So how’s your March Madness bracket? A 2022 NCAA tournament Thursday that offered all the usual opportunities for upheaval delivered on more than a few of them. The No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats, a very trendy Final Four pick entering the day, lost in shocking fashion to the 15-seed Saint Peter’s Peacocks. The Iowa Hawkeyes, fresh off an impressive showing in a run to the Big Ten tournament title, fell to the Atlantic 10 champion and frequent March Madness giant killer Richmond Spiders.
There were other surprises — New Mexico State over UConn in another 12 vs. 5 upset, North Carolina destroying Marquette in the most lopsided 8 vs. 9 result of all time — and they offered more proof of all the unpredictable things that can happen in a single-elimination tournament filled with nothing but good teams.
As we catch our breath from Day 1 of the first round, ESPN’s panel of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on Thursday’s events and also peeked ahead at a Friday schedule that figures to bring much more Madness.
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What happened to Kentucky against Saint Peter’s, and what’s next for the Wildcats?
For a full breakdown of the Wildcats’ historic loss to the Peacocks and what’s next for both teams, follow this link.
Jordan Bohannon and Iowa suffered another tournament heartbreak against Richmond on Thursday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
Before Kentucky fell, Big Ten tournament champ Iowa busted a lot of brackets with its loss to Richmond. From your perspective, why do the Hawkeyes keep failing to reach the second weekend? Can you give Iowa fans something to feel hopeful about?
Medcalf: The Hawkeyes don’t consistently guard anyone and that’s why they ruined my — our — bracket once again. Fran McCaffery had some solid defensive teams in his early years in Iowa City. But he has had six consecutive seasons with finishes outside the top 75 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. That run includes three years in a row with a top-five finish in adjusted offensive efficiency. Those incredibly imbalanced teams can do great things in the regular season, but they often fail to meet expectations in the postseason. Sure, you have some teams that were great offensive teams and average defensive teams that have made runs. But you don’t see many great offensive teams with terrible defensive metrics cutting down the nets. Richmond wasn’t great offensively, but the Spiders had a few solid runs that changed the game and a strong finish to seal the win.
This year it was Richmond, which finished sixth in the Atlantic 10 standings. Last year, the Hawkeyes gave up 95 points in a double-digit loss to Oregon in the second round. They lost to Tennessee in overtime, 83-77, in the second round in 2019. Iowa continues to encourage these shootouts, but its defensive challenges create postseason challenges.
The positive for Iowa fans? I think a lot of elite transfers have watched Luka Garza win a Wooden Award (nearly two years in a row) and Keegan Murray become a lottery pick in McCaffery’s offense and will believe they can do the same thing in that system. But those top talents couldn’t overcome the program’s defensive challenges to help Iowa reach the second weekend for the first time under McCaffery.
Borzello: It’s easy to point to Iowa’s generally poor defense as the reason the Hawkeyes continue to struggle in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. And it’s certainly true that their offense is always superior to their defense — but it hasn’t always been a fatal flaw. When they were bounced early in 2015 and 2016, they had defenses ranked in the top 35 at KenPom. This year, their defensive ranks were similar to last season — but since Feb. 1, Iowa had a borderline top-50 defense nationally. Not elite, but certainly enough to get past Richmond. So there’s some randomness and “March-ness” to the exits.
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I mean, just look at last year: The Hawkeyes had to play an Oregon team that had lost two of its final 13 games and didn’t even play a first-round game after VCU was forced to withdraw. It’s also worth noting that Iowa had won one game in each of its past four NCAA tournaments, so it’s not like the Hawkeyes suddenly become a different team in the Dance. So I guess those are some reasons for optimism moving forward. At the same time, going 1-2 in two NCAA tournaments with a Wooden Award winner and the second-best player in the country is pretty damning.
Gasaway: March will do whatever it wants every single time, and that’s why this tournament is unparalleled spectator sport. Richmond held the Iowa offense to its third-least efficient outing of the entire season, and the other two were road games. The Hawkeyes recorded 29 3-point attempts and made six. Per sports-reference.com, the last time Iowa tried that many 3s and made six or fewer was in January 2020 at Nebraska (4-of-33). The last time before that was, well, we don’t know. The database goes back to 2010-11, so we know only that the Hawkeyes have fared this poorly on this many attempts just twice in 12 years. One of those times happened to be in the NCAA tournament. March.
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Lunardi: This edition of the Hawkeyes was fifth in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. That seemed to go out the window as soon as Richmond connected on its first back cut, then another and another. The bad, old Iowa defense was back, lacking floor balance and even basic awareness on inbounds plays. And the Spiders might not be done, as their pending matchup with Providence seems fairly even. As for Iowa fans, what you see is what you get. On a continuous loop.
Dontrez Styles and Brady Manek unleash back-to-back jams to extend the Tar Heels’ lead as they dominate Marquette in their NCAA tournament matchup.
What was your biggest surprise from Thursday’s first round?
Borzello: I was all set to pontificate on Michigan’s Frankie Collins, Caleb Love, and North Carolina’s historic decimation of Marquette (more facts and figures from the lopsided UNC win here), but come on, Saint Peter’s over Kentucky! Are you kidding me?! There were a slew of upsets across the board and I personally lost two Final Four teams from my bracket in Kentucky and Iowa, but I feel comfortable saying the Peacocks taking down the Wildcats is going to be the lasting memory from the 2022 NCAA tournament. Shaheen Holloway has done a remarkable job at Saint Peter’s since taking over in Jersey City in 2018. Area coaches will tell you it’s the toughest job in the MAAC — by far — and one of the tougher jobs in the region. For the Peacocks to get into the NCAA tournament and knock off the blueblood of all bluebloods, it’s an unbelievable story. And it’s not over, either. The Peacocks will feel like they have a shot against either Murray State in the second round — and you can also go ahead and add Holloway to all your coaching carousel lists.
I do think we need to show love to the star player of Thursday, though: New Mexico State guard Teddy Allen. Allen is a well-traveled bucket-getter (NMSU is his fifth school), and against UConn, he was unstoppable. He finished with 37 points, made all 13 of his free-throw attempts and carried the Aggies to a 12-over-5 upset win against the Huskies. He also talked a lot of trash as the game ended; he’ll be must-see TV on Saturday.
Medcalf: I mean, it has to be Saint Peter’s finding a way to pull off the 85-79 overtime victory over Kentucky. The 15-2 upset is always fascinating. But this never felt like a remote possibility entering the matchup. There was a legit stretch in January and February when Kentucky looked like one of the two or three best teams in America. The Wildcats have Oscar Tshiebwe, the likely Wooden Award winner. They made 37 percent of their 3-point attempts in SEC play and also had the league’s most efficient offense. Saint Peter’s has an enrollment of 2,355 students. Its leading scorer this season, Daryl Banks III, was unrated as a high school prospect. This wasn’t a 16-1 upset but it was still David vs. Goliath. Then, after the game, Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway — the late 90s Seton Hall star — was asked if he was nervous. “For what?” he said. “It’s basketball.” Man. What a shock on a day full of chaos.
Gasaway: I’m going to build off of the Saint Peter’s earthquake for my answer. The sheer magnitude of the upsets all throughout the day and evening was what surprised me most. It’s easy to forget in retrospect, but dull days do happen occasionally in the NCAA tournament, ones where the overwhelming majority of favored teams win. Not only did we not see that, the teams that went down took a very large number of brackets with them. In the “people’s bracket” at Tournament Challenge, Kentucky, Iowa and UConn were all popular choices to make deep runs. We see it every March, but we have to learn it anew every time. Absolutely any team can lose.
Lunardi: Hello, hello … Saint Peter’s, anyone? Beyond that, the utter decimation of Indiana by Saint Mary’s is a stark reminder of how good the top of the West Coast Conference was this year. The Hoosiers had no chance once the Gaels shook off the opening round jitters and IU realized it had no legs after a First Four victory more than 2,000 miles ago.
Nathan Cayo finishes strong in the paint down the stretch for Richmond in a 67-63 win over Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga trailed 16-seed Georgia State with 13 minutes remaining in the second half, before the Zags flexed their muscles in a 93-72 win. What should we take away from Gonzaga’s performance?
Lunardi: Not a blessed thing, especially with a potential giant killer in Memphis looming in the second round. In November, with preseason rankings in hand, Saturday’s matchup could have been an Elite Eight or Final Four encounter. I’m far more interested in Gonzaga’s ability to respond to the Tigers than its focus against Georgia State.
Gasaway: Yeah, I think I’m with Monsieur Brackets on this one. It was a really, really slow start, but take a look at the final numbers for Chet Holmgren: 19 points, 17 rebounds, 7 blocks, 5 assists and 2 steals. Yes, that was against a Georgia State team that was not only lacking size but also short-handed. Still, we’ve seen Holmgren do this kind of thing against stronger opponents. Speaking of which, I for one am really looking forward to seeing Holmgren go up against Jalen Duren and Memphis.
Borzello: The biggest thing I learned was that Gonzaga should never shoot 3-pointers when it has Drew Timme and Holmgren and the opponent has one player taller than 6-foot-7 and he is in foul trouble. Timme and Holmgren were absolutely dominant against Georgia State, combining for 51 points, 30 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 blocks. They outscored the Panthers in the paint 62-24. But given how Gonzaga looked in the first half and how Memphis looked in the first half of its win over Boise State, Saturday’s game might be closer than people thought entering the NCAA tournament. It will be a big test for Holmgren (and for Duren).
Medcalf: I think we learned that a really good team can always end up in a battle with a big underdog in the NCAA tournament, but that’s probably all it is. I give Rob Lanier a lot of credit for getting this team ready to compete with the top overall seed. For 30 minutes, Georgia State wouldn’t leave Gonzaga alone. The Panthers took advantage of Gonzaga’s abnormally cold offense. And then, Gonzaga turned the corner with that breathtaking run and we had a typical 16 vs. 1 affair in the first round. What I took away from the final 10 minutes was that Timme and Holmgren are a unique pairing and most teams won’t have two big men who can challenge them. Georgia State experienced what the rest of the field could endure in the weeks ahead, too.
Chet Holmgren steals the inbound pass and races down the court to stuff down an and-1 dunk for Gonzaga.
Which game most intrigues you on Friday’s schedule?
Medcalf: I like LSU, a 6-seed, vs. Iowa State, an 11-seed. Kevin Nickelberry is the interim head coach after Will Wade was terminated for cause last week following the release of the notice of allegations against the school. Nickelberry has been a head coach at two schools (Hampton and Howard), but this feels like one of those situations where either the Tigers come out motivated after all the emotions they’ve experienced in recent days or they just fall flat. But they will face an Iowa State team that’s also susceptible to volatility.
Seven of Iowa State’s 12 losses this season were by 12 points or more. The Cyclones are 8-12 in their past 20 games. But they also have wins over Iowa, Memphis, Xavier, Texas and Texas Tech. Izaiah Brockington (17.2 PPG 7.1 RPG) could become a household name with a big performance in this one, too. No idea what to expect from either team and that’s what makes it intriguing to me.
Borzello: Virginia Tech vs. Texas. The Hokies finished the season on a tear, winning 13 of their final 15 games and carving up defense after defense down the stretch of the season. Texas lost its last three games entering the NCAA tournament and has been up and down for the second half of the campaign. The Longhorns’ defense hasn’t been as stifling as previous Chris Beard-coached teams, and that will be tested against Virginia Tech — which shot at least 42.9% from 3 in three of its four ACC tournament games.
I’m also intrigued by LSU vs. Iowa State, mostly just because I want to see how the Tigers respond to Will Wade’s firing last weekend. I don’t think it will be an aesthetically pleasing game, given the teams’ tendencies to turn the ball over and miss shots, but the storylines are interesting.
Gasaway: Loyola Chicago vs. Ohio State. Never mind the seeds, because laptops and even the NCAA’s own NET rankings think this one’s a toss-up. Can the Ramblers make another magical run, only this time under Drew Valentine? Will the Buckeyes shake off the memories of last year’s shocking loss to Oral Roberts in the round of 64? Loyola plays excellent defense as usual, and Lucas Williamson and his teammates will have a real test on their hands with E.J. Liddell. This one’s tipping off in the early window on Friday, so we’ll get answers to all of the above right away.
Lunardi: Can’t wait for Michigan State and Davidson. Not only the coaching matchup — a pair of cagey lifers in Tom Izzo and Bob McKillop — but the clash of styles between the Spartans’ “let’s pound you” approach and the Wildcats’ offensive perfection. Plus we have the handy storyline of Davidson star guard Foster Loyer going right back up against his original team, with which he barely played double-digit minutes.
Regardless of the outcome — and I like Davidson — the winner of this game has an excellent chance to end Coach K’s career on Sunday against Duke.