The unusual, improbable, unthinkable first week of March Madness
UMBC over Virginia is not the only twist of fate that no one saw coming this week. Just the one that caused the most gasps.
To give an idea of how this NCAA Tournament keeps taking sudden swerves in the road, we give you the big man sitting comfortably in the Purdue locker room Friday.
Isaac Haas wasn’t in pain. Wasn’t alarmed about the hard fall he had taken during the rout of Cal State Fullerton. Said he'd be fine, all 7-2 of him. Mentioned how excited he was about this last ride as a senior, with him the aircraft carrier at the middle of the Boilermaker fleet aiming for the Final Four.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I literally probably slept one hour, I was so amped up by this game, wanting to put it away and get it behind us and move on,” he said. “You realize this is the last time to do whatever you’re going to do in this tournament. Obviously, you do have those fleeting thoughts but at the same time, I’m also thinking, 'Man, I can’t wait to get out there and win so I can keep doing it.’ I just want to go out on top.”
An hour later, Purdue announced that X-rays found a fracture in Haas’ right elbow, and he was out of the tournament. One hour, from eager star to on the bench in street clothes, tall-man cut. The thud could be heard back in West Lafayette.
And so it has gone in a tournament that has shown a remarkable flair for the unusual and improbable and inexplicable and ironic and stunning – and then Friday night to cap off the first round, the unthinkable.
Unusual? St. Bonaventure saw its first tournament victory in 48 years, Houston in 34, Loyola-Chicago in 33. Buffalo and Marshall their first ever, both as 13 seeds. The most famous member from any of those teams might be the woman who is Loyola’s team chaplain, and still gives pre-game prayers at 98.
Improbable? Wichita State had thrived taking their angry-man act – motivation from being upset about their seeding – and winning 10 tournament games the past five seasons. The Shockers drew a nice, high No. 4 this year. No reason to be mad. And promptly lost their first game.
Inexplicable? Kentucky made history by missing all six of its 3-pointers against Davidson – the first time in 30 years the Wildcats played a game without making a single one. Davidson hit 11. It’s not every day you see a team outscored 33-0 from the 3-point line and still win.
Ironic? Texas played seven overtime games this season to lead the nation. The Longhorns lost Friday to Nevada – in overtime.
Stunning? The Pac-12 turned out to be the Incredible Shrinking League, its three tournament teams vanished from sight by Thursday midnight. Put that together with a meltdown in the bowl games, and the conference went 1-11 in postseason basketball and football. Meanwhile, that football-centric conference, the SEC, went 6-2.
There were blown leads and big shots and sudden endings that were memorable and worthy of the month, even for the victims.
“It’s pretty simple to know why we call it March Madness,” Miami’s Jim Larranaga said, after his team was beaten by Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for Loyola; a shot taken from the next area code.
“That’s March,” San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher said, after losing in the last seconds to Gray, and Houston. “There’s going to be a thousand of those moments. And the ones they’re going to talk about the most are the ones that go in. And when it doesn’t go in, it’s heartbreak.”
And then there was UMBC. All the week’s other intrigue faded to a murmer as the Retrievers’ lead over Virginia widened. The final NCAA Tournament barrier has been broken. No one will ever say again it can’t happen for a No. 16 seed. March suddenly changed, in one extraordinary night.
Now the plot thickens in the second round, with location one of the themes.
Imagine the noise Seton Hall will hear Saturday playing Kansas in . . . Wichita.
Or Florida going against Texas Tech in . . . Dallas.
Or Alabama taking on Villanova in . . . Pittsburgh.
Another theme is in-state get-togethers, that not many predicted. West Virginia-Marshall, Purdue-Butler.
About the Bulldogs. These are among the most worrisome words a team can hear on Selection Sunday:
You're playing Butler.
The Bulldogs are now 11-1 in tournament openers going back to 2001, through five different coaches. This latest 79-62 whipping of Arkansas was suitable for this month's crazy motif. The Bulldogs started the game on a 21-2 run, then were outscored 27-6. Just another day at the 2018 NCAA Tournament office.
Another theme, rematches. Gonzaga crushed Ohio State by 27 points in the Portland tournament, but as the Buckeyes note, that was a long time ago. Purdue whipped Butler by 15 in December on a neutral court, but that was with Haas.
Among the others, there's Kentucky-Buffalo in Boise, the Wildcats seeking their 126th NCAA Tournament victory, the Bulls their second. Michigan State now facing the Syracuse zone, which has yet another Orange bubble team on the move. Clemson vs. Auburn, which sounds like a bowl game.
And UMBC, whose team picture now will be in the dictionary next to the term March Madness. The Retrievers get Kansas State next. They’ve made history and shattered precedent. Why stop now?
“This is March,” Haas said. “Anything can happen.”
He didn’t realize then how right he was.