Have you ever overslept?
The sensation is unmistakable — that moment, before you’re really actually awake, when it hits you. You don’t even need to look at the clock. You just know.
The 2017 NCAA tournament knows this feeling.
What happens next is pretty crazy: The same brain that coasted through multiple alarms, that was none the wiser as the hours wafted by, instantly jolts to life. The adrenaline pours in. The bed might as well be on fire. In seconds: Up, clothes, phone, keys, go. Awake.
By the tournament’s own standards, the first round has stayed in bed far longer than it should have. A historically sleepy opening round Thursday was followed by an only slightly less drowsy Friday. For the second straight day, a nation eagerly awaiting its annual first-round diet of upsets, buzzer-beaters and mind-blowing moments went more or less unfed. The Big Dance dozed along, oblivious to its typical obligations.
Now, it’s time to wake up.
This is the chief upside of this field’s listless opening days. The dearth of wackiness Thursday and Friday and the lack of one-off mid-major Cinderellas has produced a second round chock-full of exciting matchups between legitimately ambitious teams. What the remaining field lacks in plucky charm it more than makes up for in sheer basketball quality. Precisely because it overslept, this bracket has no choice now but to jolt awake.
The interlopers have been expelled. Of the 32 teams still playing, just two entered Friday ranked outside the top 40 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings. One of those teams is a Pac-12 outfit with more than a few former ESPN 100 recruits in its rotation. The other? Michigan State.
The former, USC, represented Friday’s only real upset, and thus the only real upset of the entire first round. (Xavier was a two-point underdog against an overrated Maryland team; Middle Tennessee was a favorite). The Trojans, for all their talent and Pac-12 prestige, were a First Four team on the cusp of the bubble for the final few weeks before Selection Sunday. In 18 games, they outscored their conference — which earned just four tournament bids and had its fair share of bad teams to counterbalance Arizona, Oregon and UCLA — by just 0.007 points per possession. (For reference’s sake, Oregon outscored the Pac-12 by 0.21 points per trip.) Clearly athletic and obviously talented, USC was never truly bad. Just vaguely disappointing.
Meanwhile, SMU spent the 2016-17 season exceeding all expectations — especially on the offensive end. The Mustangs were one of the best shooting teams in the country, particularly from long range; versatile 6-foot-8 forward Semi Ojeleye, a former Duke blue-chipper, was one of the best all-around offensive players in college basketball. SMU: Great shooting, elite offensive rebounding, Ojeleye. If there was any team seemingly suited to torch a zone — especially a zone played by a team that was thoroughly average on the 693 zone possessions it played prior to the tournament, per Synergy scouting data — it was SMU.
Yet on Friday, between fast-break buckets and clever spread ball-screen sets, the Trojans’ zone held SMU scoreless for massive chunks of the second half. By the time Mustangs guard Shake Milton came up short on a would-be winner at the horn, USC had engineered the most unexpected result of the first round.
A Pac-12 bubble team beating a program whose last tournament win came 29 years ago is hardly the stuff of Cinderella. Save Northwestern, it was the closest thing the first two days of the tournament had to offer — and it made SMU the only team in the KenPom.com top 20 who failed to show up for the second round. Higher seeds went 26-6 in the first round.
This is the tournament we’re having.
Don’t get us wrong: There have been good, entertaining games along the way, including a handful more on Friday. Wichita State’s win over Dayton was high-level stuff on both sides; Marquette and South Carolina went up and down for 40 minutes; Seton Hall and Arkansas provided some officiating controversy. Kent State induced some UCLA-related anxiety. Michigan’s bravura shooting performance (the Wolverines made 16 of their 29 3-point attempts — and won by one!) against Oklahoma State continued their run of inspired post-plane crash play. The tournament’s built-in stakes mean that every win and every loss carries emotional weight.
Also, there’s college basketball on all day. Basketball is awesome. We’re not complaining.
Still, the best is undoubtedly yet to come. On Saturday, the round of 32 will give us no less than Virginia vs. Florida, Notre Dame vs. West Virginia, Saint Mary’s vs. Arizona, Iowa State vs. Purdue and Wisconsin vs. Villanova. At various points this season, that collection would have sounded like the makings of a pretty great Sweet 16. It doesn’t even account for the inherent intrigue of Northwestern’s second-round (Northwestern is in the second round of the NCAA tournament!!!) matchup with No. 1-seed Gonzaga.
And that’s just Saturday! On Sunday, we get Michigan State’s precocious youth, fresh off a blowout against Miami, versus national-title-or-bust top-seed Kansas; a super-hot, physical Rhode Island taking on a Chris Boucher-less Oregon; UNC and Arkansas trying to run each other out of the gym on every trip; the vast ideological gulf between UCLA and Cincinnati; and, not least, Michigan’s can’t-miss offense against Louisville’s devastating D.
Oh, and the mother of second-round matchups, the one that beckoned from the minute it was revealed Selection Sunday: vastly underseeded, extremely dangerous No. 10-seed Wichita State facing Kentucky for the first time since the Wildcats ended the Shockers’ 35-0 season in 2013-14.
That remarkable second round couldn’t have existed without such a forgettable first. Because Thursday and Friday were eerily peaceful, Saturday and Sunday’s results are sure to be tectonic.
This is what happens when you oversleep. You don’t ease in. You don’t hit snooze. You wake up because you have to wake up, because that unmistakable moment has arrived and your brain has kicked into overdrive, and that’s it — off to the races, jacked on adrenaline, from zero to 100 in a few seconds.
The 2017 NCAA tournament overslept. Now it’s time to wake up.