Sixty-one games played, three to go

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is becoming one of the most popular sporting events in the nation. The Super Bowl is still in first place, but it seems that March Madness has surpassed the World Series for the number-two spot. This year’s tournament has unfolded with dozens of close games, but very few upsets.

It started with 65 teams and is now down to only four. Sixty-one games have been played and 61 teams have seen their hopes and dreams shattered with a loss. Up to this point, there have only been four major upsets, defined as the winning team being three or more seeds lower than their opponent. The first round saw two of these upsets, with the 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) upsetting the sixth-seeded Duke, and 11th seed Winthrop beating sixth-seeded Notre Dame.
Duke limped into March after an uncharacteristically disappointing regular season in which Duke finished tied for sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. VCU guard Eric Maynor hit a jumper with 1.8 seconds left to give the Rams the win over Duke at 79–77. Duke’s impressive string of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances was snapped as they lost in the first round for the first time since 1996.

Winthrop plays in the Big South Conference, so they don’t get much publicity, but they quietly put together a great regular season and were ranked 21st overall in the latest USA Today/ESPN poll, so their 74–64 victory over the Fighting Irish wasn’t surprising.

In the second round, we saw two more upsets, with seventh seed University of Nevada–Las Vegas (UNLV) defeating the second seed Wisconsin 74–68, and sixth seed Vanderbilt beating third seed Washington State 78–74 in double overtime. UNLV took advantage of the fact that the Badgers were playing without starting center Brian Butch, who dislocated his elbow in a scary fall in a game a month ago. His presence was obviously missed due to their early exit and the fact that they almost lost their first round game against the 15th-seeded Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Wisconsin found themselves down by 18 points before they regained their composure to win 76–63.

The game between Vanderbilt and Washington State was an instant classic and the only game in the tournament to go into double overtime. Vanderbilt, behind Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Derrick Byars’ 27 points, had a chance to win the game in regulation but his shot was blocked. Then, in the first overtime, Byars returned the favor by blocking the potential game-winning layup with less than 10 seconds left.

Although all four number-one seeds, three two seeds, and a three seed made it into the Elite Eight, do not be led to the false conclusion that there isn’t parity in college basketball. All eight of the teams that made the Elite Eight had close calls in their first three victories.

Florida had its hands full with two Indiana teams, Purdue and Butler. Oregon narrowly edged the 14th seed, Miami (Ohio), in the first round and UNLV in the Sweet 16. Kansas beat Southern Illinois by only three, and UCLA had to survive a late scare from Indiana in the second round.

North Carolina won its three games by 10 points or more, but Michigan State and USC proved to be worthy opponents. Georgetown rallied to beat Boston College in the second round and then defeated Vanderbilt on a last-second shot from Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green.

Ohio State had the most improbable run of any team in the tournament, snatching victory from the clutches of defeat twice, against Xavier in the second round and Tennessee in the Sweet 16. Ohio State rallied from 11 points down against Xavier, capped off by a long three-pointer with two seconds left by Ron Lewis to force overtime.

The Buckeyes then went on to defeat the Musketeers 78–71. Ohio State needed to rally again against Tennessee, as it found itself down 49–29 right before halftime. The Buckeyes pulled through as first-year guard Mike Conley Jr. made one of two free throws with 6.5 seconds left to put Ohio State up 85–84. Tennessee’s Ramar Smith dribbled the length of the court and put up the potential game-winning shot as time expired, only to have first-year center and potential first-round NBA draft pick Greg Oden swat the ball out of bounds, sealing the victory.

The last Elite Eight team was Memphis, who defied the odds in their win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. Down by one with 3.1 seconds left, Antonio Anderson had two free throw attempts. He had missed his previous three free throws; Memphis was one of the nation’s worst free-throw-shooting teams. So naturally Anderson sank both shots to put Memphis in front 65–64 and give them the win after Texas A&M’s buzzer-beater shot was woefully short.

The selection committee did a good job setting up the bracket this year. The games have been exciting as ever, even despite the fact that there isn’t a George Mason of this year’s tournament. The two Final Four games will be Saturday, with the championship on Monday, April 2. If this trend of close games continues, expect some last-second heroics before the national champion is crowned.