Over the past four days, if you are anything like me, you have spurned everything else to watch college basketball. Maybe this is the first time you’ve watched college basketball all year but you filled out a bracket in an office pool, only to watch it fall apart by Saturday afternoon. In case you’ve done normal people things like go outside, interact with something that isn’t a remote or people on the Internet, then here is a list of the 10 best games of the 48 that were played over the course of the past four days.
10. Connecticut 89, Saint Joseph’s 81 (OT) - There were so many games in the opening weekend that I actually left off an overtime game (NC State’s 16-point collapse against Saint Louis), but with all due respect to that game, missed free throws does not make a game great. In this game, it was actually made free throws that iced the game in overtime for the Huskies. Saint Joseph’s was in the drivers seat for the entire game but coach Phil Martelli’s decision to go with his starters for the whole game backfired when do-everything forward Halil Kanacevic fouled out early in overtime, forcing into action players who had sat on the pine not just for the whole game, but for the whole year as Shabazz Napier and his Husky teammates calmly knocked down 14 free throws in a row to close out the game.
9. Mercer 78, Duke 71 – Down just one at the half, Mercer showed why experience is so important in a single elimination tournament. Down five with 4:35 to play, Mercer went on an 11-0 run to take a six point lead and then hit seven of eight free throws in the waning seconds to ice the game away. This is two years in a row that an Atlantic Sun team won a game against a top-three seed with Florida Gulf Coast beating second seeded Georgetown in last year’s tournament. This may have not been the best game, but it was more than worth mentioning as this is the second time in three years that Duke has lost to a team seeded 14th or worse (they lost to Lehigh, a 15, in 2012).
8. Louisville 71, Manhattan 64 - When teacher meets his pupil in a game, it’s always interesting. It’s even more interesting when his pupil has installed the exact same sets he learned from the teacher. Such was the case in this match of wits between Rick Pitino and former assistant Steve Masiello, who complained about the matchup after it was announced and it was easy to understand why after these two teams played. If it wasn’t for Luke Hancock finding his shot in the last few minutes, scoring eight points in a row including two big three’s to lock up the win.
7. Texas 87, Arizona State 85 - Cameron Ridley may not be Sim Bhullar, who is 7-5, 360 pounds, but Ridley is still quite a big boy. Coming to campus at 6-9, 305 pounds and is now listed at a svelte 285, he averages a shade over 25 minutes per game. Logging 30 minutes in Texas’ tilt against Arizona State, Ridley was the hero, scooping up a loose ball and gently tossing it in as time expired to give the Longhorns the win in a back-and-forth battle that saw a litany of lead changes and big shots from both teams.
6. San Diego State 73, New Mexico State 69 (OT) - The Aggies never led for a single second of this game, yet somehow sent it to overtime after a miscue by star Xavier Thames gave them the ball back with 15 seconds. Sharp-shooter Kevin Aronis missed a three but they were able to get the ball back and he drilled the second attempt to send the game to overtime. After the pendulum swung that far in the Aggies direction, the viewer thought there would be no way for them to win this game, but Steve Fisher’s squad pulled it out to send them into the Round of 32.
5. Dayton 60, Ohio State 59 - Aaron Craft got out-Crafted in the final minute as Ohio State lost to in-state foe Dayton, a team coach Thad Matta refuses to schedule, when Vee Sanford hit a shot over Craft with six seconds remaining. Craft had an attempt at the end, but it fell short as the Flyers flew on to the next round. Dayton was up at the half and looked like the better team throughout the course of the game. Ohio State struggled to score all year and the Flyers hit shots when they needed to to pull this one out, though those who have watched enough Ohio State basketball would have thought Aaron Craft would be able to find one more clutch shot to add to his highlight reel of clutch shots, but it was not to be.
4. Wisconsin 85, Oregon 77 - When Wisconsin was down 12 at the half, even the most ardent of Wisconsin fans, many of whom were there as this neutral site was often dubbed “Kohl Center East” by columnists with the game taking place just 80 miles from the Badgers campus in Madison. With more than 80 percent of the crowd wearing red and rooting for the Badgers, they were inspired coming out of halftime. The Badgers used a 17-6 run to open the half to close the gap to one before taking a lead that would change hands many times throughout the course of the second half. After three offensive rebounds, Ben Brust hit a school-record setting three to give the Badgers a two-point lead they would not relinquish. This game was wildly entertaining and the atmosphere was everything that the NCAA tournament promises.
3. North Dakota State 80, Oklahoma 75 (OT) - On a day where their best player fouled out and went 3-11 from the field while he was playing, the Bison (pronounced Bizon for some reason) found points from an unlikely source. While Lawrence Alexander did much of the heavy lifting including hitting the three to send the game to overtime, it was little used reserve Carlin Dupree who came in cold off the bench and hit two free throws and followed that up with a layup that built a lead they would not relinquish. Coach Saul Phillips was one of the most entertaining figures throughout the weekend and his Bison team played one of the most entertaining games in recent vintage.
2. Stephen F. Austin 77, Virginia Commonwealth 75 (OT) - Four-point plays are the most exciting plays in sports, bar none. Jamal Crawford has made a career of them and after a pair of missed free throws by Jordan Burgess, Desmond Haymon calmly caught a pass and knocked down a three and then the ensuing free throw to send the game into overtime. From there, the Jacks had all of the momentum and with 2:02, Haymon hit a three to give them a lead they would not relinquish.
1. Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76 - This game had the feel of a regional final, not a game in the Round of 32. Everyone knew that Wichita State would have to prove their mettle as their schedule would have them facing the preseason number one in Kentucky and then potentially last-year’s winner in Louisville, then last-year’s runner-up in Michigan just to reach the Final Four. CleAnthony Early was the best player on the court when there were three lottery picks wearing blue jersey’s. Despite doing everything in his power to will the Shockers to victory, both Harrison twins were excellent after the first half saw them commit seven turnovers between the two and the rest of Kentucky’s all-freshman lineup showed that you don’t always need experience to win games in March. In fact, Kentucky was so inexperienced that coming into the tournament, their entire roster had seen 10 total minutes of action in the NCAA Tournament, all thanks to a little used senior. But none of that mattered as these two teams traded haymakers before James Young hit a three with 100 seconds to play to give the Wildcats a lead they wouldn’t concede.
If this was indicative of the next two weekends, we are in for one of the best tournaments in a long time.
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