Some NCAA tournaments begin with a loud bang, marked by chalky brackets and blowout scores.
This is not one of those NCAA tournaments. Thursday opened with an early loss to No. 4 seed Virginia thanks to one of the more bizarre decisions in tournament history. No. 2 Arizona got the better of Virginia in a surprise loss to Princeton, which lifted the brackets and officially marked a trend.
No. 1 seed Alabama, meanwhile, cruised as expected, but did so without a single point from All-American Brandon Miller. Fellow No. 1 seed Houston didn’t look like a national championship contender. And that talk about Duke being under-seeded? So far, it seems correct.
Here’s what happened on the first day of NCAA tournament play.
Princeton bucks 15-seed trend: How far will it go?
Winning the No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament is now a thing.
Before 2021, eight No. 15 seeds have advanced past the first round in the 35 seasons since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. As of Thursday, it’s now been three years in a row.
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Welcome to the club, Princeton. The Ivy League champions held off a shutout all game against No. 2 seed Arizona on Thursday, then took a 56-55 lead with 2:03 remaining. They never turned back again. The Tigers held on for the 59–55 win as they repeatedly frustrated Arizona’s scoring attempts to pull off the tournament’s upset — so far, at least. In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of 2021 Oral Roberts and 2022 St. Peters.
Oral Roberts defeated No. 2 Ohio State in the opening round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The win clinched a trip to the Sweet 16 for the Golden Eagles after a second round win over Florida. A two-point loss to Arkansas ended their run short of the Elite Eight.
St. Peters took a one-time lead over the Golden Eagles after a stunning opening round win over No. 2 Kentucky last year. From there, Peacock defeated Murray State and Purdue en route to an Elite Eight loss to eventual national finalist North Carolina.
How far can Princeton extend its Cinderella run? No. 7 seed Missouri awaits on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Arizona is left to regroup. as did former Wildcat Rob Gronkowski.
Is Virginia’s style flawed for NCAA tournament play?
Virginia secured its first NCAA Championship in 2019. Outside of that pinnacle achievement, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers had a difficult few years in tournament play.
Thursday brought more pain for Charlottesville as No. 13 Furman took down No. 4 Virginia in spectacular fashion. An errant pass by fifth-year senior Keihi Clark set up Furman’s J.P. Peggs to sink the Cavs with a 3-point dagger in the final seconds of the game.
Pegues’ shot secured a 68–67 Paladin victory and Virginia’s third first-round exit in its Final Four tournament. All three of them arrived as massive NCAA tournament upsets.
The 2018 loss to No. 1 seed 16th seed UMBC remains the biggest seeding upset in NCAA history. Thursday’s loss to Furman vaults 2021 Ohio into a first-round 13-4 matchup.
Bennett’s teams play and win against a strong defense alongside a scrappy offense that runs deep into the shot clock. It is a style designed to frustrate and confuse opponents. This leaves the Cavaliers open to volatility in games where neither team breaks through.
brandon miller’s bad day
Alabama looked fine in beating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Thursday.
Brandon Miller didn’t. The Alabama All-American who entered the NCAA amid a torrent of controversy was held scoreless in the Crimson Tide’s 96-75 victory. Miller entered halftime with five rebounds, two assists and zero points. After picking up his second and third fouls early in the second half, his day was over.
Miller finished the day with zero points, five rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes, while shooting 0 for 5 from the field and 0 for 3-point range. He entered Thursday averaging 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He scored in double digits in all but one of Alabama’s last 34 games. He is the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and the best player on the projected top-three pick in the NBA Draft.
Alabama head coach Nate Oates told reporters after the game that Miller was recovering from a groin injury suffered last week and that they were “trying to limit him to playing time.”
That Alabama beat the No. 16 seed by more than 20 points doesn’t matter. That’s what is expected from the No. 1 seed. There is the issue of Miller’s performance and potential injury.
Police say Miller delivered a gun to the scene of the fatal January shooting that resulted in capital murder charges against now-sacked teammate Darius Miles. Miller is not facing charges. But his alleged involvement in the incident has taken a toll on Alabama as it seeks its first national championship.
The impact is visible on the basketball program. Miller entered Birmingham’s Legacy Arena on Wednesday accompanied by an armed bodyguard.
Oates told reporters that security is at the scene following threats made to Miller following the January shooting. Is Miller keeping pace with the basketball spotlight intensifying on the court? How Miller fares in Saturday’s second-round game against Maryland will have to be told.
Houston is injured, weak
No. 1 seed Houston survived Thursday, but a win over No. 16 Northern Kentucky didn’t inspire confidence. The Cougars went into halftime with a 30–27 lead, then came out of halftime scoreless. All-American Marcus Sasser,
The junior guard aggravated a groin injury before halftime and did not return for the second half. It wasn’t because Houston didn’t need him. Northern Kentucky tied the game at 36–36 as Houston repeatedly turned the ball over. An 11–2 run capped by a pair of Emanuel Sharp 3-pointers eventually gave Houston some breathing room to take a 47–38 lead. The Cougars escaped with a 63–52 victory.
Coach Kelvin Sampson revealed after the game that guard Jamal Sheid had played with an overextended knee. Shade finished with 13 points and six assists. While he did not have a specific update on Sasser’s injury, Sampson said he was “very concerned”.
The decision to play, Sampson said, was left entirely to Sasser.
This was not the team supporters expected when Houston started as the betting favorite to win the national title. The Cougars turned the ball over 17 times while allowing Northern Kentucky to rack up 18 offensive rebounds. NKU’s 5-of-34 (14.7%) shooting effort from 3-point distance saved the Cougars from disaster.
Houston looks very weak. If Sasser doesn’t play, it will be against Auburn on Saturday.
Duke moves on with strong ACC finish
After a strong conference finish that included an ACC Tournament Championship, Duke clinched the No. 5 seed in the East Region. Some thought it was too little. Based on Thursday’s effort against Oral Roberts, it could have happened.
First-round 12-5 matchups make for popular bracket upset picks. The Blue Devils put the upset idea to bed early in a 74–51 blowout of the Golden Eagles.
This Oral Roberts team was no pushover. It won 30 games during the regular season and featured two-time Summit League Player of the Year Max Abmas. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Obamas led the Golden Eagles from the 15-seed line to the Sweet 16 in 2021.
But 2023 is no Cinderella run for the Obamas. Duke’s surging defense limited Abamas (22.4 points per game) to 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting from the field. He was ORU’s leading scorer as the Golden Eagles shot 30.2% from the field as a team. Duke’s defense, spearheaded by ACC All-Defensive Team center Derek Lively, is genuine.
Meanwhile, Duke’s offense got the job done despite a subpar outing from All-ACC freshman Kyle Filipowski, who finished with six points along with nine rebounds, well below his season scoring average. Instead, junior guard Jeremy Roach led the offense with 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Freshman Darik Whitehead added 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench.
Duke has plenty of young talent, including four freshmen, who have adjusted at the right time. In a game, it looks like a legitimate NCAA tournament threat.