The first busy day of the NCAA Tournament once again did not fail to deliver.
"March Madness, we're still thankful to be standing."
Buzz Williams just went through an exhausting experience, and it was only his Golden Eagles' first NCAA Tournament game. Marquette managed to overcome a nine-point deficit as Vander Blue's layup with a second left lifted it to a one-point win over Bob McKillop's Davidson Wildcats. Although the Golden Eagles barely survived to see another day, they were up against the owner of the nation's longest winning streak. The Wildcats had outscored their previous 17 opponents by an average of 18.4 ppg, and the Southern Conference champs were fearless. Marquette's late acquisition of momentum should serve it well for its very intriguing third-round game, which will be against the Brad Stevens's Butler Bulldogs.
The Golden Eagles were not the only team to avoid an early upset. Those who were skeptical of Gonzaga's top-seeding would have been stunned if the Bulldogs failed to make it past Southern. Although the Zags needed a late , Kevin Pangos-led charge to advance past the 16th-seeded Jaguars, there is no new cause to doubt Mark Few's team. Gonzaga produced its fair share of routs during the regular season, but it also had a few dangerously close calls. It beat San Diego, which finished two games below the .500 mark, by just two points on Feb. 2 and also lost to a Rotnei Clarke-less Butler unit a few weeks before that. It may not be a bad thing for Gonzaga if it has close games the rest of the way as it seems to have a knack for finding big plays down the stretch.
Speaking of Clarke, he saved the day for Butler in their second round matchup against the 11th-seeded Bucknell Bison. The senior guard hit a clutch 3- pointer during the Bulldogs' late 8-0 run that gave them the lead and then sank a dagger from beyond the arc later that drowned the Patriot League Champion's hopes of an upset. Butler missed its first 13 attempts from beyond the arc yet still found a way to win by 12 points.
"I told (our team) in the locker room, there's a lot of teams in this tournament that wouldn't be able to withstand a 16-point swing and then have a 16 point swing of their own," said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. "I'm really proud of the way they stuck together, and I'm proud of the way they played, led by our seniors, but everyone played pretty well."
With Butler's past success in the NCAA Tournament, Marquette fans have a cause for concern for Saturday's game, especially after Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles endured a scare on Thursday.
Butler isn't the only Atlantic 10 school that impressed on Thursday. The regular season and tournament champion Saint Louis coasted past New Mexico State for a 20-point victory, which gave it a school-record 28 wins on the season. Dwayne Evans continued to thrive after winning the Most Outstanding Player honor at the Atlantic 10 Championship in Brooklyn, as he tallied 24 points against the Aggies.
"Coming into this game, coach talked a lot about just not being happy to be here, and we were here to win games," said Evans. "I think that was the difference in last year, because we weren't experienced. After getting here last year, I think we had different expectations."
The "inexperienced" Billikens made it to the Sweet 16 in 2012. If Evans really believes this team is that much more locked in, the rest of the Midwest Region is in trouble.
VCU's full-court pressure proved to be too much for the Akron Zips to handle. The Rams forced a pair of 10-second violations in the opening six minutes against the helpless Zips and went on to take a 25-point lead into the intermission. The Rams, like Butler, are no stranger to NCAA Tournament success. Shaka Smart turned down the head coaching position at Illinois over this past off-season. While Illinois also made it into the field of 68, it is hard to second guess Smart's decision to stay put at this point.
The Rams may have been the luckiest team on Selection Sunday as they were matched up with an Akron squad that had just lost its point guard to an indefinite suspension and came into Thursday with two of its contributors suffering from flu like symptoms. There will be no more easy ones the rest of the way for anyone.
The Big Ten was well represented on Thursday as Michigan trounced South Dakota State and Michigan State overpowered Valparaiso. Although there are still five teams from the league yet to play, it seems that the Big Ten's schools were happy to get away from the in-conference battles to take on foes from lesser leagues. Both the schools from the Land of Lakes were very impressive on the defensive end in their second round tilts.
The Wolverines found some success as SDSU's Nate Wolters netted only 10 points on 3-of-14 efficiency from the field. Although Michigan's Trey Burke also had a poor showing, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway, Jr. picked up the slack to send the Blue and Maize into the next round.
Michigan State did a similar job on Valpo's do-everything forward Ryan Broekhoff, who was limited to 2-of-11 shooting and its second-leading scorer, Kevin Van Wijk, scored only two points after missing all six of his field goal tries. Meanwhile, the Spartans knocked down 40 percent of their 3-point tries en route to the double-digit win.
"I don't know if it's stepping on anybody, but I thought we played awfully well," said MSU's head coach Tom Izzo. "They got us in one of our best games. I think we got one of them in their poor shooting games."
Although there were a few unexpected results on Thursday, there is no doubt a few schools will be put on upset alert on Friday as anything is possible.