The first No. 1 seed has been crossed out from your March Madness bracket. The first earth-shaking moment of the 2022 NCAA tournament’s round of 32 came early Saturday, when the Baylor Bears fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels despite an epic rally (inspired by a controversial officiating decision that saw UNC’s Brady Manek sent off with a flagrant foul) to force overtime. The 93-86 loss cemented the East as this event’s most wide-open region, with the Tar Heels, No. 4 seed UCLA and the upstart No. 15-seed Saint Peter’s Peacocks all getting primed for the festivities in Philadelphia next weekend along with a team to be determined.
Saint Peter’s was the day’s other huge story, becoming just the third 15-seed in history to reach the second weekend by handling Murray State 70-60.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 seeds that weren’t Baylor — the Kansas Jayhawks and Gonzaga Bulldogs — both survived, but it was far from easy for either.
As 24 teams are trimmed to 16 on Sunday, ESPN’s panel of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on Saturday’s events and also looked ahead to a Sunday schedule that will round out a thrilling first weekend of Madness.
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North Carolina, a team we weren’t sure was going to be in the NCAA tournament a couple weeks ago, has punched its ticket to the second weekend. How surprised would you be to see the Tar Heels in New Orleans?
Medcalf: With both Kentucky and Baylor eliminated from the East Region, I would not be surprised. I still think Gonzaga, Kansas and Arizona are a step ahead of the field. But this region is beginning to feel like the “best team right now” will have a chance to reach New Orleans and maybe more. In recent weeks, the Tar Heels won a road game over Duke and have just eliminated a No. 1 seed. I don’t think there is a team in the East Region that has been definitively better than a UNC squad that is 8-1 in its past nine games. If Brady Manek is out there — UNC is 7-2 this season when Manek makes at least four 3-pointers — the Tar Heels will have a chance to reach their first Final Four since they won the national title in 2017.
Borzello: I’d still be surprised, but it’s not out of the question. The 1-seed, Baylor, is out, and the 2-seed, Kentucky, is out, meaning it’s a wide-open region. Purdue is the highest seed remaining, but the Boilermakers’ defense leaves a lot to be desired. Carolina will be an underdog to UCLA in the Sweet 16, but the Bruins will have to hope Jaime Jaquez Jr. is close to 100% healthy. Head coach Hubert Davis has the Tar Heels playing their best basketball of the season. They’ve defeated three NCAA tournament teams in March, which is the same number they defeated in the first four months of the season.
The personnel is good enough. Manek — who we assume will be able to play in the Sweet 16 despite his controversial ejection (more on that in a bit) — has scored at least 20 points in five of his past six games. Caleb Love wasn’t great Saturday, but he generally is the catalyst for big Carolina wins. R.J. Davis just scored 30 against Baylor. Armando Bacot is Armando Bacot. The Tar Heels have made 24 3s in two games and held both Marquette and Baylor to fewer than 1 point per possession. If their perimeter shooting and defense continues, they have a shot to beat anyone.
Gasaway: This answer clearly depends on whether Manek’s on the floor, and man, do we have evidence to support this contention. But let’s assume the senior will play his usual number of minutes. UNC just knocked off the East Region’s top seed, and Saint Peter’s already performed that service with respect to No. 2 seed Kentucky. On paper this is an open bracket, with Purdue assuming the crown as the highest remaining seed. Even after a disastrous last 10 minutes of regulation against Baylor, the Tar Heels are still shooting the lights out in the tournament. A rerun of 2000 and a Final Four trip for an 8-seeded UNC team wouldn’t be all that surprising.
Lunardi: Ahem, ahem (clearing throat) … yours truly, if memory serves, said on College Basketball Live right after UNC won at Duke that we were witnessing a perfect storm. North Carolina (and Memphis, if it beat Houston the next day) were both going to be in 8 vs. 9 games two weeks hence, and both — having underachieved their talent for the better part of the season — would be in excellent positions to take out a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
You can imagine my dismay, then, as the Tar Heels played grenade ball in blowing a 25-point second-half lead to Baylor. That they essentially won the game again in overtime might have been an even bigger surprise than building the original lead. I also had Carolina in my Elite Eight before the tourney began, losing to Kentucky in the East Region final. With Big Blue Nation out of the way, what’s one more game?
ESPN colleague Jay Bilas has railed all season about college basketball games descending into “hockey and rugby” games. Do you agree with Jay, and what (if anything) is there to do about the officiating issues that afflicted Baylor-North Carolina on Saturday?
Gasaway: I make it a point to always agree with Jay and his railing because he’s a VIP. It’s also true that on this particular topic he has a point. If ever there were a game to illustrate Jay’s bill of indictment, it was surely the portion of the North Carolina-Baylor contest that transpired after Brady Manek was ejected for a flagrant 2. The Bears mounted an incredible comeback in part because the Tar Heels displayed the most inexplicable compulsion for dribbling into the nearest corner on every possession.
Nevertheless, another significant factor in the rally was officials swallowing their whistles as the BU full-court press mauled UNC in the backcourt on inbounds passes. In addition to the Manek ejection, there was also a, shall we say, interaction between Armando Bacot and Jeremy Sochan. It almost seemed as if there were stretches when the officials were doubting themselves (with good reason), and a mild form of anarchy ensued. So, yes, the game was no oil painting, and I’ll defer to Jay on the reform program that will fix it. It is also true, however, that there will always be complaints about officiating. It has been part of the game since Naismith.
Lunardi: You could almost hear the gears turning as the officials huddled. “It’s probably not a flagrant 2 on Brady Manek, but we can toss him here, not impact the outcome of the game and play the last 10 minutes of a blowout without incident. Message sent.” Except Carolina declined to follow the script and began handing the whole thing back to Baylor, at which point we went full circus mode.
Short term, I kept waiting for the crew to call the coaches together and say, “Hey, next chippy play and that guy is out. Zero tolerance.” Instead we got Sochan and Bacot escalating their hand-to-hand (or was it leg-to-leg?) combat in plain sight. Both probably needed to go after their late double foul, but I understand the officials’ reluctance in that spot given the turn of events. It was lose-lose for them and the two teams.
Big picture, call something — anything! — on a couple of Baylor’s traps (even a travel or two on Carolina) and we probably get to the finish line unscathed. After that, clip all the uncalled bumps and hacks from the first half and make it the next big summer blockbuster, “Freedom of Movement Strikes Back.” The toothpaste isn’t just out of the tube, we can’t even find the empty tube.
North Carolina and Baylor are playing a physical, tough, competitive game. But, it’s not basketball. It’s hockey and rugby. This has been happening all season, and needs to change.
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 19, 2022
Borzello: Officiating in general is a problem, so I agree with Jay. I don’t usually come out of a game thinking about the officiating, though — except on extreme occasions. Tennessee’s win over Arizona earlier this season was one of them. Saturday’s game was certainly another. The officiating was objectively terrible. The lack of consistency was remarkable. When fans of both teams are in my mentions talking about how dreadful the referees were, you know it’s a problem. I would even take the Manek ejection out of the equation; it was the rest of the game that frustrated players, coaches and viewers.
The constant Bacot-Sochan jockeying should have been nipped in the bud much earlier. The referees had no idea how to officiate Baylor’s second-half pressure, seemingly subscribing to the “if they’re fouling on every play, we can’t call fouls” method. They ignored fouls that they called in the first half, and other calls were questionable at best. It was just a really poorly officiated game, and it would be a storyline if the crew of Kipp Kissinger, Brent Hampton and Donnie Eppley officiated another game in this year’s tournament. I’m not sure there’s really anything to do about it; the NCAA tournament is supposed to feature the best officials in the game and having a chance to officiate later rounds in the tournament is the reward. What more is the NCAA supposed to do besides change the rules?
Medcalf: If they’re not stopping games to let a couple of players fight, then we’re not watching any hockey-like affairs. I think we’re often selective in our assessment of officiating. Big moments and impactful calls in close games tend to alter our perspectives but don’t always define what’s happening for 40 minutes in hundreds of games around the country. I do think, however, we have an issue with consistency. That’s the word coaches used whenever I spoke with them prior to games this season. They didn’t ask for calls to go their way. They just wanted to be able to trust that the officiating would be similar throughout the game.
That takes us to the UNC-Baylor situation. When the pace changed and Nolan Richardson seemed to replace Scott Drew as the coach in the second half for the Bears, the officiating changed. A number of calls that were either missed or ignored during Baylor’s comeback from a 25-point hole would have all been fouls in the first half of the game. That’s the problem. Officials set the tone for how a game will be played, and then they change the tone in real time.
The only real change is to make officials available for questions before and after games. The continued secrecy of officiating in a world with the internet does not make sense. Talking to the media won’t create additional harm for them. If anything, it will help us understand their reasoning and approach to crucial calls. College basketball fans deserved to hear from the officials in the UNC-Baylor game. But the current system does not allow this change, which would add the layer of accountability that would help everyone involved.
Gonzaga had another shaky first half before rallying to take down Memphis 82-78. What’s your biggest worry about the Zags, and do you expect their sluggishness to prove fatal at some point?
Lunardi: I don’t think it was sluggishness. It was a punch in the mouth from Memphis that Gonzaga should have been more prepared for after last year’s beatdown by Baylor in the championship game. The Tigers had a smart game plan and played to their strength, with the Zags complicit all the way.
After halftime — as Drew Timme was doing his Christian Laettner imitation — it was Memphis that looked like a deer in the headlights. First, coach Penny Hardaway inexplicably left Jalen Duren on the floor to pick up a fourth foul. Then he stubbornly refused multiple timeout opportunities his team desperately needed. It remained a courageous effort from the Tigers that still pushed the nation’s top team to the limit.
For the Zags, was this the “great escape” every champion needs? Or a weakness sure to be exploited in a later round? It says here Gonzaga will get an absolute test from Texas Tech in the West Region final, and certainly Purdue if that is the Final Four opponent. I also expect Timme & Co. to be ready when the time comes.
Medcalf: I think the worry is this team’s ability to separate from an opponent or launch a comeback if Drew Timme is struggling. On Saturday, he carried the Bulldogs, who were down by double digits in the first half against Memphis before Timme’s rally in the second half. But I think that’s a concern for any team in Gonzaga’s situation. Most elite programs will have challenges if their best player goes cold. But Timme is usually reliable.
I do think the Georgia State and Memphis games, however, showed that a quick team with length can give the Bulldogs trouble. Still, the way the Bulldogs finished both games showed how difficult it will be to beat them. Entering the matchup, Memphis had lost two games in two months. The Tigers were better than their seed. They would have challenged every team in the field and defeated a bunch of them on Saturday, too. Let’s consider that in our assessment of this game. I think the Bulldogs can still march to the national title. But this isn’t the Gonzaga team that had an aura of invincibility last season. These Bulldogs are more vulnerable.
Gonzaga advances to the Sweet 16 thanks to a scoring rampage from Drew Timme in the second half.
Borzello: I don’t think many people expected Gonzaga to just walk through Memphis on Saturday, not with the way the Tigers have played over the past two months. There are very few teams left in the bracket that won’t struggle with Memphis right now, and Gonzaga kind of got punked a little in the first half. Timme struggled, Holmgren struggled, the 3s weren’t falling, the free throws weren’t falling. It wasn’t a lethargic start, Memphis was just the superior team for 20 minutes. Only Timme and the Gonzaga staff and players know what happened in that halftime locker room, but whatever it was, Timme came out and looked like the best player in college basketball.
My biggest concern isn’t Gonzaga’s slow starts against Georgia State and Memphis; we’ve already seen a 1-seed, 2-seed and 3-seed lose in the first three days of the NCAA tournament. That’s just what happens in March. My biggest concern is whether the Zags can consistently create offense if Timme is struggling or gets in foul trouble. They don’t have the explosive, elite perimeter players they did last season, so a lot will fall on the shoulders of Andrew Nembhard. He was fantastic on Saturday and needs to continue to play at a high level.
Gasaway: Give Memphis credit. The Tigers smacked Gonzaga in the mouth, and the game felt very much like what Baylor did to this same team last April. Then Timme put on his superhero outfit and the rest is history. If there’s one note of concern going forward, however, it’s that the sluggishness is taking a specific form that really does hearken back to the Bears and the national title game. Against Memphis, Mark Few’s team shot far more accurately from the field, but it almost didn’t matter. The Tigers pulled down one in every three misses and didn’t turn the ball over. That’s precisely the formula Baylor used a year ago. The Bulldogs will need to keep making shots, because opponents might get many chances to score against this team.
Doug Edert drains three big shots down the stretch for Saint Peter’s in a 70-60 win over Murray State in the NCAA tournament.
What else caught your eye on Saturday?
Medcalf: Saint. Peter’s. And Shaheen Holloway. Wow. He outcoached John Calipari in Thursday’s win over Kentucky. That was a school-altering win. But the next step was difficult, too. You see a lot of young coaches stumble in that second-round game because of the limited prep time and rest. For three months, no team on Murray State’s schedule could find a way to stall the Racers. But Holloway was ready. I don’t know how a team that lost at Siena (NET ranking: 238) by 14 points a month ago is in the Sweet 16 after beating a Kentucky team with national title aspirations and Murray State, the hottest team in the country. But March is wild like that.
Borzello: The Peacocks! Saint Peter’s has Peacocked its way into America’s hearts. This has quickly become one of the best sports stories of the year. Upsets happen every year in the NCAA tournament, that’s to be expected — but a 15-seed making the Sweet 16? Not so much. Saint Peter’s is just the third 15-seed to win two NCAA tournament games, and Saturday certainly wasn’t a fluke.
Not only did the Peacocks beat Murray State, they never trailed. Not for a second. This is considered the worst job in the MAAC, one of the most difficult jobs in the entire region — and Holloway has them in the Sweet 16. Kevin Willard mentioned him on Friday night as his potential successor at Seton Hall, and now Holloway has more NCAA tournament wins than his mentor. Just an incredible story.
Gasaway: Saint Peter’s is Jersey strong, even if Holloway had to clarify in his postgame interview that he’s actually “a New York guy.” Think about what the Peacocks did. For 40 minutes of basketball, the nation was acting like the opponent from the Ohio Valley Conference was the big, bad favorite. Holloway’s team has played with poise and confidence from the opening tip against Kentucky to the final horn against Murray State. Now Saint Peter’s is heading to Philadelphia. If there’s one lesson the Wildcats and Racers could share with the other teams at the regional, it would be not to underestimate the Peacocks.
Lunardi: Saint Peter’s campus is nothing — and I mean nothing — like those of the other 15-seeds who have ventured into the Sweet 16. Florida Gulf Coast (2013) and Oral Roberts (2021) are country clubs compared to the nondescript Jersey City home of the Peacocks. This is far and away the most unlikely Sweet 16 entrant in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Which Sunday matchup intrigues you the most?
Borzello: There are some juicy matchups on Sunday, but I’m most intrigued by Texas vs. Purdue — mostly because the winner of that game has a real shot at making a Final Four. In terms of the Boilermakers and Longhorns, it’s a battle between one team with an elite offense and a vulnerable defense and a team with a defense-first coach that has struggled to score for long stretches this season. But both teams also looked like they took the week between conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament to iron some things out. Purdue had its best defensive performance since November against Yale (although we need to take the opponent into account), while Texas had its most efficient offensive outing since December against ACC tourney champ Virginia Tech. How will Texas deal with Purdue’s size? How will Purdue’s guards compete defensively against Texas’ physical, veteran perimeter players? I’m intrigued.
Medcalf: I love the Wisconsin-Iowa State matchup. Before the season started, I don’t think anyone would have bet that a game between a pair of teams that were picked to finish near the bottom of their respective leagues would secure a trip to the Sweet 16 for the winner. A win for either team will extend the story of one of college basketball’s biggest surprises.
Wisconsin looked vulnerable against Colgate. And relying on Johnny Davis to go on a late-game run to pull the Badgers to safety might not work this time. Then again, Davis has been a clutch player all year. And an Iowa State team that beat LSU, which played without former head coach Will Wade, has certainly had some ugly moments this season. But Izaiah Brockington (17.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 37.1% from the 3-point line) could shine on the big stage. Both teams have also exceeded the odds. Either Greg Gard leads Wisconsin to the Sweet 16 after beginning the year as an afterthought in the Big Ten or T.J. Otzelberger takes a team that won two games all of last season to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Gasaway: I’m suddenly way more interested in TCU-Arizona than I would have believed heading into the round of 64. The Horned Frogs were just about exactly average on defense in Big 12 play, but they sure didn’t look like it against Seton Hall. Jamie Dixon’s team absolutely dominated the Pirates, limiting them to 42 points in 65 possessions. There’s always the possibility that “average” in Big 12 terms means “outstanding” once these teams get to play opponents outside the league. That theory will be tested in the most rigorous possible way against the explosive Wildcats.
Lunardi: I am all over the Miami guards against Auburn. We’ve seen this movie all the way back to Jim Larranaga and George Mason. Coach L’s veteran guards will control the ball, control the game and take advantage of every Auburn turnover. Throw in some timely shot-making and this will be one of those big seed-line upsets that really isn’t.