NCAA tournament: Day 2 observations

Photo Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair had 27 points and 16 rebounds in the Panthers’ 72-62 win against East Tennessee St.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 (and later 65) teams, a No. 1 seed never has lost its opening game. This includes the current No. 1 seed in the East Region, the Pittsburgh Panthers, who held off a very game challenge Friday by No. 16 seed East Tennessee State, 72-62.

East Tennessee led in the second half, remained close until the final minutes and did every dreamer proud. A tournament that has provided so little upset excitement seemed, for a moment there, like it was going to produce the ultimate.

It wasn’t to be. It never is.

The most famous close call came in 1990 when No. 16 seed Princeton pushed Georgetown until the final seconds. Pete Carril’s Tigers controlled the tempo of the game and trailing 50-49 watched as Bob Scrabis and Kit Meuller both had potential winning shots blocked by the Hoyas’ Alonzo Mourning.

It was the ultimate example of why top seeds never lose. Georgetown had Mourning, once the top recruit in the country who scored seven of its final nine points and made those blocks. Princeton didn’t.

In those final moments when games are decided, it’s tough to win without some kind of star player. Twelfth seeds often have a guy like that, a guy who will play in Europe, if not the NBA.

Most famous game-winners were hit by guys who, while unknown at the time, were big-time players.

Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew? He was Mr. Basketball in Indiana and would’ve played in the Big Ten except his dad was the coach at Valpo. He was good enough to play six seasons in the NBA. He may not have been a star, but he was good enough to drain a leaning 3-pointer at the buzzer. The team he beat? Mississippi, not exactly a juggernaut.

Without a player like that, against an team that is exceptional, the No. 16 seed is reliant on near-perfect execution of the game plan and a poor level of play by the top seed.

Even in defeat, the Georgetown-Princeton game made Carril a national celebrity. Georgetown coach John Thompson heaped praise on his counterpart and later sent his son John Thompson III (the current Hoyas coach) to play for Carril.

“It’s an understatement to say that Princeton deserved to win this game,” Thompson said that night.

Carril’s Princeton offense, with back cuts and high-post passing, became the rage. He got his moment in the NCAA sun in 1996, when his Tigers back-doored UCLA to a major upset by the Carril-kind-of-score of 43-41. Princeton was a No. 13 seed that day, though. It was long before even NBA teams were using Princeton principles, and Carril himself was working for the Sacramento Kings.

Twenty years after Princeton’s near upset of Georgetown, East Tennessee State gave it a shot and lost by 10. You never say never in sports, but sometimes it seems like you should.

If Thursday was the afternoon nothing happened, then Friday was the afternoon something almost happened.

Cornell gave Missouri a scare. North Dakota State pushed Kansas. Utah State played Marquette to the end.

Mostly it was about the big underdogs covering the spread (entertainment purposes only). Like, for instance, consider that the second-half spread of the Pitt-ETSU game was Pitt giving 12. The game ended with Pitt plus-10, but dribbling out the clock to the eternal delight/frustration of gamblers.

Photo Oklahoma State’s Byron Eaton is fouled by Tennessee’s Tyler Smith in the closing seconds of the second half. Eaton made the shot and resulting free throw, and Oklahoma State won 77-75.
(AP Photo/Skip Peterson)

Say this about the guys who set the line. They’re really good.

• The best game of the day was Oklahoma State beating Tennessee in the battle of Garish Orange (Clemson awaits in the loser’s bracket). The Cowboys got a driving three-point play from Byron Eaton with 7.2 seconds left to win 77-75. It was the historic program’s first NCAA victory in the post-Eddie Sutton era.

The Cowboys are extremely athletic – OSU may have fired Sean Sutton but he at least left the program with some players. Pitt will have to play a much better game Sunday if it expects to beat Oklahoma State.

• North Dakota State was great in giving defending national champion Kansas everything it could handle before falling 84-74.

Often we call a team a Cinderella based solely on seed, but this was the real deal. It’s North Dakota State after all. Plus the Bison reached the tournament in their very first year of Division I eligibility.

Then there was the fact they looked exactly how you might think the North Dakota State team would look, and I don’t just mean a lot of white guys. There’s white and then there’s looking like you hadn’t seen a single ray of sunshine in about five months.

One thing that’s beyond debate, the former Division II powerhouse can play. They have a nice campus up there, fans that are both loyal and plentiful, and in that area of the country, Fargo is a desirable place to live. Their recruiting ability within a 300-mile radius should only increase, which means this won’t be the last we hear of the Bison.

This wasn’t a one-and-done type deal; this should be a year-in, year-out, very good regional, mid-major program.

• The best thing about Marquette advancing is its coolest-in-the-nation uniforms return for one more game.

• Dayton scored a very nice victory over a West Virginia club that I expected to make a deep run in the tournament. The Flyers are a dangerous club going forward. Particularly nice for UD coach Brian Gregory, the win occurred in Minneapolis, where plenty of Michigan State’s big boosters were watching before the Spartans’ game Friday night.

Gregory is a former MSU assistant. Now that former co-worker Tom Crean is settled in at Indiana, Gregory is the favorite to replace Tom Izzo when Izzo retires. For the record, we think Izzo will be coaching the Spartans in the 2028 NCAA tournament.

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