In the 16th-floor hallway of the Indianapolis JW Marriott, at around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, VCU coach Mike Rhoades gathered his players and delivered the painful news.
They were out of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Their matchup with Oregon that night, three-and-a-half hours away, had been declared a no contest, the first in tournament history. COVID-19 had ended their season for a second straight year.
“It was devastating, heartbreaking,” Rhoades said. “There were no dry eyes. This is what you dream of as a college player and a coach, and to get it taken away like this, it’s a heartbreaking moment in their young lives. I told them a lot of times in life it’s not fair, and this is one of those times.”
For two days, the tournament’s biggest stories were the upsets, clutch shots and chaos that have long been synonymous with the beloved event. It all felt delightfully normal. Then along came Saturday and COVID-19 roared back into the headlines. It was a reminder that normalcy was just an illusion, that the virus will loom over this tournament until a champion is crowned.
The NCAA abruptly announced the cancellation of the first-round game between VCU and Oregon soon after Rhoades’ hallway meeting. The seventh-seeded Ducks advanced to face Iowa on Monday, keeping the Pac-12’s improbable perfect NCAA tournament alive. The 10th-seeded Rams returned to their hotel rooms to ponder how they could have followed COVID protocols carefully only to have multiple positives at the worst possible time.
VCU’s abrupt exit wasn’t the virus’ first encroachment. A half-dozen referees who went to dinner together in Indianapolis were sent home because one tested positive. Virginia couldn’t practice or prepare normally all week because of a positive test. Georgia Tech played without the ACC player of the year in its first-round loss to Loyola. But it was the most impactful – and, without a doubt, the most gut-wrenching.
Fifteen basketball games were still played Saturday in Indiana. A variety of takeaways from them are below. But they were overshadowed by the one that wasn’t played. Here's what we know about VCU's situation and how an unprecedented decision was made.
The reigning national champs fall
The biggest COVID-related story entering the tournament, meanwhile, fizzled out ... and into the second-biggest basketball story of Saturday. Ohio over Virginia became a popular upset pick, in part because the Cavaliers were in quarantine until 48 hours before tipoff. And the upset materialized, methodically, painfully, as most things Virginia men’s basketball do.
Perhaps the lack of practice time contributed to the upset. Perhaps the absence of Justin McKoy, a backup forward who tested positive for COVID last week, contributed too. But Jason Preston and the Bobcats contributed more. Virginia’s 3-point bricks – all 23 of ‘em – contributed the most.
And thus ended one of the strangest short-term program trajectories in modern college hoops history. Virginia bookended a national title run with losses to a No. 13 seed and a No. 16.
If you’d offered Cavs fans that three-season combo back in 2017, most probably would’ve taken it.
But Saturday was nonetheless painful.
The Turnover Kings of Texas
The state of Texas is sending five teams to the NCAA men's basketball Round of 32. The University of Texas isn't one of them. Because tiny Abilene Christian is.
The 14th-seeded Wildcats stunned the third-seeded Longhorns using one of the most unique upset formulas you'll ever see. They shot 3-of-18 from beyond the arc, and under 30% from the field. No player scored more than 11 points.
Yet they forced 23 Texas turnovers – yes, TWENTY-THREE, more than either team's made field goal total – and played the most inspiring defense of the tournament so far. They rotated like madmen, and swarmed to the ball, and scrambled all over the court, just as they've done all season. They wreaked havoc on the coach known for doing just that.
Their offense, especially down the stretch, was excruciating. Their final possession epitomized it. But Joe Pleasant came up with their 20th offensive rebound as he was hacked across the arm.
Pleasant went to the line with 1.2 seconds left as the team's worst free throw shooter. He left it a hero. And his teammates went nuts.
The Wildcats move on to play UCLA. They capped a 31-game first round in which more teams seeded 13th-or-lower won than ever before. The bottom half of the East region suddenly has only one single-digit seed left.
A dangerous opponent awaits Michigan on Monday
If Michigan’s charmed season advances beyond the round of 32, the top-seeded Wolverines certainly will have earned it.
They’ll have to go through a talent-laden No. 8 seed that has been lethal on offense all year – and that is now showing newfound life on defense.
LSU cruised to a convincing 76-61 first-round victory on Saturday over a strong-willed St. Bonaventure team that swept the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles. Limited to just one basket in the opening seven minutes against the ninth-seeded Bonnies, the Tigers stayed close with uncharacteristically good defense, then pulled away with a show of offensive firepower.
Cam Thomas, the freshman with the maddening ability to shoot LSU into and out of any game, erupted for 27 points. Trendon Watford, the human mismatch of a sophomore forward, added 11 points and contributed to the Tigers’ game-long dominance on the glass. That all added up to a surprisingly easy victory in a highly anticipated matchup and to Will Wade’s first NCAA tournament victory as LSU coach.
In the month of March alone, LSU has ended Ole Miss’ bubble hopes, beaten Arkansas, St. Bonaventure and Missouri, and fallen by a single point to SEC champion Alabama. If they continue to make smart decisions on offense and defend with purpose, the Tigers will be a tough, tough out for Isaiah Livers-less Michigan as well.
Florida State wins without a single 3-pointer
The Florida State Seminoles entered Saturday as the second-best 3-point shooting team in the tournament. They’d made more than 40% of their attempts in ACC play.
On Saturday, they shot 0% from 3 … and still won by 10, becoming the second team in the tournament’s modern era to emerge victorious without a single long-range make.
The fourth-seeded Seminoles went 0-for-8 in the first half. So they simply ditched the 3-ball after halftime. Their only second-half attempt was blocked. They only made four shots outside the paint all afternoon. Is all of that reason to worry?
Nope. It’s just the opposite. It’s proof of Florida State’s offensive versatility. The ‘Noles are also the tallest team in all of college hoops. If they can beat a pesky UNC Greensboro team without one of their greatest strengths, they can beat a lot of other teams – perhaps any team – once they rediscover their 3-point strokes.
The record four upsets on the 13-15 seed lines gave life to what was otherwise a relatively dull day.
On the top line, Gonzaga and Michigan cruised.
No. 2 seeds Alabama and Iowa let Iona and Grand Canyon hang around, but were never really threatened.
No. 5 seed Colorado blew out Georgetown, and leant some validity to the advanced analytics that adore the Buffaloes. Their second-round clash with Florida State on Monday will be intriguing.
No. 5 seed Creighton also barely held on to beat UC Santa Barbara. No. 6 USC easily dispatched Drake. No. 3 Kansas ultimately had too much for Eastern Washington.
Maryland over UConn and UCLA over BYU were technically upsets, but only barely.
More Saturday notes
The state of North Carolina is out of the men’s NCAA tournament. North Carolina, UNC Greensboro and Appalachian State all lost their openers. Duke, NC State, Wake Forest and others didn’t qualify. It’s the first time that the Tar Heel State will go without a men’s tourney win since 1979. (NC State, though, will surely get at least one win on the women’s side.)
The Pac-12, meanwhile, is undefeated. Go figure.
Gonzaga’s 43-point win over Norfolk State was by far the biggest margin of the first round. Which makes sense, because Gonzaga is by far the best team.
Ohio's upset of Virginia ruined the last perfect bracket in Yahoo Tourney Pick 'Em. Not a single person made it out of the first round.
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