Quick note to all those who bought into the season-long hype touting the Big 12 as college basketball’s best conference: Sell. Quickly.
The Big 12 owned Selection Sunday, sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament – tied for tops in the nation. By late Thursday afternoon, that number was nearly halved.
Three Big 12 teams played Thursday. All of them were favored, including No. 11 Texas. And all of them lost. Though a talented group of Longhorns players underachieved this season, what should have made Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby hold his head in shame was watching Iowa State and Baylor both lose to 14th-seeded teams UAB and Georgia State, respectively. The Cyclones and Bears – trendy Final Four picks in some brackets – choked so badly that even Henry Heimlich wouldn’t have been able to help them.
While the Big 12 is hoping for a revival Friday, this year’s tournament is as alive as any after Day 1 of the Round of 64. Five games were decided by one point, the most on any day in tournament history, and as many as the last two tournaments combined. Four double-digit seeds – Ohio State, Georgia State, UAB and UCLA – won their games. UAB and UCLA meet Saturday, guaranteeing that at least one double-digit seed will play in the Sweet 16. The Bruins won on a controversial goaltending call when coach Steve Alford’s son, Bryce, tossed up an ill-advised three. Ohio State/VCU and Cincinnati/Purdue both went to overtime, the latter on a last-second shot by Troy Caupain that hung on the rim for ages. North Carolina was tested by Harvard and Notre Dame survived against Northeastern. And the fine folks in Louisville who ventured to the Yum! Center saw three of four games decided by a point – in the fourth, top-seeded Kentucky hammered No. 16 Hampton by 23.
Can Friday measure up? It’s unlikely. But as Thursday only reinforced for us, the NCAA tournament is nothing if not unpredictable. Friday does present some intriguing storylines. Championship contenders Wisconsin, Duke and Gonzaga open play, and everyone is jumping on the Michigan State bandwagon. They’re led by NBA-bound Branden Dawson and are yet another sneaky good Tom Izzo team with the potential of making a run to the Final Four. Up until he lost in the Elite 8 last year to eventual champion Connecticut, Izzo had taken every four-year player to a Final Four. So the guy knows how to win in March. Pay attention to how the Spartans fair against Georgia. How they start usually indicates the way this team finishes in March. A blowout could spell a deep run for Michigan State.
The Missouri Valley Conference will have a chance to beat its chest when No. 7 Wichita State and No. 5 Northern Iowa play. Both should win, but don’t expect either to make it out of the weekend with potential second-round matchups against Kansas and Louisville looming respectively.
The games to watch Friday will be played in Columbus as part of the Midwest region. No. 13 Valparaiso could win its first tournament game since 1998 when Bryce Drew hit a three – one of the most memorable shots in tournament history – at the buzzer to beat Mississippi. Drew now coaches Valparaiso so we’ll see if he’s as magical in a suit as he was in a tank top. They’ll need whatever advantage they can get against No. 4 Maryland.
In the early game in Columbus, Buffalo is a popular pick to engineer this year’s 12-5 upset. Buffalo, led by former Duke standout Bobby Hurley, faces No. 5 West Virginia. There isn’t much to dislike about West Virginia in this one – except they’re from the Big 12. Can’t overlook that.