- Eamonn Brennan
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Every year, we call the first two days of the NCAA tournament the best two days in all of sports.
There's a reason no one ever disagrees.
A year ago, the opening Thursday produced the most first-day upsets since 1991. This year, March Madness's opening act gave us the closest, most competitive and arguably most thrilling first afternoon of tournament hoops since well, maybe ever.
Yes, that sounds like hyperbole. But those who followed the action -- from Butler's buzzer-beating win versus ODU to Temple's near-buzzer-beater versus Penn State, from 13th-seeded Morehead State's 62-61 shocker of Louisville to the last-second floater Kentucky's Brandon Knight hit to push his team past upset-minded Princeton -- saw the tournament's trademark hysteria unfold in glorious real time. If you woke up Thursday morning wondering why this competition captures the imagination of so many Americans every year, by midafternoon Thursday you had your answer.
Even by the Dance's own high standard, this opening afternoon was a classic. Five of Thursday's first seven games were decided by three points or less. Four of those games were decided by two points or less, which was already the most for any tournament day since 1990. The action unfolded in an unrelenting storm. It gave us upsets, escapes and everything in between. By the time things settled down, viewers were both dazed and spoiled: Hey, these games aren't that close! Wait what just happened?
West Virginia's win over Clemson was the official start of the day, but the afternoon thrill ride truly began in Washington, D.C., where No. 8 Butler beat No. 9 Old Dominion thanks to the slimmest and timeliest of margins. For 40 minutes, the game was marked by physical, grinding play; neither team ever opened a lead larger than five points. Then, as the seconds ticked to zero on Butler's final possession and Shawn Vanzant's haphazard attempt rattled on the rim, Bulldogs forward Matt Howard crashed the glass, grabbed the rebound and tossed the putback off the backboard with no more than 0.1 seconds remaining. ODU was stunned. Butler was ecstatic. The Madness had begun.
It didn't stop for hours. Thanks to the new TV schedule -- which allows remote-ready viewers to see every finish as it unfolds -- the hoops-viewing public quickly cast its eye toward the biggest upset of the day. That upset came in Denver, as the leading rebounder in modern-day Division I history, Kenneth Faried, willed the 13-seed Morehead State Eagles to an "Onions!"-worthy upset over fourth-seeded Louisville. With 4.2 seconds remaining, Morehead guard Demonte Harper pulled up from beyond the arc and swished a picture-perfect 3-pointer to give his team a one-point lead. Louisville scrambled to get a final shot, but Faried was there to block Mike Marra's final attempt. Final score: 62-61. Just like that, the first upset of the day was in the books.
A few minutes later, the buzzer-beater insanity continued in Tucson. With 16 seconds left, Penn State's Talor Battle sank an NBA-range-and-then-some 3 to bring his team even with Temple in the closing moments. Temple called timeout. It inbounded the ball from the sideline. Owls guard Juan Fernandez caught the ball on the wing, ducked under a Nittany Lions defender, leaned in toward the basket and sank an 18-foot jumper with less than a second remaining. Temple's 66-64 victory snapped coach Fran Dunphy's 11-game NCAA tournament losing streak, the longest among active coaches.
OK, so those three games were great. But it had to end somewhere, right? Surely we were due for a blowout. Surely Kentucky -- the blue-blood program with the blue-chip roster -- could bring some measure of balance to the proceedings.
Not exactly. Not at all. Instead, 13th-seeded Princeton took John Calipari's team all the way to the wire. That's when freshman guard Brandon Knight, who missed every field goal he attempted in his first 39 minutes and 58 seconds, drove to his right hand and banked a floater over Princeton's Kareem Maddox, who happened to be the Ivy League defensive player of the year. It didn't matter. Kentucky avoided the unthinkable upset.
Vanderbilt, the No. 5 seed in the Southwest, wasn't so lucky. Richmond guard Kevin Anderson sank an array of floaters in the closing moments of the No. 12 seed's 69-66 win, and while the outcome wasn't a huge shock -- Richmond is the best No. 12 seed in the 2011 bracket -- it did come thanks to some inspired and clutch play by Anderson and forward Justin Harper, one of the nation's most underrated talents.
Vanderbilt's loss was another disappointing finish to another solid season, and it earned Kevin Stallings and Co. a dubious distinction: The Commodores are the first program to ever lose in the round of 64 three straight times with a seed of 5 or better.
Though we didn't know it yet, there was bad news for viewers, too: With one exception, Vandy-Richmond would be the last truly exciting game of the day.
That exception came courtesy of UCLA and Michigan State, which was a boring blowout for 32 minutes and a thrilling come-from-behind story for eight. With 8:36 left in the second half, UCLA led 64-41 and it was only a matter of time until the 10th-seeded Spartans officially saw this disappointing season come to a close. But MSU, the nation's No. 2 team in the preseason polls, didn't go away. Instead -- thanks to a barrage of 3s and some generous free-throw misses by a clearly rattled Bruins team -- Michigan State turned UCLA's 23-point lead into a one-point affair. Could the Spartans really get this game? Does Tom Izzo have another trick up his sleeve?
In the end, no. MSU fell short late. A travel by senior Kalin Lucas with four seconds left sealed the game (though Lucas' last-second heave was unlikely to change the outcome), which officially ended Izzo's streak of consecutive Final Four appearances at two. He also became the second national title-winning coach -- Louisville's Rick Pitino being the other -- to come up short on Thursday. Two legendary coaches with a legendary track record in March gone on the first day.
By midnight ET, after 12 straight hours of hoops, it was clear those coaches' respective departures were the biggest surprise the night would offer.
San Diego State ran away from Northern Colorado. Florida dominated UC Santa Barbara from start to finish. Connecticut reached cruising altitude in the first 10 minutes of the Huskies' 81-52 win over Bucknell. Popular upset pick Belmont gave Wisconsin a feisty first 30 minutes, but the Badgers cruised to an easy win in the final 10.
The only "upset" of the late action came thanks to No. 11 Gonzaga, but the Zags' impressive 86-71 win over St. John's was akin to Richmond's win over Vanderbilt -- an upset in name only. (St. John's had a fantastic season, but the Red Storm's postseason ceiling was lowered the minute guard D.J. Kennedy tore his ACL in the Big East tournament.) Meanwhile, Cincinnati handled Missouri and Kansas State held off Utah State in the night's final game.
The karmic light-switch responsible for flooding the afternoon with brilliance and intrigue had just as quickly switched off, and but for the UCLA-MSU flicker, it stayed off the rest of the evening.
Still, as opening days go, this one will be hard to beat. The final tally: Sixteen games, six margins of three points or less -- including five won by two points or less, tied for the most for any one day in tournament history -- one No. 13 seed upset, one No. 12 seed "upset," two coaching titans sent packing, and 16 teams that kept their season alive for at least one more game.
But as opening afternoons go, you can't do any better. The first five hours of the first day of the first 68-team NCAA tournament offered some of the most thrilling college hoops action you'll ever see. It exceeded all expectations and threatened all prognostications. It took us on an emotional ride and kept us glued to the screen.
In other words, it was one of the two best days in sports. March Madness at its finest. And the best part of all?
On Friday, we do it all over again.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
While the night games dulled the excitement a bit, what happened on Thursday afternoon was a thrill-ride reminder of what makes the NCAA tournament special.