And then there were sixteen…
March 17, the spectacle that is March Madness began, as 64 teams gathered around in hopes of moving on in the tournament. No team was safe, as high-seeded teams looked to avoid upsets by mid-major schools that at any moment, could turn into a Cinderella story.
The tournament tipped-off with Duke taking on the University of North Carolina Wilmington. UNCW quickly tried to stake their claim as a Cinderella. The Seahawks led the Duke Blue Devils 43-40 at halftime, but a 53-point second half propelled Duke over North Carolina Wilmington, 93-85.
The contest was the first of many close calls for top-seeded teams. The University of Miami played a tightly contested game against the University of Buffalo. Miami was able to survive a late surge by Buffalo to advance to the round of 32 with a 79-72 win.
As Thursday came to an end, two Cinderella teams would reveal themselves. The Yale University Bulldogs battled Baylor University in a thrilling game. Yale — making its first tournament appearance since 1962 — held a 39-34 lead over Baylor at the half. The second half proved to be just as shocking as the first, as Yale hit enough big shots to propel the No. 12 seeded Bulldogs over the No. 5 seeded Bears.
The other shocking finish came courtesy of Arkansas-Little Rock University. Arkansas Little Rock came into the tournament sporting a No. 12 seed as the champions of the Sun Belt conference. Its matchup was with the No. 5 seed and Big Ten powerhouse, Purdue University. The Trojans of Little Rock came out swinging and captivated the nation with a thrilling 85-83 overtime victory over Purdue. Purdue was a team that was highly favored in the tournament to make the round of 32, with 86.9 percent of more than 13 million brackets on ESPN.com picking the Boilermakers over the Trojans in the first round.
March 18 marked the first major bracket-busting upset. Tom Izzo — head coach of the Michigan State Spartans — had never lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. Unfortunately for the Spartans, records are meant to be broken; especially when they are held in March. The Spartans played a bad game, and Wooden Award candidate Denzel Valentine never found his stroke.
All this culminated in the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders pulling off one of the most spectacular upsets in the history of March, topping the Spartans 90-81.
Josh Hagins hit a clutch shot to send Little Rock’s game against Purdue into overtime.
March 18 had multiple incredible finishes as well. Friday night saw Syracuse University come out to prove they belong with a 70-51 trouncing of Dayton University. Other mesmerizing finishes included Iowa University pulling out a 72-70 overtime victory over Temple University. Hawaii University also found a favorable matchup against California University, which was without its top scorer who was lost because of a broken hand earlier in the week. Hawaii was able to beat down the Golden Bears, which struggled with foul trouble throughout the game and were defeated, 77-66.
The best finish of the night came from West Region, where Northern Iowa University matched up with Texas University. The Longhorns put together a strong season in the Big-12 conference and were rolling under new head coach Shaka Smart.
The teams traded buckets all game, and then Cinderella put on her glass slipper. Northern Iowa inbounded the basketball with very little time left and Paul Jesperson knocked down a half-court shot at the buzzer to send the Panthers of Northern Iowa to the round of 32.
Another noteworthy upset was Stephen F. Austin’s 70-56 rout of West Virginia University. The Mountaineers were a team many brackets had deep in this year’s tournament. Thomas Walkup led the way for the Lumberjacks with 33 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
The round of 32 began on Saturday with Cinderella teams trying to prove that they belonged in the big dance. The University of Kansas continued its stellar play under coach Bill Self, who willed his players to victory. Perry Ellis had an incredible game for Kansas in the 73-61 victory over The University of Connecticut. Ellis had 21 points, eight rebounds and an assist in the win. The loss was UConn coach Kevin Ollie’s first loss as a head coach in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs of Yale found themselves down early, but refused to go away. Duke led 48-25 at halftime, but Yale came battling back. The Bulldogs held Duke to just 23 second half points, but their effort was not enough to close the gap entirely. Grayson Allen was sensational for Duke, scoring 29 points in the 71-64 win.
Arkansas-Little Rock was also sent home in the second round after falling to Iowa State 78-61. Georges Niang and the Iowa State University Cyclones did not want to go home early again this season after falling in the first round last year to the University of Alabama Birmingham.
The University of Virginia was tested by Butler University, but Virginia was able to advance behind a 22-point performance by Malcolm Brogdon. Virginia knocked off the Bulldogs of Butler 77-69.
On Sunday, the final tickets into the Sweet 16 were punched. Incredible finishes were once again the story of day, as Wisconsin University and the University of Notre Dame both advanced on baskets at the buzzer. Northern Iowa fought hard against Texas A&M University and held a 12-point lead with 30 seconds remaining. The Aggies then went on a turnover-forcing rampage, causing the Panthers to make multiple mistakes, to erase the deficit in regulation and eventually send the game to double-overtime. The Aggies came away with the improbable 92-88 victory.
Oklahoma University was tested by Virginia Commonwealth University, but the Sooners were ultimately able to show they were the better team and knock off VCU, 85-81. The Sooners were led by Wooden Award candidate Buddy Hield. Hield scored 36 points, grabbed seven rebounds and hit numerous three-point shots to keep Oklahoma on top.
Villanova showed that it is finally done with the hiccups and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since its 2009 Final Four run. The Wildcats dominated the entire game and won 87-68.
After the first weekend of madness, the Sweet 16 is set.
So what can be expected for the rest of the tournament? Buckets, dunks, buzzer-beaters, heart-breakers and drama, but most of all, madness.