The first Thursday of the NCAA tournament is always one of the best days on the sports calendar. When you have the opportunity to kick back and watch 12 hours of non-stop college basketball involving 32 of the best teams in the country, it’s impossible to have a bad time.
With that being said, if we’re viewing things relative to the ghosts of March Madness past, the opening Thursday of the 2019 NCAA tournament was ... a little lacking. There were a couple of tremendous individual performances by a pair of mid-major stars, but not enough competitive games, not enough memorable moments, and really no terrific finishes.
And yet there’s still so much to talk about. How could there not be? We just rolled through 16 games without taking a breather.
Let’s examine all the best and the worst from the process of trimming 64 teams down to 48.
1. (6) Maryland 79, (11) Belmont 77 (East)
Thursday’s most competitive game came in the East Region, where Maryland and Belmont went back-and-forth before one final defensive stop by the Terrapins ended the Bruins’ hopes of dancing deeper into the tournament.
Down one and with under 30 seconds to play, Belmont tried to run the same “Panic” backdoor play they used in the exact same situation to notch a win over UCLA earlier this season.
Unfortunately for Rick Byrd’s team, Maryland appeared prepared. Eric Ayala deflected a pass intended for a cutting Dylan Windler, and the Terrapins were escape with their first win in the Big Dance.
2. (5) Auburn 78, (12) New Mexico State 77 (Midwest)
Though the score was close enough for most of the afternoon, this game was never a work of art, especially in the final minutes — but we’ll get into that more later in the post. Still, on a day where tight games were at a premium, this gets the nod for the No. 2 spot.
Both New Mexico State and Auburn entered the tournament ranking in the top 10 nationally in attempted three-pointers, but neither shot it particularly well on this day. The Tigers’ netting 12 treys to NMSU’s seven helped negate the litany of errors Bruce Pearl’s team made down the stretch and helped them avoid becoming the first major upset of the 2019 tournament.
3. (9) Baylor 78, (8) Syracuse 69 (West)
You know it wasn’t a particularly compelling opening Thursday when this score is occupying the No. 3 spot on the best games list. But for 36 minutes or so, Baylor and Syracuse played a highly entertaining game that most of America was ignoring while it watched Wofford and Seton Hall — who would have claimed this spot had the Terriers not pulled away so thoroughly at the end — shoot it out on CBS.
People talk about teams that play predominantly zone not liking to play against other teams that play predominantly zone, but there didn’t appear to be any truth to that old adage in this game. Syracuse buried 12-of-29 from three, only to be outgunned by a Baylor squad that was a scorching 16-of-34 from deep.
The game was tied at 57 with just under 10 minutes to go when Syracuse started a field goal drought that lasted nearly five minutes. That was more than enough of an opening for Baylor to seize control and ultimately cruise to its first tournament win over a single digit seed since 2014.
1. Murray State
Murray State toppling Marquette was the trendiest double-digit upset pick heading into the tournament, and the Racers made their strong contingent of believers look very, very smart on Thursday afternoon. Ja Morant (more on him coming) and company controlled the action from start to finish and ran away with an 83-64 win that never really felt in doubt.
The 19-point margin of victory by Murray State was the second-largest ever for a 12-seed over a 5. In 1991, Eastern Michigan defeated Mississippi State by 20.
Kansas is seeded worse than first or second in the tournament for the first time in over a decade. Maybe they should try it out more often. The Jayhawks shot 55.7 percent from the field and got monster games from Dedric Lawson (25 points, 11 rebounds) and Devon Dotson (18 points) on their way to a dominant 87-53 win over Northeastern.
The Golden Gophers entered the NCAA tournament as the worst three-point shooting team from a major conference, averaging just 5.2 made threes per game. Of the 353 teams in Division-I, only three got a fewer percentage of their points from the three-point shot. You wouldn’t have thought it if you’d watched Minnesota on Thursday. The Gophs dropped 11 three-pointers and shot 50.0 percent from the field in an 86-76 upset of 7-seed Louisville. The win had to feel especially sweet for Richard Pitino, who, according to various media reports, had a family member who used to be the head coach of the Cardinals.
On one hand, it feels unfair to punish Nevada for being more or less the same team we’ve seen all season long. On the other, the tournament was the perfect opportunity for the Wolf Pack to finally wake up and play to their potential. That didn’t happen.
Nevada continued its season-long trend of listless starts, bizarre decision-making on offense, and overall underwhelming play in a 70-61 upset loss to Florida. Despite all that returning and new talent, a team that began the season ranked No. 7 and spent much of the year ranked in the top 10, ended its 2018-19 campaign without ever making any real impact on the season. They were just sort of “there,” and now that’s how they’ll always be remembered. At least by those who remember them at all.
A seemingly vulnerable Kansas team facing a 13-seed that takes 48 percent of its shots from beyond the arc and makes just under 40 percent of those triples made Northeastern something of a wise guy upset pick entering Thursday. The Huskies couldn’t come close to making that happen. They struggled all day to keep Kansas’ guards from getting into the lane, and clanged 22 of their 28 three-point attempts on the other end of the floor. The result was a 34-point stomping that was more reminiscent of some of Kansas’ recent 1 vs. 16 tilts.
3. Fairleigh Dickinson
They lost to Gonzaga by a billion points, but the real reason they’re here is just so I can make this joke one last time while I still have the chance.
Until next year, Dickinson joke. You’ll be missed.
1. The last minute of Auburn-New Mexico State
A double-digit seed coming within a shot of knocking off a power conference champion is supposed to provide the type of excitement that defines the tournament’s opening weekend. Anyone who watched the waning moments of Auburn’s 78-77 win over New Mexico State knows that particular game didn’t fit that narrative.
Auburn did everything possible down the stretch — missing free-throws, fouling wayyy too early, leaving three-point shooters wide open — to hand the game to New Mexico State, but the Aggies weren’t particularly interested in accepting.
The game ended with Auburn missing a free-throw to give New Mexico State a chance to tie or take the lead, Aggie guard A.J. Harris racing down the court and then inexplicably passing up a wide-open layup to kick the ball out to teammate Terrell Brown, Brown missing a game-winning three-pointer but getting fouled, Brown missing two of the three-free-throws but NMSU getting the ball back after Auburn lost the rebound out-of-bounds, and then finally, Trevelin Queen somehow getting a wide-open look for the potential game-winner, but badly air-balling it.
Ricky O’Donnell has an even more in-depth look at everything that went wrong for both teams down the stretch.
2. Bruno Fernando’s botched dunk attempt
I guess sometimes being wide open and also built like a super hero can be a bad combination.
It’s ok, the Maryland star still finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in the Terrapin victory over Belmont.
3. 6:37 p.m. to 6:50 p.m. (EST)
For 13 entire minutes, we were left without any basketball to watch on Thursday. That’s unacceptable. This is exactly why we started staggering the tip times.
You know what happened in those 13 minutes? My mind started to wander. I started wondering if my current lifestyle was so unhealthy that it was going to be a problem when I return to the real world after the tournament. I started wondering if there was a family member I needed to call and check in on. I started to think about how much my wife secretly resents me for not being able to help out with literally anything at the moment.
I don’t need these thoughts right now. That’s why these gaps are unacceptable. Don’t let it happen again.
4. Tom Izzo
For years, Tom Izzo has had the type of relationship with his players where he’s been able to get in their faces a little bit without it seeming overly confrontational. His back-and-forth with Aaron Henry on Thursday, however, was more heated than anything we’ve seen before.
Chill out, dude.
Izzo was also testy when he was asked about the exchange during his postgame press conference.
Tom Izzo was asked about getting after Aaron Henry.— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) March 21, 2019
"I don't know what kind of business you're in, but I tell ya what, if I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn't do your job, you'd be held accountable." pic.twitter.com/kqcWykUY6X
Yeah, maybe not the best analogy to use when trying to justify your behavior in this specific situation.
In recent years we’ve seen Izzo make something of a transition from lovable “does things the right way” coach to a gruff, more abrasive leader who on multiple occasions has been forced to justify his actions. Maybe it’s just the memories of all the recent first weekend losses that had him seeming a little unhinged on Thursday.
Michigan State woke up late to dispatch of 15th-seeded Bradley, 76-65.
5. No quality finishes
We didn’t need three buzzer-beaters or anything to qualify this as a quality day, but come on, you’ve gotta give us something. The only two games on Thursday that came down to the final possession ended with a turnover and a wide-open three that was airballed by approximately 17 feet.
Do better, Friday.
1. Ja Morant
Anyone who still wasn’t aware of Ja Morant’s existence before Thursday no longer has an excuse.
The soon to be multi-millionaire put on an absolute show in Murray State’s 83-64 route of Marquette, finishing with 16 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds. Morant became just the eighth player ever to produce a triple-double in the NCAA tournament, and the first since Draymond Green in 2012.
Ja Morant has become the 8th player to record a triple-double in the tournament since assists became an official stat in 1983-84. He joins:— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 21, 2019
Draymond Green (2x)
Gary Grant pic.twitter.com/as8wmS2uE9
Morant scored or assisted on 55 of Murray State’s 83 points, the most points created by a player in a single NCAA tournament game over the last decade (via @ESPNStatsInfo). He will face the toughest test of his college career to date on Saturday when the Racers go up against the supremely large and athletic fourth-seeded Seminoles of Florida State.
2. Fletcher Magee’s record-setting day
With seven made treys in Wofford’s 84-68 win over Seton Hall, Fletcher Magee passed former Oakland sharp-shooter Travis Bader to become the NCAA’s all-time leader in career made three-pointers.
It’s been a season full of history for Magee, who back in January broke Steph Curry’s Southern Conference record for made three-pointers in a career. Now he’s the biggest reason why the Terriers are moving on to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Is this ok? Is this something we should be cheering? I don’t even know. Who cares?
A 3-seed playing without its head coach at the start of a tournament run that’s almost certainly going to be vacated by the NCAA is sort of uncharted territory, but maybe that’s what makes it ... fun? Again, this is weird.
LSU led 14-seed Yale comfortably for most of the afternoon in Jacksonville, but a late flurry from the Bulldogs that included four three-pointers in the game’s final minute created some anxious moments for the Tigers at the free-throw line. Skyler Mays stepped up to the occasion and sank all his freebies to lock up a 79-74 win, LSU’s first NCAA tournament win in a decade.
Let me know if this isn’t ok.
4. Ja Morant’s dad
Zion Williamson is going to be taken No. 1 in this summer’s NBA Draft, but that’s ok with Papa Morant, who thinks his son needs to be selected with pick zero.
The entire Morant family can do no wrong in my eyes.
5. Kentucky’s Wildcats vs. Wildcats trend continues
With their 79-44 rout of Abilene Christian now in the books, three of Kentucky’s last four NCAA tournament games have come against teams that are also nicknamed the Wildcats. What’s weirder is the only reason why that streak isn’t four straight is because Buffalo upset the Arizona Wildcats in the first round of last year’s tournament to face UK in round two.
Look, I know this cheer isn’t great, but you have to at least say something about Kentucky in these things or all hell breaks loose. You deal with this subpar cheer so I don’t have to deal with the emails. That’s the deal we’re making here.
Kentucky goes from Wildcats to Terriers (Wofford) on Saturday.
1. Jalen Smith, Maryland
Not only was this dunk the most vicious of day one, it also served as arguably the biggest moment in the final minutes of Maryland’s 79-77 win over Belmont.
2. Ja Morant, Murray State
The top highlight of a performance chock full of them.
3. Elijah Childs, Bradley
Bradley put the fear of Middle Tennessee into Tom Izzo and company for about 35 minutes. This cram near the start of the second half was the first sign that the Braves weren’t going to go quietly.
1. Find some teammates (and fans) who are as in sync as Ja Morant’s
2. The Getty gallery from the Murray State-Marquette game has a ton of beautiful shots of Morant in action ... and also this one of poor Devin Gilmore
3. Maryland’s Jalen Smith with the dunk of the day
1. “Teams should be scared to play us.” —Murray State G Brion Whitley
2. “This was the best year of my life. The fact that this team is no more — they’ll have another team next year and they’ll be really good — but it won’t be this team, it won’t be this group of the guys, that’s probably the hardest part.” —Louisville senior PG Christen Cunningham on the brutal side of March
3. “I played them seven times at Albany. I’m very familiar with them, they’re familiar with me. They definitely had the upper hand in my last school, so it felt good to beat them with the help of these guys around me.” —Florida State’s David Nichols, who beat Vermont after having lost five straight games to the Catamounts during his time at Albany
Fingers crossed for a madder Friday (all times EST).
South: No. 7 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 Iowa, 12:15 p.m. (CBS)
South: No. 8 Ole Miss vs. No. 9 Oklahoma, 12:40 p.m. (truTV)
West: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 14 Northern Kentucky, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
South: No. 4 Kansas State vs. No. 13 UC Irvine, 2 p.m. (TBS)
South: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Colgate, 2:45 p.m.* (CBS)
South: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Gardner Webb, 3:10 p.m.* (truTV)
West: No. 6 Buffalo vs. No. 11 Arizona State/St. John’s, 4 p.m.* (TNT)
South: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Oregon, 4:30 p.m.* (TBS)
Midwest: No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Washington, 6:50 p.m. (TNT)
East: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 North Carolina Central/North Dakota State, 7:10 p.m. (CBS)
Midwest: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 14 Georgia State, 7:20 p.m. (TBS)
East: No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Liberty, 7:27 p.m. (truTV)
Midwest: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Iona, 9:20 p.m.* (TNT)
East: No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 UCF, 9:40 p.m.* (CBS)
Midwest: No. 6 Iowa State vs. No. 11 Ohio State, 9:50 p.m.* (TBS)
East: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 St. Louis, 9:57 p.m. (truTV)
*start times estimated, after first game ends