Observations: Big 12 takes it on the chin again in 2016 NCAA Tournament

1. Kermit Davis is the early star of the 2016 NCAA Tournament

Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up.

Middle Tennessee didn’t just beat Michigan State on Friday; the Blue Raiders led the Spartans from wire-to-wire en route to a 90-81 win, which may wind up going down as the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.

Tom Izzo’s team was playing as well as anybody in college basketball and many people — including myself — picked the Spartans to cut down the nets. But for one day, Izzo wasn’t the coach who shined brightest while coaching in the field of 68.

Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis, a grinder’s grinder and a lifer in the business, had his team playing with supreme confidence from the opening tip. It was apparent as soon as the two teams stepped on the floor.

This guy has shined brighter than any figure thus far in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and he’ll have another opportunity to make headlines on Sunday when the Blue Raiders face Syracuse in the Round of 32.

2. The Big 12 once again takes it on the chin

There’s no way to sugar coat this: History is repeating itself again.

One year after the Big 12 had just two teams advance to the Sweet 16 and none in the Elite Eight, the league is struggling to represent itself at a high level in the NCAA Tournament.

Only three teams — Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State — out of seven have advanced through the first round and are still playing. Three of the four Big 12 teams that fell — Baylor, West Virginia and Texas — were knocked out by double-digit seeds.

3. Murphy’s Law hit Cal at the worst possible time

Whatever could go wrong did go wrong for a program that was trending upward as recently as a week ago. The Bears had arguably the most talented roster in the bracket but wound up being eliminated by Hawaii on Friday due to myriad reasons.

Cal had an assistant coach terminated early in the week and then lost its heart and soul in point guard Tyrone Wallace to a hand injury. Then another starter, Jabari Bird, didn’t play on Friday due to a back injury. The Bears were down two starters in their most important game of the year, and the loss was really a manifestation of everything that went wrong for this program over the past few days.

When things go bad, they go really bad.

4. Your heart has to go out to Octavius Ellis

This is the dark side of March.

The NCAA Tournament takes programs to amazing highs and equally amazing lows. Ellis felt the latter on Friday night in Spokane, Washington.

It appeared that Cincinnati’s senior big man scored on a dunk with no time remaining to tie the game against Saint Joseph’s, but Ellis ultimately still had the ball on his fingertips it entered the cylinder. The referees huddled after the final buzzer sounded and awarded the game to the Hawks by potentially the slimmest margin in NCAA Tournament history.

Ellis just sat there with tears in his eyes, realizing that if he let the ball go a split second sooner the outcome might have been different and the two teams would’ve had another five minutes to play in overtime. Instead, the Bearcats’ season is over and Saint Joseph’s moves on to play Sunday against one-seed Oregon.

This is March.

5. Josh Pastner gets his chance to regain momentum at Memphis

The news came down on Friday that the 38-year-old coach will return next season to coach the Tigers just 12 days after Pastner led Memphis to within one win of the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers were blindsided last summer when Austin Nichols decided to transfer to Virginia and now Pastner — who would be much more revered on Beale Street if he didn’t follow John Calipari — will attempt to get Memphis back into the upper echelon of the American Athletic Conference.

Memphis returns a first-team all-conference player in Dedric Lawson (15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds) as well as K.J. Lawson (8.8 points, 3.5 rebounds), who only played in 10 games this past season due to injury.

Look for Pastner to be extremely aggressive in the spring recruiting period as he tries to bolster his record of 167-73 over seven seasons at Memphis, which includes four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2011-15.

Texas was just one of four Big 12 teams upset after a first-round loss. (USATSI)
Texas was just one of four Big 12 teams upset after a first-round loss. (USATSI)

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