Head coach Tom Brennan’s tearful smile said it all.
His No. 13 seed, the Catamounts of Vermont University, who had never defeated a ranked opponent in their 105-year history, had just shocked fourth-seeded Syracuse 60-57 in an overtime thriller Saturday night. It was the school’s biggest win and first ever in NCAA tournament action. To add to the drama, the win came in what might have been the last game as head coach for Brennan, who will be retiring at season’s end after 19 years at Vermont.
“There’s no drug, nothing in the world that is that feeling,” an emotional Brennan said. “There is nothing that can make you feel like that.”
Except, of course, the NCAA Tournament.
Welcome to March Madness, where talent, prior success and everything else that usually applies in sports is cast aside and the impossible becomes not only possible, but expected. At this time of year, no team is ever a lock to win and no lead is ever safe.
Every game comes down to the wire and unlikely heroes emerge out of nowhere. That’s the nature – and magic – of the Big Dance. With a 64-team field being whittled down to 16 based on the basis of one-game elimination in a single weekend, once the underdog darlings are unleashed, there is really no limit to the potential excitement.
The Catamounts haven’t been the only unlikely Cinderella to topple an overwhelmingly favored juggernaut in the tournament to this point. In fact, just eight of the top 16 teams have survived the first two rounds.
In what was the most shocking upset yet, the Bison of Bucknell University, a No. 14 seed hailing from the meager Patriot League, stunned third-seeded Kansas 64-63 Friday night for the first NCAA Tournament victory in the school’s 110-year history. For a better idea of just how unlikely the win was, no Patriot League representative had ever won an NCAA Tournament game, while the Jawhawks were pegged by many experts as the tournament favorites in the preseason.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee took this year’s honors of being the traditional No. 12 seed to knock off a fifth-seed on Thursday with their 83-73 upset over Alabama. The Panthers took things one step further, knocking off fourth-seeded Boston College 83-75 to become just the fifth 12th-seeded team to reach the Sweet 16.
Perhaps the biggest bracket-breaker, and certainly the most thrilling game of the tournament to this point, was seventh-seeded West Virginia’s 111-105 double-overtime toppling of No. 2 seed Wake Forest. The Mountaineers tore through a 13-point halftime deficit and jumped out early in the both overtime periods to bounce out the Demon Deacons, who were ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation for two weeks earlier in the season and were my own personal pick to win it all.
That wasn’t all. The defending champion and second-seeded UConn Huskies are out of play after being edged out in the second round 65-62 by No. 10 seed NC State on Sunday, and a pair of No. 3 seeds, Gonzaga and Oklahoma, have been ousted.
Action resumes on Thursday and Friday, when the remaining 16 teams will be whittled down to the Elite Eight.
The most star-studded matchup this round will be third-seeded Arizona versus second-seeded Oklahoma State. The Wildcats looked impressive in their 85-63 trouncing of UAB on Saturday, while the Cowboys, who boast one of the most talented squads in the nation, appeared shaky at times without point guard John Lucas Jr. on the court in their 85-77 win over Southern Illinois. The deciding factor in this game may be whether or not the Cowboys’ defensive specialist Daniel Bobik can keep up with Arizona’s sharpshooter Salim Stoudamire.
No. 1 seeded powerhouse North Carolina will face fifth-seeded Villanova, one of the only teams in the nation with enough potential offensive firepower to match the Tar Heels. If Raymond Felton does not hold strong as the floor leader, like in Carolina’s 71-70 loss to Duke earlier in the year, the Tar Heels could set themselves up for a potential upset against such a capable Wildcats’ squad.
Similarly, Duke could find themselves in a heap of trouble against fifth-ranked Michigan State if Sheldon Williams cannot keep himself out of foul trouble. With an undersized team and a great lack of depth, Williams is the Blue Devils’ only chance at containing Michigan State’s powerful center Paul Davis.
Utah does not look like a team content with just a Sweet 16 finish. Expect Andrew Bogut and the Runnin’ Utes to be gunning hard for an Elite Eight berth against second-seed Kentucky, who may struggle to find an answer for Bogut in the paint.
Julius Hodge of NC State, who I consider the best one-on-one scorer in the country, could be too much to contain for the Wisconsin Badgers, who have not squared off against a quality opponent thus far in the tournament.
As usual, fourth-seeded Louisville will have to rely on their outside shooting from Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O’Bannon to have any hope against No. 1 seed Washington University, who could have trouble sizing up down low against the slightly bulkier Cardinals.
West Virginia will look to continue riding momentum against Texas Tech on Friday, while Wisconsin-Milwaukee will likely have their hands full with No. 1 seed overall Illinois on Thursday.
It is March, though, so upsets are always possible. The only thing for certain at this point is that only one of the remaining 16 teams will be cutting the nets down in St. Louis on April 4.
Third Round Predictions: Illinois, Oklahoma State, Louisville, West Virginia, North Carolina, NC State, Duke and Utah