By Andrew Kahn
A season that provided a carousel of teams at the top of the rankings and plenty of upsets portended an unpredictable and entertaining March Madness. The Tournament’s first weekend was even better than expected. Your bracket is likely busted, but it was totally worth it.
1. Northern Iowa’s wild weekend
It’s hard to imagine any team has ever had a weekend in the NCAA Tournament like Northern Iowa. On Friday, Paul Jesperson banked in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to give the 11 seed Panthers an upset win over 6 seed Texas. The Longhorns had just tied the game with 2.7 seconds left when Jesperson took the inbounds, dribbled once to his left, and calmly nailed the miraculous shot:
It looked like Northern Iowa was on its way to the Sweet 16—and by “looked like,” I mean people had crossed out Texas A&M on their brackets and UNI fans were checking out flights to Anaheim—until Texas A&M’s historic comeback. Down 12 points with 44 seconds left and (10 with under 30 seconds), the Aggies went on a 14-2 run to close the game, the biggest final-minute comeback in NCAA Tournament history. They won 92-88 in double overtime. If you missed it, just watch the highlights and pretend you didn’t. The Aggies’ full-court press forced four turnovers, three of which they immediately turned into layups, including one to tie it with two seconds left. The Panthers missed shots from beyond halfcourt at the end of regulation and the first overtime. When you consider their win at the buzzer in the Missouri Valley Conference championship, Northern Iowa’s last three games have been fantastic.
2. Other last-second finishes
In the final game of the first round, no more than a couple of minutes after the Northern Iowa halfcourt heave on Friday, St. Joseph’s Isaiah Miles hit a three to give the eighth-seeded Hawks a 78-76 lead over Cincinnati with seven seconds left. Octavius Ellis answered with a dunk at the buzzer, but replay showed the ball was still in his fingertips with no time on the clock. It didn’t matter how far into the net the ball was, given that Ellis was still touching it.
Also on Friday, Iowa’s Adam Woodbury put back Mike Gesell’s airball as time expired to give Iowa a 72-70 win over Temple in overtime. The day before, Providence and Arkansas Little Rock scored last-second victories. Rodney Bullock slipped under the basket off an inbounds play and his layup with 1.5 seconds left gave Providence a 70-69 victory over USC. Little Rock’s Josh Hagins buried a deep three—he stepped back to the point that his feet were touching the halfcourt logo—with five seconds left to send the game into overtime against Purdue, an eventual 85-83 win for the Trojans. The second round featured two buzzer beaters, in addition to A&M’s ridiculous finish. An underhand flick by Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger with 1.5 seconds left gave the Irish a one-point win over Thomas Walkup and 14 seed Stephen F. Austin. Bronson Koenig hit contested threes on Wisconsin’s final two possessions, including a fadeaway from the corner as time expired to stun Xavier 66-63:
3. Spartan shocker
Of all the upsets and thrilling endings, none were more surprising than Michigan State losing in the first round. The second biggest favorite to win the entire thing (behind Kansas), the 2 seed Spartans were stunned by Conference USA champ Middle Tennessee State on Friday. The Blue Raiders never trailed, shot 56 percent from the floor and 11-of-19 (58 percent) from deep, and won 90-81. Like all but one of the previous seven 15 seeds to win, Middle Tennessee was bounced in the second round (by Syracuse; Florida Gulf Coast was the only 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16). The Spartans had some bumps in the road this season, but entered the Big Dance having won 13 of 14, including the Big Ten tournament. Their loss was the most unpredictable in a weekend full of unpredictability. Ten double-digit seeds won, the most ever in the first round.
4. Top seeds survive
Despite all the madness, the four No. 1 seeds are still alive. North Carolina only led Florida Gulf Coast by one at halftime, but finished with an 83-67 victory. The Tar Heels carried that momentum into a blasting of Providence in Round Two. Kansas crushed Austin Peay and looked very strong in a 12-point win over UConn. Tony Bennett collapsing on the sideline was the only scare Virginia got during its opening round game, and the Cavaliers dominated the second half to beat Butler by eight. Oregon trailed St. Joseph’s 58-51 with five minutes left but made key plays down the stretch on both ends of the court and won 69-64. The Ducks will play Duke next, while the Jayhawks face a very talented Maryland team, Carolina draws Indiana in what figures to be a very high-scoring game, and Virginia takes on a hot Iowa State team.
5. ACC sets Tournament record
If you’ve been counting, you’ve already noticed references to five remaining ACC teams: UNC, Notre Dame, Virginia, Syracuse, and Duke. There’s a sixth—Miami, which beat Wichita State in a great second-round matchup—which is the most a single conference has placed in the Sweet 16 in Tournament history. The only ACC team to lose so far is 10 seed Pittsburgh, which lost a close first-round game to Wisconsin. Going strictly by seeds, the league is favored to have two all-ACC Elite Eight matchups: UNC vs. Notre Dame in the East and Virginia against Syracuse in the Midwest. Syracuse, however, is an underdog against 11 seed Gonzaga, just as 3 seed Miami is against 2 seed Villanova and Duke is against Oregon. Because of upsets, the ACC teams all got to play worse seeds than expected in the second round, but the feat is no less impressive.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.