This year’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament finally got its first major upset on Thursday.
And No. 13-seeded Buffalo did not need a buzzer beater to knock off No. 4 Arizona, a team thought by many to have had the talent to reach its first Final Four since 2001. The Bulls practically ran the Wildcats out of Boise. With suffocating defense, and 55 percent shooting, they gathered a double-digit second-half lead and never looked back, winning, 89-68, in a South Region matchup. Arizona, trailed all season by a federal investigation into basketball corruption, fired the assistant coach Emanuel Richardson, who was arrested on bribery charges. The Wildcats then dealt with the temporary departure of their coach, Sean Miller, in February, after a report surfaced that he had been caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to ensure the recruitment of a top freshman, Deandre Ayton. Another star player, Allonzo Trier, failed a drug test. But Miller returned to the bench. So did Trier. And the Wildcats formed a bond around the theme of redemption, which carried them to a Pacific-12 Conference tournament championship. It was expected to carry them deep into March.
But the Bulls had other ideas. Their backcourt of Jeremy Harris and Wes Clark combined for 48 points. It was Buffalo’s first N.C.A.A. tournament win. And it could hardly have been more unexpected.After the higher seeds Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and Tennessee all advanced in the early afternoon — some of them expending a little more perspiration than others — it was hardly the dramatic, roiling, bracket-busting start to a tournament that is designed to fuel unpredictability. When there was finally a buzzer-beater shot by a midmajor underdog — Loyola-Chicago, a No. 11 seed, stunned Miami — it was greeted exuberantly by fans on social media, even though the outcome had not been entirely unforeseen.
The Ramblers, making their first tournament appearance since 1985, were considered a favorite sleeper, and their win kept plenty of brackets intact. Yet the higher seeds won seven of the first eight games. Many of winners emerged from major conferences, and they quickly snuffed out the smaller programs that have historically given the tournament its March Madness mystique. The day’s first seven games were decided by an average of more than 11 points. That is not exactly unique — many first rounds often feature blowouts involving the top seeds. But this year’s field has been considered atypical in its parity. For the first time in years, even a No. 16 seed, Penn, was thought to be a threat to upend a No. 1, Kansas, something that has never happened in 132 previous tries in the men’s tournament. Perhaps the best game of the day came right out of the gate. No. 7 seed Rhode Island and No. 10 seed Oklahoma was the first matchup of the first round, and it did not disappoint. The freshman sensation Trae Young (28 points) put on a show, but the Rams held on in overtime, 83-78, after 15 lead changes. The Rams advanced to meet Duke, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region, in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Blue Devils — always susceptible to an embarrassingly premature exit — had no trouble this time keeping up with the fast-paced No. 15-seeded Iona, and their defense continued to impress. Duke held the Gaels to just 20 percent shooting from 3-point range. In the evening games, there was more of the same. Top-seeded Villanova had no trouble dismantling No. 16 seed Radford, winning by 26. And No. 5 seed Kentucky had a 10-point halftime lead over No. 12 seed Davidson that was whittled away in the second half.
But young Kentucky made more plays down the stretch than Davidson, whose shooting went cold at the wrong time.