March Madness Friday recap: Welcome back to the tournament, where nobody knows anything

Jeff Eisenberg and Henry Bushnell
·6 min read

It had been 711 days. Seven hundred and 11 days since proper Madness, since Virginia and Texas Tech gripped us, since the drama and unpredictability that we all love. The NCAA men's basketball tournament returned in full force on Friday, finally, after an excruciating hiatus, and ... it was everything we remembered.

It was overtimes and tense finishes.

It was dunks and clutch shots.

And most of all, it reminded us that nobody knows anything.

Every year, as if ritual, certain upset picks become popular. Others get ignored. And guess which ones materialize?

On Friday, the least popular No. 15 seed stunned Ohio State.

The least popular No. 12 seed ran Tennessee out of Indianapolis.

The second-least popular No. 13 seed knocked off Purdue.

And what about the day's trendiest upset pick?

A wounded Villanova team playing without the injured Big East co-player of the year still had little trouble dispatching 12th-seeded Winthrop.

Welcome back to the most confounding sporting event on earth. Here are the big storylines from Day 1.

The story that the NCAA wants to disappear

First, though, a word about the biggest story of the tournament, or rather the tournaments, which are alarmingly unequal. It's the story that the NCAA, rotten to its core, hopes will go away once the basketball begins. It shouldn't; can't; won't.

The NCAA on Friday apologized for glaring inequities between the women's and men's basketball tournaments – most notably between the weight rooms and training equipment available to women's and men's teams. It has said it will correct the disparities.

What's more important, as South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said, is that the NCAA chose to create them in the first place. This didn't happen by accident. It was the result of conscious decisions and institutional inequities. Don't pay attention to its carefully worded statements and manufactured regret. Pay attention to what it did, and what it does in the future.

The brilliance and blunders that produced Friday's biggest upset

The biggest on-court storyline of the day was No. 15 Oral Roberts over No. 2 Ohio State. And the two teams were equally responsible for it.

The upset, which KenPom tabbed with a 4.9% probability at tipoff, was on one side a tale of two brilliant players. Max Abmas, Division I's leading scorer, and Kevin Obanor combined for 59 of Oral Roberts' 75 points, and 10 of the team's 11 3-pointers.

This was a game, though, that Ohio State absolutely should have won. It pitted the nation's fourth-ranked offense against a bottom-100 defense. The Buckeyes, though, strayed from what they do so well. They seemed to force bully-ball down Oral Roberts' throat, and labored to less than a point per possession.

Still, star guard Duane Washington had the game in his hands. His guilt-edged miss on a wide open 3 that would have sent the game to double-OT will be remembered. The single most important play of the game, however, was the final one of regulation. Ohio State had 15 seconds and a final shot with the game tied. Only Washington touched the ball. He settled for a step-back 21-footer rather than working for a high-percentage shot. If a single moment represented Ohio State's downfall, it was that one.

Oral Roberts players celebrate after beating Ohio State in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
Oral Roberts players celebrate after upsetting Ohio State. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Was the once-proud ACC even worse than we realized?

For months, the most common criticism of this season's ACC was that it featured plenty of good teams but no great ones.

Now it's fair to wonder how many good ones there even were.

Of the seven ACC teams that received NCAA tournament bids, four didn't survive the first full day of action. Clemson (7), North Carolina (9), Georgia Tech (9) and Virginia Tech (10) all lost first-round games on Friday, the Tar Heels and Yellowjackets in convincing fashion.

The ACC's unlikely savior was Syracuse, which finished eighth in the league in the regular season and barely slipped into the NCAA tournament. Buddy Boeheim scored 30 points and the Orange buried 15 of 27 threes en route to a 78-62 demolition of sixth-seeded San Diego State.

The other remaining two ACC teams will try to further restore the league's honor on Saturday. Fourth-seeded Florida State faces a dangerous UNC Greensboro team. And after not being allowed to practice or even convene all week, COVID-19-stricken Virginia will try to avoid an upset against 13th-seeded Ohio.

Whatever happens the rest of the tournament, the ACC's main problem is that three of its big fish performed more like minnows this season. Duke fell a couple wins short of even reaching the NCAA tournament, Louisville was a surprise exclusion from the field and North Carolina was never really North Carolina.

That was enough to doom the ACC to its worst season since conference expansion nearly a decade ago.

Danger may be lurking the 8/9 seed line

Neither Illinois nor Baylor had any problems demolishing 16 seeds on Friday, but the Illini and Bears could encounter tougher competition in the round of 32.

They'll both have to survive matchups with teams that are not only ranked in KenPom's top 10 but also looked the part of threats to topple a No. 1 seed.

The juiciest matchup will be the in-state showdown between Illinois and a Loyola Chicago team that is better than the one that played in the Final Four three years ago. To the delight of Sister Jean, the Ramblers advanced on Friday by demolishing Moses Wright-less Georgia Tech on the offensive glass

Nearly as compelling will be Baylor's matchup with an eighth-seeded Wisconsin team that flailed down the stretch in Big Ten play but looked reborn in an 85-62 rout of North Carolina on Friday evening. Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice outclassed the Tar Heels' erratic backcourt and the Badgers snapped Roy Williams' 29-game first-round win streak.

Those two tricky 8-versus-1 second-round matchups won't be the only ones either. Whoever survives Saturday's LSU-St. Bonaventure clash is capable of challenging a wounded Michigan team two days later.

Other notes

  • The Scott Drew coaching tree sent three teams to the round of 32 on Friday. In addition to Baylor's rout of 16th-seeded Hartford, former longtime Bears assistants Paul Mills (Oral Roberts) and Grant McCasland (North Texas) engineered two of the day's biggest upsets.

  • The 2021 NCAA tournament may threaten the record for overtime games. Four games have already required an extra five minutes. The record for a single tournament is seven, established in 1995 and then matched in 1997 and 2014.

  • The Cade Cunningham show didn't quite meet expectations. In his NCAA tournament debut, the presumptive No. 1 pick shot 3-for-14 from the field and failed to score a first-half basket. Cunningham did contribute 14 points in the second half to help Oklahoma State stave off Liberty's upset bid.

  • Two unfathomably long streaks of futility ended Friday. Oregon State's upset of fifth-seeded Tennessee was its first NCAA tournament victory since 1982. Rutgers' victory over seventh-seeded Clemson was its first NCAA tournament win since 1983. The longest drought for a power-conference team? That still belongs to Nebraska, which improbably has never won in seven NCAA tournament appearances.