Tourney pressure brings March heroes
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- And on the second day of basketball, March exhaled.
The combo platter of the first afternoon of the NCAA tournament segueing into the revelry of St. Patrick's Day can make for a heck of a hoops hangover.
Consider Friday your breather.
But don't confuse breather with unimportant.
The month of March is about many things. Yes, there are wild wins and heartbreaking losses, Cinderellas and busted brackets.
But the undercurrent coursing through the month's madness is always the same: It is about enormous pressure.
The arc of an entire season can change in a 40-minute span, a successful year obliterated by a guy with an unpronounceable name like Farokhmanesh or a great season made unforgettable by a savior named Hayward.
Those who live up to the pressure, who thrive under it and welcome the scrutiny, become our March heroes.
Those who don't?
Well, we don't remember them much.
On a day devoid of shocking upsets and with a good deal more order, Friday did offer up a nice little sociological study in the fishbowl world of the NCAA tournament, of those who welcomed the burden of expectation and those who preferred the fetal position.
We start by handing out the roses, heaping praise on those carrying the biggest loads: the high seeds who handled their mantle with aplomb. No. 1 seeds Ohio State, Duke and Kansas all enjoyed a stroll through the opening round and by the end of the night, 15 of the top 16 seeds (Louisville the lone exception) moved on, showing that while much of the selection committee's decision was curious, the anointing of the top seeds was not.
We also say well done to the Big Ten. Lauded at the beginning of the season as the country's toughest conference, it got run over by the big rig that was the Big East. Yet here, where the scores matter most, the league is restoring its luster.
Five of its seven tourney teams are in the round of 32 (that's a 71.4 percent success rate versus 63.6 percent for the Big East's seven of 11) and four of them on Friday got there by virtue of what can only be described as an authoritative beatdown. Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan and Illinois won by 29, 22, 30 and 11 points, respectively. In all, the Big Ten has won by an average of 21.2 points, its third-most impressive round of 64 performance ever.
Kudos, too, to two leagues thumbing their noses at the establishment. The "lowly" Pac-10 has three teams moving forward and the Colonial Athletic Association, with a VCU team that "didn't belong" in the tournament, has two of its three moving ahead -- only a buzzer-beater preventing a perfect 3-for-3.
There is attention and then there is the blinding glare of a spotlight that comes with prodigious talent wrapped in a uniform that reads "Duke." Kyrie Irving returned to the court for the first time since injuring his big toe on Dec. 4 and with no less than all the eyes of college basketball watching, the freshman wasn't too shabby: 14 points, four rebounds, two steals, one block, one assist in 20 minutes against Hampton.
Of course in the yin and yang that is sport, for every winner there is a loser; for every team or player that stands tall in the face of a challenge there are those who wilt like daisies in the desert.
And so to the other side, the ignominious ides of March.
In the scorched earth wake of athletic director Mike Hamilton's ill-timed words, is it any surprise that Tennessee had no fight? The Volunteers have been trying to block out the noise since September and instead were put in the crossfire days before their biggest game by their own leader.
The seed pairing against Michigan said 8-9, but the final score was more 1-16, a 75-45 whipping -- the most lopsided 8-9 game in history -- that was equal parts impressive effort by the Wolverines and flat-out quit from the Vols.
If this was the end for Bruce Pearl -- and all signs say that it was -- it was a fitting debacle of a finish in a bullet train-ride-to-disaster of a season. Once portrayed as a victim of his honesty in an unethical business, an NCAA investigation instead revealed Pearl to be no different than those he professed to be outing years ago as an assistant.
There was no "win one for the Gipper" moment here, just an ugly end to an ugly year.
The Volunteers, though, weren't the only ones who couldn't handle the scrutiny.
Officials typically don't mind being held under the microscope. They do not, however, like being the lead actors in a drama. Jim Burr stood center stage for a good 24 hours after he and his crew fell apart in the final seconds of a Big East tournament game between St. John's and Rutgers. Burr wisely disappeared for a while, opting not to work the rest of the week in New York.
Or at least in Arizona, it will go down that way.
In Memphis, it will be viewed through a slightly different prism. Namely that Witherspoon was fouled by Williams -- or at the very least by Jamelle Horne a moment before -- and Burr blew the call.
For Villanova, there is no handy scapegoat to carry the blame. Not even a "we was robbed" to throw at the officials.
No, the Wildcats made their own mess and made it quite nicely.
Villanova limped into the NCAA tournament as the first team to lose its final five games and still receive a bid.
When they threw the ball up in Cleveland, the Wildcats, like Robert Frost, came upon two roads diverging.
Villanova chose the path no one wants to take, the one that finishes in a dead-end dark alley manned only by mangy, feral cats.
Nova's final game of the season, a loss to George Mason, was a microcosm of everything that ailed the Cats this year: a frenetically disastrous finish showing a lack of gumption, poise and leadership.
As the final seconds ticked away in the game that technically wasn't an upset -- Mason was the No. 8 seed to Villanova's 9 -- one wondered who would come up big.
Luke Hancock provided the answer. In eight of his previous nine games, the sophomore failed to make a single 3-pointer.
Yet with the game on the line, Hancock brazenly faked like he was driving to the basket. Corey Stokes bit and before the Villanova senior could correct himself, Hancock stepped back, set his feet and fired.
That is how you deal with pressure in March.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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