The first day of second round action has run its course across the country, and it looked a lot like the second day. Expected or not, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Washington State all cruised and were never in much danger of missing the Sweet 16. Xavier took a while to get some distance, but put away Purdue eventually. Of course, that only accounts for half of today's action, which brings me to how Saturday started.
Remember how I mentioned that Duke's game against Belmont showed that they struggled against quick, penetrating guards? Now I get to say "told you so." In an unexpected turn of events, backup point guard Joe Mizzulla came into the game in the first half when starter Wellington Smith got into early foul trouble and ran his team to perfection.
Duke has spent most of this season known as a team that lives and dies by the three-pointer, and tonight they died in quite spectacular fashion. Things started off well enough for the Blue Devils, who opened the game on a 14-4 run and had led almost the entire game when they made a free throw three minutes into the second half to stretch their lead to 37-29.
Then the wheels started coming loose, Duke suddenly hit a stretch where they couldn't get the ball in the hoop to save their lives, and before they knew it they were trailing 47-40 with 10 minutes left to play. The Blue Devils made a go of it, but never really had West Virginia in any danger, as they added two late layups to make the 73-67 final score look better than it really was.
Senior DeMarcus Nelson continued his disappearing act, shooting 2-of-11 for the game to finish his last tournament as a Blue Devil with eight points in two games. This was big for Duke, who could always count on him during the season to penetrate and create offense when the three-pointers weren't falling.
Special mention goes to ESPN's Digger Phelps for saying that Joe Alexander, the Mountaineers' star forward, had a lousy game since he only shot 7-of-22 from the field, even though he had 22 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 assists. (This, of course, compared to Luke Harangody's "impressive" and "wasted" 10 point, 22 rebound performance, when the fact that Harangody shot 3-of-17 was a big reason Notre Dame got creamed by 20. I appreciate that Digger is a Notre Dame alumni and homer, but come on.)
Now that I got my little rant off my chest, what else was there to take notice of tonight?
- #1 seed UCLA got quite a scare, as they were down by ten (36-26) to Texas A&M two minutes into the second half. Unfortunately for the upset-minded Aggies, they suffered the minor set-back of not making a single field goal for a stretch of 9 1/2 minutes, which gave UCLA the chance to gradually creep back and move on with a narrow 53-49 victory.
- Big man Brooks Lopez spent all but eight minutes of the first half on the bench in foul trouble for #3 seed Stanford, and coach Trent Johnson was ejected for arguing calls, leaving Cardinal fans to worry over #6 Marquette's 36-30 halftime lead. Unfortunately, you can't keep a good man down, as Lopez came roaring back to score 28 points in the second half and overtime, including an off-balance jumper in the last two seconds to seal an 82-81 victory for Stanford.
- You would like to look at the 65-54 final score and say that the 4/5 game between Pitt and Michigan State was no contest, and that guard Drew Neitzel took his team charging to victory. That wouldn't quite be accurate, as Pitt couldn't quite hang with Michigan State down the stretch after needing to erase a 10-point deficit early in the second half. It was done for when Levance Fields made a drive late in the game, was hacked on the arm by Neitzel, no foul was called, and Fields rolled his ankle.
It was certainly an interesting day, primarily because the upset vibe carried itself (almost in a big way) into the second round, but more so because of the pinstripes. Much like the conference tournaments we saw at the beginning of the month, the officiating so far in the tournament has wavered between atrocious and maddeningly inconsistent. Today alone, you had a WVU/Duke game where the refs blew their whistle every time somebody sneezed, and a Pitt/MSU game where there were, among other things, two times during the game where a player took an elbow to the face and no foul was called.
This officiating problem has been long-running, and is not really working wonders for the NCAA's image. They will have to have a serious sit-down in the off-season and talk about retraining or replacing a lot of their referees, because having games be decided by the pinstripes is not the way to go. We can only hope it doesn't wind up costing games down the road, because the stakes only get higher and the teams angrier.