To give an idea of how the NCAA tournament keeps taking sudden swerves in the road this first week, we give you the big man sitting comfortably in the Purdue locker room Friday.
Isaac Haas wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t alarmed about the hard fall he had taken during the rout of Cal State Fullerton. Said he'd be fine, all 7-2 of him. Mentioned how excited he was about this last ride as a senior, with him the aircraft carrier at the middle of the Boilermaker fleet aiming for the Final Four.
An hour later, Purdue announced that X-rays found a fracture in Haas’ right elbow, and he was out for the tournament. The thud could be heard back in West Lafayette.
And so it has gone in an NCAA tournament that has shown a remarkable flair for the unusual and unexpected and improbable and inexplicable and ironic and stunning.
Unusual? St. Bonaventure saw its first tournament victory in 48 years, Houston in 34, Loyola-Chicago in 33. Buffalo and Marshall their first ever, both as No. 13 seeds. The most famous member from any of those teams might be the woman who is Loyola’s team chaplain, and still gives pre-game prayers at 98.
That was Rob Gray’s whirling layup in the last seconds which provided the last of his 39 points and carried the day for Houston against San Diego State. “The difference in the game tonight,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said, “is we had Rob Gray, and they didn’t.”
That was Jon Elmore’s 27 points and refusal to back down that pushed Marshall past Wichita State. “Basketball is what I love to do, and whoever that guy is in front of me, I’m trying to crush him,” he said. He’s not exactly timid, but nobody needs that in March, when you’re a No. 13 seed and never won a tournament game in recorded history.
Inexplicable? Kentucky made history by missing all six of its 3-pointers against Davidson — the first time in 30 years the Wildcats played a game without making a single one. Davidson hit 11. It’s not every day you see a team outscored 33-0 from the 3-point line and still win.
Ironic? Texas played seven overtime games this season to lead the nation. The Longhorns lost Friday to Nevada — in overtime.
Stunning? The Pac-12 turned out to be the Incredible Shrinking League, its three tournament teams vanished from sight by Thursday at midnight. Put that together with a meltdown in the bowl games, and the conference went 1-11 in postseason basketball and football. Meanwhile, that football-centric conference, the SEC, went 5-1 its first six tournament games.
There were blown leads, big shots. Maybe not a deluge of upsets, but a lot of big names who had to hustle to get by. By Friday night, with the field down to 40 teams, a lower seed had won only five of the 24 games in the first round. But those had been memorable and worthy of the month, even for the victims.
“It’s pretty simple to know why we call it March Madness,” said Miami’s Jim Larranaga, after his team was beaten by Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for Loyola; a shot taken from the next area code.
Heartbreak. Even the winners could have that. Purdue certainly did, having prepared for this month for years with a core or four veterans who are now seniors. One is Haas.
Now the plot thickens in the second round. Location is one of the themes.
Imagine the noise Seton Hall will hear Saturday playing Kansas in . . . Wichita.
Or Florida going against Texas Tech in . . . Dallas.
Or Alabama taking on Villanova in . . . Pittsburgh.
Another theme is in-state get-togethers, that not many predicted. West Virginia-Marshall, Purdue-Butler.
You're playing Butler.
The Bulldogs are now 11-1 in tournament openers going back to 2001, through five different coaches. This latest 79-62 whipping of Arkansas was suitable for this month's crazy motif. The Bulldogs started the game on a 21-2 run, then were outscored 27-6. Just another day at the 2018 NCAA tournament office.
Another theme: rematches. Gonzaga crushed Ohio State by 27 points in the Portland tournament, but as the Buckeyes note, that was a long time ago. Purdue whipped Butler by 15 in December on a neutral court, but that was with Haas. "It's not like they're going to play four big guys," Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. "They have other players that are really good."
Then there is the Kentucky-Buffalo game in Boise with the Wildcats seeking their 126th NCAA tournament victory, the Bulls their second. You’d think Kentucky’s pedigree would be worth something, but who knows?
“This is March,” Haas said. “Anything can happen.”
He didn’t realize then how right he was.