SAN JOSE -- In what turned out to be a largely predictable first day of the NCAA Tournament, the silver and bronze medalists for upset of the day happened here.
If you want to call them surprises. And if you do, you’re probably more wrong than right.
While Harvard won the day by putting the old cerebral cortex to the metal and stunning three-seed New Mexico, the closest the rest of Thursday came to delivering any shocks were Pacific-12 Conference teams getting favorable matchups close to home.
Oregon, the 12-seed in the Midwest Regional, schooled Oklahoma State, 68-55, mostly because Oregon wasn’t a 12-seed at all, but a brilliantly undervalued six playing much closer to home than the Cowboys.
And California, the 12-seed in the East Regional, outslugged UNLV, 64-61, in part because it had no travel considerations whatsoever, had played Las Vegas before, and because Mike Montgomery turned an old adage on its head.
[RELATED: Cal wins rematch with UNLV, advances to Round of 32]
Namely, he was an old dog who taught a new trick, rather than the other way around.
All the other superior seeds won Thursday, save the tossup 8-9 matchups, proving if nothing else that our seed fixation, much like our bracket fixation, is there to amuse more than instruct. Oregon was simply undervalued, a difficult matchup for the Cowboys under any circumstances, and Cal was elevated beyond its station both by geography and experience. Stuff happens, your bracket is shattered sooner rather than later, and that’s just how it goes.
Cal’s win, though, was the more intriguing, because it came with Montgomery employing a zone defense for almost the entire game, and Mike Montgomery hadn’t lived by the zone since his days coaching Montana.
When Montana was still technically a territory.
“We played mostly zone at Montana, because that’s what the players there were comfortable with,” Montgomery said. “At Stanford, I couldn’t do that, because the kids wanted specific tasks to do, and they just didn’t like playing zone. Here, we’re still mostly man, but we play more zone than I have in a long time.”
Now we can bore you with the technical details of which zone did better and how one tweak here led to an advantage there, but we’d rather bore you another way, specifically this way. Cal played much more man in its 75-74 loss to the Rebels in December, with freshman Anthony Bennett going seriously off (25 and 13 being sufficiently off), so Montgomery decided to go "make-miss" – zone after a made shot, man-to-man after a miss. That lasted only awhile, until UNLV started to assert itself, so Montgomery played a zone the rest of the night for one excellent reason:
“I don’t think they liked it very much.”
And the Rebs didn’t. Bennett couldn’t find floor space, guards Katin Reinhardt, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Anthony Marshall got fidgety with the ball and lost patience, and ultimately the Vegas offense collapsed entirely in a heap of bad shooting, frustration and general five-seedery.
The game ended up close only because of Cal’s hideous late free throw shooting, but the Ursines maintained just enough arm-distance to keep UNLV at bay, and sent them to a Saturday match with Syracuse, which gutted Montana, Gratiuitously Many to Spectacularly Few.
Oregon draws St. Louis, an easy 66-44 winner over New Mexico State. All four winners were clearly more aggressive, even the zone-bound Bears, and all four losers shot (31 percent in aggregate) as though they had just bought their strokes at Costco the week before.
There is probably a general lesson in that, but it is never a good idea to assume that what you see on Thursday will turn out the same way on Friday. There were, however, clear trends throughout the country. One, higher seeds suffered from the same lack of pedigree that lower seeds did this year. The lack of love for any team lower than a two-seed was believed to mean good things for upset players, but college basketball wasn’t just down for the bluebloods, but for everyone.
As a result, the only surprises of the day came on behalf of an Ivy League school, and two teams that had been given travel and in the one case opponent considerations.
When asked if he thought being close to home was better for Cal than having seen UNLV before, Montgomery shrugged and said, "I don't really know how to answer that. UNLV's a very good team, but we had lots of tape on them and we would have done a lot of the same things anyway, but of course it helps to see a team."
If there was a surprise Thursday, it was that. Mike Montgomery and Jim Boeheim, zone masters, joined at the hip – as painful as that might be at their experience levels.