A riveting opening weekend of the NCAA tournament featured everything from improbable upsets, to jaw-dropping buzzer beaters, to excruciating collapses. Here's a look at the best and worst of the past four days:
PLAYER WHO SHINED IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Every time Miami needed a big play in the opening two rounds, point guard Angel Rodriguez delivered one. He drew a foul and sank two free throws when Buffalo cut the Hurricanes' lead to four in the final two minutes on Thursday. He threw a daring, pinpoint alley-oop pass from mid-court to halt Wichita State's momentum midway through Saturday's second half. And then he put Wichita State away down the stretch, scoring 10 points in the final 2:07, including an off-balance runner and a step-back 3-pointer. Rodriguez averaged 26 points in two games, shot 15-for-26 from the field and got to the foul line 19 times. For a player who can be feast or famine, this was a very timely hot streak.
PLAYER WHO SHRANK IN THE SPOTLIGHT
With starting guards Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird both sidelined due to injury, shorthanded Cal desperately needed a big performance from its most talented perimeter player. To say the least, Jaylen Brown did not deliver. Brown scored four points on 1-for-6 shooting and committed seven costly turnovers against Hawaii's ball-hawking defense in a 77-66 first-round loss. Worse yet, he was in self-induced foul trouble throughout the game and picked up his fifth on a silly reach-in with 6:22 to go. The poor performance was the culmination of a brutal five-game stretch in which Brown went 9-for-48 from the field. The heralded freshman is still a projected top-15 NBA draft pick, but he needs to develop a pull-up jumper and play with more consistency.
CONFERENCE THAT EXCELLED
Of the seven ACC teams that reached the NCAA tournament, only Pittsburgh has been eliminated. The ACC went a remarkable 12-1 in the opening two rounds and sent six teams to the Sweet 16, eclipsing the previous record of five it shared with the Big East. Only the Big 12 and Big Ten produced half as many Sweet 16 teams as the ACC, while the SEC, Big East and Pac-12 tallied just one apiece. Why was the ACC so dominant despite the absence of postseason-ineligible Louisville? It's mostly a testament to the strength of the league's upper tier, however, several ACC teams benefitted from first-round upsets. Syracuse met 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the second round instead of Michigan State, Notre Dame saw 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin instead of West Virginia and Duke drew 12th-seeded Yale instead of Baylor.
CONFERENCE THAT GOT EXPOSED
Of the seven Pac-12 teams that reached the NCAA tournament, only top-seeded Oregon survived the opening weekend. The Ducks rallied from a seven-point second-half deficit against eighth-seeded St. Joseph's to earn a crack at defending national champion Duke in the Sweet 16. It wasn't a dominant showing from Oregon, but its resolve was far more than any other Pac-12 team mustered. Arizona endured its first double-digit loss in more than three years against Wichita State. Shorthanded Cal couldn't overcome a pair of key injuries in a loss to Hawaii. Colorado, USC and Oregon State all suffered opening-round losses too. Utah was the only other Pac-12 team besides Oregon that won its first-round game, and the Utes were run out of the gym in the round of 32 by Gonzaga.
MOST SURPRISING SWEET 16 TEAM
The two strongest victories Gonzaga has this season both came in the NCAA tournament. The Zags first dispatched a sixth-seeded Seton Hall team that had won 12 of its previous 14 and captured the Big East tournament title. Then they ousted a third-seeded Utah team that had won 10 of its previous 11 to crack the top 15 in the polls. How did Gonzaga achieve that after a regular season so disappointing the Zags needed to win the WCC tournament to secure an NCAA bid? Improved guard play is a huge factor. The Gonzaga backcourt is complementing Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis with better decision making, outside shooting and perimeter defense.
MOST DISAPPOINTING EARLY EXIT
Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State entered with the second-lowest odds to capture the national title. Conference USA runner-up Middle Tennessee entered without a single win against a top-100 opponent in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. There was no reason to believe an upset was possible in their first-round game on Friday until the Blue Raiders jumped all over the Spartans. Middle Tennessee's 90-81 victory may be the biggest first-round upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. Of the seven previous No. 2 seeds who lost to No. 15s, none were more deserving of a No. 1 seed, none were considered such strong championship contenders and none were led by a seven-time Final Four coach known in some circles as "Mr. March." To Michigan State's anguish, Middle Tennessee plummeted back to Earth two days later. The Blue Raiders shot 29.7 percent and fell 75-50 to Syracuse.
MOST INTRIGUING SWEET 16 MATCHUP
From Maryland coach Mark Turgeon facing his alma mater, to the contrast in styles between Virginia and Iowa State, this week's Sweet 16 will feature plenty of compelling matchups. The best of all may be the star-studded, talent-laden showdown between ACC champion North Carolina and Big Ten champion Indiana. The two blue bloods advanced to the second weekend in highly impressive fashion, the Tar Heels pulling away from Providence and the Hoosiers outlasting regional rival Kentucky. Indiana has the perimeter firepower to test North Carolina's sometimes-erratic defense, but the Hoosiers may have a hard time keeping Brice Johnson and the rest of the Tar Heels off the offensive glass.
One defensive stop was all 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin needed to become the latest fairytale Sweet 16 team. Instead a previously scoreless Notre Dame freshman derailed the Lumberjacks' pumpkin-carriage ride to the NCAA tournament's second weekend. Rex Pflueger scored the biggest basket of his career on Sunday afternoon, a go-ahead tip-in with 1.5 seconds left to lift the sixth-seeded Irish to a thrilling 76-75 second-round victory. The shot provided the fourth lead change of the final seven minutes and capped a game rife with big shots and compelling personalities. The outcome was heartbreaking for a Stephen F. Austin team that led by five with 90 seconds to go. The Lumberjacks could have joined 2013 Florida Gulf Coast (15 seed), 1997 Chattanooga (14 seed) and 1986 Cleveland State (14 seed) as the highest seeds ever to make the Sweet 16.
In retrospect, you can bet CBS wishes it hadn't put Villanova's second-round game against Iowa into a stand-alone time slot. It was a lot to ask of a national TV audience to sit through a matchup this one-sided. Villanova advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009 with a dominant 87-68 victory over an Iowa team in the midst of a late-season implosion. The Wildcats led by 25 at halftime and by as many as 34 in the opening minutes of the second half before showing mercy and easing their foot off the gas pedal. Seeing if Villanova could avoid a third-straight second-round exit should have been compelling, but the Wildcats drained all drama from the game with their aggressive defense and lethal 3-point shooting. By the opening minutes of the second half, all but the most hardcore Villanova fans had surely lost interest.
This weekend's most incredible buzzer-beater will be a March staple for many, many years to come. Northern Iowa's Paul Jesperson caught an inbound pass at his own 3-point arc, dribbled around a Texas defender and banked in a tie-breaking half-court shot as time expired to give the 11th-seeded Panthers a 75-72 first-round victory. It was Northern Iowa's second consecutive buzzer-beating victory. The Panthers clinched an NCAA tournament bid in the Missouri Valley title game earlier this month on a Wes Washpun jumper that bounced high off the back rim and fell through.
The same Northern Iowa team that engineered those two classic finishes, also authored a heartbreaking collapse that rivals any in NCAA tournament history. The Panthers squandered a seemingly insurmountable 12-point lead against third-seeded Texas A&M in less than 40 seconds and then lost 92-88 in double overtime. In the span of 31 excruciating seconds at the end of regulation, Northern Iowa surrendered 14 points, committed a bone-headed foul and turned the ball over four times. The most critical blunder came in the final seconds when guard Wes Washpun got trapped in the corner and tried to throw it off Texas A&M's Admon Gilder, who instead stole the ball and drove for a game-tying layup.
MOST MEMORABLE FINISH (NON-NORTHERN IOWA DIVISION)
When Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig buried an off-balance 3-pointer to tie the game with 12 seconds to go, the Badgers would have gladly accepted overtime. Somehow, they did even better than that. After Zak Showalter drew a charge with 4.3 seconds left, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard made a controversial decision to have his team sprint up court and call timeout once it crossed the mid-court stripe. Organizing a set play paid off as Koenig got the inbound pass in front of his own bench and buried a fallaway 3-pointer, sending the jubilant Badgers to a fifth Sweet 16 in the past six seasons.
BEST NEWS CONFERENCE MOMENT
"You go up and grab the ball off the rim when it comes off and then you grab it with two hands, and you come down with it, and that's considered a rebound. So they got more of those than we did." — Taurean Prince's hilarious deadpanned response to a reporter's oddly incredulous question about how Yale outrebound Baylor in the Bulldogs' opening-round upset. The Bears were the third-ranked team in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, but Yale is top 10 in offensive and defensive rebounding.
WORST NEWS CONFERENCE MOMENT
Seniors crying at the podium after their last college game is an annual rite of March, but Northern Iowa's news conference after the Texas A&M loss was especially gut-wrenching. Paul Jesperson buried his head in his hands. Matt Bohannon sobbed uncontrollably. Wes Washpun stared straight ahead blankly as though still in shock. Credit Northern Iowa's three seniors for enduring that, however, because it could not have been easy to face those questions after blowing a 12-point lead in less than 40 seconds. Cam Newton could learn from the Northern Iowa's example. Many other highly paid professional athletes could too.
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