By Hank Duncan
The first round of the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament had no buzzer beaters. There were no crazy upsets. Yes, there were close finishes, but nothing extraordinary. The best two finishes in the first round showed what happens when that buzzer beater doesn’t fall.
The closest we came to one of those perpetual buzzer beaters we would see in “One Shining Moment” for years to come was when Princeton almost upset Notre Dame. However, despite the hope from millions of fans for their last second three-point shot to fall, it hit the back of the rim and clanged away.
One storyline that the public latched onto was the Northwestern Wildcats reaching their first ever NCAA Tournament. This team became the darling of the tournament before it even began. With about 30 seconds left in their first round game against Vanderbilt, Northwestern was up by one point. Vanderbilt had the ball and drove to the basket for a layup. Vanderbilt 63 Northwestern 62. With 15 seconds left in the game, as Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh dribbled up the court preparing for the last possession of the game, something inexplicable happened. Vanderbilt’s Fisher-Davis fouled him. He thought Vanderbilt was down one, not up one. He quickly realized his mistake, but it was too late.
McIntosh calmly strolled to the free throw line, where he drained both free throws. But Vandy still had one more chance to redeem themselves. Again down one point, they took a three pointer at the buzzer, but just like Princeton’s shot, it clanged off the rim. The story of Northwestern would live to fight another day.
After only eight upsets in the first round according to Ken Pom, fans began to think that this year’s March Madness was a lot of March with just a little Madness. Boy, were we wrong. The second round provided us with games we will never forget.
Villanova came in as the most dominant team in college basketball over the last 365 days. The last defending national champion to earn the number one overall seed the following year won the championship again. But Wisconsin had other plans. This game had “potential upset” written all over it. Wisconsin has perhaps the most experience out of any team in the country. They start two seniors in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, whom have been to two final fours. To complement these nationally renowned players, The Badgers have First Team All Big Ten center Ethan Happ down low. Despite Villanova’s dominance over college basketball for the past year, Wisconsin prevailed.
As a University of Louisville fan with my dad and uncle as University of Kentucky fans, there was no choice but to travel to Indianapolis to see both teams play. The atmosphere around Banker’s Life Fieldhouse was electric. You could see crowds of Kentucky fans mixed in with the red from Louisville fans with a smattering of maize and blue from the Michigan fans. It felt like a Final Four. If the NCAA decided to put these games in Lucas Oil Stadium, I have no doubt that more than 35,000 people would have come to see these two games.
The first game on the docket, Louisville vs. Michigan, was a game I will never forget. Louisville knew that D.J. Wilson and Derrick Walton Jr. had been scorching teams leading up to the game, so the Cards put pressure on them and held those two players to 9-26 shooting. The Cards seemed to dominate the entire first half, but Michigan would not go away. Moritz Wagner, the seven-foot monster for Michigan, terrorized the Cards. Throughout the season, Louisville’s advantage was their length. Starting three players taller than 6’7” with two seven-footers on the bench, they could beat almost any team inside. However, Mo Wagner didn’t get that message. He finished with a career high 26 points on 11-14 from the field. The dominance from Wagner was unstoppable. Louisville put different players on him to try and stop him, but nothing worked. As a result, Michigan came back and won 73-69.
Now it was time for the game between Kentucky and Wichita State. Even as a somewhat neutral supporter (of course I cheered for Wichita), the game lived up to its hype. Wichita was the team that every expert pointed to when they talked about mis-seeded teams. Despite their 10 seed, Wichita boasted the fifth best Ken Pom ranking in the country. Considertheir undefeated record since February as well, and it’s clear this was no 10 seed. Both teams traded punches throughout the entire game. At the end of an ugly first half, UK held the lead at 26-24. However, as soon as the second half started, both teams turned into offensive machines. In the first four minutes of the second half, both teams scored at least 14 points. As Kentucky pulled away, the Big Blue Nation crowd continually erupted in cheers when anything remotely good happened. But Wichita wasn’t finished yet. After the under-four minute TV timeout, Wichita came back from down 58-51 to get within a single point after a 3pt shot from Landry Shamet made it a 63-62 game. As the Shockers kept attempting to make a play, it was the defense of the Cats that carried them to the victory. Two blocks from Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo sealed it for Kentucky as they won 65-62.
After those games, my body couldn’t take anymore basketball for the day. I fell asleep at 8:30 in the evening and didn’t wake up until the morning. But the madness didn’t stop until late into the night. Duke, the betting favorite to win the National Title, was shockingly upset by South Carolina. The Gamecocks had not won an NCAA Tournament game in 30 years before last week. In a span of two days, they beat Marquette and Duke, arguably one of the favorites to win it all.
As I got back into my weekly routine, I did not think about much basketball. With Indiana University searching for a new coach and Louisville now out, my thoughts were anywhere but the NCAA Tournament. But last night, everything changed.
Three of the games were classics. Gonzaga and West Virginia fought with defense and grit, ending in a slim Gonzaga victory. Michigan tried to keep their legendary story alive. I honestly thought Michigan, the way they had been playing, could win the National Championship. Derrick Walton Jr. had an open shot to beat Oregon last night. Down 69-68 with the clock winding down, Walton stepped into his defender, which caused the defender to fall away and open up space for the shot. Walton stepped back for the open 3pt shot. Any team who had played Michigan in the last two weeks would have thought that he would surely drain the shot. Of course, he had drained almost every other open three since their run began. However, the shot defied odds. It failed to fall, and the Oregon Ducks are now moving on to play Kansas.
The third classic game of the night was Xavier vs. Arizona. Xavier, who had lost six of their last eight games heading into the NCAA Tourney, somehow got momentum and beat Maryland and Florida State to move to the second weekend. Arizona, the regular season Pac 12 champions, beat North Dakota and a tough St. Mary’s team to move to the Sweet Sixteen. Leading up to this matchup, the numbers favored Arizona, but it was close enough to provide some uncertainty. Ken Pom ranked Arizona as the 20th best team and Xavier as the 40th best team in the nation. Arizona took an eight point lead with 3:45 left in the game, but Trevon Blueitt asserted his dominance as Xavier charged back and took a 73-71 lead with 23 seconds left. Alonzo Trier and Arizona had one more chance to make a mark on the tournament. Trier shot a three with just a couple of seconds left, but like all other potential buzzer beaters this March, it failed to go in. Xavier, an 11 seed, is moving on to the Elite Eight with a wave of momentum behind them.
After a relatively slow start to the NCAA Tournament, the madness has finally arrived. Despite not a single buzzer beater yet, the quality of games may be some of the best we have seen in years. With four more great games tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised if the drought of buzzer beaters ends, and one team finally makes one of those last-second shots we will remember for decades.
*Stats courtesy of ESPN & Kenpom.com
*Video courtesy of NCAA