Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament action provided the excitement we come to expect in March Madness, leaving no shortage of storylines heading into Friday’s game slate.
Here’s a look at 10 key takeaways from Day 1:
1. Ja Morant is the truth, and so is Murray State. Tabbed as the best individual matchup between two All-American guards, projected NBA lottery pick Ja Morant out-dueled Markus Howard, spearheading his 12th-seeded Racers to a dominant win over No. 5 Marquette in a game that felt like both teams should’ve swapped seeds. Morant’s triple-double (17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds) was the tournament’s first since 2012 and just the ninth since the NCAA started tracking them in 1987. Howard finished with 26 points but it took him 27 shots to get there in the blowout.
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While Morant seized the moment on college basketball’s biggest stage, his unselfish play also spotlighted a Murray State supporting cast that shows the Racers are the real deal as a Cinderella candidate to win more than one game in these NCAAs.
More: Ja Morant records triple-double to lead No. 12 Murray State to upset of No. 5 Marquette
2. Is Wofford this year’s Final Four dark-horse? The Terriers looked impressive in their 84-68 win over Seton Hall, shooting 46 percent from 3-point range and 48 percent from the floor. But it was the little things that showed how Wofford, the nation’s second-best 3-point shooting team, can surprise in this tournament.
Sharpshooter Fletcher Magee, who set an NCAA record for most career 3-pointers and finished with 24 points off seven triples Thursday, was asked after beating Seton Hall what type of statement the win made. “It showed we’re not just one-dimensional,” Magee said, “we can do more than shoot.” Facing an injury-plagued Kentucky team in the second round could prove to be fortunate, and there’s reason to believe in this No. 7-seeded mid-major to do more than just win one game. Wofford has a similar DNA to the Butler teams that reached back-to-back Final Fours in 2010-11.
More: Behind record-setter Fletcher Magee, Wofford wins first NCAA tournament game
3. Was Bradley good or Michigan State bad? The Missouri Valley’s Braves had the Big Ten champion Spartans on the ropes for the better part of 35 minutes before collapsing in the closing minutes to make the final score 76-65, covering up for the near-massacre. While Michigan State survived, how much should be read into the team’s struggles against the nation’s 309th-ranked offense? Coach Tom Izzo has a fiery guard in Cassius Winston who “wouldn’t let us lose” and the whole survive-and-advance mantra couldn’t be truer in a game that saw MSU shoot poorly. But it still gives pause to this team’s ceiling — which before the game was on pace to challenge top-seeded Duke with a Final Four trip on the line.
Bradley coach Brian Wardle put the game into perspective from his lens, noting: “I don’t think there were many teams that could have beat us today. We ran into one that could.”
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4. Cinderellas were largely absent in Day 1. While Murray State gave us somewhat of an expected No. 12-over-No.5-seed upset, a handful of Cinderella candidates depressingly came up short. No. 11 seed Belmont had a chance to upset No. 6 Maryland with 30 seconds left trailing by one. But the Bruins’ Grayson Murphy turned the ball over with four seconds remaining and the Terrapins escaped with a 79-77 win. No. 11 Saint Mary’s (led Villanova at halftime), Vermont (tied with Florida State at halftime) and No. 15 Bradley (led Michigan State at halftime and throughout the second half) all lost close ones that were within reach.
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5. That Auburn-New Mexico State game was just nuts. Speaking of within reach, New Mexico State’s last-second 78-77 loss to Auburn was the biggest head-scratcher of the day. The Aggies’ AJ Harris had an opportunity to tie the game in the closing seconds but instead dished the ball out to Terrell Brown, who was fouled on a 3-point attempt. That put him at the line trailing by two points with three shots at the free-throw line. Make all of them and the game was over. Instead, he only made one but somehow New Mexico State got the rebound and a deflection to set up one last attempt at a game-winner with one second left. Trevelin Queen air-balled it and we were left with the biggest what-could-have-been of the tournament so far.
More: New Mexico State’s upset bid falls just short against No. 5 seed Auburn
6. What is Kentucky forward PJ Washington’s tournament status? The Wildcats’ All-American forward missed Kentucky’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian to rest a sprained foot he suffered in UK’s SEC tournament semifinal game vs. Tennessee. While MRI tests came back showing no fracture, coach John Calipari told reporters he’s unsure if Washington will play in Saturday’s game against Wofford. That means a Kentucky team expected by many to get to the Final Four will likely be without its leading scorer for at least another game and then even if the Wildcats advance to the second weekend it’s unclear how smoothly Washington will mesh back into the lineup.
7. No. 10 seeds Florida, Minnesota show sleeper potential. Both the Gophers (winners vs. Louisville) and Gators (winners vs. Nevada) took down their respective No. 7 seeds on Thursday and showed potential as double-digit seeds that could bust brackets. Minnesota will face Michigan State in the second round on Saturday in a rematch of their Feb. 9 Big Ten road loss, while Florida draws a Michigan team that seems to be hitting its stride. What makes both these teams dangerous is the fact that they had to play themselves off the NCAA tournament bubble late in the season. A good chunk of tourney teams can lack a sense of urgency, but Minnesota and Florida came out swinging in their first-round matchups while looking refreshed after their seasons were on life support for the last month.
8. Kansas’ emphatic statement. The Jayhawks looked vulnerable entering Thursday as a No. 4 seed that lacked a late-season identity since losing its second-leading scorer (Lagerald Vick). But KU silenced that doubt with a convincing 87-53 rout of Northeastern in a game that was forecast to be a popular first round upset. All-American Dedric Lawson (25 points, 11 rebounds) proved to be an unstoppable force in this game, while his brother K.J. Lawson chipped in 13 points off the bench. Much has been made about Bill Self’s team finally losing the Big 12 regular-season title, but seeing how this team continues to weather adversity is the other side of their story this season.
9. LSU looked shaky. The Tigers survived Yale’s upset bid in their first-round win (79-74) on Thursday. But lost in the survive-and-advance narrative is the fact that a team without its head coach (Will Wade remains suspended) buckled under pressure down the stretch to cough up a substantial lead. And had the Bulldogs actually been shooting decent (they went 8-for-37 from 3-point range) this would’ve definitely been an upset. Turner sports commentators Charles Barkley and Clark Kellogg raved about LSU being “the most talented team in the tournament.” That may be true, but as co-commentator Kenny Smith pointed out, this team’s resolve could be tested when adversity strikes. Their second-round matchup vs. a Maryland team that has the youngest roster in the tournament won’t come as easy as the Yale game.
10. Michigan and Gonzaga were dominant in the West. Neither of these teams looked particularly challenged by their first-round opponents, quickly shutting down any opportunity for bracket-busting. The No. 1-seeded ‘Zags hammered Fairleigh Dickinson 87-49 in a game that showed little doubt of their title-contending status. And No. 2-seeded Michigan also cruised in the West Region, ousting Montana 74-55. Much was made of the West being the weakest region on Selection Sunday, and both Florida State and Texas Tech have been popular Final Four picks. But Thursday’s results reminded us that the top two seeds have the Final Four goods.