The first full day of the men’s NCAA Tournament returned with the madness we’ve grown to expect.
Friday’s first-round March Madness action gave us a No. 15 seed upsetting a No. 2, a No. 13 seed upsetting a No. 4, a No. 12 seed upsetting a No. 5, and a No. 11 upsetting a No. 6.
Those bracket-busting upsets are precisely what put the madness in March, with the single elimination format delivering a brutal blow to the higher-seeded Big Ten teams of the tourney.
There were also those teams that set out to prove doubters and naysayers wrong by fending off the masses that picked against them (ahem, Villanova, Wisconsin). The only narrative we can expect is one of unexpectedness.
With Friday’s 16 games in the rear-view, here’s a look at six key takeaways:
Oral Roberts is this year’s Cinderella. The Golden Eagles became just the ninth No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to dispatch a No. 2 seed with a thrilling 75-72 win over Ohio State. This team has two stars that provide ammunition for an even deeper March run (Sweet 16?). Max Abmas — the nation’s leading scorer — and sidekick Kevin Obanor combined for 59 points against the Buckeyes. Florida might have the better seed in the second round, but Oral Roberts will have the bracket-busting momentum.
North Texas is also a bracket-buster. The Mean Green put on the second glass slipper of the day by ousting No. 4 Purdue — the second high-seeded Big Ten team to fall in overtime to a mid-major. North Texas, the winner of Conference USA, has two stars in Javion Hamlet and Thomas Bell. Similar to Oral Roberts, North Texas has a nice pathway to potentially reach the Sweet 16, drawing a vulnerable Villanova team missing Big East player of the year Collin Gillespie in the second round. The Sweet 16 is in sight.
NCAA Tournament central
Baylor and Illinois look legit. The two No. 1 seeds in action Friday looked impressive against No. 16 seed opponents — as expected. The Bears (23-2) hammered Hartford by 24 points, while the Fighting Illini (24-6) steamrolled Drexel by 29. Both teams shouldn’t have trouble getting past their second-round opponents, either, to advance to the Sweet 16 on Sunday. In a Dec. 2 game, Baylor got the best of Illinois, but the Illini are much better now. A rematch in the Final Four would make for an epic showdown. Ayo Dosunmu, USA TODAY Sports’ national player of the year, can help carry this team to net-cutting in April.
Syracuse and Oregon State don’t look like double-digit seeds. The No. 11-seeded Orange (17-9) squeezed into the field as a bubble team, and the No. 12-seeded Beavers (18-12) played their way into the field of 68 by winning the Pac-12 tournament. Neither squad looked like a double-digit seed in their convincing first-round wins, as ‘Cuse cruised past No. 6 San Diego State 78-62 behind Buddy Boeheim’s 30 points and OSU won its first tourney game in 39 years by drubbing No. 5 Tennessee 70-56.
Arkansas and Texas Tech emerge as Final Four darkhorses. Both the Razorbacks (23-6) and Red Raiders (18-10) were playing against mid-major Cinderella candidates but were able to flush out those upset bids and, in the process, show why they’re sleeper picks to reach the Final Four. Yes, the Final Four — over an Illinois or Baylor. Coach Eric Musselman showed he knows how to fluctuate game pace in a 17-point win over Colgate. That makes Arkansas dangerous, and Justin Smith’s 29 points and 13 rebounds help that cause. Meanwhile, coach Chris Beard (9-3 in NCAA Tournament games) piloted Texas Tech past Utah State by 12. TTU’s smothering defense forced the Aggies into 22 turnovers and 21% 3-point shooting.
Oklahoma State is more than Cade Cunningham, sort of. The 6-8 point guard, a first-team All-American expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, has the ability to dazzle as the tournament’s main star. On Friday against Liberty, Cunningham was cold and only had six points going into the game’s closing stretch. But even on an off shooting night, Cunningham was able to patiently penetrate the lane and draw fouls to help OSU comfortably pull away and shake off Liberty’s upset bid. Cunningham (3-for-14 from the floor for 15 points), who can explode for 30 or 40 points on any night, has been at his best this season in clutch moments. That’s an exciting notion heading into the second round.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
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