MINNEAPOLIS -- The matchups are too close to call most of the time. The teams are so even, the games so tight, we've come to expect the outcome to be determined with the ball in the air as the final buzzer sounds. The difference between a sixth seed and an 11th seed nowadays is next-to-nothing. You know what the definition of an upset is in today's NCAA tournament? A blowout, an easy night.
Maryland had one here Thursday, an unexpected lopsided victory over Iona. You stare at these brackets long enough, you'll convince yourself of anything. Even some of the brightest minds in college basketball believed Iona was going to make Maryland crazy. But Maryland's first-round game here in the Metrodome was more like a December romp over UMBC than what we're accustomed to seeing in March. It was a noncontest just after halftime; Terence Morris already had his double-double by intermission. Even with starter Danny Miller sidelined because of a sprained ankle, Maryland had no trouble whatsoever running up a 74-59 victory over the University of Jeff Ruland.
Maryland's biggest problem in the last eight minutes, after building a 28-point lead, was staying alert until the game was over. Though the Terps advanced to Saturday's second round, they've got plenty to work on as evidenced by the 21 turnovers they committed, many of them unforced errors that would have been costly against a better opponent, say UCLA. The Bruins, as we saw in their victory over Ball State, are irresistibly talented yet erratic and the size of 6-foot-11 Dan Gadzuric and 6-10 Jerome Moiso figures to give Maryland fits.
''When you're young and inexperienced, you don't always have the killer instinct,'' Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. ''We stopped doing what we were doing after about 30 minutes. It was a new experience (the first NCAA tournament game) for three of our first seven guys ... We're young enough that we screw up sometime.''
Young Steve Blake, the freshman point guard, had an uncharacteristic seven turnovers to only two assists. Freshman Tahj Holden, who replaced Miller in the starting lineup, missed 5 of 6 shots but played well defensively. Still, youth can't be an excuse if Maryland is to stay alive after this weekend. ''We got kind of lazy, we got kind of sloppy toward the end,'' Juan Dixon said.
When Maryland was way ahead Williams tried telling his players about Ruland and how his years of rugged play with the 1980s Washington Bullets surely had rubbed off on the Iona players. ''I was telling them about Ruland,'' Williams said afterward, ''but I might as well have been talking about Dr. Naismith.''
If Iona and stories about old McFilthy couldn't hold Maryland's attention, close games earlier in the day involving the likes of Kentucky did. With Maryland not playing until Thursday evening, the players had plenty of time to watch afternoon nail-biters. ''Watching those games,'' Williams said, ''certainly helped us. They knew Syracuse (which beat Samford) had a serious run put on 'em. They knew Kentucky was breathing hard in both overtimes. ... ''
Kentucky was a blown layup at the end of regulation from being eliminated. And the performance of the day had to belong to St. Bonaventure's David Messiah Capers, a 55 percent foul shooter, who stepped to the line with four-tenths of a second remaining -- his Bonnies trailing by three -- and sank three straight free throws to force a second overtime.
The Commonwealth is probably in a state of alert, what with the Wildcats being seeded so low and struggling with teams of no pedigree. That national championship victory of two years ago has so faded in the minds of the fans in Kentucky, they're about to run Coach Tubby Smith out of town. Seriously, Smith is considering his options, including going to the NBA, and I wouldn't blame him given the absurd expectations in the bluegrass. Here's how it works in Kentucky: If you don't get to the Final Four at least every other year, you're a bum. The championship trophy doesn't even have dust on it and the locals have made Tubby out to be an under-achieving slacker who won only because he rode Rick Pitino's kids to a championship. Wow.
Fact is, other than the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds (which should beat up on 15th and 16th seeds), there's not a nickel's worth of difference between the rest of these teams in the field no matter your billing. Iowa State's Marcus Fizer may be the best overall player in the tournament, what with Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin injured. Fizer has the softest touch for a guy built like a Humvee. Still, a school named Central Connecticut State, making its first NCAA appearance, had the game tied at 69 with six minutes to play before Iowa State collected itself to win a nerve-wracker. What does is say about Iowa State, a No. 2 seed, to struggle with CCSU? Probably nothing. Most games figure to be a struggle in this tournament, even for the big seeds accustomed to easing into the postseason.
I can see a sixth seed like Indiana getting to the regional final, or losing in the first round to Pepperdine. Did 10th-seeded Gonzaga upset seventh-seeded Louisville? No way. Don't dare use the words ''Big Upset'' to describe any results that don't involve a No. 1 seed. Look at Iona, for example. They came into the tournament having won 14 of their last 15 games. ''Every year,'' Williams said, ''people pull for something like a Valparaiso to happen,'' he said, referring to lightly regarded Valpo's victories two years ago over Mississippi and Florida State.
Of course, the best way to not let one of those lower seeds become a pest is to come out and just grab control of the game. The longer the underdog stays close, the more confidence it gets, and the shakier the favorite becomes.
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