Thrill of Victory

What caught my eye in Thursday's NCAA Tournament games

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year: the first full day of NCAA Tournament play. As usual, I was glued to the TV from start to finish. Here are a few of the bigger things that caught my eye.

Lack of size, athleticism catch up with Belmont
Belmont coach Rick Byrd has done an unbelievable job as Bruins coach in his tenure there — and as one network analyst reminded us last night, only two coaches (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim) have won more games at their respective schools than has Byrd. When Belmont started the move to Division I, who’d have thought that the Bruins would have been to the NCAA Tournament six times by now?

But as Byrd has said all year, his team is limited by its size — the Bruins don’t have anybody over 6-foot-7 — and that helped the Arizona just kill Belmont in the paint. The Wildcats won the rebounding battle by a whopping 44-18 margin, and finished at the rim almost at will with a roster full of better athletes across the board. In the end, Belmont lost 81-64 in a game that was never really close at any point of the second half.

That shouldn’t dampen Belmont’s debut season in the Ohio Valley Conference, which included both regular season and conference tournament titles. But clearly, Byrd’s team, which is still 0-for-the-NCAA Tournament, is going to have to get bigger inside and more athletic on the wings to achieve bigger thigns. The Wildcats, a dangerous 6-seed, gave Belmont a good glimpse of the gap that stands between it and the nation’s truly elite teams.

Missouri disappoints, again
This time last year, Missouri blew its 2-seed by getting knocked off by unheralded 15-seed Norfolk State in the first round. The Tigers had a ton of talent this season even without Mike Dixon, who was kicked out of school before the season started, and certainly was good enough to be a Top-20 team.

Well, talent doesn’t always equate to success, as Tiger fans found out again in an 84-72 loss to Colorado State last night. In fact, you could see the cracks in this team last week as it played in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

It starts with super-talented point guard Phil Pressey, who can be a one-man highlight reel at times, but a nightmare at others. Behind the scenes last week, there were whispers that Pressey was “uncoachable” and I wouldn’t argue after seeing Missouri’s point guard aimlessly throw a couple of balls off the glass last week in hopes that a teammate would follow up with a highlight-reel dunk that didn’t happen. Last night, Pressey took the ball into traffic in a key possession against a much-bigger defender and tried to throw up an awful shot that didn’t get a foot out of his hand before it was swallowed by a defender.

Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy seemed to know that Pressey could wreck Missouri by himself, and told his team to let Pressey shoot away. That worked out pretty well, as the junior missed 12 of his 19 shots from the field.

But Pressey is far, far from the only guy to blame. The Tigers lack neither athleticism nor height, and yet got destroyed 42-19 on the glass by a Colorado State team that wasn’t long on either commodity. Afterwards, the Tigers, almost to a man, spoke to lacking toughness and aggressiveness in Thursday’s loss.

MU coach Frank Haith deserves a lot of credit for last season, as well he should: the Tigers went 30-5. But failing to win a Tournament game the last two years, combined with the way the Tigers self-destructed so many ways, are the things that get a coach in hot water in a hurry, whether it’s deserved or not. That makes the Tigers’ 2013-14 season an interesting one to watch.

Fantastic finishes
It wouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament without great finishes, and yesterday, we saw two of them.The game of the day was probably 3-seed Marquette and 14-seed Davidson. The underdogs had the game all but wrapped up, leading by six with just over a minute left against a team that couldn’t throw it in the ocean. Marquette had hit one 3-pointer all day, but bombed in three of them in the last 1:02. Still, Davidson hit a lay-up and a pair of free throws in that span, and clung to a one-point lead. ??

But the Wildcats threw away an in-bounds pass with seven seconds left, giving Marquette one final shot. Marquette’s Vander Blue then drove three-quarters of the court to hit a lay-up with one second left, giving the Golden Eagles an improbable, 59-58 win.

Taking a cue from Davidson, Memphis nearly blew a late lead as well. The Tigers led by nine with 3:08 left, but a series of missed free throws and turnovers kept St. Mary’s in the game. The Gaels got within two after they banked in a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left, and then the Tigers botched the ensuing in-bounds pass, giving St. Mary’s one final shot to win.

But Matthew Dellavedova’s 3-pointer from the right-side missed everything, giving Memphis its first NCAA Tournament win since 2009.

Harvard stuns New Mexico
It also wouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament without a huge upset, and 14-seeded Harvard finished what Davidson couldn’t when it beat New Mexico by a 68-62 score in Salt Lake City.The Crimson led from nearly start to finish, despite being an 11-point underdog.

However, the real surprise was that Harvard made it this far: it kicked Kyle Casey, maybe the Ivy League’s best player, and starting guard Brandyn Curry off the team before the season started. The Crimson won the Ivy League anyway to get to the Tournament, but nobody expected them to do anything once there.

Instead, coach Tommy Amaker brought home the first NCAA Tournament win in program history.