5 ways March Madness started early on Selection Sunday Eve

Earlier this week, in a phone call with ESPN’s Pete Thamel, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made clear what has been the worst kept secret in sports for a couple of years now: In concert with his increase in power, he plans on doing what he can to expand the NCAA tournament and tip the scales even more in favor of the sport’s power players.

In a recent phone interview, Sankey acknowledged the tournament is one of the few things that bonds the disparate world of Division I together. “Nothing remains static,” he told ESPN. “I think we have to think about the dynamics around Division I and the tournament.”

He added that recent runs by UCLA from the First Four to the Final Four in 2021 and Syracuse’s run to the round of 16 beginning with a play-in game in Dayton in 2018 show the caliber of power-conference teams on the fringe of the NCAA tournament.

“That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive,” Sankey said. ”We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues], and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of expansion.”

While Sankey focuses on what we’re “giving away” by not affording more at-large opportunities to power conference teams who could go on deep runs (interesting that he didn’t mention 2011 VCU in the same light as 2018 Syracuse and 2021 UCLA), he pays no mind whatsoever to what we’d be giving away if the implied tournament expansion came to fruition.

Parity in the NCAA tournament has never been on fuller display than it has these past few seasons.

In the last three NCAA tournaments alone, automatic qualifiers from the Mountain West Conference, West Coast Conference, and Conference USA have all made the Final Four. An automatic qualifier from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference became the first 15-seed ever to make a regional final. Automatic qualifiers from the Missouri Valley Conference, Ivy League, and Summit League all made it to the Sweet 16. Oh, and a team that didn’t even win its conference regular season or tournament title beat a No. 1 seed from the Big Ten that won both its league’s titles.

To Sankey, these were all “highly competitive opportunities” that were “given away” because they didn’t go to a 15-loss team from the SEC or the Big Ten.

The madness we saw for more than 14 consecutive hours on Selection Sunday Eve was the latest example of why the NCAA tournament simply cannot be tinkered with.

We saw history in one power conference, top-seeds being upset all over the place, and a string of results that have resulted in perhaps the most dramatic bubble situation we’ve ever seen in the history of this event.

Don’t take my word for it.

None of it would be as stressful or dramatic or wonderful if the vision Greg Sankey has for the postseason were currently in place. The buildup to Selection Sunday is just as perfect as the tournament itself. From all of us who love it, please, leave it be.

Here are the five biggest things that made Selection Sunday Eve one of the more bonkers college hoops days in recent memory:

1. NC State makes it 5-for-5

NC State’s week in our nation’s capital began on Tuesday afternoon, with rumors swirling that head coach Kevin Keatts might be fired if his team couldn’t find a way to dispatch of lowly Louisville. It ended with NC State becoming the first double-digit seed in ACC tournament history to win the title, and just the second team in college basketball history to earn a conference tournament title by winning five games in five days.

That accomplishment, by the way, triggered a 2-year contract extension for Keatts.

The only other team to claim its conference tournament title by winning five games in five days? The 2010-11 Connecticut Huskies, who would go on to win the national championship three weeks later.

While that precedent might be too high a bar for this NC State team to clear, the Wolfpack are fun as hell, and seem to have secured a healthy load of bandwagon fans for the Big Dance.

D.J. Burns — the incredibly skilled and nimble big man who is listed (perhaps generously) at 275-pounds — is about as fun a player to watch as there is in the country. He’s also a terrific postgame quote. Leading scorer D.J. Horne entered the week with a lower body injury and actually didn’t play at all in the Louisville game. He played 40 minutes in the semifinal win over Virginia and dropped a game-high 29 points in 32 minutes in the title game. Mohamed Diarra is a monster on the glass, Casey Morsell is a five-year vet with a nose for spotlight moments, and Michael O’Connell hit probably the shot of March so far with his overtime-inducing prayer at the regulation buzzer of the team’s semifinal win over Virginia.

The most impressive thing about NC State’s run is that it didn’t come as a result of the bracket falling apart because of a ton of upsets. The Pack played the best-seeded team it could possibly play in every round of the tournament. Historically speaking, they also faced the biggest juggernauts the conference has to offer.

“We will look back one day, and it may even be tomorrow, and just be in awe at the teams that we beat,” Keatts said. “They’re great programs, great coaches who have done a really good job.”

Lastly, it must be pointed out that this run was damn near impossible to predict.

NC State entered the ACC tournament having lost four straight games and seven of its last nine. Its star player was injured, and it trailed 15-seed Louisville at halftime of its first game.

What happened? March happened.

Getting the opportunity to play until you lose is a beautiful thing.

2. An all-time disastrous day for the bubble

NC State, a team which had no shot at the NCAA tournament outside of winning an automatic bid, toppling North Carolina was far from the extent of the problems for teams that entered the day sitting squarely on the tournament bubble.

—Florida Atlantic, the only team in the American Athletic Conference that was a lock to earn an at-large bid, was upset by 11-seed Temple in the AAC semifinals (more on that in a bit). That’s one more at-large bid off the table.

—Oregon snatched another bid from the bubble by upsetting Colorado — who was thought to be fairly securely in the Big Dance 24 hours ago but now might be in some trouble — in the championship game of the final Pac-12 tournament.

—Following Saturday’s semifinal action, Sunday’s Atlantic 10 final will be played between Duquesne and VCU, two teams that also entered the week with no shot at an at-large.

—New Mexico, which seemed to be everyone’s last team in or first team out heading into Saturday afternoon, put to bed any doubt over their NCAA tournament status by knocking off tournament lock San Diego State to claim the Mountain West title.

Basically, this could not have gone worse for the teams that were previously slotted as the last handful to claim at-large bids. Based on the events of the last two days, there is a team that was all set to be in the NCAA tournament without having to play in the First Four in Dayton, that now is going to be left out of the field entirely.

Imagine trying to sleep if you’re a member of a team like St. John’s, a team the world thought locked up a bid with its decisive Big East tournament quarterfinal win over Seton Hall. Or Virginia, which just needed to make a few free-throws or avoid allowing a banked-in miracle shot at the buzzer to take care of troublemaker NC State on Friday night. Indiana State has already been awake for a week straight.

The bubble drama has never been higher and the curiosity to see the full bracket has never been stronger.

3. A fired coach is going dancing

Dan Monson might be best known as the guy who kicked off the incredible run that Gonzaga has been on since the end of the last century. Monson guided the Zags to the Elite Eight in 1999 and then parlayed that run into a job at Minnesota, where he made the NCAA tournament just one time in eight seasons.

Since 2007-08, Monson has been the head coach at Long Beach State of the Big West Conference. At least that was the case until five days ago, when LBSU announced a “mutually agreed to separation” that would see Monson’s tenure at the school end following the team’s run in the Big West tournament.

Well, as it turned out, the Beach’s run in Henderson, Nevada lasted as long as it possibly could.

LBSU, the tournament’s No. 4 seed, blasted UC Riverside in the quarterfinals on Thursday and then stunned top-seeded UC Irvine a night later in the semifinals. To seal the deal on Saturday, the Beach overcame a 10-point first half deficit to take down favored UC Davis and punch its first NCAA tournament ticket since 2012.

If there was any bitterness over the way the week began, Monson didn’t show it during his postgame interview on ESPN.

“God has blessed me with a great career and these kids have been awesome to coach,” Monson said. “When Jim Harbaugh says, ‘Who’s got it better than him?’ Somebody needs to tell him, Dan Monson.’”

4. A team dealing with a gambling investigation is one win away from going too

Earlier this month, a dramatic point spread shift for a game between Temple and UAB triggered an investigation from gambling watchdog company U.S. Integrity. UAB started the day as a 1.5-point favorite, a line which eventually jumped all the way up to eight despite no major injury news from either side. The Blazers won the game, 100-72, and in the process became just the sixth team ever to hit triple digits in a road game against the Owls.

The thing about the event was that it wasn’t the first time this season that a line for a game involving Temple had shifted dramatically and for no apparent reason. The same thing occurred for an Owls game against Memphis in January, which reportedly resulted in Temple games being monitored by U.S. Integrity for the rest of the season.

Temple wrapped up the regular season with a dismal 12-19 record and a 5-13 mark in American Athletic Conference play, good for a tie for last place in the final league standings. It also earned them the No. 11 seed in this week’s conference tournament, where they would be one of four teams forced to start to play on Wednesday.

Like Keyser Soze straightening out his walk as he strolls away from the police station, Temple has SOMEHOW seemed to find its stride this week in Fort Worth.

The Owls narrowly defeated 14-seed UTSA, 64-61, in the first round. Surprisingly smashed sixth-seeded SMU (playing in front of a largely partisan crowd of Mustang fans) in the second round. Pulled out a hard-fought 58-54 win over third-seeded Charlotte on Friday. And then stunned second-seeded and reigning national semifinalist Florida Atlantic by one in the semis.

Now, all that’s standing between Temple and one of the most awkward and kinda hilarious automatic bids in the history of March Madness is … of course … UAB, which upset regular season champion South Florida on Saturday.

Is earning a trip to the Big Dance worth strengthening a watchdog group’s case against you? If the Owls flip the script and beat UAB by 30 on Sunday, I suppose we’ll find out.

5. Kent State’s crushing ending

Akron-Kent State is one of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball, and perhaps the most contentious mid-major rivalry in the country.

How fierce is it? Well, two years ago four Kent State players got themselves suspended for the MAC championship game against Akron for snap-chatting a locker room video of the team reciting a profanity-laced battle rap directed at their arch-rivals (the appropriately titled “Fuck Akron”). The Zips rolled to victory the next day,

Kent State found redemption a year later as it dispatched of Akron in the MAC tourney semifinals and claimed the league’s auto-bid a day later.

A postseason rubber match between the two hated rivals was on the line on Saturday night, and it did not disappoint … at least until the end.

After a back-and-forth first 39 minutes, Kent State — the tournament’s No. 8 seed which shocked regular season champion Toledo in the first round — appeared to be on the brink of victory. Cli’Ron Hornbeak dunked the Golden Flashes ahead, 61-60, with less than five seconds to go. With Akron lacking a timeout to use, all Kent State had to do was avoid allowing a desperate basket at the buzzer.

Oh, and they also had to avoid intentionally committing a foul because they didn’t know what the score was.

That’s Kent State’s Julius Rollins intentionally fouled Akron guard Greg Tribble, allowing Tribble to stroll to the other end of the floor and sink what would ultimately be the game’s deciding free-throws.

Golden Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff assumed the blame for the gaff in his postgame press conference.

“As I told the team, I should have called a timeout there. I do not blame Julius,” he said. “There’s 100 plays in the game and that was just one of them.”

“This is the thing I told him, I didn’t tell the whole team, I told him if this is the worst thing that’s happened to you when you’re 50 years old like I am, then you’ve lived a pretty charmed life. Tomorrow the sun will come up, it will be a little cloudy for me and for our guys, but the sun will come up tomorrow.”

Did I mention that after yesterday’s madness that No. 1 seeds have advanced to the championship game in less than half the conference tournaments (15/32), and that only 10 top seeds have locked up automatic bids?

Madness of the best sort. And we’re just getting started.

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