John Fanta’s 2023 March Madness instant reaction: Dennis Gates has Mizzou back on map


It’s one of the best days in the sports — the opening of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — and I’ll be here to follow along with every single game.

Here’s a quick overview of what we have in store for today.

As we get going, make sure you check out a few key items:

NCAA Tournament bracket


NCAA Tournament schedule

50 reasons to be excited for March Madness

Top plays of the first round

Here we go.

Two thrillers to tip things off!

13. Furman 68. No. 4 Virginia 67

Madness. Fur-Madness … Absolute madness in all of its glory. 

Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament wasted no time in showing why it’s the best Thursday of the sports calendar year.

Just two games into the afternoon, we have seen the unexpected already happen.

In Orlando, Virginia clung to a 67-63 lead despite furious attempts by SoCon champion Furman to pull off the upset. Just when it looked like the Cavaliers were going to hang on to avoid the popular upset pick entering the dance … the Paladins struck for an WILD closing sequence to earn their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1974! 

After a pair of free throws by Garrett Hien with 12 seconds left cut the lead to two, the Cavaliers had trouble on the in-bounds pass, with Kihei Clark hurling the ball into the air. Hien picked off the pass at halfcourt. He found sophomore JP Pegues, who was 2-for-8 from the floor on the day and 0-for-3 from downtown. 

Peques wasn’t wasting this moment, drilling a cold-blooded triple that turned out to be the game-winner as a Reece Beekman heave at the buzzer sailed long. 

It was utter absurdity in the final seconds, but think about this: Virginia led by 12 with less than 12 minutes to play in Orlando. Against Tony Bennett’s style, that would feel like more than just a dozen for most opponents. But not for Furman.

Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, a pair of seniors who had their hearts broken in the SoCon championship game a year ago by Chattanooga, decided to come back for one last ride in Greenville, S.C. 

They kicked the door down with revenge over the Mocs, and getting their big dance opportunity, they’re part of history and a moment for Furman University that shines a light on what makes the big dance so great. 

Beyond the players, 39-year-old head coach Bob Richey has been regarded as a rising star in the industry. He just caught the eyes of the nation, and one can expect he’ll be receiving calls in the not-so-distant future.

The big picture: Furman can make the Sweet 16. Taking down a 4-seed in Virginia, the Paladins are getting the winner of San Diego State and College of Charleston. While both teams are fully capable themselves, the Aztecs have not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2015. The Cougars have not advanced since 1997. 

Slawson (19 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) showed against Virginia that he can be the best player on the floor. The 6-foot-7 senior is a real matchup nightmare and a sneaky prospect who could get some flyers taken on him off this run. Beyond that, Furman knocked down 10 three-pointers. The Paladins have a formula to make the second weekend. 

On the other side of this result, it’s the latest heartbreak for a Virginia team that had some struggles over the final month and change of the season. For Clark, it’s the sharpest form of contrast from what he did in 2019 against Purdue en route to a national title. The Hoos have seen every form of this tournament in the last five years. 

8. Maryland 67, 9. West Virginia 65

Maryland shows transformation under Willard in comeback over WVU

Ten minutes into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener in Birmingham, it looked like it would be an anticlimactic start to the big dance. Bob Huggins’ West Virginia team led Maryland 19-6 and the Mountaineers were giving the Terrapins turnover fits.

But this is a different Maryland team, and a new era this year in College Park. Thursday afternoon was the finest reflection of what Kevin Willard has brought to the fold rather immediately for the Terps, as they turned the tables on the game behind Julian Reese and took a 32-30 lead into halftime. 

Even after giving up a 16-0 run at one point in the second half to fall behind 47-38, the Terps responded with a 14-4 surge highlighted by Donald Carey, Hakim Hart and Reese to take the lead back.

With five minutes left, trailing by a trio, Scott and Hart delivered five straight to give Maryland the 61-59 lead that they would hang on to for a 67-65 victory. 

For Scott and Hart, players who stuck by the program through an ugly ending to the Mark Turgeon era and a period of transition for Willard, Thursday afternoon offered the reward for getting through those battles.

The big picture: Maryland has the Big Ten off to a 1-0 start to a crucial tournament for the conference. Nobody could have seen the Terps being a tournament team at the start of the year, nor alone a team in the Round of 32. An uphill climb against Brandon Miller and Alabama is ahead, but just having that opportunity alone gives the program a chance that is ahead of schedule to shock the world. 

Willard has done a remarkable job in Year 1.

7. Missouri 76, 10. Utah State 65

Missouri wins first NCAA Tournament game in 13 years 

If you’re an athletic director at a school that’s sitting at home right now and not dancing, you’re examining your program closely. Why? Because turnarounds can happen quickly in the age of the transfer portal in college basketball. 

That’s evidenced by Missouri, which went 12-21 a year ago and was celebrating its first NCAA Tournament victory in 4,745 days on Thursday afternoon with a 76-65 victory over Utah State.

Dennis Gates, who took over a tough Cleveland State job and put the Vikings on the map, is now doing it in just his first year at the helm of the Tigers. He brought four of his players from CSU over with him to the SEC, and on Thursday, Vikings transfer D’Moi Hodge led the way with 23 points. Senior Kobe Brown, the lone impact player who stuck around for the coaching change, had 19 points and eight rebounds as the Tigers shot 7-for-14 from beyond the arc in the second half.

Mizzou will get the winner of Arizona/Princeton in a game that I believe could be closer than most, but if it is the Wildcats, it could be challenging for the Tigers to go up against the nation’s fourth-best offense. 

That said, for now, it’s a day for Gates, AD Desiree Reed-Francois and the Missouri board to celebrate bringing him to the school in the first place. A source close to Georgetown told me that if they had been a year sooner in firing Patrick Ewing, Gates would have been their guy. Now, he’s put Missouri back on the map.

Meanwhile, for Utah State, it’s the latest case of NCAA Tournament downfall in the Mountain West, which has lost 11 straight in the dance and has not won a game since 2018.


1. Kansas vs. 16. Howard

1. Alabama vs. 1. Texas A&M-CC

5. San Diego State vs. 12. Charleston

2. Arizona vs. 15. Princeton

8. Arkansas vs. 9. Illinois

8. Iowa vs. 9. Auburn

5. Duke vs. 12. Oral Roberts

2. Texas vs. 15. Colgate

7. Northwestern vs. 10. Boise State

1. Houston vs. 16. Northern Kentucky

4. Tennessee vs. 13. Louisiana

7. Texas A&M vs. 10. Penn State

2. UCLA vs. 15. UNC Asheville

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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