Keeping Score

The Top 5 Surprises From the NCAA Tournament — So Far

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UCONN Huskies Alex Oriakhi (34) celebrates with teammates from the bench their win over Bucknell Bison in the second round NCAA tournament basketball game in Washington, March 17, 2011

REUTERS/Molly Riley

The first two rounds the March Madness lived up to the hype, like they always seem to do. Fans got their fill of buzzer beaters, nutty finishes, and outstanding individual performances (really, can anyone stop Jimmer Fredette, who now owns so much cultural cachet you don’t even need the Fredette to ID him?). Heading into this week’s Sweet 16, here are five big surprises from the tourney.

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1. Thanks, Ref: Butler is Back

The Pitt-Butler game, on Saturday night, featured one of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see. Butler led Pitt, the top seed in the Southeast region, 70-69, with 1.4 seconds left before Shelvin Mack of the Bulldogs, who scored 30 points, collided with Pitt’s Gilbert Brown as Brown was dribbling the ball up court. Dumb foul number one.  Brown made the first free throw to tie the game. He missed the second, and on the rebound, Pitt’s Nasir Robinson wrapped up Butler’s Matt Howard, with 0.8 seconds left, and Howard standing almost 90 feet from his basket. The ref had no choice but to blow the whistle. Howard hit the game-winning foul shot.

Should the referee have called the foul on Howard? People are still asking that question. But a foul is a foul. What part of the rule book instructs the ref to swallow his whistle? So Butler, last year’s runner-up but a team that made little noise this season, is suddenly back in the Sweet 16. They’ll face fourth-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday night. Butler has experienced a deep run before. Don’t be shocked to see them back in the Final Four.

2. Big East Blues

A record 11 of the 16 teams from the Big East conference qualified for this year’s tournament. Shockingly, only two remain. While UConn and Marquette beat their Big East brethren, Cincinnati and Syracuse, respectively, in the second round, some other teams stunk up the gym. For the second straight year Georgetown, seeded sixth, was embarrassed in its first round game; this year, Virginia Commonwealth toyed with the Hoyas, beating them 74-56. Notre Dame, a fashionable pick to go far, won its first round game, but couldn’t stave off Florida State, a 71-57 winner, two days later. The Big East’s struggles provide rich fodder for pundits like Charles Barkley, who has been calling the conference “overrated” on TV, and is indignant that so many Big East teams qualified for the Big Dance.  But which team didn’t deserve to make it? Truth is, they all did. Too bad many of them failed to show up.

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3. Richmond, Va. – Hoops Hotbed

As studio host Ernie Johnson pointed out on one of the 18 networks that seem to be broadcasting the Big Dance, there are as many schools from Richmond, Va. still playing in the NCAA tournament as there are from the mighty Big East. Virginia Commonwealth University, a team from the Colonial Athletic Association that many “experts” screamed did not deserve an at-large birth in the NCAA Tournament, beat USC in a play-in game and then cruised to the Sweet 16. The Rams pummeled Georgetown and downed the Big Ten tough guys from Purdue, 94-76, in the second round. VCU, an 11-seed, plays another double-digit seed in the Sweet 16, Florida State (seeded tenth).

And if they win that one, they could meet their neighbors, the University of Richmond, in a regional final that not even the mayor of Virginia’s capital city would ever pick (we checked; Richmond mayor Dwight Jones did not fill out a bracket. But if he did . . . ). The Spiders, who despite a 27-7 record entering March Madness and a first-place finish in the Atlantic 10 tournament, were somehow slapped with a 12th seed. But don’t let the double-digits fool you, Richmond is no Cinderella story. The team is blessed with senior leadership — point guard Kevin Anderson is one of the top players remaining in the tournament. Though beating Kansas on Friday night will be a huge challenge, if the Spiders crawl past the Jayhawks, they’re a good bet to be the first double-digit seed to reach the Final Four since 2006, when yet another Virginia school, George Mason, pulled off that feat.

4. Obama’s Bracket

Critics on the right, like Newt Gingrich, chafed that President Obama took time out to pencil in his NCAA picks. “We need a commander in chief, not a spectator in chief,” Gingrich tweeted. Obama’s response? He kicked everyone’s ass in America’s office pool. In the first round, Obama finished with a stellar 29-3 record. Going into the Sweet 16, he would have ranked in the top 99.9 percentile of ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, which has 5.9 million entries. Obama, however, might lose some points going forward. Pitt, one of his Final Four picks, got bounced.

5. Greg Gumbel Almost Gives Bosses Heart Attack

Greg Gumbel, the affable college hoops studio host for CBS, made a big-time boo-boo on Sunday. When urging viewers to stick around for the Duke-Michigan game, he said it was “coming up here on ESPN.” What?? Generally, TV execs don’t like their employees to direct viewers to a competing network. Gumbel, who last worked for ESPN, recovered nicely from the slip. “ESPN” he said. “Good grief, Charlie Brown.” He then segued into another discussion, while network suits pulled themselves off the floor.

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