March Madness is back.
The first round of the NCAA Tournament got underway Friday in Indianapolis, and certainly did not disappoint. There were historic upsets, last-second thrillers, and of course sweeping declarations made about the standing of conferences and programs after single elimination games.
The tournament has only just begun, but here are five takeaways from the first (full) day.
Oral Roberts = tournament history
You cannot talk about Friday’s action without first talking about Oral Roberts. A No. 15 seed, the Golden Eagles made some of the rarest kind of history upsetting 2 seed Ohio State.
Oral Roberts became only the ninth 15 seed in tournament history to win a first-round game and is the first to do so since 2016, when Middle Tennessee took down Michigan State.
The Golden Eagles’ victory wasn’t fluky either, like many upsets. Sure, Oral Roberts shot well from distance — ORU made 11 of 35 3-point attempts, while Ohio State made only 5 of 23 — but the Golden Eagles were equal to or better than the Buckeyes in nearly every statistical category save for rebounds, which favored the larger and more athletic favorites.
It took overtime to do it, but Oral Roberts gave America what is likely to be the greatest upset of this year’s tournament.
“When they rank them, it was only just a number at the end of the day,” ORU’s Kevin Obanor said after the game (he led the team 30 points and 11 rebounds). “We put our shoes on just as the other team puts their shoes on. We just had the mindset of, ‘Show us that you deserve to be No. 2,’ and we came out with a lot of confidence.”
What went wrong for Utah State?
Utah State faced off against Texas Tech early in the afternoon, and for a half the Aggies held their own against the 2019 national runners-up. USU actually led at the break 26-23 despite an uncharacteristically sloppy performance.
Any hope for an upset was shattered in the second half, however, thanks to a 24-4 Red Raiders’ run. Texas Tech walked away with a 65-53 win and Utah State fell to 6-24 all-time in the tourney. The last Aggie victory in the tournament came two decades ago, back in 2001.
There were a multitude of reasons why USU came up short again. Turnovers were a major problem — the Aggies finished with 22, 14 more than Texas Tech — enough of one that head coach Craig Smith said afterward, “I thought we got our shot. We had clean looks, and I felt like most of the night we had clean looks. It’s just we kept turning it over.”
It wasn’t just the turnovers, though. USU’s bench proved to be nearly nonexistent — Alphonso Anderson and Steven Ashworth combined to shoot 3 of 10 from the field, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range — and guard play in general was about on par with what happened in early season losses to VCU and South Dakota State. Then there was the fact that no one could consistently make a shot from outside the paint.
Ultimately, though, Utah State wasn’t supposed to win. Texas Tech was the better team this season and proved that.
Oregon State is as hot as ever. Are the Beavers actually good now?
For most of the season, the Oregon State Beavers were just an average team. A random, seemingly fine, but not special team with Pac-12 embroidered on their uniforms. Then came the stretch run of the regular season and the Pac-12 conference tournament, an eight-game stretch during which the Beavers went 7-1.
Even then, OSU’s NET ranking entering the tournament was 91. By way of comparison, the Beavers first-round opponent, the Tennessee Volunteers, had a NET ranking of 13 and had been one of the SEC’s best team’s all year long.
None of that mattered when the team’s met though, as Oregon State handily defeated Tennessee 70-56. The game wasn’t ever really close, either.
In the span of a month, OSU has gone from being just a team to being one of the hottest in the country. At this point, with Oklahoma State waiting in the second round, the Sweet 16 is a real possibility for the Beavers. Who would have expected that in December or even early February?
“We know there was some doubt and we had to ignore all that,” Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said after the win. “We never threw in the towel, we never doubted ourselves, we just do what we do.”
Upsets neither few nor far between
Oral Roberts and Oregon State were only some of the teams to score upsets. North Texas, a 13 seed, defeated 4 seed Purdue, withstanding a Boilermakers’ rally that sent the game into overtime. Syracuse, an 11 seed, then pummeled 6 seeded San Diego State. Rutgers, a 10 seed, upset 7 seed Clemson, too.
There were some close calls as well, with 10 seed Virginia Tech nearly ousting 7 seed Florida, and 13 seed Liberty giving 4 seed Oklahoma State a battle.
Given the nature of the season, a year filled with COVID-19-induced game cancellations and postponements, and the fact that every game is being held in Indiana with limited fans, there was a legitimate question as to which teams would be better off, high seeds or low seeds.
Based solely off one day of games, it appears that the craziness of 2020-21 has made itself comfortable in the tourney, to the benefit of the underdogs.
Were the national champs in action?
Two No. 1 seeds saw action Friday and both were absolutely dominant. Baylor crushed Hartford 79-55, while Illinois was even more impressive against Drexel and walked away with a 78-49 win. Houston, a 2 seed, was no less impressive either, handling Cleveland State 87-56.
Given their seeds, those teams were all expected to move into the second round, but the manner in which they did it — in thoroughly and completely dominant fashion — suggests that Baylor, Illinois and Houston all have a truly legitimate shot at winning the national championship this year.
The overall No. 1 seed in the tournament is Gonzaga, and Michigan (1 seed), Alabama (2 seed) and Iowa (2 seed) are likely to make some noise as well on Saturday, but for a day at least, the title looks like it will run through either the Bears, Illini or Cougars.