The first two rounds of the 2016 NCAA tournament have been, without a doubt, one of the best opening weekends in tournament history. Yes, 2013 does give it a run for its money, where Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 highlighted a tournament of upsets that also included La Salle, Harvard, and Ole Miss picking up first round wins, but this year’s first two rounds have not only seen upsets, but fantastic games that have went down to the final whistle.
The story of the first round certainly centers on the teams that were not expected to win. Fourteen seed Stephen F. Austin, behind the play of Thomas Walkup, knocked off number three West Virginia at its own game. The Mountaineers, who are known for their stingy defense that extends from end line to end line, turned the ball over 22 times to an undersized, albeit quick, Lumberjack squad. Their sensational senior Walkup led the charge on both ends, getting to the foul line 20 times and converting 19, contributing to his 33 points. He also made several key defensive stops, including a big block in the final minutes of the game.
Although Stephen F. Austin’s run ended two days later to Notre Dame, they avoided the typical Round of 32 slump that has plagued mid-majors in tournaments past. With their one point, buzzer-beating loss, the Lumberjacks without a doubt captured the hearts and minds of many with their great defensive and offensive efforts the first weekend.
Yale pulled off another notable upset of the first round by defeating Baylor. In their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1962, the Bulldogs took down the Bears in a game that saw the action go down to the wire. With the loss, Baylor’s tournament struggles continued, as it was their second straight first round exit by four points or less.
Aside from the notable upsets, buzzer-beating thrillers were another theme of the first weekend. Arkansas Little Rock, who came back from a sizable deficit to eventually hit a game-tying shot in regulation against Purdue, beat the Boilermakers in overtime to send them to a matchup with Iowa State. The magic quickly ran out, however, as they lost to the Cyclones two days later. The following day, Northern Iowa broke the hearts of Texas Longhorn fans behind Paul Jesperson’s half-court heave that banked in as the clock expired.
Looking forward, number one overall seed Kansas looks like the ultimate favorite. After being one of the only consistent teams all season, the Jayhawks looked solid in their opener and then defeated a typical tourney powerhouse Connecticut Huskie teams. One other notable team to pay attention to as the tournament progresses certainly includes North Carolina, who had no problem advancing to the Sweet 16 under Roy Williams.