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NCAAs Filled With Even Matchups
By: UCLA Athletics

March 17, 2001

Quick, how many fingernails do you have left? Did you notice any more gray hair the last time you checked the mirror? Has the blood returned to your knuckles after a frenetic first round of the NCAA tournament?

Welcome to a "March Madness" for a new millennium, where parity has rendered the seeds by the NCAA tournament selection committee nothing more than an arbitrary number to create first-round matchups.

While the four top seeds - Duke, Stanford, Michigan State and Illinois - won by a combined 148 points, 12 of the other 32 games were decided by four points or less. Nine teams seeded 10 or higher have a chance to reach the regional semifinals.

"I think we were a little nervous because of all the upsets. I've heard a lot of people say, 'You should look at all of Thursday's games and your guys should be ready for Friday," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his Spartans led by only four points at halftime of their 69-35 win over Alabama State.

The marquee underdog victory came Thursday at the Boise Pavilion in Idaho, where Hampton became just the fourth 15th seed since the field expanded to 64 - now 65 - to reach the second round after a stunning 58-57 win over second-seeded Iowa State.

The Pirates, who were making their NCAA tournament debut, looked like they had been there and done that as they closed the game with a 14-2 run.

"It was a great win. I thought our kids persevered," Pirates coach Steve Merfeld said after providing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference its first NCAA tournament win since 15th-seeded Coppin State upended South Carolina in 1997. "They took control of the game, but we just hung in there and hung in there."

Three No. 3 seeds - Maryland, Boston College and Mississippi - escaped with victories totaling eight points as pesky No. 14 seeds George Mason, Southern Utah and Iona, respectively, had chances to either win or tie in the final seconds.

"To be honest, I feel I got outcoached," Rebels coach Rod Barnes said after Ole Miss posted a 72-70 win over Iona on Friday. "But our kids took care of it."

The road to Minneapolis is littered with high seeds thrown off the path. In addition to the Cyclones, three high-seeded Big Ten teams made first-round exits. Fourth-seeded Indiana fared no better in its first NCAA tournament with Mike Davis than it did in Bobby Knight's last season as Kent State proved to be quite more than a "Flash" in the pan.

"We had a serious mindset coming into this," Golden Flashes guard Trevor Huffman said after his team's 77-73 victory over the Hoosiers. "I don't think too many guys on our team were surprised that we beat Indiana."

Fifth-seeded Ohio State? Bounced in overtime by Utah State of the Big West conference. Sixth-seeded Wisconsin, a Final Four team last season? Sent packing back to Madison by the crafty Lefty Driesell and 11th-seeded Georgia State, which won playing the Badgers slowdown game and rallying from an 11-point halftime deficit.

"It was a great win for Georgia State," Panthers guard Darryl Cooper said. "Nationally, I don't think we got the kind of respect we deserve."

The Big 12 Conference also emerged as an underachiever. Oklahoma joined Iowa State on the sidelines as Indiana State's Kelyn Block overcame getting three teeth knocked out to lead the Sycamores to a 70-68 overtime victory over the fourth-seeded Sooners.

"The first play he got the steal and the layup," said Sycamores guard Michael Menser of Block. "You could see with his teeth out he was in a lot of pain. He's a tough kid."

Texas coach Rick Barnes complained bitterly when his Longhorns were awarded a sixth seed. Maybe he should have spent more time watching tape on 11th-seeded Temple, which recorded a surprisingly easy 79-65 victory courtesy of their famed 2-3 matchup zone.

"People talk about their defense, but that's what they do," Barnes said. "They are a 3-point shooting team and they made some tough shots. We were so bad in the first half on the offensive end that we didn't have an answer for it."

Even the great ACC did not emerge unscathed from the rash of upsets as Virginia and Wake Forest both went one-and-out.

The fifth-seeded Cavaliers at least put up a fight against 12th-seeded Gonzaga - which really can no longer be considered an underdog based on its last two NCAA tournament performances. Virginia fell 86-85, but seventh-seeded Wake scored just 10 first-half points and was steamrolled by 10th-seeded Butler 79-63 in a game that wasn't even remotely that close.

"We weren't crazy about playing them," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said of his matchup against the Zags. "They are much better than a 12 seed. It's not the committee's fault. They hadn't seen Gonzaga. These guys are tremendous."

With the reduction in scholarships, players have spread out more evenly across the nation. In addition, the current generation of players are more savvy and selective about where they want to play - they put a greater priority on minutes and less of a priority on tradition.

Although no coach or player at a big-name school would admit it, overconfidence plays a role. After this first round, that should no longer be a problem.

"Our will to win was challenged by coach, and we went out in the second half knowing that every stop was crucial," said UCLA point guard Earl Watson, whose team needed a game-closing 24-5 run to pull away from pesky 13th-seeded Hofstra on Thursday.

In addition, the lower seeds always enter the NCAA tournament with a chip on their shoulder, whether it be a player shunned by a big-time program or a Top 25 team refusing to sully itself with a visit to a cramped smaller gym in November and December. And this year, the big schools are paying. Instead of planning for a plane ride to Minneapolis, many are simply flying back home.

AP MegaSports Writer

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