We have here the variety pack from Saturday’s first round at the NCAA tournament. It’s quite the assortment of survivors.
There’s the team that had never won a tournament game before.
Abilene Christian. And its hero of the hour, a junior who by his own admission was once awful at basketball. Joe Pleasant, the worst free-throw shooter in the lineup by percentage, stood at the line in Lucas Oil Stadium with 1.2 seconds left and calmly put a stake into the heart of the Texas Longhorns by making two.
“I wasn’t the best player as a little kid. I mean, I was pretty bad,” he said later. “I couldn’t make a layup. Trust me, it was brutal. People didn’t want to pick me up for pickup.”
It’s probably hard for any outsider to imagine what Saturday night meant to Abilene Christian, not only getting its first tournament win, but doing it at the expense of its more renowned cousins from Austin. “Little old Abilene out in West Texas built a program that went toe-to-toe with the University of Texas and it’s an incredible story,” coach Joe Golding said. “It’s what March is all about.”
There’s the 72-year-old man who is coaching with his leg in a boot after rupturing his Achilles stepping off the team bus. And his players who missed all nine 3-pointers they tried Saturday but still won.
Leonard Hamilton and Florida State. “It’s a nuisance,” Hamilton said of his injury, after the cold-shooting Seminoles pushed past UNC Greensboro. “It’s a challenge, but there are more important things than worrying about me having a little pain.”
There’s the 11th-seeded blue blood who slipped into the tournament through the First Four door, and capped off a spectacular first round by the often maligned Pac-12.
UCLA. The Bruins’ win over BYU made the league 5-0 so far, if you include Oregon’s no-contest advancement past VCU. Not only 5-0, but with wins by 23, 16, 14 and 11 points. The highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the final polls was Colorado at No. 22, and the Buffs were ahead of Big East tournament champion Georgetown by 32 points Saturday.
“You’re finding out that the Pac-12 not being ranked all year was an absolute joke,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin. “And some people ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
There’s the fifth-place team in the MAC, with the player whose life story could be a made-for-TV movie.
Ohio University, who finished off star-crossed and defending national champion Virginia, the Cavaliers having spent all week getting through COVID protocols and then were at the tournament barely 24 hours. But the Bobcats are their own saga with nearly a triple-double from Jason Preston, who by high school had lost his mother and was living with friends, and was so unrecruited he applied for college as a regular student.
“I told him this is where stars are born, legacies are made,” coach Jeff Boals said of the tournament.
There’s the team that had to survive inner strife just weeks ago, and Saturday barely escaped UC Santa Barbara by one point, only because the Gauchos missed a close-in shot at the end.
Creighton. Racially insensitive remarks by coach Greg McDermott nearly undid the season, and a 25-point battering by Georgetown in the Big East championship made the Bluejays look ready for the kill. “We’ve been through a lot,” McDermott said. “And the reason we’ve been through a lot is on me. I’ve had to work to repair some of those relationships, and the people that I hurt.”
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There was the only team to ever win an NCAA tournament game without taking the floor.
Oregon. The Ducks were supposed to play VCU. At game time, the Rams, with several positive tests, were packing and ready to slip out a side door at the hotel and head for home.
There was the favorite who fell behind 9-0 and had to contend with the hottest brother act since Jesse and Frank James.
Kansas. The Jayhawks were down to Eastern Washington 9-0 after 101 seconds. It turned out OK in the end for Kansas, 93-84, but not because the Groves boys from Eastern Washington didn’t try. Tanner had 35 points. Younger brother Jacob had 23. The 58 points the Groves family produced were more than what 18 teams scored in their first round or First Four games.
And then, of course, there’s Gonzaga.
A 43-point win over Norfolk State, 56-percent shooting, 34 field goals with 27 assists, you’ve heard it all before.
“Clearly the best in the country,” said Norfolk State coach Robert Jones after the 98-55 Gonzaga show. Zags coach Mark Few tried to convince the world he had been nervous. “Sitting around watching all the (lower) seeds jumping up and grabbing us (higher) seeds was a little bit unnerving through the last few days,” he said.
What was left by midnight Saturday was a bracket of many flavors. All the No. 1 seeds had rolled through, but there were also nine double-digit seeds still around. There was the Oregon State team picked to finish last in the Pac-10 at No. 12. Ohio and North Texas at No. 13, Abilene Christian at No. 14, Oral Roberts at No. 15. Those last three have a combined five NCAA tournament wins to their names in history. There were more fairy tales going than in the children’s section at the library.
And that left tantalizing questions for Monday’s second round. Abilene Christian’s pressure defense causes turnovers by the bushel — Texas had 23 of them. How will UCLA handle that? Oklahoma is the team that beat three top-10 teams in eight days this season, before hitting a wall at the end and losing five of its last six. Which Sooners show up against Gonzaga?
Michigan must now contend with LSU freshman Cameron Thomas, who said hello to the NCAA tournament with 27 points against St. Bonaventure. Florida State comes off a game in which it couldn’t make a single 3-pointer, and now faces Colorado, which made 16 of them to mash Georgetown. Presumably Oregon will finally get to play, and suddenly is looking down the business end of Luka Garza, with Iowa the opponent.
It is, at the moment, an NCAA tournament bracket that is leaning westward. The ACC is already down to just Florida State and Syracuse. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 has five teams going. Between five teams from the state of Texas and three from Oklahoma, there is also a distinct Panhandle feel to the second round. And at the center of it all is Gonzaga. Now might be the time to mention again that nobody west of Lawrence, Kansas has won the national championship this century.