To me, the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is one of my favorite times of year. I don't even care if my team is playing. I get to watch parts of 48 basketball games with the highest possible drama over the course of four days. The last couple of years have been dull with no upsets it seems. This year, however, was fantastic. Really, could you ask for much more than what we got over the course of this weekend? You have the Big East, touted as the best conference ever, falling flat on its face and failing to get most of its entries out of the weekend. As someone said, it was a Defend That, Digger epic. You had multiple buzzer-beating shots. You had multiple upsets. In short, it was frickin' awesome!
So what was the best of the best this weekend? Let's take a look at the first two rounds before we move on to the Sweet 16 starting Thursday.
Best finish - With all due respect to Murray State, the Michigan State-Maryland game was one of the best finishes you will ever see in college basketball. How often do you get four clutch shots in the final 40 seconds with only one timeout being called? The last three all came within the flow of the game too. The Spartans staggered to the end of that game, but what a shot by Korie Luscious to finish it. Even Mrs. T-Mill was excited and she really only cares about Purdue and how she has to prepare for my mood. Congrats, Sparty. Your team dies about as easily as Purdue does and I love it.
Most dominating upset - I have to go with Cornell over Wisconsin here. I expected the Fightin' Andy Bernards to get to round two, but I thought Wisconsin would beat them in a close contest. I did not expect Cornell to thoroughly dominate the Badgers. Can we get a similar performance this week against Kentucky, please?
Largest balls - Who else but Ali Farokhmanesh? This guy has a massive set of stones. Yeah, the shot to beat UNLV came with the shot clock winding down, but what about that absolute dagger he buried against Kansas? Northern Iowa has to be considered a legitimate threat to go to the Final Four now. I knew this was a tough team after we played them last year in the first round. Since then, they have gotten tougher. They have a great combination of size and moxie from their guards that will take them far. It also helps that you have a guard who has no fear whatsoever of a big shot.
Biggest flop - This has to be the Big East, which was supposed to dominate. I loved how the pundits tried to save themselves after the first round by saying the conference was top heavy. Well, that's bullshit, my friends. Georgetown somehow got a top 3 seed with 10 losses. Ten! Oklahoma State, another team with 10 losses that plays in a tough conference, was a freaking seven seed! Still, I expected the Hoyas to handle a team that had a losing record in the MAC. Congrats to Tommy Freeman and Ohio for laying a good old fashioned passionate ass-whipping to a Georgetown team that probably deserved it. Freeman's dad is a regular poster at HickoryHusker.com where I have a weekly column, and that board pretty much adopted the Bobcats as they made their run.
In other Big East "action" You had Villanova, a team that is essentially Purdue without Robbie Hummel only they never had him, needing some help to get by Robert Morris before being put out of their memory by St. Mary's. The Gaels are another team that I like with no fear, and I actually am more afraid of them than Baylor if we get past Duke. Then you have Notre Dame. I guess this was supposed to be a major upset when they lost. Well, they would have won if Luke Harangody had shown up. Instead, a good Old Dominion team (who had also beaten Georgetown this year, a red flag) beat them. It's a good thing Notre Dame had lost in their non-conference schedule to Loyola Marymount, otherwise with 10 losses they would have been a top 3 seed as well.
To continue the massive Defend That, Digger theme you have Marquette and Pittsburgh losing to lower seeded teams, but they put up good fights in each loss. Louisville thought that playing the middle 30 minutes would be enough against California. Only Syracuse and West Virginia looked great. The Orange were very impressive this weekend in winning a pair of game that I thought could give them some troubles. Once West Virginia got to the tournament after spotting Morgan State a 10 point lead they have been one of the most dominant teams of the opening rounds.
Biggest Surprise in the Sweet 16 - You've got some great stories here with Cornell, St. Mary's, and Northern Iowa, but I thought all three of those teams had a shot to advance. Washington, however, was my surprise team. They squeezed past Marquette and looked very good against New Mexico. The Huskies are a feisty team and they will give West Virginia a tough game this week.
Best Closer - I am giving this to Butler, who dominated the second half against UTEP and the last few minutes against Murray State to move on. They are now two steps from hosting their own Final Four, but they are two large steps. They should be a good matchup for Syracuse because they are a team that can shoot over the zone. If they are hitting this week, watch out. They also get an advantage by playing in a real basketball arena for their regional. Most jump-shooting teams can struggle in the massive domes at the regional level, but the West region is being played in the home of the Utah Jazz. That will make for better basketball.
Best conference - I have to give this to my Big Ten brethren, as all three tri-champions are still alive. Oh, and we had tougher games than the Big East. Ohio State had the easiest road and cruised in both games. Michigan State played down to the wire in both of their games but survived. I loved the comment about them watching the Purdue game yesterday in Spokane. They announcer said they were waiting for the med-evac helicopter back to East Lansing. I feel like we're in this together with Sparty right now. I'm a huge Michigan state fan as long as they support us too.
Then you have Purdue. To be honest, I expected to beat Siena, but once I saw what Texas A&M had I thought we would lose. When Davis was dunking everything in sight and they led 40-29 I thought we were in serious trouble. As we have done in every game save the Minnesota game, however, we answered. Honestly, we have no business beating Duke. They are bigger, stronger, deeper, and more talented. After what those guys showed me yesterday, however, I wouldn't count them out against the Dream Team or the 1996 Bulls. We're in a strange zone right now. Last week we were the trendy upset pick. Now, because we have shown the heart of a lion through two games and we're playing Duke, many casual fans that don't like the Blue Devils are jumping aboard the bandwagon. Even Bill Simmons is paying attention by saying we have Ewing Theory potential without Robbie.
Welcome aboard, my friends.
Most impressive team - Every year you have a couple of teams that look totally dominant in the first two rounds. Sometimes it can be attributed to being a #1 seed and getting essentially a free game against a 16. Usually only one of those games is even remotely close, with this year's being the Lehigh-Kansas game. Your best looking team so far is Kentucky, who has won games by a combined 59 points. That is more than the three Big Ten teams' margin of victory in their six wins combined. Duke and Syracuse are a close second here, which is probably why they are #1 seeds as well. The potential Kentucky-West Virginia regional final could have no defense played at all and it also could be a race to see which appearance is vacated first by the NCAA, not that John Calipari would ever be involved in any wrongdoing.
Looking ahead to round 3 - So now that we are down to 16 teams it is time to start saying goodbye to Cinderella and time to start seeing who is going to win this whole damn thing. I don't think it will be that easy though. I think you're going to see at least one of the three remaining double-digit seeds make it to the weekend, as well as one mid major. Here are my picks for each of the remaining games.
Northern Iowa-Michigan State - If Michigan State was fully healthy I would pick them, but they were struggling to find five healthy bodies at the end of the Maryland game. Northern Iowa just topped the best team in the tournament too. I like the Panthers.
Tennessee-Ohio State - It's amazing that Purdue has played and beaten three of the four remaining teams in the Midwest. Ohio State has possibly the best starting five in the country, but they haven't been pushed into the bench yet. I don't think Tennessee will do that. I am picking the Buckeyes. They are rolling since the Turner shot in Indy, and haven't lost since Purdue won in Columbus.
Syracuse-Butler - Syracuse looked awfully tough in the first two rounds, but if Butler is hitting their jumpers they can beat anyone. This could be the most exciting game of the third round because both teams play great fundamental basketball. I like Syracuse to win, but I wouldn't be shocked if Butler pulled the upset.
Xavier-Kansas State - Xavier is one of those teams that is great in the first two rounds, but they have struggled in the Sweet 16. Still, they are solid. Kansas State is playing on the second weekend for the first time since they ruined Purdue's best shot at a national title in 1988. They also don't have Kansas around anymore to beat them. I want to pick the Musketeers, but the Wildcats are great against teams outside their home state.
Kentucky-Cornell - This will be fun because you couldn't have differing attitude from the players. Cornell is in the Ivy League, while Kentucky is team full of one and dones that may not have enough credits between all their players combined to match one of Cornell's seniors. Kentucky should win, but Cornell can play with anyone.
West Virginia-Washington - We continue to see the teams Purdue ousted in each of the last two tournaments do well with the Huskies making a trip to the Sweet 16. With them, Northern Iowa, and Baylor as our three NCAA wins before this year it is good to see those teams continue to have success. This should be a great game with outstanding play from both backcourts. I am picking West Virginia.
Baylor-St. Mary's - Baylor is playing this deep into the tournament for the first time since the Truman administration, while St. Mary's is playing this deep for the first time ever. St. Mary's is a fun team to watch though. They are loose and have fun with the game. I am picking them.
Purdue-Duke - Purdue has no chance in this one. Never mind that they have beaten seven of this year's Sweet 16 teams within the last 24 months while playing two others. That was all with Robbie Hummel. We should probably forfeit now since the committee handed this region to Duke, anyway. The remaining players learned nothing in those wins over Northern Iowa, Michigan State, Tennessee, Ohio State, Washington, West Virginia, and Baylor. It was all Robbie. Keaton Grant, JaJuan Johnson, Chris Kramer, and Lewis Jackson had nothing to do with those seven wins, either.
They were all there though, with the exception of LewJack vs. Baylor. Surely his absence was made up by Scott Martin in that win. The fact is, no team left in this tournament has five wins this season over Sweet 16 teams. I still have the first weekend in April free and the money ready to go for tickets. I don't know how we'll do it, but I am picking the Boilers until we're dead.