Led by Murray State, NCAA tournament's lower-seeded teams make their presence felt

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 19, 2010; D05

SAN JOSE Danero Thomas was about 10 feet away from me Thursday afternoon when he left his feet with two seconds left and fired a foul line-extended jump shot. He was so close I could have reached over the press table and grabbed him. What I really wanted to do, after his shot fell good as the buzzer sounded, was hug him. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against Vanderbilt, except it entered the Big Dance as a No. 4 seed and was playing a No. 13 seed, Murray State. And the NCAA tournament is at its best when the peasants threaten to crash the palace gates on Day 1.

Before lunchtime was over out here on the sane coast, a theme had developed.

The lower-seeded teams would have to be reckoned with. Names, conferences and reputations meant nothing; performance meant everything.

Georgetown, third seed in Group of Death otherwise known as the Midwest Region and member of the allegedly superior Big East, was shown the door by 14th-seeded Ohio University. Not Ohio State, but Ohio U. of the Mid-American Conference. Turns out the Hoyas were, once again, who we feared they were.

Notre Dame, the No. 6 seed in the South Region and one the darlings of the Big East, got kicked in the teeth in New Orleans by 11th-seeded Old Dominion of the Colonial Athletic Association, better known as George Mason's conference. It's the second time ODU thumped a blue blood this season. The Monarchs took out Georgetown at McDonough Arena in December, but knocking Notre Dame from the tournament was some way to start the morning.

Richmond, seeded seventh in Providence, R.I., and a team gaining a following among hoops junkies who think they're really smart, was dumped by 10th-seeded Saint Mary's, which entered the tournament to no fanfare despite upsetting Gonzaga in a conference final.

Vanderbilt, the No. 4 seed in the West Region and member of the often overrated Southeastern Conference, was stunned by a Murray State team whose players' average age is higher than that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. You think I'm joking?

Thomas, the kid who hit the game-winner at the buzzer for the Racers, is almost 24. No one-and-done guys here. The starters average 22 years of age.

They're old-school, too. Murray State plays defense and passes the ball maddeningly yet unselfishly until somebody is open. It didn't look as if the Racers were going to get off a shot on the final possession, down one, when Thomas finally took the jumper. Luckily, it was so loud at HP Pavilion, I doubt anybody could hear me at press row screaming, "Shoot the damn ball, kid!"

I'm sorry; I know I'm not supposed to cheer. But how can you not root, root, root for the underdog?

And on the very first day, a No. 3 (Georgetown), a No. 4 (Vanderbilt) two No. 6s (Notre Dame and Marquette) and a No. 7 (Richmond) were eliminated by lower seeds. So of the first 12 games to be completed, six were won by the lower-seeded team, including ninth-seeded Northern Iowa's victory over No. 8 UNLV, which hardly counts as anybody's upset. What has to be counted and accounted for is a dog performance by the Big East, which could not possibly have stunk it up any more than it did.

Villanova, seeded second in the South despite losing five of seven to end the season and another one of the Big East monsters, should be out already, compliments of 15th-seeded Robert Morris. The Wildcats had to play their brains out just to get the game to overtime. Baylor, a No. 3 seed in the South and a team I have in my Final Four, trailed Sam Houston State at halftime and won by just nine.

Okay, a couple of high seeds took care of business just the way their coaches and the tournament selection committee expected: Kansas State, which won by 20, and Butler, which ran its nation's longest winning streak to 21 games by throttling UTEP.

For weeks, as it became evident that there simply wouldn't be much separation between the top 10 teams and the next, oh, 20 or so, the possibility of a tournament filled with early upsets became apparent. Even the word "upsets" might not be appropriate because you couldn't really watch Vanderbilt-Murray State and at any point of the game think that the Commodores were superior in any meaningful way. Same with Notre Dame and Old Dominion.

But what happens is we tend to god-up all the big-conference teams, even in years when some of them are down, as the ACC and Pacific-10 were this season. The early question, as the evening games were set to tip off and as some of the big guns scheduled to play Friday put the finishing touches on their final pre-tournament practices, was whether the warning shots fired Thursday were enough to put them on red alert, or whether they're actually good enough to hold off the emboldened upstarts that now sniff a bit of vulnerability.

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