Florida, the team I (and a few others) picked to win it all, was tied with 16th-seeded Albany in the second half. Louisville, the team I (and others) picked to finish second, trailed 13th-seeded Manhattan inside the final four minutes. That the Gators and Cardinals wound up winning did nothing to fill me with confidence in my powers of prognostication, but you know what?
In the Big Dance, all that matters is that you survive and advance.
The first full day of the 2014 NCAA tournament was wild — four overtime games, two 12-over-5 upsets — without being truly woolly. There were only two other seeding upsets (No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Pitt over No. 8 Colorado in a game the Panthers led by 28 points after 18 minutes). Saint Louis overriding a 16-point deficit in the final 7 1/2 minutes of regulation to beat North Carolina State in overtime might have felt like an upset, but the Billikens are actually a No. 5 seed. But I’m really not sure that was so much a rally as an abject collapse.
Over the final 5:03 of regulation, N.C. State missed 12 free throws. That’s hard to do if you’re trying to miss, which we can assume State wasn’t. This was but one example of horrid basketball that led to a loss. Oklahoma fouling North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun when the Sooners led by four points with 32 seconds left in regulation was another. (As was Oklahoma fouling Carlin Dupree, Braun’s little-used backup, at midcourt in a tie game with 1:14 left in OT.)
Another was Texas’ final possession. As we know from NCAA tournaments past — remember Kenton Paulino’s flying jumper to beat West Virginia in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen at the Georgia Dome after Kevin Pittsnogle had tied it for the Mountaineers? — Rick Barnes doesn’t like calling timeout to set a play. He didn’t call one Thursday night, but the shot the Longhorns got was awful. Jonathan Holmes hoisted a guarded 3-pointer from the corner that fell a foot short.
But, as Dereck Whittenburg can attest, sometimes a bad shot comes good. The massive center Cameron Ridley seized the rebound and — shades of Lorenzo Charles, sort of — flipped it in the goal, the ball clearing his fingertips with a tenth of a second remaining. Great coaching, huh?
On a day when Adreian Payne of Michigan State scored 41 points against Delaware, a greater memory was provided by Luke Hancock, the most outstanding player of the 2013 Final Four, whose steal and free throws gave Louisville a lasting lead over Manhattan with 1:53 remaining and whose two subsequent treys clinched matters. But the most indelible image of all came in the day’s first game, when Ohio State’s Aaron Craft — surely the most publicized single-digit scorer in collegiate history — was involved in every single play, good or bad, at the end.
Four times in the final 3 1/2 minutes, Craft either scored the points or assisted on the basket that tied the game on put the Buckeyes ahead. Yet he was also called for an intentional foul against Jordan Sibert, who was his Ohio State roommate before transferring to Dayton, and was beaten off the dribble by Vee Sanford for what would be the game-winning basket with 3.9 seconds left. But Sanford’s game-winner almost wasn’t the game-winner. Hurtling downcourt faster than you can say “Danny Ainge against Notre Dame,” Craft loosed a driving shot that spun out at the buzzer.
Over four seasons as a Buckeye, Craft polarized the audience. Some among us had wearied of announcers waxing poetic about his “heart” and his “intangibles.” Others believed that he was the essence of what college basketball ought to be (as opposed to what it is) — a tough-minded player who might never work an NBA minute but who never deferred to anyone with a game on the line.
Over those 3 1/2 minutes, Craft managed to be both things to both camps. His team didn’t quite win, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try his hardest. That’s the way of the NCAA tournament. Sometimes you survive and advance. Other times you shed tears and go home.