assists. His errant pass reminded my editor, Chris Wright, of Georgetown’s Fred Brown, an All Big-East guard who mystifyingly tossed the ball to James Worthy of North Carolina in 1982. Brown said it took him over 20 years to stop being “haunted by the memory” of the pass to Worthy. Clark won a national title at Virginia, starting at point guard as a freshman. He chased down a loose ball and delivered the assist that steered UVA to the national title. Perhaps that will ease his anguish. But my heart broke seeing such a glorious college career end with an “agony of defeat” moment.
6. Duke isn’t just under-seeded — they are one of the favorites
The most impressive team on Thursday was Duke.
5th seed? Seriously? Duke looking as strong as anybody right now. Made it look easy tonight against ORU.
— BFriedACC (@BFriedACC) March 17, 2023
The Blue Devils won their 10th consecutive game, dissecting Oral Roberts 74-51 in Orlando.
Oral Roberts is really, really good. They feature Max Abmas, an All-Regional player from 2 NCAA Tournaments ago, and they start 5 upperclassmen. They ranked in the top 30 in KenPom Offensive Efficiency entering the NCAA Tournament. They scored a patently absurd 1.33 points per possession in the Summit League Championship game, which they won by 34 points. In other words, they would be the type of 12 seed you’d take in almost any other 5 vs. 12 contest.
Duke manhandled them. Oral Roberts didn’t score for 9 minutes, their longest scoring drought of the season by 4 minutes and 7 seconds! They managed just .8 points per possession, a season low. Abmas? He was 4-15 from the field in his final college game, hounded by Jeremy Roach, Dariq Whitehead, and at times, Mark Mitchell.
Duke didn’t even get a ton out of ACC Tournament MVP Kyle Filipowski, who had just 6 points and was 2-for-7 from the floor. It didn’t matter. Duke’s defense right now is on another level, and in the 2nd round against a Tennessee team that struggles to score, you can expect the Blue Devils to look NCAA Championship favorite good again.
This isn’t just a team that shouldn’t be a 5 seed.
It is a Duke team that can win the whole thing.
5. Marcus Sasser’s injury is a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment
Marcus Sasser reinjured himself Thursday night in Houston’s uninspiring 63-52 win over Northern Kentucky, an automatic qualifier that did not win its regular-season championship in the Horizon League. Sasser left the game and didn’t return, and his status for Saturday’s 2nd-round game with Auburn is up in the air.
The Tigers played one of their best offensive games of the season on Thursday night and Bruce Pearl’s team can really guard you for 40 minutes. The game is in Birmingham.
Houston. We have a problem.
4. Tide roll despite nothing from injured Brandon Miller
Speaking of injuries, Brandon Miller scored 0 points for the first time in his career in Alabama’s win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The Tide hammered the Islanders anyway, cruising by 21 thanks to 15 3-pointers, an Alabama NCAA Tournament record. If the Crimson Tide are going to get 19 from the likes of Nick Pringle (3.5 points per game this season) in the Big Dance, they aren’t likely to lose, with or without Miller. Maryland and Kevin Willard’s tough-as-nails team will be a physical challenge in the 2nd round, but either San Diego State or Furman await in the Sweet 16 and Arizona, a 2 seed that matched up well with the Tide, is on a plane home. The bracket has opened up nicely for the Crimson Tide and that could give Nate Oats time to let Miller rest, with the bigger games all lying ahead.
3. Penn State vs. Texas will be appointment television
Aside from Duke, is anyone seeded outside the top 16 seeds playing better than Penn State right now?
The Nittany Lions absolutely hammered Texas A&M in Des Moines last night, building a monstrous 18 point first half lead and never letting the Aggies back off the mat. Texas A&M erased large deficits this season in wins over Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida, but they couldn’t overcome Penn State’s shooting (13-for-22 from beyond the arc) Thursday night.
We all knew Jalen Pickett was a bucket, but senior guard Andrew Funk, who has been brilliant down the stretch as Penn State has picked up its play, stole the show. Funk was 8-for-10 from bonus land on his way to 27 points in the Penn State win.
Andrew Funk was COOKING from downtown 👨🍳
His 8 3’s were instrumental in Penn State’s big win over Texas A&M 🔥#MarchMadness @PennStateMBB pic.twitter.com/n2LHpUcb4c
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 17, 2023
Penn State deprived the Selection Committee, who of course doesn’t care about matchups, of its “accidental” Texas-Texas A&M Saturday game, but the game we get is better anyway. Texas can light it up offensively but relies heavily on forcing turnovers and getting transition buckets. Penn State? They don’t turn the ball over and they can shoot you out of a gym.
Styles make fights, and this game? It’s a fantastic undercard to anything you think is on the top of Saturday’s marquee.
2. SEC! SEC! SEC!
The SEC was woefully outgunned in the SEC-B1G Challenge, losing the final version 7-3.
The league made up for it Thursday, tying a NCAA Tournament record with 5 wins on the same day. Only Texas A&M lost. The Aggies’ performance was disappointing considering they felt snubbed by the committee a season ago and shortchanged from a seeding standpoint this season. You’d have expected Buzz Williams and his motivated guys to play better. They played a hot Penn State team, but the truth is the Aggies had been hot, too. That was poor performance.
But the other SEC programs? Dominant. Auburn played one of its best games of the season, vanquishing a fun Iowa squad. Alabama showed its depth is dizzying in manhandling a 16 seed. Missouri showed that Dennis Gates’ offense is the real thing, running away from a tough Utah State defense in the second half. Tennessee controlled the game against Louisiana, even if Rick Barnes did Rick Barnes and slowed the game to a crawl, disrupting his offensive flow and coaching the Vols into a closer than it needed to be game down the stretch. And Arkansas continues to win NCAA Tournament games under Eric Musselman, who was probably mostly just relieved no one on his staff threw a reporter’s phone after their comfortable win over Illinois.
The SEC should win at least 2 games in Saturday’s 2nd round, and playing in Birmingham, Auburn has a great chance to make it 3.
Not bad for a conference still fighting the March perception it is mostly just a football conference.
1. UCLA is ready to make another deep run
Jaylen Clark is out for the season and Adem Bona’s health remains an issue, but Mick Cronin’s team looked ready for a deep run despite their misfortune. Jamie Jaquez Jr. scored 17 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 5 steals in the Bruins dominant win over UNC-Asheville, and freshman Amari Bailey looked ready to pick up the slack for his fallen teammates with 17 points.
The Bruins’ injuries meant the attention shifted away from them as potential Final Four contenders, but they looked the part of a Final Four team. Cronin has it cooking in Westwood — which proves you don’t always need to make the sexy hire to make the right one.