NCAA Tournament Day 1 Recap: It was Ja's Show
It was an entertaining opening day of the NCAA tournament yesterday, with a few close-calls for the favorites, some great games, and some blowouts as well. The day had a little bit of everything, and while there weren't any super-crazy upsets, there were some good games throughout the day. The headline of the day came from the 5/12 matchup between Marquette & Murray State. The much ballyhooed showdown between scoring machine Markus Howard of the Golden Eagles, and the wizardry of the Racers' point guard, Ja Morant, was on full-display and it didn't disappoint. We start our day 1 recap with that showdown -
Ja Morant led Murray State past Marquette in a rout behind a truly impressive triple-double. The sophomore point guard lived up to the hype and the Racers raced past the Golden Eagles with surprising ease - 83-64. Morant was really quite spectacular in this one, dishing out precision passes left and right that many times drew audible gasps from the crowd in the second half. He dunked over players and got all of his teammates involved from the get-go. He became one of the few to have notched a triple-double in an NCAA tournament game, joining the likes of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Andre Miller, Dwayne Wade, and Draymond Green to highlight a small group that now only has eight members. Morant's 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds gave him the first triple-double since Green's for Michigan State in 2012.
The incredible performance was all the more impressive when taking into account that Morant completely controlled and dominated this game while taking just 9 shots. Finishing 5-9 from the field and a perfect 2-2 from downtown & 5-5 from the foul line. It was the performance of the day.
In the first game of the day, Minnesota defeated Louisville behind a surprisingly accurate display from 3-point range. Richard Pitino, son of former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, downplayed the significance of the victory over his father's former employer (the elder Pitino was dismissed before last season for being part of a pay-for-play scandal). The victory had to have satisfying for the Pitinos. For son Richard, it was his first NCAA tournament victory, as the Golden Gophers were impressive in their 10-point victory.
In other action, Wofford pulled away from Seton Hall late in a far more entertaining game than what the final score would suggest. The Terriers led by double-digits in the first half, only to have Seton Hall come roaring back. The same thing happened midway through the second half as well, as the Pirates erased a deficit and actually grab a small lead for a short period of time. Wofford responded down the stretch, behind the brutal marksmanship from their guard, Fletcher Magee, who set the NCAA all-time mark for career 3's in the processs. Magee nailed 7 triples in the game, pouring in a team-high 24 for the Terriers. Myles Powell, meanwhile, was outstanding for the Pirates, but in the end, needed more help, as his 27 points weren't enough. It was an outstanding game, where Wofford really didn't pull away until the final 2-3 minutes behind a barrage from long-range.
Another trend from yesterday was a few of the marque seeds getting some easy blowouts. Kentucky and Gonzaga, especially, had a rather easy go of it. Gonzaga led poor Farleigh Dickinson 53-17 at halftime of their game. The Zags went on to win by 38 points, while Kentucky jumped all over Abilene Christian as well, leading 39-13 at the half before coasting to a 79-44 victory. Bill Self and Kansas came in on "upset" alert as many out there in bracket land thought the Jayhawks could be primed for an upset. Northeastern made it interesting early, and found themselves down just 22-19 in the early going. From that point, it was all Jayhawks, however, as they went to blow past the Huskies and win going away, 87-53. Michigan had no problem with their rematch with Montana, a team they defeated in the opening round of last year's tournament. For these top-4 seed squads, they had a an easy, breezy opening Thursday to their tournament.
The same could not be said of Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo, Izzo went ballistic during his team's tight matchup with 15-seeded Bradley. The Braves would not go away and continually hung around and hung around. Izzo had to be restrained at one point by players from completely going off on one of his underperforming freshman. First while walking off the court, then again during the huddle on the sidelines. While Sparty ended up getting a timely three in the closing minutes to push the lead to 6, and finally get some breathing room, the final margin of 11 points does not do justice to how close this game was throughout. It was the closest we had to a "big-time" upset during day 1.
Finally, 11th-seeded Belmont came in as one of the most talked-about teams in the entire field. The mid-major got past Temple Tuesday night in a "first four" play-in game and then took the floor to battle a young Maryland team yesterday. The Bruins led by double-figures in the first half, only to have the Terrapins start the second half on a run and take control of the game. Belmont came back themselves, and once again built a lead as the second half wore on. However, missed free throws - and numerous opportunities down the stretch, and Belmont found themselves trailing by 2 with the ball in the closing moments. Terrible execution on the that final led to a turnover, and a final last-gasp heave from half-court fell short as the Bruins let one slip-away. Credit to Maryland, who never quit fighting, but Belmont probably feels like they should have won that one,
One final note from yesterday was the Villanova - Saint Mary's game & Florida State - Vermont game. In the latter showdown, Vermont actually got off to a fantastic start and jumped all over the Seminoles. However, Leonard Hamilton's boys eventually wore down the much smaller Catamounts in the second half and grinded out a 7-point victory. The same could be said of Jay Wright & Villanova. The Wildcats were virtually deadlocked with Saint Mary's all of the first half, and most of the second half before finally creating a bit of breathing room in the closing minutes and ultimately, hung-on for a hard-fought 4-point victory.
Lastly, a popular candidate to make another possible deep run in this year's tournament was 7-seed Nevada. The Wolfpack returned virtually everybody from a team that went all the way to the Elite 8 last year. However, this year's Wolfpack cooled off considerably down the stretch after a hot 24-1 start to the season. They fell to Florida after falling behind big, before rallying back ferociously in the final 7 minutes. The loss was one of the day's few surprises and leaves 2nd-seeded Michigan with an interesting matchup tomorrow.
It was a fun, action-packed first day of the tournament, just as we'd expect, and today figures to be plenty more of the same! Enjoy all of today's games and as always, thank you all for the support! Would love to hear your thoughts on yesterdays' games in the comments below! Happy reading & writing everyone!!