The agonizing wait finally ended on Thursday, as the round of 64 action finally got underway in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Heading into the tournament, one of the major storylines was about how this could be the most surprising Big Dance yet. That David hath taken over Goliath in college basketball and we would see upsets aplenty in the round of 64.
Well...that didn’t happen.
What may be the most surprising fact is how few surprises there were. A few close calls adorned the schedule, and the trio of Oregon, Harvard and California were victorious from double-digit seeds, but there were no monoliths taken down on Thursday. It was a day filled with somewhat mundane action, with a Marquette vs. Davidson thrill ride thrown in there just to keep things spicy.
Following an entire regular season’s worth of top-flight teams being shocked on an almost nightly basis, that may be the biggest shock of all. Teams were expected to go down but things mostly stayed to course.
Nevertheless, there were a few things that stood out as surprises—ranging from mild to “somebody call the paramedics.” Here is a complete breakdown of all of Thursday’s biggest jaw-droppers.
No. 16 Seed Southern Nearly Takes Down No. 1 Gonzaga
All things considered, games between No. 1 seeds and No. 16 seeds have amounted to little more than courtesy contests. The top-ranked team comes out, beats up on the little guy and everyone gives an “aww, shucks, they tried” about the plucky team that won the Southeastern Siberia Conference championship.
No. 1 seeds do—and should—have walk-on practice squad players that should start for No. 16 seeds. So anytime a one of the six worst teams in the entire bracket (including the “First Four” teams already eliminated) makes it a contest, it’s noteworthy.
Southern did not just make the game relatively close—it was on the precipice of winning. Behind a wonderful 21-point performance from Derick Beltran, the Jaguars stuck through to the bitter end with Gonzaga, losing 63-58 in Salt Lake City.
What was most impressive is how Southern looked completely comfortable on the floor vs. Gonzaga. This wasn’t a team that hit a bunch of threes, got some lucky breaks and should thank the heavens above that they even sniffed the tournament. The Jaguars shot only 39.1 percent from the field and had no double-figure scorers other than Beltran.
They belonged in the tournament and on the same floor as Gonzaga. That’s more than what you can say about most No. 16 seeds.
As for Gonzaga, there will understandably be widespread concern about this result. The Bulldogs were considered the biggest question mark among top seeds, having played only two games all season versus the RPI Top 25 and having no win better than Kansas State on their schedule.
Kelly Olynyk proved he belonged on the big stage with a 21-point, 10-rebound performance which included him scoring 15 of Gonzaga’s first 17 points in the second half. But Elias Harris was nowhere to be found, and there were plenty of strange coaching decisions from Mark Few.
Wichita State doesn’t play much defense, so Gonzaga should be able to advance to the Sweet 16. That said, the Bulldogs gave plenty of ammo to their detractors on Thursday.
Anthony Bennett Disappears As Cal Upsets UNLV
So much for UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett using the NCAA tournament to propel his draft stock. The freshman phenom headed into the Big Dance as one of the nation’s most hyped players, a guy seemingly on the precipice of breaking out on the big stage.
Once the bright lights were on, however, no one was home. Bennett shot just 3-of-10 from the field (7-of-10 from the free-throw line) en route to scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, as the fifth-seeded Rebels fell to the 12th-seeded California 64-61 on Thursday.
It was an upset that few saw coming—even in the dreaded No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchup. The Golden Bears had lost two straight games heading into the Big Dance and were 1-2 vs. teams inside the RPI Top 25.
They were largely seen as a mediocre team representing a “major” conference with no team with anything better than a No. 6 seed. UNLV, on the other hand, played in the nation’s most under-appreciated conference (Mountain West) and were led by one of the nation’s most promising players, Bennett.
An overpowering force of nature down low, Bennett is considered the fifth-best prospect for the 2013 NBA draft, per ESPN’s Chad Ford. He had averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, and had already eviscerated Cal for a 25-point, 13-rebound performance in UNLV’s victory over the Bears in December.
Surely, with over four months to develop, he would come with another huge game, right? Well...wrong.
To his credit, Bennett was double-teamed for much of the contest by a rotation of players including Richard Solomon and David Kravish. But Bennett was supposedly manufactured to pummel guys like that into submission. He’s a player who relies on brute power down low and seemingly collapsed under the pressure of facing two defenders on Thursday.
Obviously, this is a one-game sample size. Overreacting to tournament disappearing acts remains one of the dumbest and archaic phenomenons still prevalent in NBA front offices. Still, Bennett did not do himself any favors and as a result, his team is headed home early.
“First Four” Darlings Holt and Dellavedova Struggle as Saint Mary’s Loses a Close One
Breaking the dreaded Middle Tennessee press throughout their first-round matchup, Saint Mary’s guards Stephen Holt (Steve Holt!) and Matthew Dellavedova emerged as possible breakout stars for the Big Dance.
The backcourt duo scored 40 of the Gaels' 67 points, tied with each other for the lead with six rebounds and knocked down seven of the team’s eight threes in the 67-54 win over the Blue Raiders.
With a matchup against what looked like a vulnerable Memphis team on tap, Saint Mary’s looked like an underrated upset pick.
One problem: Holt and Dellavedova did not show up for an encore performance. Saint Mary’s did put a big scare into the sixth-seeded Tigers, but lost 54-52 in large part because of the backcourt duo’s struggles from the field.
Dellavedova and Holt combined to shoot just 4-of-23 from the field, including 1-of-7 from long distance as they scored a combined 12 points. The two guards doubled their field goals with turnovers (eight) and allowed Memphis’ athletic quartet of guards to dominate the perimeter.
Tigers guard D.J. Stephens dominated on the outside and inside, blocking eight shots—some of which belonged to Dellavedova and Holt.
Despite all of that, Saint Mary’s still had an opportunity to win the game—right until Dellavedova’s game-winning three-point attempt hit nothing but air to finalize the score.
Granted, there weren’t many other Saint Mary’s players other than Brad Waldow doing his fair share. Waldow made seven of the team’s 19 field goals and was the only player who looked remotely up to the challenge.
The Gaels were a team predicated on their guard play all season. On Tuesday, they ascended. Two days later and the team is out of the Big Dance. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess.
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