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First impressions (cont.)

Posted: Thursday March 20, 2008 5:28PM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 6:49AM
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Five things we learned while watching wall-to-wall games in New York City this afternoon (we're in the Big Apple for a change instead of getting caught at a tournament site where one can't see all the games):

Marquette's Jerel McNeal made sure the Golden Eagles avoided a second-consecutive first-round tourney exit, posting 20 points in their 74-66 win over Kentucky.
Marquette's Jerel McNeal made sure the Golden Eagles avoided a second-consecutive first-round tourney exit, posting 20 points in their 74-66 win over Kentucky.
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This may be the worst crop of mid-majors we've seen in a long time. This hit me right about the time Kent State drew an unforced 10-second violation while walking the ball up-court early in the Golden Flash-in-the-Pans' 71-58 loss to UNLV (in which Kent State tied a tournament record for futility with just 10 first-half points).

We're only one-fourth of the way through the first round (which means the landscape may change), but there hasn't been a single upset yet, and the only games that were even close to "upsets" involved teams from the hardly cuddly SEC (11-seed Kentucky and 14-seed Georgia).

All season long there have been signs pointing toward mid-major mediocrity -- e.g., the Missouri Valley getting only one NCAA bid -- but today's results (and victory margins) have been eye-opening. Even before Thursday's debacle, Kent State got far too much credit for winning at St. Mary's last month; was it really worth putting KSU in the Top 25 for that? In the end, it looks like the pressure may be on George Mason to carry the mid-major banner again tonight against Notre Dame.

Jerel McNeal makes a huge difference for Marquette. Last year, in Winston-Salem, I watched Marquette look awful in a first-round loss against Michigan State, not least because the Golden Eagles were playing without the injured McNeal. But a healthy McNeal was the difference-maker in a 74-66 win against Kentucky.

McNeal played his usual lockdown defense and added some serious scoring punch (20 points), much of it coming on high-degree-of-difficulty shots. If Stanford beats Cornell, I can't tell you how pumped I'd be for a classic contrasting-styles matchup between perimeter-heavy Marquette and the trees of Stanford in the second round.

Fatigue was indeed a factor for Georgia. All credit to the Bulldogs, who turned into the best story of the past week by winning four games (and two in one day!) to grab the SEC's automatic bid after going 13-16 in the regular season. But Georgia couldn't hold on to its 11-point lead against No. 3 seed Xavier, and it was obvious late in the game (as Sundiata Gaines struggled to make it upcourt) that the Dawgs were dog-tired.

One reason we picked Xavier to go on a long run to the West Regional Final is the Musketeers have a tremendous amount of maturity, and they proved it Thursday, never once panicking after going down by double-digits.

If I want to host a weenie roast, I know who's on my guest list. We're on the record saying people make way too much out of journalists' bracket picks, but we can't let this one slip by: no fewer than four of our journo pals -- ESPN's Jay Bilas, Andy Katz and Digger Phelps and CBS' Clark Kellogg -- pulled the ultimate weenie maneuver and picked all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. Not only have four No. 1's never reached the Final Four before, but get this: it's even less likely to happen than a No. 16 seed upsetting a No. 1 seed (another unprecedented achievement).

According to the log5 calculations of Ken Pomeroy at Basketball Prospectus, there's only a 3.5-percent chance all four of this year's No. 1 seeds will reach the Final Four. But there's a 4.6-percent chance a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1 seed this season. In other words, our weenie pals are so amazingly conservative they're actually going out on a limb (without even realizing it!). For our tastes, we would have preferred that they had just picked a No. 16 seed to win.

Random stuff goes through my head while watching games. A sampling of stream-of-consciousness from today's games: Ed Hightower's weave looks better than ever ... On the other hand, Georgia's Sundiata Gaines has joined the Otis Nixon All-Stars ... It's nice to see a guy named Dave Bliss (the Georgia version) being part of an inspiring college basketball story instead of playing a villain in one (like the old Baylor version in 2003) ... Yes, we picked Oral Roberts, Baylor and Kent State to win. Yes, our bracket is now up in flames ... I've always connected the start of the Iraq War with the 2003 NCAA tournament, and it gives you some perspective on how long the war has lasted that I can't imagine a single player from that 2003 tournament is still in college basketball (if you can come up with any, let me know).

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