The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is the best four days in sports. You can usually open a window as spring starts, there’s games for over 13 hours, and you are essentially guaranteed something that lends credence to the name “Madness.” We gather at Banners Central, fire up the big screen, make a ton of food, and set up camp. It’s absolutely a fantastic way to ring in spring (and a great use of vacation days).
Obviously, most of our attention was focused on Xavier this year. The Musketeers were back in the Dance for the first time since 2018 and, briefly, appeared as if that stay would be a short one. X battled back, though, and went on a 15-0 run to dispatch Kennesaw State. The next game they roared out of the traps and, behind the sharpshooting of the only guy to solve the Greensboro rims, Adam Kunkel, buried Pitt early and held on to win late. Xavier making the Sweet 16 made the first four days even better, but it was hardly the only story.
Fairleigh Dickinson makes history
UMBC had long been the only 16 to defeat a 1. That Retrievers team beat a wounded Virginia squad that did the things that can leave an underdog in the game. Purdue wasn’t that team. The Boilermakers were healthy, heavy favorites, and had the likely national player of the year in Zach Edey. They were also playing the shortest team in DI. Surely, this was not a game where an upset was even mildly possible.
Enter Matt Painter. Painter put together a good roster, but he got absolutely schooled in this game by FDU coach Tobin Anderson. Anderson ran his roster of height-challenged ballers at Edey in waves, at times triple teaming him. Anderson also applied relentless ball pressure that led Purdue into a 25% turnover rate. His gamble? That Purdue’s shooters wouldn’t have the discipline to feed Edey the ball on the repost and that the shots wouldn’t fall. That, of course, was contingent upon Matt Painter standing there like a square headed department store mannequin. Painter did, watching in horror as his team went 5-26 behind the arc. Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer, and Mason Gillis all shot as much as Edey, who was 7-11. The other three went 8-31 as Painter got a great view of history.
Princeton makes the Sweet 16
Princeton came out and absolutely stunned Arizona on the back of a performance that was, itself, stunning. The Tigers didn’t shoot well, they made only 4-25 threes, they only took five free throws, and they had nine assists on 26 made field goals. They did just enough on defense to somehow make those numbers count, Arizona also shot horribly and a trendy final four pick was done.
The Tigers then doubled down and flat out hammered Missouri on Saturday. In this game the shots were falling, the ball was moving, and the Tigers from the west had no idea what hit them. Dennis Gates had done a great job with his team, but they were down 14 in the first half and never got D’Moi Hodge going. Princeton’s defense was suffocating. They get heavily favored Creighton next, but it’s hard to imagine the Bluejays taking them lightly.
That Providence bowed out in the front row was no surprise to anyone familiar with the March stylings of Ed Cooley. The Friars have a habit of making the tournament and then promptly heading home. What doesn’t usually play out is a protracted will he won’t he battle over where Cooley will lead to mediocrity next. Georgetown wants him, Providence wants him to stay, and Cooley doesn’t seem to know what he wants. All of this is both very ugly and very public.
You can’t have a tournament without someone making a heroic shot. Furman and JP Pegues were first on the board. Furman had given Virginia a run, but the Hoos looked to have salted the game away with a 7-0 run very, very late in the game. Kihei Clark went one for two at the line to stake UVa to a four point lead with 19 seconds to play, but an inexplicable foul meant Virginia had to inbound one final time up two. Clark caught the ball 90 feet from the bucket, got trapped, and, with a timeout remaining, simply threw the ball. That’s not a typo. He, in the vernacular of today’s youth, just yeeted the ball toward half court. Furman’s Garret Hein was waiting, he found JP Pegues, and Pegues did what every kid dreams.
TCU maybe shouldn’t have been in a tight one against Arizona State, but they were. Mike Miles Jr had been relentlessly attacking a two man hedge action in the back court, but he was looking fatigued as the teams traded blows late in the game. Twice he had passed out of the trap to JaKobe Coles who had, twice, taken shots best consigned to the scrap heap of history. Miles was left with the option of doing it on his own.
Until the last possession. With time running out, Miles once again got trapped and this time he had to give the ball up. There, zero for his last two and proud owner of a backboard ball, was Coles. This time Coles put the ball on the deck and raced for the rim. With a second left, his runner in the lane put TCU in the lead and demonstrated that every big man doesn’t have to be pick and pop.
The Sweet 16 awaits. It will be another great weekend of games that will end with the Final Four packing their bags for Houston. The only way it can possibly top the best four days in sports, though, is if Xavier is still alive come this time next week. The first weekend always delivers.
You know what else delivers? T shirts. That’s why I have two drawers full of them. Grab one from Breaking T to commemorate Xavier’s return to the Big Dance.