Dance Wrap: Day 1, Fun One
Quite the way to get things started.
by Chris Deaton
This is a fine way to begin the newly-formed ‘Feature Presentation’, a vehicle for verbosity. We’ve never seen a Tournament begin quite like it did Thursday — tightness and excitement from lunch until dusk and beyond. Jimmer Fredette, Danero Thomas, Ali Farokhmanesh and more: otherwise names of characters in a Brothers Coen screenplay, but hardwood heroes in the Dance’s opening act worthy of an epic.
We were spoiled like grandchildren.
• Here’s an arbitrary start: parity. An ever-growing narrative has marred March — scorching mid-majors are conspiratorially pitted against each other to protect recognizable but overrated brands. Why Richmond versus St. Mary’s and Texas versus Wake Forest instead of Richmond versus Texas and St. Mary’s versus Wake Forest? There’s hardly a reasonable answer.
But Thursday’s action rendered that debate irrelevant, if only for a day. These games weren’t a celebration of the little guy’s triumph — though Ohio, Murray State and Old Dominion certainly warranted praise — so much as they were a revival of spirited competition. Washington-Marquette presented as much excitement as Northern Iowa-UNLV, and the viewer was the beneficiary. It was some Utopia for equality among programs both big and small.
Whether it lasts into Friday doesn’t matter. The point was clearly made: good ball is good ball, from Tobacco Road to the roads that run through Robert Morris University.
A swath of media — members of CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, SI, Sporting News — declared them dead Dawgs walking against the imposing athleticism of UTEP, but an electric second half keyed by disciplined defense and Shelvin Mack’s hot hand turned a barnburner into a rout.
Much of the doubt centered on post man Matt Howard’s inability to avoid foul trouble (check out the right column of his game log), and against a force like Derek Caracter, he was liable to not be a factor. But he managed to play an efficient 30 minutes while avoiding whistles, pairing with an under-the-radar 9 rebound performance from 6’3″ Willie Veasley to keep the Miners’ size advantage in check.
The aforementioned Fredette has become somewhat a national centerpiece for the feel-good March story. His 37-point performance in BYU’s thrilling double-overtime victory over Florida was certainly the stuff of stars, but were it not for the contributions of a little-known teammate, the Cougars would’ve made a swift exit.
Michael Loyd, Jr had averaged a shade more than 13 minutes played and 4 points scored per game, but he could’ve fooled most anyone with his 26-point outburst Thursday. He scored all of his team’s six points in the first overtime session and tallied six more in the game’s final five minutes to help secure the win.
• ‘Nova hardly did a thing to prove itself worthy of a 2 seed in scraping by an inspired Robert Morris. After trailing for nearly the entire game, seven late free throws from ninth-year senior Scottie Reynolds pushed his team toward overtime, where the Wildcats would eventually prevail by three.
Really, the struggle was a microcosm for many top sides — in addition to Georgetown’s shocking drubbing, Baylor and New Mexico both had to work the full forty to advance. The Bears pushed past Sam Houston St. by nine and UNM snuck by Montana 62-57.
• The next time someone cries for expanding the field of 65, consider the sparse crowd at a site like New Orleans — not a place that screams “sparse”. Attendance figures weren’t immediately available, but seriously, hop over to a photograph page for the Notre Dame/Old Dominion game and check the background for yourself. There were (maybe) 16 people there.
The overall level of play Thursday was positively stratospheric. Would drawing in a couple of teams like this season’s outfits at Mississippi St. and Virginia Tech put more butts in seats? Would it make it any better? Can it make it any better? It’s hard to imagine how. Quality over quantity — every time.
• We couldn’t have just given Kentucky a bye?
They ended East Tennessee State’s season in 10 minutes. Robert Morris proved that the 2/15 game can still provide excitement, but is it not worth exploring a way to make the 1/16 match-ups just a tad more competitive?
(Maybe we could spot the 16s 15 points and the ball to kick things off, and make the opposing team’s best player shoot with his weak hand?)
Looking ahead to Friday …
1. Purdue is hobbled — or maybe Hummeled — and showed few signs in the Big Ten Tourney that they could last for all but a few fleeting moments in March. Siena is as popular an upset pick as round one will see, but on the advice of my crystal ball, avoid the masses. After watching them get run out of Hinkle Fieldhouse and labor in their conference tournament final, this is not the same Siena team that spanked Vandy in 2008 and topped Ohio State in 2009. Boiler up — but just for today.
2. A certain ESPN analyst’s over-the-top love affair with Cornell manifested in his selection of them for an Elite 8 spot. This is hardly a bold prediction, but I don’t think they make it past Temple — the most under-seeded team of this Tournament. Period.
If Kentucky is going to fall in the top half of the East region, it’s going to take 40 minutes of stout Owls defense or a 40-minute snoozefest as rugged a performance from Wiscy as they can muster — not a silly barrage from Cornell, for heaven’s sake.
3. Back to the competitiveness of the 1/16 game for a moment: Syracuse and Vermont … again? With Onuaku out, this one could be interesting for 30 or so minutes. Why? Because Marqus Blakely, the Catamounts’ hope in the post, might be able to see some light down low.