O26 NCAA Tourney Reflections: What Went Right & What Went Wrong

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 13th, 2015

Now that we’ve all had some time to decompress, let’s look back on a few of the successes, failures, and shining moments for O26 squads this March.

What Went Right

Ron Hunter provided one of the iconic moments of March. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Ron Hunter provided one of the iconic moments of March. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

  • The #14 seeds Came to Play. The NCAA Tournament wasted no time producing its madness, thanks largely to a trio of plucky #14 seeds. In a span of roughly three hours on the first Thursday afternoon, two #3 seeds were toppled and another narrowly avoided defeat – immediately satisfying our expectations of chaos. First, UAB – the youngest team in the Dance – overcame an early 12-2 deficit against Big 12 Tournament champion Iowa State, stormed back, and knocked off the Cyclones by one, 60-59. Shortly thereafter, Georgia State, trailing Baylor by 10 points with under two minutes left, staged an improbable upset of its own, punctuated by R.J. Hunter’s game-winning three-pointer and his father’s subsequent antics. Even Northeastern had a shot to beat Notre Dame with 30 seconds to play. “They took the bullet, not us,” Irish coach Mike Brey said afterward, referring to all the #14-on-#3 crime elsewhere around the country. Before most of America had time to leave the office, a few of the month’s most exciting and improbable results had already played out. And it was pretty awesome.
  • Ron Hunter’s One Shining Moment. After tearing his Achilles in the Sun Belt championship game just a few days earlier, Georgia State coach Ron Hunter provided the signature moment of opening weekend in the Panthers’ upset win over Baylor. The fifth-year head man literally fell off his rolling chair following his son’s (R.J. Hunter) go-ahead three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left, then – completely overwhelmed by joy – bent over and placed his head in his hands as the clock expired. The emotional father/son press conference afterward further added to the drama: “It was a great game, but I’m not going to coach, I’m going to be Dad right now… This is my son. Proud of him.” Not only was it among the biggest victories in Georgia State program history, but it earned Ron Hunter a TBS guest analyst spot during the following weekend.

  • Validation for Wichita State; Vindication for Gonzaga. Wichita State fans finally got the match-up they wanted – and it just so happened to come on college basketball’s grandest stage. Two seasons after reaching the Final Four and one year removed from a 35-1 campaign, the Shockers – perhaps underseeded as a #7 – were placed in the same pod as Kansas, setting up one of the more highly-anticipated round of 32 games in recent memory. And boy did Gregg Marshall’s group deliver. The Missouri Valley champs hammered their intrastate foe, 78-65, in the schools’ first meeting since 1993 – a gap partly attributed to the Jayhawks’ recent scheduling reluctance. The victory put Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time in a decade and helped further validate its place among the elite O26 programs in America. For Gonzaga, already an exemplary O26 powerhouse, March provided an opportunity to show that its firm national respect has been well-justified – despite having suffered first-weekend defeats in each of the previous five seasons. Mark Few’s tall and talented club made good on that chance, breezing past North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA on the way to its first Elite Eight appearance since 1999. Despite coming up a bit short against Duke – the eventual National Champion – the Bulldogs silenced many of their critics over the course of two weekends.

What Went Wrong

UC Irvine was one of several O26 underdogs that came up just short. (Michael Goulding / OC Register)

UC Irvine was one of several O26 underdogs that came up just short. (Michael Goulding/OC Register)

  • Cinderella Never Showed Up to the Ball. Outside of Wichita State and Gonzaga, no other O26 participant reached the Sweet Sixteen – which is to say that the NCAA Tournament was devoid of a true Cinderella this season. UAB and Georgia State followed their Thursday afternoon magic with double-digit losses in the round of 32. Dayton, last year’s Cindy sweetheart, blew a second-half lead against #3 seed Oklahoma and bowed out in that round too. Wofford, Harvard, UC Irvine and others came close to pulling off shockers – which may have led to even bigger shockers – but came up just short in the opening round. As a result, for the first time since 1999, no double-digit seeds from non-power conferences reached the second weekend – a major bummer for those in search of another March fairy tale.
  • Close… But Not Close Enough. Several O26 underdogs came oh-so-close to pulling off upsets only to come up empty against their higher-seeded counterparts. Harvard, a #13 seed, led North Carolina at the 1:15 mark before losing its edge and eventually falling by two. Wofford missed a game-winning three-point attempt in a narrow loss to #5 seed Arkansas. UC Irvine nearly toppled #4 seed Louisville – only to turn the ball over on its final possession – while fellow #14 seed Valparaiso was stifled by Maryland on its game-tying, buzzer-beating attempt. All told, seven low-seeded mid-majors lost by seven points or fewer in the round of 64, the majority of which had a chance to tie or win their games in the final minute. Unfortunately, ‘close’ isn’t close enough.
  • No Second Weekend for the Atlantic 10. For the first time since 2007, no program from the ever-shifting Atlantic 10 reached the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. And perhaps it was fitting, considering the league’s down year in which just three teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament – the fewest since 2011. Regular season champion Davidson was walloped by Iowa in the first round, 83-52, vastly overmatched by the Hawkeyes’ interior size. Conference tournament champion VCU, also a #7 seed, lost to Ohio State in overtime that same day. And although #11 seed Dayton managed to beat Boise State in the First Four and upset Providence in the round of 64, it was unable to keep that momentum going against #3 seed Oklahoma two days later.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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