So far, with unpredictability wrapped inside of craziness after nearly every opening tipoff, this is the wildest NCAA Tournament ever.
I mean, it’s not even close.
“Wow. That’s a bold statement,” said Grant Hill, the Duke miracle worker turned Turner Sports basketball television analyst. He suggested over the phone between traveling to tournament games that everything the rest of us have seen while rubbing our eyes during the last few days of March Madness is either an optical illusion or a tad overrated.
Thanks to a half-court prayer that bounced off the glass before sliding through the net, Northern Iowa beat Texas.
Speaking of Northern Iowa, the 11th-seeded Panthers followed their Texas upset with a 12-point lead against Texas A&M with 34 seconds left. According to FiveThirtyEight, Northern Iowa had only a 1 in 3,333 chance of losing at that point, but the game went into double overtime.
Northern Iowa didn’t win.
Yale did — once. Even though the Bulldogs hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament in 54 years, they won in March Madness for the first time ever.
Elsewhere, Stephen F. Austin forgot it was a No. 14 seed and hammered No. 3 seed West Virginia, but this was more shocking: Middle Tennessee State couldn’t care less that it was a No. 15 seed along the way to shoving No. 2 seed Michigan State into purgatory.
In sum, after the opening 32 games of this NCAA Tournament, double-digit seeds won a record 10.
Surely, Mr. Hill is impressed by that.
“You know, a lot of these things have been pretty normal for the NCAA Tournament, because we’ve seen them in recent years,” Hill said. “You have upsets. You have buzzer-beaters. You have great individual performances. And then you have some recognizable teams that are still in the hunt as we approach the Sweet 16.
“Now, I do think you could say this is one of the better first weekends we’ve had. But as a person who fancies himself as a basketball historian, especially college basketball, and I go back to the early 1980s … That’s why it’s like, wow. To call this the wildest NCAA Tournament ever at this point, that’s tough to say.”
Actually, it isn’t, but I’ll give Hill a break. This 43-year-old son of Dallas Cowboys running back legend Calvin Hill became a member of the unofficial Good Guys Hall of Fame decades ago. He is among the few folks ever to serve as a national TV analyst for NBA games and college ones at the same time. He also could play. During his 19 NBA seasons, he made seven trips to the All-Star Game. Then there is the primary reason he isn’t easily impressed by this NCAA Tournament: He helped put the “Ms,” as in miraculous, in March Madness. When he starred for Duke teams that specialized in victories (includingthe victory) during the early 1990s, he did everything well: scoring, passing, defending, stealing, blocking and thrilling.
That said, Hill isn’t just about yesterday regarding the NCAA Tournament. There is much he enjoys about now.
“I did like the game Sunday between Stephen F. Austin and Notre Dame, when Notre Dame won with the tip-in [basket] at the end,” Hill said. “Obviously, there was the game I covered between Indiana and Kentucky. That was very fascinating and interesting, just because the rivalry ended for a period of time, and they were able to bring it back [with Indiana winning]. There was the Wisconsin game [with Bronson Koenig nailing a couple of clutch threes down the stretch, including the game-winner with no time left]. That was pretty amazing, but you know what? When it comes to the tournament, I think every game takes on its own personality and has its own narrative.”
What about Hill’s top player so far?
“Yeah, Buddy Hield,” Hill said of Oklahoma’s sharpshooting guard. “What he did against Virginia Commonwealth in the second half [29 of his 36 points overall] basically confirmed what many thought, and that is, he’s the best player in college basketball. But you also have to throw in Angel Rodriguez, because he’s near the top of the list with how he’s played for Miami.”
We’re almost at the victory, but let’s begin with Hill’s favorite moment through the opening rounds of this tournament.
“That half-court shot [by Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson]. That was a pretty magical one,” Hill said. “So was that tip-in [by Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger] and Koening’s 3-pointer, but here’s what’s interesting. Those three types of moments are normally spread out over the entire tournament. In this case, they happened during a four-day stretch on the first weekend. So, in some respects, that’s highly unusual. But just when you think ‘it’ can’t happen or ‘it’ won’t happen, you see these moments.”
Duke had a slew of them during Hill’s era, and several were controversial. As a result, the Blue Devils were viewed outside of Durham, N.C., as either famous or infamous, with zero middle ground. Not that they cared. Hill joined lightning rods Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley to capture back-to-back national titles for Duke in 1991 and ’92. After that duo left for the pros, Hill remained to take the Blue Devils to another championship game in 1994. They lost to Arkansas, but it didn’t affect Hill’s legacy.
Which brings us to the victory. It was courtesy of The Shot, but that was only because of The Pass. Both moments comprised what Sports Illustrated calls the greatest college basketball game ever played, and it occurred on March 28, 1992, in Philadelphia between Duke and Kentucky during the finals of the East Regional. In overtime, Kentucky led 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left, and you know much of the rest. After Hill heaved a 75-foot pass from beneath the Kentucky basket, Laettner grabbed the ball, dribbled once and nailed the game-winner.
Without The Pass, The Shot never happens. Here’s another thing: When you watch the replays, most Duke players left their huddle with coach Mike Krzyzewski looking confident despite a tense situation. The Blue Devils also were fortunate that then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino pulled the boneheaded move of his career by not guarding Hill on the inbounds pass.
Even so, a question remains after nearly a quarter of a century: Was it a fluke, or did Hill really think The Pass and The Shot would work?
“Yeah. I think so,” said Hill with a flimsy response, adding some definition in a hurry. “We had a timeout, and Christian said, ‘Hey, Grant makes the pass. I’ll make the shot.’ And he had made every shot he took that game (9-for-9 from the field and 10-for-10 from the foul line before The Shot), and for me, we practiced those baseball passes every day in practice, so it wasn’t just by chance. I always tended to excel at throwing those passes, and I bragged about how football was in my genes and that I played the wrong sport and that I should have been a quarterback. So at that moment, Coach K, knowing those things, decided to have me be the inbounds passer.
“When I didn’t see anybody on the ball, it gave me more confidence to know that I could take my time and give Christian time to catch it.”
Ho-hum. Just another comeback for the College Basketball Hall of Famer, and I get it. Since Hill shrugs over The Pass and The Shot, these current miracles during the NCAA Tournament are little ones in his world.
Well, if Hill thinks they are miracles at all.