TAMPA — With only 64 teams making the NCAA Tournament and more than 200 sitting at home, there’s no room for bad teams.
Every team in the four brackets knows what it takes. During the two days and six games held at the St. Pete Times Forum as part of the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, only two were won by more than six points.
In order to survive in the tournament, teams need more than a quality squad. They need a top-notch performer, that special player.
Coaches often talk about a player who is special and “once in a lifetime.” In order to compete deep into March, a team needs a player who will compete, lead, put points on the board, find the right people and come up with the big stop or the big rebound when his team needs it the most.
“You’re going to have someone somewhere on your team that will make big shots, let alone not be afraid to take a big shots,” Auburn’s Marquis Daniels said. “If you lose a game, then it’s all on you, and if you win, then everyone’s congratulating you.”
Several of those players were on display in Tampa Friday and Sunday.
From the very first game, featuring St. Joseph’s and Auburn, down to the final second-round game at the Forum between Michigan State and Florida, stars were leading their teams.
The higher caliber teams have more than one go-to guy to take them to the top.
In the final game of the weekend, Michigan State had three players in double figures (Maurice Ager, Chris Hill and Erazem Lorbek) in a 68-46 defeat of the second-seeded Gators.
The Spartans were led by sophomore Hill, who had 12 points in addition to key shots, key deflections and three assists in 31 minutes.
Hill and senior Aloysius Anagonye led the Spartans by providing leadership.
“I thought we played the best we could play on both sides of the court,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “These guys played about as well defensively. It turns us into a better rebounding team, which turns us into a better running team. Put all those things together, we got some easy baskets, and that’s what we have to do.”
In the other second-round game of the day, Auburn, which ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said shouldn’t even have made the tournament, advanced to the Sweet 16 after a 68-62 victory against No. 2 seed Wake Forest.
“I’m going to set the record (straight),” Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. “He is a friend. He has his opinion. We’ve known each other a long time. He’s the same guy that thought I should be National Coach of the Year.
“I disagree. I think our team is doing its job on the court.”
Senior Marquis Daniels, who had seven of his 18 points in the last two minutes, led the Tigers.
Daniels also shined in the first round, leading the Tigers to a 65-63 overtime victory against St. Joseph’s.
The 6-foot-6 forward scored a team-high 25 points, four assists and two steals, and hit a three-point shot as the clock ticked down to five seconds in regulation to lift the Tigers 57-55.
“It’s a matter of determination and wanting to take that shot,” Daniels said. “You can’t just tell anybody to make that shot. Me being a senior, I have to step up and try to lead my team as much as possible.”
Daniels outshined arguably the best player in the first round, St. Joseph’s Jameer Nelson.
The junior point guard scored 32 points and constantly willed his team to continue playing aggressively.
“Special players make special plays at special times,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “Obviously, we count on Jameer. We know how special he is. You kind of lean on your horses there.
“Obviously, in the postseason, everyone plays a little tighter. You coach a little tighter, you ref it a little tighter, the players play a little tighter, and a kid like that has a gift and a kid like Daniels has a gift. They are the ones that carry you through the tough spots.”
After the Auburn-St. Joseph’s game, Wake Forest defeated East Tennessee State 76-73.
All-American candidate Josh Howard, who had 12 points, three blocks and nine rebounds, led the Demon Deacons.
Howard also led his team by having the ball in his hands during the last minutes and coming up with big defensive plays and rebounds at the end of the game.
To round out the first round, the Spartans defeated the Colorado Buffaloes 79-64, and Florida defeated Sam Houston State 85-55.