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The Best and Worst of College Basketball Christmas

Ten takeaways from the first full day of tournament action, from Virginia’s key adjustments to Vanderbilt’s big mistake

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In what can be described only as one of the most perfectly executed news dumps in college basketball history, Tom Crean was fired from Indiana on Thursday within seconds of the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament tipping off. As perhaps Crean’s most vocal critic in the national media over the last four-plus years, I had been waiting for this day for a long time, and yet, when it came, I didn’t feel exactly like I thought I would. The first Thursday of the NCAA tournament is like Basketball Christmas, and while knowing that the first college program I ever loved is now on the verge of being invigorated by Some Guy Who Isn’t Brad Stevens But Oh My God What If It’s Really Brad Stevens might seem like the cherry on top of an already perfect day, the truth is that it felt more like what I imagine having a birthday that falls on Christmas feels like. Instead of doubling the fun, I was left feeling cheated, as if I couldn’t figure out which thing to celebrate, which is why those diabolical bastards at Indiana chose to release the news when they did.

I say all of that to say this: I haven’t had time to properly process it all, but I’ll get around to providing my thoughts on the Crean era in Bloomington soon enough. In the meantime, let’s focus on what truly matters: March Madness is here! Here are my 10 takeaways from the first full day of action.

1. Virginia’s Tony Bennett had a Plan B for UNC Wilmington.

Bennett, the Cavaliers head coach, has enjoyed plenty of success in the past few years, riding his pack line defense and deliberate tempo to back-to-back regular-season ACC titles in 2014 and 2015 while closing in on his fourth straight 25-win campaign in 2016–17. But his unique style has come at a cost: He doesn’t have much NCAA tournament glory to show for producing some of the best teams in program history, as he’s been reluctant to stray from his all-or-nothing, defensive-minded approach when things have gone south. Things always go south at some point or another for teams in March Madness, and the Cavaliers have suffered heartbreaking losses in each of the last three tournaments — all in contests that saw a no. 1 or no. 2 seeded Virginia team trailing by no more than five points with about a minute left.

On Thursday, no. 12 seed UNC Wilmington spread out no. 5 seed Virginia’s defense and diced it up with ball screens that the Cavs big men didn’t have the foot speed to contain, putting Bennett in the familiar situation where his Plan A in the tourney wasn’t working. Only this time, instead of doubling down on his system when Virginia fell behind by as many as 14 points in the first half, Bennett turned to a five-guard lineup (A FIVE-GUARD LINEUP!) to storm back, take a lead into halftime, and hold off the Seahawks for a 76–71 win. Thursday’s game was one that the Virginia teams of the past three seasons probably would have lost. But Bennett has clearly learned something about the nature of the NCAA tournament.

2. Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell narrowly escaped a nightmare that would have haunted him forever.

Farrell is a 79 percent free throw shooter who hit his first 27 attempts of the season, but with the no. 5 seed Fighting Irish clinging to a one-point lead over no. 12 seed Princeton with 11 seconds left in regulation, the junior point guard missed the front end of a one-and-one that everybody thought he was going to make. On the ensuing possession, the Tigers got a halfway-decent look when Devin Cannady hoisted up the potential game-winning 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of … Farrell. Every college season must come to an end at some point, but man — having it end that way would have been bruuuutal. Cannady missed, though, and Notre Dame won 60–58.

3. Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis didn’t escape a nightmare.

Fisher-Davis led no. 9 seed Vanderbilt in scoring with 22 points against no. 8 seed Northwestern, playing a huge part in the Commodores’ second-half comeback. Unfortunately, nobody will remember that or care thanks to his inexplicable intentional foul with 14 seconds left that sent Wildcats point guard Bryant McIntosh to the free throw line when Vanderbilt led by one. It was clear what Fisher-Davis was thinking — that Vandy needed to stop the clock because it was down one and not up one — and to his credit he took full responsibility and owned his mistake following the 68–66 loss. I’m not sure what value there is in dissecting things and ripping the guy apart, so I’ll just offer my two cents and provide an opinion on the play that I’m sure you haven’t seen elsewhere: It was very bad.

4. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins is well on his way to turning his program into Duke Midwest.

Unless you have miraculously managed to avoid the onslaught of Northwestern alums (and players!) pretending that their team won the national title just because a Vanderbilt player made a boneheaded decision in the first round, you probably have feelings about the buzz surrounding the Wildcats’ first NCAA tournament berth. Some see Northwestern as the last great underdog story in college basketball and think it’s refreshing to see a school — A REAL SCHOOL WITH REAL ACADEMICS — excel not only in the classroom and in the game of life, but also on the court. And then there are those of us who wonder why a no. 8 seed winning a tournament game is something we’re supposed to care about simply because a lot of people that we follow on Twitter went to Northwestern and are die-hard fans who likely can’t name three players on the current roster. The Wildcats have quickly become a lightning rod for casual fans, which makes complete sense given that Collins is a Duke alum and Mike Krzyzewski protégé.

5. Celebrities are just like us!

The one thing about the Northwestern win over Vanderbilt that even the most cynical among us had to admit was cool was Doug Collins being so proud of his son that he looked like he shit his pants and was trying to figure out his next move.

Throw in Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s excitement for her son (Charlie Hall, who is a walk-on for the Wildcats) and Bill Murray’s jubilation in seeing his son (who is a coach for no. 11 seed Xavier) help beat no. 6 seed Maryland and you’re one step closer to making a convincing case that celebrities are, in fact, people too.

6. America is desperate for a no. 16 seed-over-no. 1 seed upset.

Gonzaga and Villanova both struggled in the first half of their respective Thursday games, triggering one of my favorite annual traditions: college basketball fans whipping themselves into a frenzy over the thought of FINALLY getting to see a no. 1 seed lose in the first round. No matter how many times we fall into this trap, we keep coming back for more and believing that a five-point deficit with 30 minutes of game time remaining is something we should call all of our friends about. Get to a TV right now, you guys. If this no. 16 seed can keep playing out of its mind for the rest of the first half and the entirety of the second half, and if the no. 1 seed keeps shooting itself in the foot, and if all the luck in the world keeps going the no. 16 seed’s way, I honestly think there might be a decent shot at the no. 1 seed winning this by only a single-digit margin!

7. The Midwest region has no answer for Caleb Swanigan.

Swanigan finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds in no. 4 seed Purdue’s 80–70 win over no. 13 seed Vermont, which was really just another ho-hum day at the office for a man who now has 27 double-doubles on the season. What makes Swanigan’s dominance particularly noteworthy going forward is that Purdue’s next two games, should the Boilermakers continue to advance, will come against no. 5 seed Iowa State and (probably) no. 1 seed Kansas, two teams with serious question marks in the frontcourt. While both the Cyclones and Jayhawks feature guard-heavy rosters that could give Purdue problems, Swanigan should have the opportunity to score a ton of points and grab a ton of boards. Iowa State lacks size in general and could be forced to put senior guard Deonte Burton on Swanigan if Purdue goes with a lineup that includes both Swanigan and 7-footer Isaac Haas.

8. I can’t quit Florida State.

The game of the day in terms of drama was either Notre Dame–Princeton or Northwestern-Vanderbilt, but the game of the day in terms of pure entertainment value was unquestionably Florida State–Florida Gulf Coast. The no. 3 seed Seminoles faced off against a program that calls itself Dunk City, yet the Noles were the ones who looked like they were playing on trampolines. Florida State showcased its size and athleticism in a 86–80 win; when it’s clicking, it feels like a Final Four team wrecking shit against poor fools who never stood a chance. And that’s why, even though every ounce of my being told me that the West region would belong to either Gonzaga or Arizona, I can’t bring myself to give up on Florida State just yet.

Bronson Koenig (AP Images)
Bronson Koenig (AP Images)

9. Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig is prepared to go down swinging.

It’s been a roller-coaster season for both Koenig and Wisconsin, who got absolutely jobbed by the selection committee in landing a no. 8 seed (they deserved at least a no. 6 seed) in the East, the same region as the no. 1 overall seed and the defending national champions. When the Badgers learned their fate on CBS’s selection show, they looked like they had just been told that their dog died, while their first-round opponent, no. 9 seed Virginia Tech, looked ecstatic simply to be included in the field. This made me wonder whether we’d see a Wisconsin team with a chip on its shoulder or one that would roll over and quit. And while the Badgers’ 84–74 win doesn’t cleanly fit into either narrative, there’s no mistaking that Koenig came out ready to kill. The senior guard hit eight 3-pointers, a school record in the tourney, and finished with 28 points. He played like he thought his performance would be enough to singlehandedly change the committee’s mind.

10. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE STOP MAKING COMMERCIALS WITH SONGS.

Picking out the most annoying commercial of the NCAA tournament is always my favorite March subplot, dating back to the days of “This is oooooouuuuuur country,” “IT STARTED WITH A WHISPER,” and that ad where Queen plays “We Are The Champions” as Ricky Gervais bites his lip in that only–Ricky Gervais–could-be-this-smug type of way. (I’m not linking to the commercials because I don’t want to show them to those who were lucky enough to forget them.) There are plenty of ways to make a March Madness commercial annoying (shout out to Flatizza, Shaq doing literally anything in any commercial, and that goddamn stuffed kangaroo with an Australian accent that watched TV on its tablet a few years ago). But the most surefire way to make me hate you, your company, your family, and everything you stand for is to make a March Madness ad with a song in it. It doesn’t matter what the song is, what the product is, or how funny and/or interesting the rest of the commercial may be. If I hear the same song 10,000 times over the course of a tournament, I will never forgive you for as long as I live. That’s why, as much as it pains me to say this, Greg Gumbel, that singer from Old School, and AT&T can get absolutely fucked for these Aerosmith parodies.

Here’s to Friday featuring fewer AT&T commercials and more madness!