NCAA bracket busters and the Sweet 16

A historic weekend in the NCAA men's basketball tournament saw more than its share of momentous upsets, shattering both convention and fans' brackets. The 'Sweet 16,' featuring the sixteen remaining teams, begins March 22nd.

By , Contributor

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    Kansas' Elijah Johnson (15) drives around Prudue's Terone Johnson in their NCAA tournament third-round college basketball game at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., Sunday, March 18. Kansas won 63-60.
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Are your brackets officially busted? If so, you're not alone. But if you’re a college basketball fan, Friday night’s action in the NCAA men’s tournament was must-see television. Thursday provided few surprises, but Friday’s games were nothing if not bracket busters. The upstart lower seeds got into the action in a big way – first with the fifteenth-seed Norfolk State University Spartans devastating number two-seed Missouri 86-84 in their West regional second round game.

About two hours later, No. 2 seed Duke fell to Lehigh University 75-70 in the second round of the South regional. Not to be outdone, thirteen-seeded Mid-American Conference champion Ohio University outplayed a taller and more athletic Michigan squad, winning 65-60 in their opening Midwest regional action.

Iowa State’s defeat at the hands of Hampton University in 2001 was the last time a fifteen-seed had beaten a two; but this day provided two within as many hours. But as for the tournament as a whole, Friday capped off an historic day in college basketball in that for the first time in tournament history, nine double-digit seeds advanced to the third round.

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Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, the Patriot League player of the year, had 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in their victory over the Blue Devils, and in the process gained respect and praise from Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He was the best player on the court today,” Krzyzewski said. “He was their conference player of the year, and he's really been one of the outstanding players in the country. That kid is really good.”

Some have suggested that heavily-favored teams such as Duke were at a disadvantage because they lacked scouting reports on the lower seeds. This is preposterous. For one thing, it takes due credit away from those mid-majors, who obviously played inspired, tireless basketball. It also falsely suggests that a multi-million dollar athletic program has no ability to scout out and research another team in three days. Let’s understand this – Duke, Missouri and Michigan were clearly outplayed from start to finish. Certainly it’s disappointing for them; but this shouldn’t take away from the remarkable achievements of Lehigh, Norfolk State and Ohio.

At Norfolk State, a historically-black college in Norfolk, Virginia, fans gathering in the university’s gym to watch the game exploded with jubilation and tears when Missouri guard Phil Pressey’s three-point attempt grazed harmlessly off the rim in the final seconds to give the Spartans the win. Norfolk State, led by forward Kyle O’Quinn’s 26 points and 14 rebounds, shot a remarkable 54 percent from the field to Missouri’s 52 percent.

Ohio was just as resilient against Michigan’s standout Big Ten players Tim Hardaway Jr., Zack Novak and Stu Douglas. Ohio didn’t go away the entire game, with the lead changing hands numerous times. But in the end, it was Ohio’s guard Walter Offutt who played beyond himself and was the game-changer. Offutt, who arrived at Ohio via Wright State University, scrambled for a loose ball, was fouled by the Wolverines’ Evan Smotrycz and icily swished two free throws with 6.8 seconds remaining in the game to preserve the upset for Ohio.   

Virginia Commonwealth’s glass slipper shattered on Saturday, with a loss to Indiana, 63-61. But it took the Hoosiers all forty minutes to get there. At one point, VCU led, 57-48; but at the right moment, Indiana got the defense working and held the Rams to four points in the last twelve and a half minutes. And even so, the Hoosiers had to hold their breath while Rob Brandenburg, one of VCU’s deadly three-point shooters, missed an absolutely perfect look in the final seconds to get Indiana to the Sweet 16.

On Sunday, eleventh-seeded North Carolina State stunned three-seed Georgetown, 66-63 in their second-round Midwest regional clash. Forwards C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, and Scott Wood let the Wolfpack with solid scoring at the post, while their shooters were hitting 47% of their three-point shots. The Hoyas haven’t gotten past the first two rounds since 2007, while North Carolina State is in its first Sweet 16 since standout Julius Hodge led the Wolfpack there in 2005.

The tournament's top seeds, North Carolina, Syracuse, Michigan State and Kentucky, all handily advanced to the round of 16. The only other near-surprise of the weekend involved tenth-seed Purdue and the second-seed Kansas Jayhawks. The Boilermakers held a slender lead of 60-59 in the last minute, when Purdue guard Lewis Jackson lost the ball at the top of the key. Kansas defender Elijah Johnson picked it up and returned it to the other end of the court for the score, insuring that Kansas would advance to the next round.

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