The first round (technically the second, if you consider the first four "play-in" games) of the 2016 NCAA men's basketball tournament was exciting from the very start with a big tree almost felled. Fourth-seeded Duke needed most of their game to outlast Colonial Athletic Association champion UNC Wilmington, 93-85, in their West regional opener. Duke has been known in the past to have opening round jitters, having lost to 14th seed Mercer University (2014) and 15th seed Lehigh University (2012).
Traditionally, fifth seeds facing 12 seeds have produced numerous upsets. Since 1985, when the NCAA men's basketball tournament went to 64 teams (it's now 68 with the "play-in" games), there have been 46 12-seed teams that have defeated five seeds. On this day, there were two. Feisty 12th-seeded University of Arkansas-Little Rock took out fifth-seeded Purdue, 85-83, in two overtime periods to advance in the Midwest region. Meanwhile, the Ivy League champion Yale University Bulldogs, making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1962, earned their first-ever tournament win, beating back a furious last-minute run by No. 5 Baylor, 79-75, in the West region's opening bracket.
Three games featuring eight versus nine seeds produced "mini" upsets—the No. 9 University of Connecticut Huskies besting the eighth-seeded Colorado Buffaloes, 74-67, in the South region's opening round. Later Thursday evening, the ninth-seeded Providence College Friars edged the No. 8 Trojans of the University of Southern California, 70-69, in their East region contest. And in the Midwest, the ninth-seeded Butler Bulldogs handily defeated No. 8 Texas Tech, 71-61.
The later evening featured the improbable demolition of the sixth seed Arizona Wildcats by the eleven-seeded Wichita State Wheat Shockers, 65-55, in their South regional opening match. Wichita State's smothering defense forced 19 Wildcat turnovers, while only surrendering five of their own. In fact, Wichita State has allowed its opponents only 59 points a game for the season (an NCAA best). The veteran tandem of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet – now supplemented by the athletic playmaking of two sophomores, Shaquille Morris and Rashard Kelly – has been instrumental in the Shockers' recent tournament success (they reached the Final Four in 2013). Now, maybe (finally) the NCAA selection committee will realize that the Shockers deserve to be ranked a little higher in the seeding process when March rolls around.
The same also could be said for the Midwest region's 11-seed, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who powered their way to a 68-52 win over the sixth-seeded Seton Hall Pirates. Seton Hall basically fell apart, hitting only 20 of 62 field goals, while making only 38 percent of their free throws, and a horrific 19 percent of their three-pointers. Appearing unruffled and poised throughout, Mark Few's Bulldogs, co-champion of the West Coast Conference, have worn Cinderella's slipper numerous times in past tournaments, and now advance to the second round against the third seed Utah Utes, who coasted to an 80-69 win over Fresno State.
In other games that more-or-less fulfilled expectations, tournament overall No. 1 seed Kansas rolled to a 105-79 win over Austin Peay, and the No. 3 University of Miami Hurricanes survived a challenge by 14 seed Buffalo, 79-72, in the South. In the East, the top-seeded University of North Carolina Tar Heels defeated a previous tournament "Cinderella," No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast University, 83-67. Fourth seed Kentucky and No. 5 Indiana had no trouble with, respectively, 13 seed Stony Brook (85-57) and No. 12 Chattanooga (99-74). In the Midwest, No. 1 Virginia demolished the 16 seed Hampton Pirates, 81-45, and the fourth seed Iowa State Cyclones rolled over 13th-seeded Iona, 94-81.
Friday's action features the other half of the 64-team field's opening round and is being televised on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV.