At last, Madness!
The NCAA tournament kicked off on Tuesday with the first two games of the eight-team play-in round.
Game 1 was a thriller, with North Carolina A&T holding off Liberty, 73-72.
The nightcap featured two potential Cinderellas in Saint Mary's and Middle Tennessee State. The Gaels prevailed 67-54, setting up a date with Memphis in Round 2.
Plenty to discuss besides the scores, though, so let's get to it.
Cy Alexander has been in the coaching business since 1976, first as an assistant at Howard, and later as a head man at South Carolina State, Tennessee State and now North Carolina A&T.
Alexander has won 363 games in his 23-year coaching tenure, but none (I would imagine) as sweet as the 363rd. By beating Liberty on Tuesday, the veteran earned his first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
The win was also the first March Madness win in school history for North Carolina A&T, which first began competing in Division I during the 1973-74 season.
North Carolina A&T has been one of the nation's worst free-throw shooting teams all year, connecting on a miserable 65.6 percent of its attempts.
On Tuesday, those shooting woes nearly cost the Aggies, who shot just 11-of-19 from the stripe.
Lamont Middleton, the team's third-leading free-throw shooter at 69.5 percent, missed the front end of one-and-one with seven ticks left and his team clinging to a 73-72 lead. He then committed the follow-up sin of holding his follow-through while Liberty grabbed the rebound and raced up floor.
Not sure if it was shock or whether Middleton thought he had two freebies to shoot, but the replay wasn't flattering.
Luckily for Middleton and his teammates, Liberty's John Caleb Sanders couldn't connect on a last-second layup attempt and the North Carolina A&T Aggies held on for the win.
Kudos to sideline reporter Craig Sager (or perhaps Craig Sager's minions) for digging up an interesting little tidbit on North Carolina A&T forward Austin Witter.
The senior was largely a perimeter defender during his first three years with the program, but first-year coach Cy Alexander saw a monster shot-blocker lurking within, and transitioned Witter to the low post.
There, the New Jersey native racked up 105 blocks during his valedictory campaign, and four more during A&T's opening-round win. And in Tuesday's closing moments, he came through with one of those pesky, stat-sheet eluding shot alterations to seal an Aggie victory.
With A&T up one in the closing seconds and Liberty's John Caleb Sanders driving toward the bucket, Witter launched his 6'8" frame skyward, obstructing Sanders' sight line and forcing a wild, left-handed shot.
There was a fair bit of lower-body contact on the play, but good defenders always err toward aggression in the game's waning moments, and Witter has certainly earned that label.
Additional props go out to Aggie reserve Jeremy Underwood, who poured in 19 points on 6-of-6 shooting. The output was almost 10 points better than his season average.
Granted, Liberty doesn't usually get much production from its bench, but Tuesday night was beyond the pale.
The Flames reserves scored just one point combined in 34 minutes of run, low-lighted by sixth man Tomasz Gielo's 0-of-1 effort from the field in 19 minutes of floor time.
The Polish-born forward was shut out for the just the third time his season, and his struggles were indicative of Liberty's inability to score inside.
North Carolina A&T figured to have the advantage down low in this one, and the game played out as expected. Liberty relied on the shooting and slashing of its starting guard trio—John Caleb Sanders, Tavares Speaks and Davon Marshall—and in the end, that wasn't quite enough to knock off the more balanced Aggies.
Saint Mary's head coach Randy Bennett nailed everything besides the sideline interview (stand still, Randy!), leading his Gaels to victory despite the best efforts of his counterpart.
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis thew every defense in the playbook at Saint Mary's—three-quarters press, man-to-man, 2-3 zone, 1-3-1 zone. Anything to speed the Gaels up and force mistakes.
Randy Bennett kept the troops composed (with an assist from star guard Matthew Dellavedova) and made nice adjustments out of his timeouts to break down whatever defense Middle Tennessee was running at the moment.
Plenty of folks thought Middle Tennessee didn't belong in this tournament based on its paucity of wins versus the RPI top 100 (one) and the relative weakness of its conference (Sun Belt).
For the Sun Belt, Middle Tennessee's inclusion was a rare chance to prove its strength and hopefully build some momentum for future two-bid seasons.
Instead, the Blue Raiders' pressure defense—which was so menacing against conference foes—was rendered ineffective, and Kermit Davis' team looked undersized and outclassed against perennial mid-major contender Saint Mary's.
One game does not a season make, and Middle Tennessee is a better team than it showed on Tuesday night. But for these smaller conferences, a single impression is usually all they get.
MTSU didn't come through for its league brethren, and it could be a while before the Sun Belt snags another borderline at-large bid.
The numbers don't do Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova justice.
And that's saying something, because the numbers were spectacular.
The native Australian dropped 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting and 5-of-7 from three. More impressive still was the fact that he committed only two turnovers in 38 minutes against a Blue Raider defense that has flummoxed opposing ball-handlers all year.
With Dellavedova at the helm, Saint Mary's was able to play a half-court game and prevent Middle Tennessee from scoring the transition buckets that feed its offense.
At times, the 6'4" point guard even used his size to back down smaller defenders and score in the low post.
It was a masterful performance from an elite offensive player on a night where his team needed him to excel. Randy Bennett put the ball in his best player's hands, and Dellavedova responded by controlling the game from tip to buzzer.
Middle Tennessee forward Shawn Jones took a hard fall early while crashing the offensive glass and looked out of sorts the rest of the game.
Whether the fall explains the out-of-sortness is a question for another forum, but the impact on Middle Tennessee's offense was clear. The Blue Raiders needed Jones' offense to counteract Saint Mary's size advantage down low and open up the lane for their drivers.
Jones scored four points on 2-of-7 from the field. Frontcourt mate J.T. Sulton shot an equally wretched 1-of-4.
The result was a crowded interior that made life miserable for MTSU in the half court. And with the transition game on ice, the Blue Raiders simply didn't have the horses needed to keep pace.