NCAA Tournament Round of 32 Preview: Cinderellas, Anteaters and Ja Morant's Security
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Although we haven’t been blessed with any buzzer beaters or meme-worthy moments yet, there have been some head-scratching situations from the No. 1 seeds of the ACC.
First, Virginia avoided a repeat of last year’s unforgettable loss to UMBC when it came back to fend off No. 16 Gardner-Webb. The Cavaliers trailed by as many as 14 points and went into halftime down by six. And this was against a team making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance! Cue the Twitter freak out. Virginia ultimately came back and won, 71-56.
But then Duke and North Carolina pulled somewhat similar stunts. The Blue Devils clung to a 31-27 lead at halftime before dropping 54 points after the break to pull away for an 85-62 win. In their first NCAA tournament games, R.J. Barrett had 26 points and 14 rebounds, while Zion Williamson added 25 points. Later, Iona led UNC 38-33 at halftime before the Tar Heels normalized and sealed an 88-73 win. It helped to have a 52-26 rebounding edge and 48-10 scoring edge in the paint.
The Athletic’s Seth Davis summed up everything about this perfectly.
A conference that didn’t have to be the butt of any jokes Friday was actually the Pac 12. Washington ended Utah State’s 10-game winning streak with a 78-61 victory, which was capped by a thrilling 24-8 run. Noah Dickerson dominated with 20 points and 12 rebounds and the Huskies shot 58.8% from three-point range. Now they’re poised to face North Carolina in the second round.
Elsewhere in the conference, Oregon is surprisingly on a nine-game winning streak after its 72-54 victory over Wisconsin. Payton Pritchard scored 19 points, Kenny Wooten had four blocks and the Ducks shot 70.8% from the field in the second half. They’ll now face No. 13 seed UC Irvine for a spot in the Sweet 16.
And speaking of UC Irvine, the Anteaters (top-three mascot in the tourney?) pulled off the biggest upset so far with a 70-64 win over Big 12 co-champion Kansas State. The Wildcats didn’t have Dean Wade, who was forced to sit out with a foot injury just like last year, and Barry Brown got into foul trouble. Meanwhile, Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard scored 19 points apiece.
Now that the first round is over, we can redirect our attention back to the biggest story thus far: Ja Morant. That’s because Murray State faces long, athletic Florida State in the second round on Saturday. When you see Morant take the court this time, you may notice someone who doesn’t look like a coach running close by. That’s Murray State assistant police chief Jeff Gentry, also known as Morant’s personal security guard. Athletic director Kevin Saal and coach Matt McMahon asked him to chaperon Morant on game days once his celebrity started growing earlier this season.
The issue became the hundreds of fans lining up from the Racers' locker room all the way to the court for photos and autographs after games, and Morant couldn’t handle that on his own. Fans also started showing up to practices on the road. There was a minor incident in Hartford earlier this week when high schoolers started loading the team bus after Murray State practiced in their gym.
“My job is to make sure mainly that Ja gets where he needs to be,” says Gentry, who has been a police officer for more than 20 years. “We’re all a big family. I just want to make sure he has the time of his life while he’s at these games.”
We’ve grown accustomed to high-profile coaches like Nick Saban walking around college football stadiums with his own state trooper. But a mid-major basketball star needing a security detail gives a new meaning to March Madness. – By Laken Litman
• Three of this year's No. 16 seeds gave the best teams in the country a real fight for a half. Is the tide slowly turning? (By Michael Beller)
• Virginia was rewarded with a different result against a No. 16 seed on Friday. (By Jonathan Jones)
• UC Irvine is not your typical Cinderella team. The Anteaters are loaded with experience and NBA legacies. (By Chris Ballard)
• It's been hard for Florida State to focus on its second-round game against Murray State since the death of Phil Cofer's father. (By Laken Litman)
• Tom Izzo berating Aaron Henry has generated reaction on both sides, but the team isn't letting it become a distraction. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Several members of Florida's core credit a constantly running Uno game for the Gators' late-season push. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Basketball photographers have to be a little sharper when Zion is in the building. (By Tim Rohan)
• Wofford’s Fletcher Magee has an uncanny ability to make extremely difficult three-point shots look routine. (By Andy Staples)
Best Thing We Saw
We hope you're all heading into the Round of 32 better than Brutus the Buckeye.
Pick 'Em: Saturday's Slate of Eight
SI's Laken Litman makes her picks for the first day of the Round of 32.
No. 3 LSU over No. 6 Maryland: The Terps will have their hands full with Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, who both had double-doubles against Yale.
No. 2 Kentucky over No. 7 Wofford: If only Zion picked Wofford … then maybe we’d be having a different conversation.
No. 2 Michigan over No. 10 Florida: Charles Matthews had 22 points and 10 rebounds in his best game since returning from injury, which means Michigan is looking like its old self and as dangerous as ever.
No. 12 Murray State over No. 4 Florida State: Murray State has Ja Morant, and Florida State does not.
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 9 Baylor: Baylor is a physical team and just beat Syracuse, but as Zags forward Brandon Clarke said, “I’m not sure how they’re going to guard us." The “us” being the nation’s top-scoring offense which boasts a 1.76 assist-to-turnover ratio.
No. 2 Michigan State over No.10 Minnesota: Nick Ward says he’s starting to feel more like himself after having surgery to repair a hairline fracture in his left hand. This is bad news for Minnesota, considering he dropped 22 points on the Gophers in their last meeting.
No. 3 Purdue over No. 6 Villanova: Now that Carsen Edwards’ sore back is feeling better—he scored 26 points in Purdue’s first-round win over Old Dominion—he’s playing more like the future NBA player he’s projected to be.
No. 4 Kansas over No. 5 Auburn: Kansas big man Dedric Lawson (25 points on 9-of-16 FG shooting, 3-of-5 from three-point range against Northeastern) is going to be a problem for Auburn, who nearly imploded against New Mexico State in the first round.
How is it possible we’ve gone through two of the most exciting days of the NCAA tournament without a buzzer beater? Maybe that moment is waiting for the second round. Maybe it’s waiting for Michigan and Jordan Poole again. It was this game last year that Poole, then a freshman, hit a three at the buzzer to beat Houston and send the Wolverines into the Sweet 16. Michigan fans would prefer to not have that kind of stress, but Florida might push them to it. – By Laken Litman
At the Buzzer
Twitter rightfully went a little nuts while Gardner-Webb held a brief double-digit lead over Virginia. It caused the most ironic kind of déjà vu, and you can’t blame UMBC for getting in on the fun.