Last night, Shaka Smart proved why he is among the best, yet inexplicably unheralded coaches in Division 1 men’s basketball. His team, the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, shrugged off a twelve-seed in the South region of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to defeat the heavily favored fifth-seeded Wichita State Shockers, 62-59.
It was arguably the most exciting ending of any of Thursday’s sixteen opening round games. With Virginia Commonwealth up by one point, 60-59 with both the ball and 18 seconds on the clock, VCU point guard Darius Theus bolted down from the top of the key and tossed up a rainbow – which hit the back of the iron, banked lightly off the backboard, and landed softly in the bucket. After a timeout, and with under ten seconds remaining, Wichita State’s outstanding 7-foot center Garrett Stutz bobbled the ball, jumped back behind the 3-point line, and tossed up a prayer, which harmlessly clanked off the right side of the rim.
Virginia Commonwealth and their coach are used to bracket busting. In the 2007 tournament, they had an emotional opening round win over ACC Goliath Duke, and last year, they rather comfortably beat a powerful Kansas team in the Midwest regional final to advance to the Final Four. But VCU’s getting to Portland, Oregon for this first round matchup was no less remarkable a feat. They previously battled through the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to defeat top-seeded Drexel University and effectively knock them out of the tournament. On Saturday, VCU will face Indiana University, which defeated New Mexico State University in their first round contest.
In other action yesterday, ninth-seeded Connecticut and ten-seed West Virginia were quickly and resoundingly eliminated – UConn by double-digits to a very fast and athletic Iowa State squad, and West Virginia lost by 23 points, 77-54, to a Gonzaga team that crossed the country to play in what is basically WVU’s backyard in Pittsburgh. Both of these lackluster games should give the NCAA pause over the questionable selection of these two mediocre Big East squads. But there was nothing lackluster about overall top-seed Kentucky, who romped over sixteen-seeded Western Kentucky in the opening round of the South region, 81-66. The Hilltoppers kept it close for much of the first half, but the Wildcats’ size and speed were simply too much to keep up with for 40 minutes.
East regional top-seed Syracuse found out just how much it misses center Fab Melo as the Orangemen, down 34-30 at the half against a motivated sixteen-seeded University of North Carolina-Asheville, outlasted the Bulldogs, 72-65, to reach Saturday’s second round against Kansas State University, who defeated Southern Mississippi, 70-64. Coach Jim Boeheim, who won't specify the nature of Melo's inelegibility for the tournament, has insisted that Melo hasn't let the team down, but one cannot help but think that Syracuse's task of reaching the Final Four is a daunting one.
Tonight’s tournament action features two more top-seeds in action: North Carolina, who plays upset-minded Vermont in the Midwest, and Michigan State, who will face number sixteen-seed Long Island University-Brooklyn in the West. But one of the more intriguing games will feature veteran coach Rick Majerus’s number eight-seed Saint Louis University versus Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers. Majerus, who was an outstanding coach at Ball State and Utah before assuming his present role with the Billikens, has rescued that school’s program from its more recent doldrums. And Pastner has brought a skilled Tigers squad to the tournament for the first time since John Calipari left that team in disarray and confusion after leaving for Kentucky in April of 2009.
Another game that shouldn’t be missed is the tenth-seeded University of Virginia Cavaliers against seven-seed Florida. Florida’s offense is remarkable: they score 76 points per game and rank first nationally with ten 3-pointers made per contest. Virginia is about tough half-court defense, and they will seek to slow down this quick Florida team and cut into the Gators’ perimeter game. It’s their best hope of coming out with a “w." Strong offense versus equally impressive defense usually produces memorable outcomes.
Notre Dame and Xavier play tonight in a South region opener, and it looks to be one of the best opportunities for Notre Dame to advance that they’ve had in several years. Head coach Mike Brey took the seventh-seeded Irish to a 13-5 record in the Big East while fighting through injuries to key players. Tenth-seeded Xavier, for its part, while gaining an at-large bid, lost its Atlantic 10 championship game to St. Bonaventure (playing in the East regional), who hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament for a dozen years. But regardless, this looks to be a very closely-matched pairing that will feature both solid outside shooting and contentious battling in the post. Highly competitive games like these are manna for "March Madness" fanatics and make the tournament so much fun for even casual college basketball spectators to follow.