For Chad Sherwood’s UTR Game of the Day between Coppin State and Goldey-Beacom, CLICK HERE. For the Puppet’s thoughts on last night’s action, click in the same place.
Today we go back in time to another checkpoint year in NCAA Tournament history – in this case, we look not only at the first tournament of the 21st century, but also the first year that the field expanded to 65 teams. This change came about from a desire to keep the number of at-large teams at 34. Up until the 2000 season, there were 30 conferences that awarded automatic bids into the NCAA Tournament. After the WAC split up into 2 conferences following the 1996-97 season, the Mountain West would finally be eligible for an automatic bid beginning with the 2001 season. The first 2 teams to be selected in the play-in game (colloquially called the “Opening Round” game by the NCAA Basketball Committee) would be Northwestern State and Winthrop. Northwestern State won the first such play-in game, but their prize was a matchup with top-seeded Illinois in the first round (Midwest region).
Chalk was the name of the game for the most part in the Midwest Region that season. Illinois, Arizona, Ole Miss and Kansas were the top 4 seeds – all moved on to the Sweet 16 with relative ease. Only Ole Miss was seriously challenged – they edged Notre Dame 59-56 on the day after St. Patrick’s Day. (Butler also hammered Wake Forest in the first round – that game had coaching carousel ramifications for Dave Odom, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Wake Forest, Xavier and Butler.) As for the regional games played in San Antonio, Illinois and Arizona advanced to the regional final. Arizona edged the Illini this time – this would be the Wildcats’ 4th trip to the Final 4 under Lute Olson thanks to guys like Gilbert Arenas, Michael Wright, Luke Walton and Jason Gardner.
The South region would be more chaotic – there was the defending champion Michigan State and a lot of chaos preceding the Sweet 16 in Atlanta. Gonzaga would make a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 for the 3rd straight season as a double-digit seed thanks to wins against Virginia and Indiana State (who themselves upset Oklahoma in Round 1). Penn State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955 thanks to wins against Providence and 2nd-seeded North Carolina in the Superdome. Temple would one-up their neighbors in the Keystone State with wins against Texas and 3rd-seeded Florida to advance to Atlanta and also beat Penn State 84-72 to advance to the Elite 8 for the fifth time under John Chaney. They lost a close regional final to Michigan State, but that game turned out to be the last NCAA Tournament game of Chaney’s distinguished career.
The West region was even more wild than the South turned out to be. Only 3 of the higher seeds (Stanford, Maryland and Cincinnati) won their first-round games. The other winners included #9 Saint Joe’s, #10 Georgetown (over Arkansas), #11 Georgia State (over Wisconsin), #13 Kent State (over Indiana). Even more surprising was Hampton shocking 2nd-seeded Iowa State in Boise – this led to one of the most iconic images of the NCAA Tournament where coach Steve Merfeld was carried off the floor by one of the Hampton players. There were no lower-seeded victories in the 2nd round and the Sweet 16 – this meant Stanford beating UC in the Sweet 16 and Maryland beating Georgetown to advance to the West regional final in Anaheim. Not only was getting to the Elite 8 a breakthrough for Maryland, they upped the ante further with a decisive 87-73 victory to advance to the Final 4 for the first time in program history.
The East region was tailor-made for a potential Duke-Kentucky rematch in Philadelphia 9 years after their classic matchup in the Spectrum. Kentucky barely escaped against Holy Cross in their opener, and ultimately lost in the Sweet 16 against 6th-seeded USC. The Trojans scored upsets against 3rd-seeded Boston College and 2nd-seeded Kentucky to advance to their first Elite 8 since 1961. Duke/Mike Krzyzewski would be challenged by former Dukie Quin Snyder and Missouri in the 2nd round before ultimately succumbing to the Blue Devils by a 94-81 score. Upon advancing to Philadelphia, Duke would defeat both UCLA and USC to advance to the Final 4 for the 9th time under Krzyzewski.
When the Final Four convened in Minneapolis, Arizona easily defeated Michigan State 80-61 to advance to the championship game for the second time in their program’s history. (The Duke-Maryland matchup was the feature game – they already had a classic matchup at Cole Field House earlier in the season where Duke overcame a 10-point deficit in regulation to force overtime and beat the Terrapins on the road. Maryland got their revenge in Cameron on Duke’s Senior Night, and Duke returned the favor in the ACC Tournament.) In Minneapolis, Maryland would race out to a 21-point lead in the first half, but the Blue Devils would get a huge momentum shift thanks to stars like Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, and freshman phenom Chris Duhon. Duke ended up winning 95-84 to advance to Monday night. The Duke-Arizona game was tight throughout, but the Blue Devils pulled away late with an 82-72 win in the championship game for Duke’s third national championship.