The first day of the NCAA Tournament is an unofficial holiday that captivates many throughout the nation, whether or not they pay attention to college basketball all season long. But for those skipping work or school in hopes of catching a monumental upset, the afternoon session was a disappointment. The evening brought about Belmont's near miss, but for the most part the favorites took care of business and moved on to the second round. Here are some honors for Thursday's action, and a quick look ahead to what you can expect on Friday.
Team of the Afternoon Session: UNLV (8 seed in the Midwest)
Result: Defeated 9 seed Kent State 71-58 in Omaha.
Don't let the final margin fool you; this game was over just about from the word "go" as the Runnin' Rebels dropped the hammer on the Golden Flashes. Joe Darger and Wink Adams combined for thirty-five points in the win, but the story of this one was UNLV's defense. Kent shot 35.6% from the field for the game, and that was with a significant improvement in the second stanza. They managed a paltry ten points in the first half, and seventeen turnovers to boot.
As for UNLV, they're not the deepest team or the most talented, but these guys are tough and won't lie down for anyone. They didn't need the three pointer this afternoon, making only six of their eighteen attempts, but if they can get a few to fall on Saturday they can hang around with top seed Kansas. But for a team few people expected to be back in the Tournament when the season began to kick things off in dominating fashion was quite impressive.
Player of the Afternoon Session: Joe Crawford (Kentucky)
Numbers: 35 points, 5 rebounds in a 74-66 loss to Marquette.
For all the clashes that occurred between the senior guard and first-year head coach Billy Gillispie, it was good to see Crawford go out in this fashion. On a day in which only four Wildcats scored, Joe practically dragged the Cats along and kept them in the game until late, fouling out in the game's final minute. An interesting thing to watch during the month of March (for me at least) is how seniors handle their final games; whether or not they go down fighting until the very end. Crawford did that and then some in Anaheim.
Team of the Evening Session: Washington State (4 seed in the East)
Result: Beat 13 seed Winthrop 71-40 in Denver.
For those of you who saw the halftime score (tied at 29) and wondered whether or not the Eagles could pull off a first-round upset for the second straight year, you got a rather emphatic answer from the Cougars in the second half. Wazzu came out and looked as if they decided that Winthrop wouldn't score...at all. The Eagles scored eleven second-half points, and big man Aron Baynes led the way with nineteen as Washington State moves on to face five seed Notre Dame on Saturday. Their defensive mastery was all about harassing Winthrop and challenging every shot (30.8% from the field), forcing only six turnovers for the game. And I'm not sure what a team can do in defending the foul line, but the Eagles made only two of their eight free throws.
Player of the Evening Session: Gerald Henderson (Duke)
Numbers: 21 points, 7 rebounds in a 71-70 win over Belmont.
As much as I'd like to pick Michael Beasley (Kansas State) or Josh Carter (Texas A&M), Henderson frankly saved the Blue Devils' collective behind tonight. His layup with twelve seconds remaining provided the final margin, allowing Duke to live to fight another day on a night in which just about nothing was falling from behind the arc. Of the six Duke players who played at least twenty minutes, the only other Devil to shoot better than fifty percent from the field besides Henderson (8-14) was Kyle Singler, and he was 5-9. Not sure if the threes will fall against West Virginia, but thanks to Henderson at least they'll get to find out.
Friday: One game for each time slot
Game 1: West Region #12 Western Kentucky vs. #5 Drake (Tampa, FL)
Quite a few people "love the Drake", and rightfully so. But they'd better pay close attention to WKU's senior guard Courtney Lee as well. If the Hilltoppers win this one, it shouldn't be considered a huge upset. They're that good.
Game 2: East Region #10 South Alabama vs. #7 Butler (Birmingham, AL)
USA seemed to be the whipping boy of the ESPN pundits, who seem to discredit just about every mid-major not selected as their "flavor of the year". But if you haven't seen the Jaguars' Demetric Bennett play this year, you're in for a treat. But the Bulldogs have an outstanding backcourt, led by seniors A.J. Graves and Mike Green.
Game 3: South Region #9 Oregon vs. #8 Mississippi State (North Little Rock, AR)
This 8/9 matchup will be an intriguing clash of styles. The Ducks would prefer an uptempo game with limited physical contact, and three-pointers leaving the hands of capable shooters such as Tajuan Porter, Bryce Taylor and Maarty Leunen just to name a few. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, play a physical brand of basketball spearheaded by forward Charles Rhodes and point "guard" Jamont Gordon. If you haven't seen Gordon play, imagine him as a player in the mold of former Knick Anthony Mason...but Jamont isn't as big and he passes a bit more.
Game 4: East Region #9 Arkansas vs. #8 Indiana (Raleigh, NC)
Another 8/9 game, with the Razorbacks being the deeper of the two teams. Sonny Weems injured his knee in practice earlier in the week, but he's expected to play. As for the Hoosiers, they'll physically be on the floor but who really knows what to expect from this bunch mentally. In forward D.J. White and guard Eric Gordon they have two of the more talented players in the entire tournament available, but if they don't commit to defense they'll be headed home tomorrow night. At the least, the players should be playing for each other at this point if they can't bring themselves to play for interim head coach Dan Dakich.
Lastly, one question regarding Memphis:
Watching the opening round game on Tuesday, I noticed that Coppin State was effective in defending Mount St. Mary's version of the Dribble Drive Motion with a trapping 1-3-1 zone. If I'm not mistaken, the only zones thrown at the Tigers this season have been either some form of a 2-3 (hasn't worked), or the "triangle and two" first employed by USC's Tim Floyd (that one was effective, although Memphis pulled out the OT win). If used by a team with quality athletes (sorry Texas-Arlington, but I don't think you'll pull the upset), could the 1-3-1 get someone the upset of the Tigers?
The thing about this defense that I've seen is that it takes away the first move of the DDM system, the hard drive from the elbow by the point guard, when effective. A 2-3 zone is easier to crack because of the opening at the foul line, which can be either penetrated by a guard or flashed to by a big who can then turn and face the basket or kick the ball out to an open shooter. The 1-3-1 takes away the middle of the floor, which is why I believe it could work if employed properly. If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to send some feedback.