So, you say your March Madness bracket is busted? Well, you’re not alone. According to ESPN, by Friday morning, of the 11.57 million fans submitting brackets in the cable network’s “Tournament Challenge,” only 273 participants could claim theirs were still intact. That’s a miniscule .00236 percent of all brackets submitted. But even so, the action Thursday in the first day of the tournament’s “Round of 64” was nothing short of breathtaking. There were five games decided by one point, and dramatic upsets of third seeds Iowa State out of the South region, and Baylor in the West.
For the No. 14 seed Georgia State University Panthers, Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better. It was a scene right out of the 1986 film, "Hoosiers," in which Jimmy Chitwood hits a last-second shot to propel heavy underdog Hickory High School to the 1952 Indiana state championship. With their buzzer-beating 57-56 win over the heavily favored Baylor Bears made possible by Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter’s son R.J. sinking a three-ball launched nearly from half court, the Panthers' coach, who because of an injury was seated on a stool, was so overwhelmed by the moment that he fell to the floor and applauded by slapping the court.
One of his comments during the Panthers’ post-game press conference will no doubt be replayed for years to come: “It’s unbelievable. I wish every dad in America could have that opportunity, what I just experienced with my son.” And as to reinforce just how much his team had to overcome to beat the tall, athletic, and rested Baylor, Hunter added, “I said, ‘Guys, at the end of the day, think about this: They put Baylor up in the Hyatt. They flew in here on a nice charter flight. They put us on a bus and put us in the Holiday Inn, and, guess what? We get to stay another day.’ So we're really excited about that.”
Interestingly, a father-and-son combination winning their first round game as a big underdog during the final seconds has precedent. In the opening round of the 1998 tournament, Homer Drew’s No. 13 seed Valparaiso Crusaders toppled fourth seed Mississippi when his son Bryce sank a dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer.
In this same game, there was another story line straight out of Tinseltown – one no less compelling than the Hunters and their David slaying Goliath. Two years ago, Kevin Ware was a star guard for Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. During the 2013 tournament, which Louisville later won, Ware left a game with a leg injury – one which could have ended his career. However, he worked tirelessly to surmount the considerable challenges he faced, and Thursday returned triumphantly to the tournament as a Georgia State Panther, sporting a big smile and determination that earned him 4 points and 3 assists; but more importantly, the admiration of everyone in the Panthers’ clubhouse. His teammates refused to discuss it, considering the subject off-limits. But after winning their conference tournament, Ware emotionally opened up about it. According to Ron Hunter, “You could almost – from the excitement, and it was so loud in the locker room – to hearing an absolute pin drop when [Ware] talked about that when the guys huddled up.”
The Iowa State Cyclones were ranked ninth in the country. They had just won the Big 12 conference tournament last weekend. They had one of the country’s most talented players and the team’s best scorer in Georges Niang. And many college basketball analysts had picked them to reach Indianapolis for the Final Four next month. Yet the Cyclones couldn’t get enough wind to their backs to overcome the scrappy University of Alabama, Birmingham’s (UAB) Blazers, who won 60-59 in their opening South region game Thursday.
UAB outscored Iowa State, 9-4, in the closing minutes, which included two clutch free-throws by guard William Lee, and a block of a Niang shot by the Blazers’ Tosin Mehinti. Iowa State now becomes the third Big 12 conference team to leave the tournament on the first day – along with No. 3 seed Baylor and 11th-seeded Texas, who lost to No. 6 seed Butler, 56-48.
This is not the first time Iowa State has gone down to a heavy underdog. In 2001, the Cyclones became one of only seven No. 2 seeds since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985 to lose their first game to a No. 15 seed. That was against the Hampton University Pirates, who entered this year’s tournament as a No. 16 seed, with what many would term the “misfortune” of having drawn the Kentucky Wildcats in their second round matchup.
Taken together with other upsets, including the No. 10 seed Ohio State Buckeyes defeating seventh-seeded Virginia Commonwealth University, and No. 11 seed UCLA getting the benefit of a last-second goaltending call to defeat sixth-seeded Southern Methodist University, 60-59, this March Madness tournament has already exceeded even the most robust upset predictions. And, with games in the other half of the 64 team bracket taking place on Friday, it wouldn’t be surprising if David were warming up his slingshot once again.