Men's NCAA Tournament 2023: Thursday's First-Round Winners and Losers

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVMarch 17, 2023

Men's NCAA Tournament 2023: Thursday's First-Round Winners and Losers

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    Princeton's Blake Peters
    Princeton's Blake PetersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Cinderella, say hello to Prince(ton) Charming.

    One year after No. 15 Saint Peter's stunned No. 2 Kentucky and two years after No. 15 Oral Roberts upset No. 2 Ohio State, the Princeton Tigers joined a fraternity that just keeps growing.

    Got to believe Arizona was one of the most popular picks to at least reach the Elite Eight, but it will be Princeton getting a shot at the Sweet 16 after pulling off a shocking 59-55 victory.

    Elsewhere in the same region, No. 13 Furman upset No. 4 Virginia. But that was at least a popular upset pick, so some brackets survived that bit of March chaos.

    But even on a day with multiple wild upsets, a favored Mountain West team actually won a tournament game.

    Miracles do happen.

    If you missed any of the action on the first Thursday of the 2023 men's NCAA tournament or just want to relive it, we've got you covered with the day's biggest winners and losers.

    First things first.

    Winners: Everyone who won.

    Losers: Everyone who lost.

    Beat you all to the punch.

Winner: FU All the Time

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    Furman's Jalen Slawson
    Furman's Jalen SlawsonKevin Sabitus/Getty Images

    Down by a dozen with less than 11 minutes remaining in regulation and with regular-season leading scorer Mike Bothwell on the bench with four fouls, it sure looked like the Paladins were done.

    After all, how many times in the past decade have we heard someone say that a 10-point deficit against Virginia feels like a 20-point or 30-point deficit against anyone else?

    FU didn't give a darn.

    Virginia's defense had allowed 59.1 points over its last 10 games. But similar to the 2016 Elite Eight game against Syracuse in which Malachi Richardson got hot and a 48-37 Virginia lead turned into a 59-58 deficit in the blink of an eye, Jalen Slawson was a walking inferno in turning a 50-38 Virginia lead into a 57-54 Furman lead in under six minutes.

    Slawson hit a pair of free throws to start the run. Then he assisted on back-to-back Paladin triples. But it was his personal 9-0 run in the span of three possessions that had UVA visibly shook.

    Slawson and-one layup.

    Slawson three-pointer.

    Slawson and-one layup.

    Six-point deficit into a three-point lead in 68 seconds' time. That's supposed to be impossible against Virginia, but it happened all the same.

    Also supposed to be impossible against Virginia: befuddling Kihei Clark.

    The fifth-year senior was playing in the 161st game of his career, but all of that experience went right out the window when he got trapped in the corner with Virginia protecting a two-point lead in the final 10 seconds. UVA had a timeout, but he instead tried to throw the ball the length of the court to Kadin Shedrick—and missed the mark by about 30 feet.

    (Hang that in the Louvre next to Chris Webber on the list of most unforgettable tournament moments in which a great player forgot how many timeouts his team had.)

    Garrett Hien got the steal and found JP Pegues—who had missed 15 consecutive three-point attempts dating back to the first half of FU's SoCon semifinal—for the cold-blooded, go-ahead three. And though Reece Beekman got a great look at a dagger of his own, it missed the mark and we already have a Cinderella story.

    Fun Fact for the road: The program that won the 2019 national championship has now been upset in the first round in three of its last four trips to the dance—all as a No. 4 seed or better. There was this loss to Furman, the 2021 loss to Ohio and, of course, the 2018 loss to UMBC.

Loser: Big Early Leads in the Afternoon Slate

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    Maryland's Julian Reese
    Maryland's Julian ReeseAlex Slitz/Getty Images

    If you like to play those "First to 10 points" bets, the early slate was great for the favorites*.

    West Virginia led 19-6 midway through the first half against Maryland. And Virginia—which hadn't scored 10 points in the first four minutes of a game since January—stormed out to a 10-3 lead in under three minutes. The Cavaliers later pushed that lead to 17-7, so both Virginia schools were up double digits early and had us asking how much longer we had to wait until a third game finally got underway.

    To put it lightly, things changed.

    Maryland soon thereafter went on a 16-2 run to take a 22-21 lead, and it did not take long at all for Furman to trim Virginia's lead down to one.

    In each game, the favorite regained control in the "third quarter." At the respective under-12 media timeouts, West Virginia led 51-43; Virginia was up 50-38.

    Yet again, the worm turned.

    As just covered, Furman went on an incredible run, scoring 30 points in the final 11 minutes on one of the stingiest defenses in the nation for the upset. Meanwhile, Maryland's Julian Reese racked up 10 points, six rebounds, two assists and one block just in the final 13 minutes of that comeback victory over the Mountaineers.

    Like UVA's Beekman, Kedrian Johnson got a good look at what would have been a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer, but it came up just short as Maryland pulled out a 67-65 win.

    Bonus loser: 92 percent of brackets. Per Christian Odjakjian of Deacons Daily, only eight percent of brackets on ESPN were still perfect after the second game of the day.

    *No. 8 seed Maryland was a two-point underdog against No. 9 seed West Virginia.

Winner: Kansas -22 Tickets, But It Wasn't Easy

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    DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 16: Players of Kansas Jayhawks celebrate against the Howard Bison during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 16, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    It's not until at least midway through the second half that we start to truly believe that a No. 15 or No. 16 seed can pull off a massive upset.

    But playing in its first NCAA tournament since 1992—coincidentally, also as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Kansas—Howard sure did make things interesting for the first 15 minutes against the reigning national champions.

    Chances are you were locked in on one or both of the early games that went right down to the wire, but this was legitimately a back-and-forth affair for most of the first half. Neither side led by more than six points, and they were all knotted up at 33-33 with five minutes remaining until the intermission.

    That's when Kansas woke up and gradually surged ahead.

    The Jayhawks closed the first half on a 17-4 run and never let Howard get the margin back down to single digits.

    What was a tie game with 5:15 remaining in the first half was also a tie game—from a betting perspective—with 5:15 remaining in the second half. A 22-point favorite in this game, Kansas was up 82-60.

    And it refused to take its foot off the gas.

    I thought for sure that Kansas—between its short rotation and its gauntlet of a regular-season schedule—would be resting the starters as soon as possible. Instead, late in a blowout, Dajuan Harris Jr. was throwing alley-oops to KJ Adams Jr., and Jalen Wilson was scoring fast-break buckets after steals.

    Howard hung in there, though, trimming the deficit back to 21 with just under three minutes remaining. Unfortunately for anyone who had the Bison and the points, they didn't score again.

    A late Zach Clemence corner three all but killed the dream of a backdoor cover. Zuby Ejiofor added a putback dunk, just for good measure, finishing off Kansas' 28-point, 96-68 victory.

Loser: Predictive Metrics Have a Brutal Start

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    Utah State's Steven Ashworth
    Utah State's Steven AshworthDavid Becker/Getty Images

    I love KenPom.com. Probably more than even most college basketball analysts do. It's a fantastic tool for identifying trends, tendencies, potential mismatches, etc.

    Simply put, there's a reason that the spreads and totals that sportsbooks put out are almost always within a point of the KenPom projections for a game—unless there's a major injury/absence that impacts the betting line.

    But if you simply used KenPom ratings to fill out your bracket, congrats on joining me in the "0-3 to start the tournament" club. (Factor in the First Four—where Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was the only higher-rated team to win—and it was actually a 1-6 start for KenPom.)

    Ratings have since changed, but based on yesterday's rankings, the first three games were:

    • No. 17 West Virginia vs. No. 23 Maryland
    • No. 34 Virginia vs. No. 90 Furman
    • No. 18 Utah State vs. No. 51 Missouri

    West Virginia was supposed to win 72-71. Virginia was projected for a 71-66 victory. Utah State should've won 82-79.

    Didn't quite work out that way, did it?

    At least the WVU and UVA projections were pretty close. Virginia was up four with 15 seconds remaining; West Virginia had a shot to win by one at the buzzer. Even the totals were both relatively close. All hail KenPom.

    But Utah State scoring 65 after being projected for 82 was one heck of a whiff.

    The Aggies did an OK job of withstanding Missouri's ball pressure. They had 15 turnovers, but the Tigers defense finished a bit below its season average in that regard. The Aggies also shot 69 percent from inside the arc. That really should have been a winning formula for them.

    However, a team that shot a fifth-best-in-the-nation 39.3 percent from three-point range during the regular season—facing an opponent whose defense ranked 284th at 35.4 percent allowed from distance—could not buy a long-range bucket. USU missed each of its first 13 three-point attempts and finished 4-of-24.

    The Aggies had the same three-point luck in the MWC championship against San Diego State after not once shooting below 25 percent in its first 33 games.

    What a brutal time to suddenly forget how to shoot.

Winner: A Mountain West Team, at Long Last (and with a Backdoor Cover)

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    San Diego State's Micah Parrish
    San Diego State's Micah ParrishBen Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

    The Mountain West's shortcomings in the NCAA tournament have been well-documented. The league has never had a team reach the Elite Eight, and the past few years have been absolutely brutal.

    Not only did the MWC go 0-8 in the last three dances, but most of those losses weren't even close.

    • 2019: No. 7 Nevada lost 70-61 to No. 10 Florida; No. 8 Utah State lost 78-61 to No. 9 Washington
    • 2021: No. 6 San Diego State lost 78-62 to No. 11 Syracuse; No. 11 Utah State lost 65-53 to No. 6 Texas Tech
    • 2022: No. 8 Boise State lost 64-53 to No. 9 Memphis; No. 6 Colorado State lost 75-63 to No. 11 Michigan; No. 12 Wyoming lost 66-58 to No. 12 Indiana (play-in game); No. 8 San Diego State lost 72-69 (OT) to No. 9 Creighton

    And then to start this tournament, No. 11 Nevada got boat-raced 98-73 by Arizona State in the play-in game, followed by No. 10 Utah State losing by 11 to Missouri in the early-afternoon slate.

    Go back to Nevada losing to Loyola-Chicago in the 2018 Sweet 16 and the league had lost 11 consecutive games.

    But finally, mercifully, in a game that went right down to the wire, San Diego State ended that drought.

    Charleston led for most of the first half. San Diego State pulled ahead by nine midway through the second half. But when Charleston had the ball with less than three minutes remaining in a tie game, it felt like the Mountain West was headed for yet another painful first-round exit—in what would have been the league's most egregious loss since both No. 5 UNLV and No. 3 New Mexico lost on the first Thursday of the 2013 NCAA tournament.

    Instead, the Aztecs buckled down and looked like the much better team down the stretch. They scored on five of their final six possessions and shut down Charleston on the other end of the floor.

    And if you bet the spread in this one, you're either laughing all the way to the bank or crying yourself to sleep tonight. The line closed at Charleston +5.5. It was +4.5 for most of the week. Either way, Micah Parrish got fouled at the buzzer in what was a 61-57 game. The refs put 0.7 seconds back on the clock, and of course he made both free throws to give SDSU a six-point win.

Loser: Arizona's Supposedly Elite Offense

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    Arizona's Kerr Kriisa
    Arizona's Kerr KriisaEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Arizona was the ultimate conundrum this season.

    At their peak, the Wildcats were incredible. They beat UCLA twice, had a solid home win over Tennessee and won neutral-site games against each of San Diego State, Indiana and Creighton. They also swept USC and would've gotten three wins over Arizona State if Desmond Cambridge Jr. hadn't made that 60-foot heave in Tucson.

    But at their floor, the Wildcats were oh so frustrating to watch.

    That free-flowing offense that seemed capable of dropping 90 points on anyone would occasionally lay a colossal egg, held below 70 points in the blowout losses to Oregon, Washington State and Utah.

    (In case you haven't memorized the entire 68-team field, no, none of those teams made the dance.)

    It seemed like they just got bored in those games, though. Took those opponents for granted and couldn't recover.

    Surely they'd play with a renewed sense of focus in the NCAA tournament, right?

    Yikes.

    An offense that entered the day fourth in the nation per KenPom wilted in spectacular fashion, particularly late in each half.

    An Oumar Ballo free throw with 3:58 remaining before the intermission was Arizona's final point scored in the first half. And then after taking a 55-50 lead with 4:45 remaining in regulation, the Wildcats were held scoreless the rest of the way.

    Their great frontcourt duo had a solid day. Azuolas Tubelis had 22 points, five rebounds and four steals. Ballo finished with 13 points and 12 boards. But Kerr Kriisa and Pelle Larsson combining for five points, four assists and five turnovers was a fatal flaw against Princeton.

    I'm not about to take the time to look up how many four-minute scoring droughts Arizona had prior to today, but it certainly couldn't have been many, considering it was averaging 82.7 points and had not previously been held below 58 points in a game.

Winner: Southeastern Conference (Thus Far)

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    Auburn's Johni Broome and Wendell Green Jr.
    Auburn's Johni Broome and Wendell Green Jr.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Tennessee just barely survived against Louisiana (more on that later) and Texas A&M was unable put the cherry on a 6-0 sundae, but it was still a strong 5-1 Thursday for the SEC, especially in the first four games.

    No. 1 seed Alabama throttling Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was the obvious pick of the bunch. Save for one close call at South Carolina, Alabama had consistently blown out over-matched foes all season. Didn't even matter that Brandon Miller (nursing a groin injury) was held scoreless. The Crimson Tide still won by 21.

    The other three were all toss-ups from a seeding perspective, though.

    No. 7 seed Missouri got a big day from its star duo, as D'Moi Hodge and Kobe Brown put up a combined 42 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and four assists in a 76-65 win over Utah State. What was a pretty inefficient defense over the course of the full season had a rare fantastic day defending the perimeter/praying for a normally great-shooting Utah State team to miss its threes.

    No. 8 seed Arkansas also won by double digits in an opener against Illinois that felt like the coin flip of all coin flips. But after pulling ahead 4-2, the Razorbacks never relinquished the lead, even with star freshman Nick Smith Jr. scoring just six points on 10 shots. They'll need more from him to knock off Kansas on Saturday, but they got enough out of Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV and Devo Davis to get the victory.

    And it was a similar story of just keeping an opponent at bay for No. 9 seed Auburn in its victory over Iowa. The Hawkeyes led 6-4, but once the Tigers re-gained the lead at 8-6, they never gave it back. Iowa made things interesting with a 19-6 run midway through the second half to cut a 58-41 deficit to just four points, but Wendell Green Jr. made several key plays/buckets late while Johni Broome (19 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks) was huge all day for Auburn en route to an 83-75 victory.

Loser: The 30-Win Mid-Majors

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    Oral Roberts' Max Abmas
    Oral Roberts' Max AbmasMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The Charleston Cougars and Oral Roberts Golden Eagles both had fantastic, record-setting seasons.

    Charleston won 31 games, tied for the most in the nation (pre-tournament) and two more than the program's previous high of 29 set in 1996-97. The No. 12 seed suggests the Cougars would not have gotten an at-large bid if they had lost in the Colonial championship, but they were at least worthy of consideration.

    Similarly, Oral Roberts won 30 games, good for three more than what was a school record of 27 set in 2011-12. The Golden Eagles were the only team in the country to run the table in conference play, entering the tournament with a 27-1 record dating back to Thanksgiving.

    Unfortunately, those two teams went a combined 0-5 against Quad 1, and it showed on Thursday.

    Charleston put up a great fight against San Diego State, but a team that averaged north of 80 points during the regular season was held to 57 and shut down completely in the final few minutes of giving the Mountain West a rare NCAA tournament win by a final score of 63-57.

    Oral Roberts...did not put up a great fight against Duke. By the time the Golden Eagles got their first bucket eight minutes into the game, they were already down 15-0. They never got the margin back to closer than a dozen. Max Abmas was held to 12 points and Duke leveraged its mid-range game to stay out of the way of 7'5" Connor Vanover, who finished with just one block. What many circled as a prime spot for an upset was instead a 74-51 blowout.

    They're heartbroken right now, but give it a few hours or a few days and those teams will be hanging their heads high. The tournament didn't go their way, but they each had a sensational four-month run.

Winner: Boo Buie, Chase Audige and the Northwestern Wildcats

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    Northwestern's Boo Buie
    Northwestern's Boo BuieQuinn Harris/Getty Images

    While Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA are all playing in the NCAA tournament for at least the 50th time in program history, Northwestern is looking to make the most of just its second trip to the Big Dance.

    And if it helps to have old guards in March who have been playing together for a long time, advantage Northwestern.

    Northwestern's Boo Buie and Chase Audige have been together for four years now. (Audige didn't play in 2019-20 after transferring in from William & Mary, but he was with the program and in the gym alongside Buie.) And that dynamic duo looked like Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton out there, shakin' and bakin' all over Boise State for a 75-67 victory.

    Buie finished with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists. Audige was every bit as good, going for 20 points, six boards, four steals and two dimes.

    Boise State never once led in this game, and every time the Broncos threatened to do so, either Buie or Audige did something to right the ship.

    Buie assisted on three straight buckets (one by Audige) early in the second half when Boise was right on Northwestern's tail. A few minutes later, Buie turned a two-point game into a six-point game with back-to-back buckets. And when Boise State again got the deficit down to two, Buie and Audige combined for the Wildcats' next 10 points to all but seal the deal.

    If you look them up on KenPom, they're not very efficient, especially Audige. But when you watch them play, it's clear they can take over any game at any time and could be a backcourt duo that orchestrates a deep run.

    Not saying Northwestern is going to win it all.

    But.

    Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright carried Connecticut to a title from a No. 7 seed in 2014. And this tournament is already quite drunk. Don't sleep on these Wildcats.

Loser: Houston Trying to Pass the Eye Test

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    Houston's Kelvin Sampson
    Houston's Kelvin SampsonAlex Slitz/Getty Images

    Marcus Sasser (groin strain suffered in the AAC tournament) started the game and tried to give it a go for Houston, but he clearly wasn't right and did not take the court in the second half.

    His status moving forward is very much something to monitor, because facing Auburn in Birmingham at less than full strength could be a disaster.

    But before we start thinking about that Saturday showdown, what in the world happened to the Cougars against Northern Kentucky?

    Sasser or no Sasser, they should have destroyed the Norse—especially on a night when that No. 16 seed shot a hideous 5-of-33 from three-point range and 27.5 percent from the field overall.

    But the Cougars never did pull away. They won by 11, but it was a nail-biter until the final three minutes.

    They committed 17 turnovers while only forcing seven. They allowed 18 offensive rebounds to a team that only played one true frontcourt player. (In part because it was impossible to predict where the 28 missed threes would ricochet to, but still.) They settled for mid-range jumpers and seemed to be constantly looking at the clock, waiting for it to run out.

    They simply didn't look like a team gearing up for a deep run, which doesn't bode well.

    The last national champion to win its opener by fewer than 15 points was 2014 Connecticut, which was a No. 7 seed and needed overtime in its first game against Saint Joseph's. Among teams who won it all as a top-three seed, you have to go back to 2003 Syracuse to find the last round-of-64 win by fewer than 15 points.

    And while I love Marcus Sasser, he ain't Carmelo Anthony.

    Maybe they'll look great against Auburn and regain that mojo. At least they lived to see another day, which is more than can be said for Arizona or Virginia. But not a great first look for the favorite to win it all.

Winner: Jalen Pickett and Penn State's Three-Point Brigade

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    Penn State's Jalen Pickett
    Penn State's Jalen PickettStacy Revere/Getty Images

    All season, we've talked about Penn State being a team that lives and dies by the three.

    And, well, when Andrew Funk can't funking miss from distance, the Nittany Lions are going to live like kings.

    The team shot 13-of-22 from distance, and Funk went 8-of-10 by himself. He was even kind of 9-of-11, because he also made all three free-throw attempts after he was fouled on one of his shots in the first half. He finished with 27 points.

    The real story, though, was Jalen Pickett.

    Pickett entered the night averaging a spectacular 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists and, ho hum, he finished with 19 points, eight dimes and seven rebounds (with no turnovers!) in the 76-59 victory over No. 7 seed Texas A&M.

    Texas A&M simply had no answer for his old-man, Jalen Brunson-ish game, backing opposing guards down into the paint before either taking a close-range jumper if the double never came or kicking out to a wide-open three-point shooter if the Aggies did try to collapse on him.

    When you've got five perimeter shooters like Penn State does, it's a flawless formula. Sometimes those threes don't fall, but the Nittany Lions are now 14-1 when shooting better than 40 percent from distance.

    Where you have to beat them is in the paint on the other end, because they simply don't have big men worth mentioning.

    Instead, A&M completely lost its identity and made the mistake of trying to match Penn State from the perimeter. The Aggies had not attempted more than 27 threes in a game all season, but they fired up 34 in this one, making just 10 of them. Julius Marble and Henry Coleman III should have feasted down low, but they combined for 10 points and eight rebounds while Wade Taylor IV and Tyrece Radford fired up threes like there's no tomorrow.

    And now, for A&M, there isn't one.

Loser: Tennessee's Offense Down the Stretch

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    Louisiana's Kobe Julien
    Louisiana's Kobe JulienKevin Sabitus/Getty Images

    Question marks have been surrounding Tennessee all season, because of its combination of an outstanding, super-efficient defense and an offense that oftentimes can't hit water in the ocean.

    Those question marks turned into a full-blown swarm of doubts and naysaying when the Vols lost point guard Zakai Zeigler to a torn ACL in late February.

    Between that and Rick Barnes' long history of early exits, before the brackets were even announced, plenty of people were ready to pick Tennessee to lose in the first round.

    Watching the Vols build up an 18-point lead over a solid Louisiana team was a reminder that there's still some potential for a deep run behind that strong defense.

    But watching them almost give it all away brought it right back around to having no faith in this team moving forward.

    It was 48-30 with 12 minutes remaining.

    Over the course of the next five minutes, ULL's Kobe Julien scored 11 points to Tennessee's zero.

    The Volunteers simply didn't know where to turn.

    Three weeks ago, Zeigler would've done something for them to stop that snowball from turning into an avalanche. But the whole team just kind of fell apart. They looked so tight on every field-goal attempt, and it followed them to the free-throw line, where they went just 6-of-13 over the final nine minutes.

    By some miracle, Tennessee managed to hang on for a 58-55 win. If that game had gone on for a minute or two longer, the Vols were toast. And after watching both teams play Thursday night, it feels like Duke should beat Tennessee by a few touchdowns Saturday.

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