The first two rounds of March Madness make up the best four-day stretch of the sports calendar, bar none. Even if this year's NCAA Tournament hasn’t brought the underdog mania of years past, the first extended weekend provided more than enough drama to sate any appetite.
Between the upsets, close calls and instant classics, there was plenty of action to keep your eyes glued to the screen, away from work, family, and everything else you hold dear. If you happened to miss any of it, read on for a recap of all the weekend's noteworthy moments.
Yes, the first weekend was a bit chalkier than we all would have liked, but we also got plenty of Cinderella moments worth remembering.
The lowest seeded team to score a win was UC Irvine. Kansas State being down Dean Wade certainly didn’t help their cause, but the Anteaters hit enough deep balls to get ahead, then iced the game at the stripe to move on.
A decade-long streak of at least one 12-5 first round upset came to a close in 2018, but the 12s came back with a fury in 2019. Liberty took down Mississippi State thanks to a furious second half comeback. And Ja Morant proved why he's one of the best players in the country, dominating the much-hyped duel with Marquette’s Markus Howard and putting up the first triple-double in the NCAA Tournament since Draymond Green in 2012. The Racers' run may have come to an end in round two against Florida State, but Morant's transcendent performance merits a place in NCAA lore.
The only No. 12 seed still in the field is Oregon, who not only dominated No. 5 seed Wisconsin in the first round, but then took out UC Irvine with no remorse in the second. The Ducks are riding high as we move to week two, and loom as potential giant killers.
Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke would like you to know that there's more than one dominantly athletic wing capable of winning a game on his own in the field. The Bulldogs were on cruise control against Fairleigh Dickinson, but when the competition heated up against Baylor in round two, Clarke destroyed the Bears all by himself. He tallied 36 points on an unfathomable 15/18 from the floor, plus 5 blocks and a pair of steals. Clarke doesn’t have the big-name recognition he should, but he has Most Outstanding Player written all over him.
Meanwhile, Carsen Edwards went a frigid 14-of-66 from three heading into the NCAA Tournament. Purdue looked to be faltering at the most important time. Then, Edwards scored 68 points in two games, hit 13 threes, and almost single-handedly took the Boilermakers past Villanova. So much for health concerns. Edwards is just fine.
And then there's Duke's Zion Williamson. The center of the college basketball universe didn't miss the chance to remind us why there's a camera dedicated to his every move. He followed up 25 points against a surprisingly pesky North Dakota State team with 32 points against an even peskier UCF, including a hoop-and-harm against 7'6" Tacko Fall to set up the game winning lay-in from teammate RJ Barrett.
The Blue Devils may have a host of blue-chippers, but their deficiencies were laid bare in a game that they shouldn’t have won. But while Duke may have problems, the guy wearing number 1 ain't one of them.
The Close Calls
If there was any defining characteristic from the first week of the NCAA Tournament, it was how close we came to a truly off-the-wall set of games.
Two No. 16 seeds, Gardner-Webb and Iona, held halftime leads in the first round, though neither came close to finishing the deal. Bradley kept it close with Michigan State but also fell short.
More dramatically, New Mexico State and Belmont, both double-digit seeds, came within one play of advancing against Auburn and Maryland, respectively. Both teams failed to convert. Maryland then lost a heartbreaker to LSU on a last-second layup by Tremont Waters.
Colgate made a run at No. 2 seed Tennessee before eventually falling away. And they did it with their best player, Rapolas Ivanauskas, limited to just 16 minutes of action.
Tennessee then blew a 20-point lead in their second-round game against Iowa before winning in overtime. The SEC darlings didn’t exactly earn any style points, but if “survive and advance” is still the memo of March, the Volunteers are doing just fine.
But no close call came closer than UCF and Duke in the second round. Duke is the overwhelming favorite to take home the national title this year, and for good reason: no one has a deeper crop of stars.
UCF did all they could and then some to ruin that party before it got started. Their monolithic center Tacko Fall gets most of the headlines. He played a wonderful game, and changed the way Duke attacked the paint, but it was Aubrey Dawkins (son of former Duke player and UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins) who carried the Knights as far as they could go.
He filled it up with an efficient 32 points, and in a game full of stars, he was the brightest. Dawkins began his college career back in 2015 in Michigan, and playing for his father four years later, he came one tip-in away from knocking off the biggest, baddest blue-blood in the field.
The postgame scenes in the UCF locker room were hard to watch.
UCF was a fraction of an inch away from pulling the biggest upset of the year and clearing the decks for a miraculous Final Four run. Instead, their season, and some of their stars’ careers, were snuffed out. That's why they call it Madness.
For everyone not living the Orlando area, there's a bright side to all these near-upsets: Almost all of the best teams in the tournament are still in the mix as we head into the tourney's second week. That means a full slate of must-watch basketball is on tap.
Keep up with all the NCAA Tournament action on DIRECTV.