SportsPulse: While Liberty and UC Irvine busted brackets around the country, Duke and Zion Williamson aced their first tournament test. USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick recaps day 2 and looks ahead to Saturday’s action.
Ah, madness. The NCAA tournament’s 64 first-round teams have been sliced down to 32 over the course of the last two days and Friday’s 16 games delivered enough upsets to ruin brackets and leave us wanting more.
Here’s a look at the 10 biggest takeaways from Day 2:
1. Liberty was the Cinderella we’d been waiting for. After Thursday’s first-round action left us Cinderella-less, Friday gave us the bracket-buster we’d been hoping for all along. The Liberty Flames upset Mississippi State to become the third No. 12 seed to knock off a No. 5. But it was how they did it that gave them the tournament’s best One Shining Moment so far. March star Caleb Homesley scored 22 of his 30 points in the second half to help rally Liberty from a double-digit deficit. After Lovell Cabbil drained a momentous three-pointer to give his team a 72-70 edge with 1:16 left, the senior guard celebrated with the Liberty student section — which traveled cross-country from the school’s Virginia campus.
Whether it was Cabbil finding Homesley for a backdoor dunk or role players drawing charges and getting big-time blocks, the last five minutes was March Madness perfection.
NCAA BRACKETS: See the winners, losers and upsets
Maybe Mississippi State wasn’t a juggernaut blue-blood opponent (making its first tourney appearance since 2009), but their obvious advantage in the size and athleticism departments made the Bulldogs the ideal villain. And while we were expecting a more boring style from this defensive oriented team led by coach Ritchie McKay (he’s a former Virginia assistant, go figure), it was the unexpected offensive surges that led to this program-lifting victory.
2. ‘Little brother’ UC Irvine’s day was just as epic. Earlier in the day, the No. 13-seeded Anteaters became the day’s first darling by knocking off No. 4 Kansas State, a team that won the Big 12 and advanced to last year’s Elite Eight. UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner told the behind-the-scenes trajectory story after his team’s first-ever NCAA tournament win: “UC Irvine, folks, I don’t know, live in the shadow, live like little brothers to UCLA and (USC) and maybe some others, Cal, Stanford, San Diego State. Maybe like little brothers. Well, little brother has been in the weight room, getting better, getting ready for a chance like this.” All those teams Turner mentioned are at home whereas the mid-major Anteaters are still dancing.
UC Irvine had its star, too, with Max Hazzard (19 points) drilling a buzzer-beating three-pointer before half time and then a dagger three-pointer with 1:30 left. “The stage doesn’t get much bigger than this,” Hazzard said afterwards. No, it really doesn’t.
SportsPulse: We have our first real bracket buster of the tournament: UC Irvine. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson explains how they did it and if they’re a threat to make a legit cinderella run.
3. There was something in the water in San Jose. Both those aforementioned upsets happened in San Jose, as did Oregon’s somewhat expected upset of No. 5 Wisconsin as the Ducks continue to flourish as one of the tournament’s hottest teams that wouldn’t even be here had they not won the Pac-12 tournament’s auto bid. Three huge upsets in one day made San Jose the jackpot of all tourney locations for fans who buy tickets and never know exactly what they’re in for.
4. Zion Williamson is undoubtedly the tournament’s biggest star. The Duke star freshman would shout so loud after his tenacious dunks in Friday’s first round NCAA tournament win over North Dakota State that spectators around the country watching the game on CBS could hear (and feel) the 6-7, 285-pound forward’s power and passion. After starting off shaky in the first half against the No. 16-seeded Bison — only up four at the half — Williamson used the second half to show everyone watching he’s this tournament’s most exciting star (sorry, Ja Morant). Williamson, who finished with 25 points on 12-for-16 field goals, said after the game that coach Mike Krzyzewski told the team at halftime to “just relax and play Duke basketball.” Mission accomplished. Williamson and his player of the year teammate R.J. Barrett (26 points, 14 rebounds) make this team a must-watch — even against an inferior opponent.
5. Virginia is not last year’s Virginia. It was a painful spell of déjà vu for a Virginia team that’s determined to silence doubters. The Cavaliers gave themselves a scare against another inspired No. 16 seed in Gardner-Webb, and their disastrous first half that saw them trailing by six at the half had the nation gasping for a repeat of history. But ultimately the second half showed why this Virginia team is a far cry from the one that got stunned by UMBC last year. UVA’s De’Andre Hunter (23 points) is the ultimate X-factor for this team, and Mamadi Diakite used his size to quickly put this game away in the second half. So the narrative continues for a team that uses coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense and patient offensive system to beat more athletic teams: Can Virginia avenge last year’s heartbreak?
What All-American Kyle Guy said in November still rings true today — perhaps more than ever now: “Pretty positive they’re going to make an ESPN ’30 for 30′ on the (UMBC loss). We might as well make it a better story for us. … For me, a national championship is the only way to shut everyone up.”
6. The Big Ten is ruling the tournament. The conference went 7-1 in the first round just one year after putting only four teams in the NCAA tournament. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the seven teams ties a record first set by the Big East in 2008 and 2011 for berths from a single conference in the second round.
“It’s the best league I’ve ever been a part of, this year in the Big Ten. I can’t explain how difficult it is on a given night,” Ohio State Chris Holtmann said after the No. 11 seeded Buckeyes took down Iowa State late Friday. Both No. 10 seeds Iowa and Minnesota also beat better-seeded teams, while the rest of the league (outside of Wisconsin) beat their higher-seeded opponent to advance to the second round.
7. Texas Tech and Buffalo both look like Final Four contenders in the West. The seemingly weak West continues to not look so weak anymore, putting Selection Sunday first impressions to bed. Texas Tech shook off Northern Kentucky behind Jarrett Culver’s 29 points, while Buffalo dominated its first-round opponent, Arizona State. Now, both teams meet each other in the second round, with the winner a viable Final Four threat.
“We can play with anybody in the country,” Buffalo guard Jeremy Harris said after his team’s 91-74 win over ASU. “It’s good to get a win but we’re not done yet.”
8. Tennessee looked beatable and dangerous; No. 10 seed Iowa is next. The Volunteers barely staved off No. 15-seeded Colgate in a game that saw them get flashbacks to last year’s upset to Loyola-Chicago as a No. 3 seed. “I think a game like today is what makes the NCAA Tournament the NCAA Tournament,” coach Rick Barnes said. True, but it also begs the question as to whether this team’s Final Four — or even Sweet 16 — stock is as good as advertised. While the thought going into the tournament was that the Vols would get a tough draw against Cincinnati in the second round, instead they’ll be seeing an Iowa team that looked awfully impressive in ousting the Bearcats.
9. Houston marksman Corey Davis Jr. can carry his team to the Sweet 16 and further. The Cougars guard drained six consecutive three-pointers, finishing with seven on the day in his shooting barrage that encapsulates how good this Houston team is. Coach Kelvin Sampson said after the win, “this is such a special group of kids in terms of their preparation and leadership. We’re moving towards out goal. Our focus is just to live to fight another day.” That’ll come Sunday vs. Ohio State.
10. Can UCF challenge Duke? The Knights, another AAC dark-horse, took care of business in dispatching VCU in the first round Friday. But now they draw Duke on Sunday. Can they hang with the heavily-favored Blue Devils? Well, one thing is certain and it’s that we’ll be seeing two otherworldly humans.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.