The first full day of March Madness is behind us, and Friday will see the field narrowed to 32 teams. ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts weighed in on the best and worst of Thursday, and looked ahead to another potential thrilling day ahead.
What surprised you most from the first day of the tournament?
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Jeff Borzello, College Basketball Insider: The narrative surrounding Kansas has been negative for weeks. The Jayhawks had an injury to Udoka Azubuike, then Lagerald Vick took a leave of absence, then the Big 12 title streak ended. But the Jayhawks are being written off, and that’s looking silly. They’re 9-3 in their past 12 games and pummeled 13-seed Northeastern on Thursday by 34 points. It’s not a vintage Kansas team by any stretch and they’ve struggled in road games all season. But here’s the thing: They won’t play a true road game again this season. And if they can beat Auburn on Saturday, they go to Kansas City for the regional. Dedric Lawson is still a monster inside and Devon Dotson is a high-level point guard. Don’t write Kansas off just yet.
John Gasaway, College Basketball Writer: I was most surprised that Florida beat Nevada in a game in which the Gators led for the last 31 minutes of the contest and by as many as 18 points. Yes, the Wolf Pack rallied in the second half and even made it a one-possession game at a couple of points. Still, a 70-61 loss to a No. 10 seed was not the denouement I expected from Eric Musselman’s experienced and talented group that ranked in the top 10 in the nation for the first 16 weeks of the season.
Jordan Schultz, Insider/Analyst: How about the lack of upsets? Is this March Madness, or not? New Mexico State, Belmont, Yale, Bradley and Saint Mary’s were all on the doorstep of bracket-busting wins. Not a single one prevailed. The tournament always lends itself to special moments and buzzer-beaters, but Thursday’s chalk-filled day was a dud in terms of shockers. Not a single moment of madness during a full day of hoops is hard to believe. Maybe Friday will be better.
What team do you feel differently about now than you did coming into the day?
Morant’s triple-double sent Murray State past Marquette and displayed just how difficult he is to contain.
With 16 more NCAA tourney first-round games on Friday, there’s plenty to bet on. Our four handicappers give their betting breakdowns of every game.
A look at the best of the first round on Thursday in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Gasaway: Easy answer, but true: Minnesota. Yes, the Golden Gophers had a great day from the perimeter and drained 11 3-pointers and Gabe Kalscheur blew up for 24 points. But the performance from Richard Pitino’s team was more than a case of hot shooting. Minnesota took excellent care of the ball and got a fair number of offensive boards. If the Gophers do that against Michigan State in the round of 32, this offense can record another strong performance even if 11 more 3s aren’t in the cards.
Borzello: I think Gasaway’s answer about Minnesota is probably correct, but I also think fellow Big Ten team Maryland can work. The Terrapins have a couple of studs up front in Bruno Fernando and Jalen “Sticks” Smith, and those two should be able to hold their own against LSU’s vaunted frontcourt. Fernando and Smith combined for 33 points and 25 rebounds on Thursday. Anthony Cowan didn’t play well, but he still dished out six assists and turned it over only once. The Terps have been inconsistent down the stretch of the season, but talent is not an issue. They won’t be overmatched by LSU on Saturday.
Schultz: This may come as a surprise, but Murray State. Mr. Triple-Double Ja Morant is a phenom, but we all knew that. I came away impressed with how well the Racers guarded Marquette, particularly All-American candidate Markus Howard, who finished a measly 9-of-27 from the floor and just 4-of-14 from 3. In fact, the Golden Eagles — who finished in the top 10 nationally in 3-point shooting — were flummoxed by Murray State’s quickness and ability to contest, hence the 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) outing from distance. So long as Morant is on the floor, the defensive-minded Racers will remain a tough out, capable of beating anyone.
Give us one Friday upset pick that would shock most of the world but would not shock you.
Borzello: With the recent news of Dean Wade missing the early stages of the NCAA tournament, UC Irvine beating Kansas State might not shock anyone at this point. But it’s still a 13-seed beating a 4-seed and therefore we’re counting it. The Anteaters haven’t lost since Jan. 16, winning 16 games in a row and steamrolling Cal State Fullerton by 28 points in the Big West title game. Irvine is deep, experienced and well-coached by Russell Turner. They’re going to be fine playing a half-court game against Kansas State, and they lead the nation in 2-point percentage defense. Without Wade, the Wildcats won’t have the weapons to beat Irvine.
Gasaway: I’ll take Liberty over Mississippi State. Ritchie McKay’s defense isn’t as good as the ones he used to assist with at Virginia, but the one part of the recipe the Flames have down cold is a very methodical pace. The Bulldogs will need to stay patient, and, specifically, Ben Howland’s men will have to keep tabs on both Scottie James and Caleb Homesley deep into the shot clock. It’s a stretch, but it would certainly shock the world and it’s not really as much of a reach as the world might think.
Schultz: Liberty has a real shot against Mississippi State — a real shot — but I would be even less surprised if UC Irvine beats Bruce Weber’s club. The Dean Wade loss is just a killer for K-State. He is the heart and soul of the Wildcats, and his ability to make 3s as well as pass and operate out of the mid-post will not be replicated. Meanwhile, 14-seed UCI is red-hot, having steamrolled the Big West Tournament en route to 16 straight wins. The Anteaters are a defensive juggernaut that muddies up the paint and ranks first nationally in 2-point percentage defense.
Give us a stat line for Duke’s Zion Williamson in his first NCAA tournament game (vs. North Dakota State, 7:10 p.m., CBS).
Gasaway: Zion’s going to have a light workout against the Bison. He’ll come out and gather rebounds and dunks, but the outcome won’t be in doubt long enough for the Duke freshman to put up Ja Morant-level round-of-64 numbers. I’ll go with: 23 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks.
Borzello: If Duke had more than eight fully healthy players, Zion might not have to play a full allotment of minutes against North Dakota State. But the Blue Devils don’t, so we might see Zion for as many minutes as he can handle. If he’s too athletic and too strong for the ACC, imagine how it’s going to be for the Bison. I’ll go 27 points, 8 rebounds (4 offensive) and 3 blocks.
Schultz: The Summit League champion Bison are not especially big, nor are they athletic. Duke will win this game in blowout fashion, so it really becomes a matter of just how many minutes Zion will actually play. Considering he is still getting his sea legs after nursing a foot injury, let’s go with a “normal” Zion effort of 27 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks — to go along with at least two SC Top Ten-worthy dunks.