What a wild and wacky first day

Some are calling the first day of March Madness the greatest opening day of all time. Five double-digit seeds — #14 Ohio, #13 Murray State, #11 Washington, #11 Old Dominion and #10 St. Mary’s — advanced, one off the first day record of six set almost twenty years ago. Three games — BYU/Florida, Villanova/Robert Morris and Texas/Wake Forest — went into overtime, and it took BYU double-overtime to finally put away the Gators. There were only two overtime games during the entire 2009 tournament.

In total, nine of the 16 games were either went into overtime and/or were decided by five points or less. Three others — Baylor/Sam Houston, Ohio/G-Town and Butler/UTEP — were compelling for other reasons. Baylor had to fend off a feisty #14 seed in the waning minutes, and Butler was down to UTEP by six at halftime before unleashing a barrage of threes in the second half. The Bulldogs hit eight threes in the first 12 minutes during a 28-6 run that left the Miners wondering what the hell happened.

And Ohio…it’s not like the Bobcats looked like a quality mid-major primed for an upset heading into the tournament. They were 7-9…yes, 7-9…in the MAC heading into the conference tourney where they needed four straight wins — including impressive victories over regular season champ Kent State and defending champion Akron — just to get a bid after battling key injuries and suspensions all season.

Again, it was the long ball that was the great equalizer. The Bobcats hit 13-23 threes against the Hoyas, but most of the damage was done by Ohio’s starting backcourt, junior Armon Bassett (5-10 3PT, 32 points) and freshman D.J. Cooper (5-8 3PT, 23 points). And it’s not like Ohio was a prolific three-point shooting team coming in. The Bobcats made about 36% on the season, which put them #89 in the country. Their 7.3 made threes ranked #65 in the country.

The vaunted Big East had a pretty rough go of it, losing three teams — G-Town, Notre Dame and Marquette — and almost losing another (Villanova). That doesn’t bode particularly well for my Final Four picks (Syracuse, West Virginia).

From a bracket standpoint, it wasn’t a great day for my picks, but it wasn’t a disaster either. I went 9-7, but only lost one Sweet Sixteen team (Georgetown), while nailing a pretty big upset (Murray State) that knocked out a #4-seed Vanderbilt team that was a fairly popular Sweet Sixteen pick. Moreover, five of those seven losses — UNLV, SDSU, Texas, Marquette and Notre Dame — were by three points or less. Conversely, I won five tight games — Murray State, BYU, New Mexico, Baylor and Villanova — so I don’t feel too bad.

The mission for the first two days is not to lose any Elite Eight or Final Four teams, and as few Sweet Sixteen teams as possible. Even with all of these upsets, 15 of my Sweet Sixteen teams are still alive, and my Elite Eight and Final Four picks are in solid shape…at least for now. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

From a statistical standpoint, it wasn’t a terribly good day for Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, which went just 7-3 in games where one team had at least a three-point advantage in his Predictor rating. Then again, two of those losses — Vanderbilt and Texas — came on the last shot, so the record could have easily gone 9-1 (or 4-6, had BYU, New Mexico, Baylor and Nova lost their tight games).

On the other hand, Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean win percent went 7-1 in games where it gave the favorite a 70%+ chance to win, 0-1 in the 65%-70% range, and 5-2 in the 50%-60% range. (There were no games on Thursday that fell in the 60%-65% range.)

All in all, it was a helluva ride, and Friday is going to be hard-pressed to match Thursday’s excitement. I’m particularly looking forward to Temple/Cornell, Purdue/Siena, Xavier/Minnesota and Oklahoma St./Georgia Tech, but really, there are a number of great matchups throughout the day.

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#7 Duke, #10 Wake keep it going

Only those viewers lucky enough to have access to ESPN360 saw #7 Duke edge #24 Florida St. last night, 84-81. Apparently, you have to subscribe to an approved internet service provider to watch games on ESPN360. (Great. Then what the hell is my Insider subscription for?) Anyway, the win sets up an ACC regular season title game between Duke and North Carolina on Sunday. If UNC wins tonight (@ Virginia Tech), then the Blue Devils will be playing for a share of the title, but the Tar Heels lose to the Hokies, Sunday’s game will be of the winner-take-all variety.

North Carolina is still the heavy favorite, but Duke is playing a lot better of late, ever since Coach K inserted freshman guard Elliot Williams into the starting lineup five games ago. He is averaging 11.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 31.4 minutes of play after getting just 10.6 minutes in the previous 22 games. He gives the Blue Devils more athleticism in its backcourt, which helps both offensively and defensively. If Duke were able to pull off the upset in Chapel Hill, they’d position themselves for a possible #1 seed if they could go on to win the ACC tournament. But that’s a long way off.

Elsewhere in the ACC, the Maryland Terrapins really needed a win against visiting Wake Forest to get an NCAA bid, but the Demon Deacons finished strong in a 65-63 win. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi already had the Terps out of the tournament, but they had a chance to play themselves back into the conversation in a major way with home games against Duke and Wake, but they weren’t able to win either contest. Now they have to beat Virginia on Saturday (to get to 8-8 in the conference) and then make a big run in the ACC tourney with a couple of wins against the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Wake and Clemson. Good luck with that, Terps.

ACC race coming down to the wire

Duke got a big win on Saturday against Virginia Tech to stay alive in the race for the conference championship. They host a good Florida State team on Tuesday before their showdown next Sunday at North Carolina. The Tar Heels travel to VT on Wednesday. The Blue Devils are one game back, so a pair of wins to close the regular season would give Duke at least a share of the ACC championship. Most pundits have written Duke off for a #1 seed, but if they were to win out and then win the ACC tournament, they could sneak in as a top seed.

As a basketball fan, it would be great to see Duke beat FSU tomorrow guaranteeing that the Duke/UNC tilt on Sunday is for the conference title. Even if the Tar Heels beat Tech and guarantee themselves at least a share of the ACC title, they won’t want to miss out on an opportunity to slam the door on the Dookies. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils need to be careful not to look past a Florida State team that is 22-7. Duke beat FSU in Tallahassee back in January, so the Seminoles will have revenge on their minds.

Joe Lunardi (ESPN “bracketologist”) says that if the season ended today…

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#8 Duke beats #9 Wake Forest

In a battle of two of the top teams in the ACC (and in the nation), the Duke Blue Devils jumped out quickly on the Demon Deacons, building a 22-point lead late in the first half before Wake slowly chipped away at the lead. They got within two points with under eight minutes to play in the second half, but Duke managed its lead and ultimately triumphed, 101-91.

Before the game, Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio talked up his team’s league-leading field goal percentage allowed, and then Duke went out and set the nets on fire. Duke shot 54% from the field, and Wake was even better, shooting 61% in the loss. It’s not often that a team shoots over 60% and still loses the game.

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#3 Duke, #6 Wake trounced on the road

Let’s say you’re sitting in a Vegas sportsbook yesterday afternoon and you decide that you want to get odds on a parlay that has #3 Duke losing to #10 Clemson by 27 points and #6 Wake Forest losing at Miami by the exact same margin. Or let’s just say that you have them both losing by 20-plus. What kind of odds would you be able to get? 100-1? 1,000-1? 10,000-1?

That’s exactly what happened. Clemson slammed Duke, 74-47, while Miami blasted Wake, 79-52. Littlejohn Coliseum is a great home court environment and the Tigers were able to jump all over the Blue Devils, leading from the get-go. It was just one of those nights for Duke when nothing was falling. Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer were a combined 4 of 23 from the field for 12 points. As a team, Duke shot 23% from long range and 31% from the field, and they were rattled by the Tigers’ full court pressure. Trevor Booker was stellar for Clemson, posting 21 points and eight boards, both game highs.

Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons were stymied by Miami’s zone defense en route to a brutal 32% from the field (and just 15% from long range). Jack McClinton had 32 points for the Hurricanes. Miami broke a three-game losing streak with the victory.

North Carolina and Duke sit atop the ACC at 6-2, while Clemson is a half game behind at 5-2. The Tar Heels visit Duke next Wednesday in a game that will determine who is in the driver’s seat in the ACC.

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