Northwestern Makes Its N.C.A.A. Debut a Winning One


When the ball caromed out of bounds off a Vanderbilt player, the celebration raged not only in the stands — the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, cheering on her son, Charlie Hall, a Wildcats sophomore forward, and the former N.B.A. coach Doug Collins, father of Chris, were among those present — but especially back on campus in Evanston, Ill.

Northwestern’s victory served as the most memorable moment from an early slate of games in which even the lone upset — 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota — was not really all that surprising. The higher seed prevailed in six consecutive games, including Florida’s 80-65 triumph over East Tennessee State, before Middle Tennessee’s Blue Raiders, a year after recording one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, upended the bracket again.

By rolling past Minnesota, 81-72, in the South Region, Middle Tennessee State bolstered the objective of its coach, Kermit Davis, who is trying to mold his team into a national program, in the image of teams like Butler, Gonzaga and Wichita State, which began as midmajor darlings before achieving full-fledged behemoth status.

The Blue Raiders shed their anonymity last year by ousting Michigan State, a No. 2 seed and tournament favorite, and in a stirring sequel Thursday they toppled a Big Ten entry for the second year in a row.

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Devin Robinson soaring for a dunk as fourth-seeded Florida beat East Tennessee State, 80-65.

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Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Just as predictable, then, was Notre Dame’s preferred method for advancement.

The Fighting Irish eschew blowouts for stress, comfort for stress, and survived Thursday only because a 3-point attempt by Princeton’s Devin Cannady — who grew up in Indiana, a town over from Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend — clanged off the rim in a 60-58 loss. “I thought the shot was going in,” Cannady said.

It did not, and No. 5 Notre Dame — which in 2015 outlasted No. 14 Northeastern, and in 2016 overcame a 12-point halftime deficit against Michigan, a 6-point deficit against Stephen F. Austin with 95 seconds left and a 3-point deficit against Wisconsin with 25 seconds remaining — escaped once again. In the last two postseasons, those close games seemed to galvanize the Irish: Each year they advanced to the regional final.

“We’ve been in so many of them,” Coach Mike Brey said, “we really believe.”

The first true upset of the day — Middle Tennessee State was favored to win, after all — came early in the evening when No. 11-seeded Xavier wore down No. 6 Maryland, 76-65. Xavier, which trailed at halftime, came back with a stifling second-half performance, thanks to a variety of looks out of its zones.

“I thought our zone, especially in the second half, for the most part, at least the last eight to 10 minutes, did the job and kept them out of the lane,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said.

North Carolina Wilmington appeared headed to an upset, establishing a 15-point first-half advantage against Virginia, but the Seahawks collapsed to a 76-71 defeat. The Cavaliers, seeded fifth in the East, countered No. 12 U.N.C. Wilmington’s pressure by going small, deploying five guards — even though they had not practiced it. One of those guards, London Perrantes, paced Virginia with 24 points, and another, Marial Shayok, who had 23 points, drilled a critical jumper with about 25 seconds remaining.

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Winthrop’s Keon Johnson going for a loose ball in a 76-64 loss to fourth-seeded Butler.

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Morry Gash/Associated Press

There was no such suspense in Butler’s 76-64 victory over Winthrop. Avery Woodson made six 3-pointers as the Bulldogs, seeded fourth in the South Region, capitalized on a distinct physical advantage to grab 15 more rebounds and make 15 — while taking 20 — more foul shots than No. 13 Winthrop.

Opportunities for unprecedented upsets surfaced in both the East and the West Regions, as top seeds Gonzaga and Villanova faced first-half deficits. But both teams rebounded, Gonzaga beating South Dakota State, 66-46, and Villanova topping Mount St. Mary’s, 76-56.

For West Virginia, whose disruptive defense defines its program, the opposite was true. In their 86-80 win over No. 13 Bucknell, the fourth-seeded Mountaineers forced fewer turnovers and steals than their average, the best in Division I, and instead turned two weaknesses — 3-point shooting and free throws — into strengths. West Virginia, which entered Thursday ranked 261st of 347 teams in foul shooting, made 14 of its final 16 attempts.

Another plucky No. 13 seed, Vermont, kept it close with Purdue. But handling Purdue inside was a tall order. Too tall. Though Vermont made 10 3-pointers, there was no repeat of its win as a No. 13 seed over Syracuse in 2005. Purdue advanced, 80-70.

The higher seeds also held their ground in the late games. Florida State, a No. 3 seed in the West, looked shaky but ultimately was too explosive offensively for Florida Gulf Coast, a trendy upset pick, in an 86-80 win. No. 5-seeded Iowa State extended an impressive streak of strong play with an 84-73 win over Nevada. And Wisconsin, incensed after receiving a lower seeding (8) than it had anticipated, took care of Virginia Tech, 84-74.

Arizona, the No. 2 seed in the West, finished a day of dominance by the better seeds with a 100-82 victory over No. 15 North Dakota.

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