Not to be a prisoner of the moment, but Thursday was arguably the most compelling day in NCAA Tournament history. Nine games were decided by five points or fewer, five were decided by one point and there were four upsets – and not 9-over-8 upsets. In fact, there were a pair of 14-over-3 upsets: UAB over Iowa State and Georgia State over Baylor, both decided by a point.
While Georgia State had the best finish of the day – R.J. Hunter hit a three-pointer from the parking lot to take down Baylor – UAB’s win was easily the most surprising.
Why? Because the Blazers were just 16-15 entering the Conference USA Tournament, and of the four games they won, two were decided by one point and another went to overtime.
And yet, they beat Iowa State – arguably the best or second-best team from the best conference in America.
“This is March,” CBS Sports college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “Honestly, there’s not that much of a difference between the 30th best team in the country and 100th best team in the country.”
Iowa State trailed by three points at halftime and couldn’t make up the difference. The Cyclones were dominated on the boards, 52-37, and shot just 36.9 percent from the field, including a woeful 6-of-23 (26.1 percent) from three-point range.
“Iowa State had an awful day at the wrong time,” Rothstein said. “Dustin Hogue, who I’ve loved for two years – I’ve regularly said he’s the least appreciated player in college basketball – put up a goose egg against UAB. And Georges Niang, who has struggled to be a go-to guy at times for Iowa State, I thought forced the issue.”
Hogue, a senior, missed all three of his shots from the floor, while Niang, a junior, was just 4-of-15 for 11 points. The Blazers didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard either, shooting just 34.8 percent from the floor and 3-of-18 (16.7 percent) from three, but they controlled the tempo.
“There’s been so much talk – and I really think it’s been a crutch for some people – about what’s wrong with the game and the pace needs to (improve) and this and that,” Rothstein said. “It’s not up to coaches to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s up to coaches to win games. This is not the entertainment business. And (UAB coach) Jarod Haase really did a watered-down version of what Tony Bennett does at Virginia: (He) took the air out of the ball (and) was incredibly physical.”
In the end, William Lee, a top-60 recruit out of high school, took over in crunch time, scoring the final four points for the Blazers. The 6-9 freshman finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, while junior guard Robert Brown finished with a game-high 21 points.
“UAB was the tougher team,” Rothstein said.
The Blazers (20-15, 12-6) will face No. 11 UCLA (21-13, 11-7) this Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET, with the winner to advance to the Sweet 16.
All in all, it was an awful first day for the Big 12, which went 0-3. The Big East, meanwhile, went 4-0.
How do we explain that?
“The best teams in the NCAA Tournament don’t always advance,” Rothstein said. “I think the Big 12 – because of the double round robin – had an advantage and has an advantage because of how competitive the conference has been because you know you’re not going to have an imbalanced schedule. Match-ups have a lot to do with things, (but) you have to call a spade a spade. The Big 12 took it on the chin; the Big East did not.
“But I think really the way that the Big East can separate itself is by what it does on Saturday and Sunday and how may teams it gets in the next weekend,” Rothstein continued. “Because last year the Big East had zero teams in the Sweet 16. This year, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The Big 12 took it on the chin.”