After wasting time watching Thursday’s games which would probably have been better spent watching truTV original programming, the tournament definitely picked up during the weekend. The drama returned to the tournament with upsets, injuries, and questionable officiating. Here are some of the biggest stories that ESPN can belabor for the next few days (when they are not stalking Peyton Manning’s every move).
5. Lack of buzzer beaters
Sure there were some upsets and there is a 13 seed in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006 in the Ohio Bobcats. But buzzer beaters were noticeably missing from the entire first weekend. VCU had the best chance as they trailed by two late against Indiana. They chose to drive the lane and kick out to Rob Brandenberg for a great look at a game winning three, but it clanked off the rim short. On Sunday, Purdue needed a three with 2.5 seconds left to extend the game to overtime and nearly hit a miracle bank three pointer, but it was not meant to be. With many of the top seeds surviving to the Sweet 16, hopefully the second weekend will bring us some final second drama that makes this tournament great.
We mentioned it in previewing the first weekend and unfortunately, the officiating was a story. Thursday offered few close games and even fewer upsets, so the story Friday morning revolved around the end of the UNC Asheville/Syracuse game. A lane violation and a blatantly incorrect out of bounds play late ruined a chance for Asheville to be the first 16 seed to defeat a 1 seed. A little known rule about players not in the lane for free throws caused the violation to be called. With Scoop Jardine shooting the front end of a 1 and 1, an Asheville player standing at the 3 point line crashed the boards and grabbed the rebound as Jardine missed. Players outside the lane cannot enter until the ball hits the rim and the call allowed Jardine to make both free throws. Then Asheville got back within 3 and when pressing, appeared to cause a turnover off Syracuse guard Brandon Triche. The refs blew the call by declaring the ball hit an Asheville player.
Later in the weekend, amazingly enough, the lane violation rule came up again. Down two points, Notre Dame had a 1 and 1 opportunity to tie the game. Unfortunately, they came crashing down looking for a rebound in case of a miss. The violation caused the free throw make to be wiped out, which negated the second free throw as well. Technically, these calls are correct, but it seems like the refs should have given some warning before making a call that ultimately decided the game.
3. The #15 seeds
While the first weekend did not offer many upsets, Friday gave us a historic day as not one but two 15 seeds advanced. These were the first wins for a 15 seed since 2001 when Hampton defeated Iowa State. Norfolk State used its size and some rare great 3 point shooting to defeat Missouri, a team many had picked to go to the Final Four. Missouri, who regularly plays four guards, could not deal with Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn, who had 26 points. Missouri could have withstood just the inside game as the Tigers shot fairly well and made thirteen 3 pointers. They could not account for the fact that Norfolk State made ten 3 pointers as the Spartans only shot 31% from 3 during the season.
Only a few hours after NSU’s win, Lehigh took the floor against Duke. The Mountain Hawks actually out-Duked Duke on defense. Using a suffocating man-to-man half court defense, Lehigh completely took away Austin Rivers and the three point shooting of Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry. When the Plumlees got the ball inside, they usually were able to score, but neither Miles nor Mason are really post up players. On the offensive end, Lehigh rode guard C.J. McCollum, who had 30 points. Coach K called McCollum “the best player on the court” after Lehigh closed out a 5 point win.
Both teams had a chance Sunday to be the first 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. Norfolk State seemed to suffer a hangover off their big win as they were blown out by Florida. O’Quinn was neutralized by Patric Young, who will be a first round NBA draft pick and their 3 point shooting cooled off. Lehigh put up a great fight against Xavier and actually jumped out to a 15 point lead in the first half, but could not overcome Xavier big man Kenny Frease’s 25 points. Although they are heading home, these two teams still showed up what March Madness is about, giving us two of the only upsets of the first weekend.
2. Kendall Marshall’s injury
North Carolina came out against Creighton inspired by the return of John Henson. The Tar Heels played with a different type of emotion that they often lack despite their great talent. Their opponent, a tough Creighton team, actually shot the ball well against the Tar Heels and avoided a blowout for the first thirty minutes. The Heels finally pulled away after two Harrison Barnes threes put them up 16. The story should have been a great Carolina performance. Unfortunately, PG Kendall Marshall, their only real ball handler, found out after the game that he had fractured his right wrist. The Tar Heels will likely be able to overwhelm their next opponent, the Ohio Bobcats, with their huge frontcourt of Barnes, Henson, and Tyler Zeller. The question becomes whether they will play little used backup PG Stillman White, or simply let Barnes and Reggie Bullock handle the ball. The possibility remains that Marshall could play, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to play at a high level with such a difficult injury.
1. Kentucky’s dominance.
The Wildcats entered the tournament as favorites and the in the first weekend showed absolutely no signs of weakness in decisive wins against Western Kentucky and Iowa State. In fact, Kentucky had Charles Barkley declaring that only the Toronto Raptors could beat them right now. When PG Marquis Teague plays well and is knocking down outside shots, Barkley is right. Their weak link all year, Teague played by far his best game against Iowa State in the second round. Most college teams have not seen anything like the strength and length of Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones inside. In the Sweet 16, the Wildcats draw one of the two teams that defeated them this year in the Indiana Hoosiers. IU freshmen Cody Zeller held his own on the inside in the first matchup, but with Kentucky playing even better, Indiana will need a huge effort from Zeller and also PF Christian Watford.