Who shined the most on the opening day of March Madness? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
Winner: Ja Morant
Murray State’s Ja Morant entered March Madness with plenty of hype and plenty of mystery. He sprung into relevance this season, rising up NBA mock drafts while becoming the first D-I college player to average 20 points and 10 assists over the course of an entire season. But of course, there was plenty of room for doubt: Sure, it was awesome to watch Morant carve up SIU-Edwardsville, Southeast Missouri State, and the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference, but what if he was just feasting on cupcakes? The tourney was Morant’s opportunity to prove the hype was worthwhile—or to get exposed.
On Thursday, Ja ruled. Despite taking only nine shots, Morant dominated in 12-seed Murray State’s 83-64 demolition of 5-seed Marquette. Technically, this was an upset: Murray State needed to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to even make the field of 68. But you would never have known by watching this game which team had the obvious NBA player and which scraped into the tournament.
Morant had 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds, becoming just the 12th player to record a triple-double in the NCAA tournament, joining a list that includes Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, and Draymond Green. (The NCAA doesn’t recognize Robertson and Johnson because triple-doubles were not recorded until blocks and steals became official stats in the 1980s.) Morant’s vision and passing were the highlights of the game—his 16 assists are tied for fourth most in tournament history—but he also dunked:
Oh my!— Ⓜ️arcusD ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ➟ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ² (@_MarcusD3_) March 21, 2019
Ja Morant dunk/replays. pic.twitter.com/cs6eBjWMfi
Ja has now played three games against major-conference competition this season, and he’s averaging 26.7 points, 9.3 assists, and 9.3 rebounds. He thinks he can do better.
Ja Morant said he’d rate himself 3.5/5 today. “Way too many turnovers.”— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 21, 2019
Regardless of what happens in the second round against Florida State, Morant’s magnificent day should hush any concern that his gaudy stats are a result of the low level of his competition. Here’s hoping Morant can crank that 3.5 up to a 5—I’d love to see Ja make the Sweet 16.
Loser: Upset Buzzer-Beaters
We all love March Madness because it’s when we get to see West Fartville A&M hit a half-court, behind-the-back buzzer-beater to take down Big State. And then March Madness comes, and sometimes it’s just regular basketball games. Thursday was just basketball games. There were no buzzer-beaters, and teams seeded 1 through 6 went 11-1. Morant’s win over Marquette was the only major upset of the day, and that game featured a future top-five draft pick winning against a team without any future top-five draft picks.
Two teams almost pulled off memorable upsets by stringing together thrilling runs against big-name opponents to set up game-winning attempts. But both game-winning attempts saw their chances at glory turned into catastrophe.
First up was 12-seed New Mexico State, which trailed Auburn by as many as 13 points, but scored 12 in the final 1:50 to give itself a shot at glory. With the Aggies trailing by two, New Mexico State’s AJ Harris sprinted past some bafflingly poor full-court defense by Auburn, giving him an open lane to the basket and the opportunity to tie the game. But instead of attempting a layup, Harris hurled a pass across his body to teammate Terrell Brown several feet beyond the arc.
It’s possible Harris could’ve been blocked by the trailing Auburn defender, but the choice to pass up a defender-free path to the basket for a deep 3-pointer seems questionable.
Brown, however, was fouled while shooting the 3, giving NMSU another opportunity to win or tie the game. Except Brown missed two of three free throws, seemingly ending the game. Except Auburn lost the rebound off Brown’s second miss out of bounds, giving the Aggies a third opportunity to tie the game. A brilliantly drawn-up play led to a wide-open 3 in the corner for NMSU’s Trevelin Queen, a pretty good proposition considering he was 4-for-7 from downtown on the day and had just hit a 3 28 seconds earlier. Unfortunately, we are not the champions after this Queen performance:
New Mexico State | EOG Fake Lob Pop— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 21, 2019
GREAT counter to get a WIDE open 3. pic.twitter.com/56c2xa1du9
But that wasn’t all! Eleventh-seed Belmont had the ball down one point against Maryland with the shot clock turned off, giving the Bruins an opportunity for a game-winning shot. But they never even took a shot:
Belmont blows their chance at a game winning shot. pic.twitter.com/y5n5cGtPnT— The Five-Footer (@DFSBBallGuy) March 21, 2019
Point guard Grayson Murphy made the strange choice to pick up his dribble outside the 3-point arc, allowing Maryland to aggressively play any passing lanes. He tried to needle a pass to a cutting Dylan Windler, who had 35 points on the day, but the pass was tipped and stolen.
Interestingly, this seems to have been by design. The Bruins ran the same play in December to beat college basketball’s more famous Bruins, UCLA, and again in games against Lipscomb and Austin Peay:
Belmont ran the exact play before and it worked. You're counting on the defender to over play, and the point guard actually picks up his dribble as a decoy to almost force the overplay. Rick Byrd is a great coach, I just think you still extend the game. pic.twitter.com/3gzqBz7hp5— Vasu Kulkarni (@Vasu) March 21, 2019
Belmont coach Rick Byrd actually wants the point guard to pick up his dribble to convince the opponent to overplay, opening windows for backdoor cutters. But that’s a hell of a risk, especially running the set for the fourth time in a late-game situation in the same season. Maryland is a better team than UCLA, Lipscomb, and Belmont, and snuffed it out.
Both NMSU and Belmont are left with frustrating questions. Should Harris have taken the easy layup instead of trusting his teammate to make the game-winning shot? Should Byrd have run a play that worked so many times but also had been revealed to his opponent on tape? Both teams have to be wondering: Was it the questionable decision-making or the awful execution?
New Mexico State and Belmont are good teams, which explains why they were capable of playing with higher-seeded opponents for 39 minutes and 50 seconds. But March legends are made in those final 10 seconds, and that’s when these teams crumbled. And when opportunity knocked, these teams bolted the door.
Winner: Gene Steratore
On Thursday, CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore showed off his incredibly rare skill set. Steratore is one of the few people to have refereed NFL games and Division I college basketball games. Can you even imagine? If I was a basketball and football ref, I would absolutely throw a flag on a false-starting offensive lineman, turn the microphone on, twirl my hands around, and confidently shout “TRAVELING” into the microphone at least once per game. Steratore officiated both sports well for decades, including a Super Bowl and a conference championship game.
It makes sense that CBS hired Steratore—it broadcasts NFL games and the NCAA tournament is perhaps its signature event. As a rules nerd, I enjoyed Steratore’s work during football season, as he did a quality job of explaining rules that can often be difficult to understand (at least better than his predecessor, Mike Carey). College basketball doesn’t require as much explanation—the rules aren’t nearly as complicated as in football, so most of Steratore’s job during hoops season seems to boil down to explaining who touched a ball last on bang-bang out-of-bounds rulings.
Still, I deem Steratore a winner. Most fans have known him primarily through his NFL work, where he gets much more face time. Now audiences get to see the depth of his knowledge and appreciate just how difficult the feat is that he’s pulled off.
On second thought, maybe they won’t appreciate it.
Belmont lost 79-77 to Maryland, as previously discussed. Vermont lost 76-69 to Florida State. And Montana got blown out by Michigan, 74-55. This has to be the worst day in Mont history—perhaps the worst day in NCAA tournament history for any syllable. Unfortunately, such records are not kept.
Perhaps it’s a bit dumb to grade various word fragments on their tournament production. But is it really any more insightful than me telling you that the Big Ten went 5-0 today?
Winner: Ian Eagle
NCAA tournament announcing crews are weird. Jim Nantz can’t wait for this to be over so he can call the Masters. NBA fans hope this lasts forever so Reggie Miller can’t call the NBA.
But nobody wants Ian Eagle to go anywhere. He had the call for Wofford’s win over Seton Hall thanks to the spectacular 3-point shooting of Fletcher Magee. The Terriers won by drilling 3 after 3 in a game-ending 17-3 run that turned a two-point game into a 16-point win. Magee was the leader, going 7-for-12 from 3 on the night and setting the NCAA’s career record for 3-pointers made shortly after halftime. Here’s Eagle’s call of a Magee 3 that helped seal the game:
And here’s Eagle’s call of an LSU player crashing into the stands:
It’s odd that one of the most beloved sporting events of the year is primarily called by part-timers and passers-by. But on the plus side, Eagle seems to understand how massively entertaining these games and their strange quirks can be.
Loser: Tom Izzo
Bradley gave Michigan State more than it expected. The 15-seed led the 2-seed with under seven minutes to go—a frightening moment for an MSU team that famously lost to 15-seed Middle Tennessee just three seasons ago. It was apparently very frightening for head coach Tom Izzo, who needed to be physically restrained while yelling at freshman Aaron Henry:
Tom Izzo goes after Aaron Henry pretty hard. pic.twitter.com/A4KUMT6XWa— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) March 21, 2019
Izzo hollered at Henry so furiously that Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston held him back. Later, in a huddle, Izzo lunged at Henry, leading multiple players to jump in between the coach and the freshman.
Obviously, coaches are allowed to coach. That sometimes involves getting angry at players and sometimes involves yelling at them. But when a 64-year-old coach is the one who can’t keep his temper while dealing with a 19-year-old, something’s wrong. Izzo’s supporters would argue that the tough love worked—the game was close, and then Michigan State won!—but Izzo was yelling at Henry after the Spartans had just gone on a 10-0 run. The players had everything under control—their coach didn’t.
Izzo has a reputation as a March Madness magician, having taken the Spartans to seven Final Fours in 24 seasons. But the past few years have been dismal—there was the loss to MTSU and last year’s loss to Syracuse, where the Spartans looked baffled by the Orange’s zone while Izzo benched future top-five NBA draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. for deep bench reserve Ben Carter. It’s been four years since MSU made it out of the first weekend of the tournament.
Izzo got all the credit for his team’s excellence early in his career, and also deserves some for his team’s odd failures in the past few seasons. This team has the talent to go deep in the tournament. After watching Izzo act like a teenager while his teenagers acted like adults, I wonder whether Izzo helps them or hurts them.
It was a great day for NCAA tournament Scandal Matchups. The first game of the day pitted Louisville against Minnesota, coached by Richard Pitino, son of former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who survived several scandals (he was the subject of an extortion attempt by a woman with whom he had an affair, and a former assistant coach was accused of bringing prostitutes to on-campus parties for players and recruits). The elder Pitino was fired in 2017 after his program was linked to the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting.
The second game of the day was between Yale—a school that wealthy parents allegedly paid coaches to fabricate athletic résumés for their underqualified children to attend—and LSU, a school that suspended coach Will Wade after reports that he was caught on a wiretap discussing payments to players.
The selection committee supposedly doesn’t pick matchups for the purposes of good story lines. There’s integrity in the process—we’d watch any NCAA tournament game, regardless of whether the basketball has a B-movie plot.
But Thursday’s B-movie plots were pretty good. Pitino’s win over Louisville was a smirking victory for sports skeeziness, and LSU’s dunks upon dunks on Yale proved that expensive players cost money for a reason. I’m starting to think the selection committee should start considering story lines instead of using its current guidelines. (Which, as far as I can tell, consist of “let’s put some teams near their campus, but also sometimes not do that.”) Get some WWE bookers in the selection committee room and let’s make some heat.