By John Marshall
AP Basketball Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The first three days of this year’s NCAA Tournament lacked the drama and multitude of upsets the previous few tournaments had, more March Meh-ness than madness.
A scintillating Sunday of games jolted the tournament to life like a triple shot of espresso.
The madness is back in March.
North Carolina, the South Region No. 1 seed, had the most frenetic finish , blowing a 17-point lead and then scoring the game’s final 12 points to hold off Arkansas. South Carolina, the No. 7 seed in the East, had the biggest takedown, knocking off No. 2 Duke 88-81 in what was essentially a home game in Greenville.
“This is a new platform,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “It’s the first time in the history of our university that we’re going to the Sweet 16.”
Kentucky had its hands full until the end against Wichita State, needing two blocked 3-pointers in the final minute to beat the Shockers 65-62.
Oregon trailed most of the second half against spunky Rhode Island in the Midwest Region before scoring the final 7 points to beat the No. 11 seed Rams 75-72 . Baylor had a late spurt to beat Southern California in a taut game and UCLA kicked its offense in high gear after a sluggish first half to beat Cincinnati .
Even the 20-point win by Kansas over Michigan State was filled with highlight-reel plays.
“It was a fast-paced game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The pace was faster than the final score indicated even in number of points.”
Before Sunday, the bracket had been like a deflated balloon compared to previous iterations.
Last year’s tournament was filled with upsets, buzzer beaters and spectacular individual performances. And that was just the first round. The dance ended in glorious fashion with Villanova’s Kris Jenkins splashing a walk-off 3-pointer for the national title.
The highlights from the first three days of this year’s tournament: The top overall seed going down in the second round and a player mistakenly fouling in the closing seconds when his team was up, not down.
Villanova, the defending national champion and the top overall seed, lost 65-62 to No. 8 seed Wisconsin. The Badgers play in the Big Ten and are headed to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season, so it wasn’t exactly a David-and-Goliath scenario.
The other what-just-happened moment came in the first-round game between Northwestern and Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City.
That’s where Commodores guard Matthew Fisher-Davis inexplicably grabbed Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh on purpose despite his team leading by 1. His mistake — he thought they were down 1 — sent McIntosh to the free throw line for the go-ahead points with 14.6 seconds left. Vanderbilt lost 68-66 .
“An honest mistake,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins called it. “You feel bad for players. He was tremendous today. Certainly, I was surprised.”
Northwestern’s magical run to its first NCAA Tournament in 113 years as a program ended in the next round, when the Wildcats put together a furious rally, only to come up short against No. 1 West seed Gonzaga.
As for upsets, Middle Tennessee had a decent one, knocking off Minnesota as a No. 12 seed, but then the Blue Raiders did it last year against Sparty — so why not expect it again?
Three No. 11 seeds got through the first round with upsets over No. 6 seeds, but two are out of the bracket already. Only Xavier, which beat Maryland and Florida State, is through to the Sweet 16.
Besides, 11-over-6 upsets are not really much of a surprise. No. 6 seeds have a winning record against the 11s once in the last eight years.
The buzzer beaters came down to a miss and a make that didn’t matter.
Princeton’s Devin Cannady had the miss, an open 3-pointer against Notre Dame. Oklahoma State had the make in a 1-point loss to Michigan, which didn’t matter to anyone except for gamblers, as the 3 meant the Cowboys ended up covering the spread.
The best shot of March Madness so far? Destiny Slocum’s 70-foot heave for Maryland that looked like a soccer throw-in.
Sunday restored the drama-filled aura of March Madness, giving perhaps a springboard for the rest of the bracket.
Butler’s Blue III is still in the tournament, so there’s that. And it’s safe to say what comes next is unexpected — by most, at least.
According to ESPN, just 18 of the 18.8 million brackets filled out on its website correctly predicted the entire Sweet 16. For some reason, that seems high.