NCAA tournament brings out the best in college basketball

 NCAA tournament brings out the best in college basketball
North Dakota State's Taylor Braun encourages fans to make some noise after scoring a basket during the Bison's upset victory over Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Taylor Braun tried to pull everyone's leg after North Dakota State pulled off Thursday's West regional semi-stunner against Oklahoma.

"Honestly," the Bison's star deadpanned at the postgame news conference at Spokane Arena, "I don't know what all the hype is about, the NCAA tournament."


With perfect comedic pause, he added, "I'm kidding."

What happened during the first two days of the NCAA tournament was no joke to higher seeded teams that got sent home with upset stomachs.

Only a free-throw choke job by North Carolina State against Saint Louis prevented all No. 12-seeded schools from winning on the first full day.

We probably should have seen it coming Wednesday night when Tennessee needed a dramatic overtime win over Iowa just to make the field of 64.

That led to four overtime games Thursday in the fastest start to a sporting event since last year's Indy 500.

The worst part of college basketball is the seemingly endless months of over-analytic prattle over rankings, Ratings Percentage Index, conference strength, all crescendoing toward the incessantly annoying finale of "perceived seeding injustices."

The best part is now.

The worst part is TV experts who coached (or played) at elite colleges lobbying for the 11th-placed team in the Big 12 getting a bid over a mid-major runner-up.

The best part is Gonzaga, from the two bid (barely) West Coast Conference, beating Oklahoma State.

Nate Silver is an expert at predicting election outcomes, yet his lively FiveThirtyEight blog, after running the numbers, gave Mercer a 7% chance of beating Duke on Friday.

Mercer actually won by seven.

The best part is when everything Digger Phelps has been telling you for months is wrong because the regular and post seasons are two entirely different entities.

They are different as Penn is from Teller.


The best part is rolling out the balls in March and a chimp picking as many winners as Jay Bilas.

The sport is truly compelling when Ohio State can't dodge Dayton any longer, and it becomes No. 6 vs. No. 11 at neutral-site Buffalo, N.Y.

And Dayton wins, 60-59, when Vee Sanford scores the game-winner over Ohio State's Aaron Craft, the best on-ball defender in the nation.

"It's amazing how it's going to end with a kid getting game-winner on me," Craft said afterward.

Even the Dayton Daily News, which probably feels like the kid brother to the Columbus Dispatch, poked fun at the school that insists on being called "The" Ohio State University.

The Daily News headline proclaimed victory for "THE University of Dayton."

The Spokane sub-regional became a den of high-seed horrors after No. 12 Harvard sent No. 5 Cincinnati back to the Queen City and No. 12 North Dakota State became king for a day with its overtime win over Oklahoma.

But wait, weren't the Sooners from the mighty Big 12?

Not one cared about North Dakota State's power index when guard Lawrence Alexander tied the Oklahoma game with a three-pointer with 11 seconds left in regulation.

"I went out and kissed that spot on the floor today, by the way," Bison Coach Saul Phillips said Friday. "Two big lip marks on there."

This wasn't about North Dakota State trying to compete all year in the Big 12. The Bison would likely get stampeded in that kind of format.

This was about competing for one day. Phillips said his team never flinched because, as he looked at Oklahoma, "it's harder being them than it is us. It is harder to be a five [seed] than a 12."

So now No. 12 North Dakota State plays No. 4 San Diego State, suddenly among the hunted only four years after being thrilled to be ranked No. 25 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

The Aztecs needed overtime Thursday to put away No.13 New Mexico State. The fans in Spokane were clearly rooting for Fargo.

"I've been on both sides," Aztecs' Coach Steve Fisher said Friday. "And it's fun when you have all the neutrals cheering for you."

No. 14 Mercer's win over No. 3 Duke on Friday almost blew up the Internet.

The best tweet came from the handle @LehighSports, which posted: "Welcome to the club."

Two years ago, of course, No. 15 Lehigh upset No. 2 Duke. Having the common bond of deflating Duke, college basketball's most loved/loathed franchise, puts you in a special fraternity.

Mercer's senior-heavy lineup, it turned out, was the perfect counter to Duke's talented, but inexperienced, lineup.

Duke guard Quinn Cook couldn't believe the Bears didn't fold.

"When we went up, 65-60, they could have easily splintered," he said.

Last year, Mercer lost the Atlantic Sun Conference's NCAA bid to Florida Gulf Coast, which ran by Georgetown and San Diego State on its way to the round of 16.

"We were sitting at home," Mercer guard Anthony White said. "We were thinking that could be us."

It will be them this year if Mercer beats Tennessee on Sunday in Raleigh, N.C.

"Everyone was calling us underdogs," said Mercer Coach Bob Hoffman. "I told them before we ran out: let's be super dogs."

It was classy that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski went to Mercer's locker room to congratulate the winners.

Coach K hoped his team would have played better.

"But when it's the other team," he said, "you applaud it."

Sixth-seeded North Carolina got to bask all day in Duke's misery before nearly getting the same treatment, the Tar Heels needing every second of 40 minutes to sneak past Providence.

So forget all you heard in the regular season but listen closely now. The upsets of Thursday and Friday only make Saturday and Sunday better.

Harvard gets its once-in-a-lifetime shot at powerhouse Michigan State. Mercer, located in Macon, Ga., gets a piece of the Southeastern Conference (Tennessee). Fargo will switch TV sets from the weather channel to watch the Bison.

And imagine the headline in the Dayton paper should the Flyers shoot down No. 3 Syracuse?