Luke Winn: At The Dance
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  • 02:38 AM ET  03.20
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Garrison Carr and American appeared to be on their way to a big upset early in the second half against Villanova.
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1. It was a Thursday of drama with limited payoff. Cal State Northridge, which was dreaming of becoming the next Hampton or Coppin State, had its 15-over-2 upset go down under a barrage of Roburt Sallie threes. Memphis -- the team we went behind-the-scenes with on Wednesday and Thursday -- escaped in Kansas City. American, which was dreaming of becoming the next Northwestern State or Bucknell, had its 14-over-3 upset disappear in a 15-0 run by Villanova in the second half. The Wildcats escaped in Philadelphia. Akron, which was dreaming of becoming the next San Diego or Siena, had its 13-over-4 upset dissolve into a 19-1 run by Gonzaga in the second half. The Zags escaped in Portland. VCU, which was dreaming of becoming the next ... VCU, had its 11-over-6 upset wilt under the pressure of Darren Collison's D, which ruined a potential Maynor moment. UCLA escaped in Philly. In a year with so few quality mid-majors that just four of them made the dance as at-larges, nearly all of the little guys ran out of energy.

The sight of Northridge point guard Mark Hill, in the second half against Memphis, grimacing and gritting his teeth, doing all he could to stay in a defensive stance as the Matadors were waving away an improbable lead, summed up the day: The little guys had the heart, but not enough steam, to make history.

In the Cinderella department, we had to settle for Western Kentucky, a fine team with an fabulously named point guard (Orlando Mendez-Valdez) but not upset artists by any means. Illinois was a shell of itself without its point guard, Chester Frazier, who had a broken right hand, and the Hilltoppers surged early, and held on for the 12-over-5 non-shocker in the day's final game. Earlier this week, WKU coach Ken McDonald had facetiously told the press, "We're the most overrated team in the tournament and we're to be taken lightly." On Thursday against the Illini, Western Kentucky was just the better team, but call it a Cinderella if you wish. The country was desperate to find one by midnight.

Michigan Warmup Shirts
Michigan players channeled Cortes, and upset seventh-seeded Clemson on Thursday.
Luke Winn/SI

2. "Queme los Barcos" is the best rallying cry of the NCAA tournament ... even if its history is dubious. On Thursday, Michigan wore custom Adidas warmup shirts with an ode to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes printed on the back. "Burn the ships" is its English translation -- a reference to the command Cortes is said to have given in March 1519 at the beginning of a conquest of the Aztec Empire. The legend says Cortes wanted to give his soldiers, many of whom were considering mutiny, no choice but to stay and fight. This was a favorite line of history nut (and Michigan coach) John Beilein's this season. Assistant John Mahoney expanded on the theme to create a motivational, "Queme los Barcos" PowerPoint presentation, which he put on in the Minneapolis Marriott before the Wolverines' game against Minnesota on March 7. "Our backs were against the wall," Mahoney said of the team, which was 18-12 and on the NCAA tournament bubble, "and we needed something to help us believe we weren't going to lose again."

The presentation, which Mahoney said he narrated, "switched back and forth between Cortes and coach Beilein." There was a frame of Cortes arriving in Mexico in 1519, then one of Beilein getting hired in 2007. There was a frame on soldiers worrying about Cortes' unconventional battle plans, then one on pundits worrying about Beilein's unconventional playing style. There was one covering the threat of mutiny, and then one featuring the five players who had left the Michigan program since Beilein arrived.

The players who stayed beat Minnesota the next night, beat Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, and got one of the last at-large spots in the NCAAs as a No. 10 seed. In the locker room before they faced No. 7 Clemson on Thursday, Beilein told them, "This is it boys, burn the ships, there's no tomorrow."

They upset the Tigers, 62-59, to claim Michigan's first NCAA tournament win since 1998, and its first win that counted (because of NCAA sanctions) since 1994. The Wolverines moved on to face Oklahoma in the second round, enhancing the respective legends of Cortes and Beilein, who's one of the best tournament coaches in the game.

3. I didn't have the heart to mention to Michigan that I found a Fast Company article from 1997 that examined the rise of the phrase "Burn the ships" in the business-consulting sector, and cast doubt on its historical accuracy. In it, the magazine set the record straight and said that 1) Cortes never burned any ships, he just ran them aground; 2) He grounded the ships not to motivate anyone but rather to protect his own butt.

John H. Coatsworth, then the director of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, said, "Cortes beached the ships to prevent anyone from heading back to Cuba to report to the Spanish nobilities that he was engaged in an utterly unauthorized and illegal expedition. He was running for cover."

4. Nation, you've beaten on Blake Griffin enough already! Just when we thought the assaults on the 6-foot-10 Oklahoma forward might be over, Morgan State reserve forward Ameer Ali took his turn to attempt to injure the soon-to-be Wooden Award winner. With 7:41 left in the second half, and the Sooners leading 60-44, Ali flipped Griffin over his back, Blair-Thabeet-style, nearly causing him to land on his head. Ali was ejected, and Griffin -- who finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds, shooting 11-of-12 from the field -- left the game and appeared to be favoring his back. He said afterwards that "just my tailbone [hurts] a little bit," and his explanation of the incident was, "we just kind of got tangled up and it turned out bad."

Ali wasn't around to offer his side of the story. He had already disappeared from the Bears' locker room by the time I arrived -- just minutes after it had opened -- but a team manager told me, "He said he didn't do it on purpose." Forward Kevin Thompson, who was manhandled repeatedly by Griffin, was overheard on a cell phone call telling a friend that he "needed to get in the weight room after this." Thompson refused to be interviewed about guarding Griffin, though -- a move which was about as classy as Ali's flip. Forward Marquise Kately, who also attempted to guard Grffin, said Ali "wasn't trying to hurt him." It didn't seem that way, and it only added to the long list of incidents -- from Leonard Washington's crotch-punch to a concussion suffered against Texas -- that have uglied Griffin's season.

5. The best new pep-band song I've heard at the dance is, by far, Memphis' version of T.I.'s Whatever You Like. (Hot wings, baby!) Other than Sallie's shooting, it was the best thing the Tigers produced all day. More bands need to ditch the Steve Miller and start playing hip-hop covers. Morgan State is already on board this train -- its band played slick adaptations of Lil Wayne's Lollipop and Estelle West and Kanye's American Boy. But Morgan State, unlike Memphis, is going home.

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