Well, give some credit to North Carolina and Xavier. They made Los Angeles a far more exciting site than Cleveland was on Thursday. Over in The Cleve, Notre Dame knocked Wichita State around for almost all of the game, save for a few comeback attempts by the Shockers. Fred VanVleet and Darius Carter took way too long getting started, and unfortunately for Wichita, they were the only ones that ever did. The Shockers’ other three starters shot a combined 4-of-21 from the floor, while the Irish started hot and stayed that way. Later on, Kentucky simply massacred West Virginia, starting the game on an 18-2 run and never looking back on their way to a 78-39 embarrassment. Notre Dame will try their hand at spoiling Kentucky’s dream season, but the sheer depth of the Wildcats should be enough to power UK into the Final Four. Meanwhile, in the City of Angels, the Tar Heels and Musketeers looked intent on raising hell.
North Carolina came out swinging, trading blows with Wisconsin for the first half of this game. Then they turned the heat up, charging out to a seven-point lead with 11 minutes remaining. It was still a four-point advantage with seven to play. This time, it was the Badgers’ turn to twist the dial. In a 90-second span, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to lead 65-60. The Heels refused to go away, but fell just short. The Badgers did themselves a huge favor by knocking down all of their last nine free throw attempts, sealing their 79-72 victory and an Elite Eight rematch with Arizona.
The Wildcats had their own problems on Thursday. Matt Stainbrook and the Musketeers played a gritty game, giving Arizona a serious run for their money. In the second half, big man Kaleb Tarczewski played a vital role in getting the U of A points in the paint – and perhaps more importantly, getting Stainbrook into late foul trouble. Xavier gave it everything they had, but the shots just didn’t fall when they needed to, and the Cats survived. Arizona will have the crowd advantage against the Badgers, which might just be the difference. But make no mistake about it, the West regional final might be the best game of the entire tournament. Before we get to see that game, though, there are four more to be played tomorrow.
Let’s take a look at who will fill out the other half of the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga over UCLA, 84-69
Say what you want about the soft schedule that the Zags play – this team is for real. They are one of a few teams in the nation who shot over 50% from the field for the entire season. Gonzaga is also great on defense, holding opponents to 39% shooting on the year. They rebound well, they pass the ball… they do just about everything you want out of a team. Except, of course, play in a major conference. Though a move to the PAC-12 would be interesting, the football side of things wouldn’t work. I think the Mountain West could be a good landing spot for the Zags, but I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon. Speaking of the PAC-12, Gonzaga’s opponent in the Sweet 16 is UCLA, a team that nobody believed would still be around this time of year. You have to give it to the Bruins, they have been making the most of their chance in the tournament. They were on the receiving end of a little luck (okay, maybe more than a little) when Yanick Moreira decided to bail out Bryce Alford for the first ever game-winning goaltend that I can remember seeing. It didn’t hurt that Iowa State, who came into the Big Dance as hot as anybody in the nation, fell to UAB in their first game. The Bruins didn’t have much trouble dispatching the Blazers, a team that looked like it finally ran out of gas after a miraculous run through the C-USA Tournament and their opening game against the Cyclones. Just like UAB, UCLA seems a likely candidate to run out of gas themselves. It has been a heck of a ride for the Bruins, but I don’t see them being able to stop all of the weapons that Gonzaga has. Instead, I expect Domantas Sabonis to dominate on the interior, while Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos give the defense fits from the outside.
Louisville over North Carolina State, 73-69
It was Valentine’s Day the last time that these ACC foes faced off. In that game, the Wolfpack traveled to Louisville and upended the Cardinals. That is what kicked off NC State’s good run of form that led to not only a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but an 8-seed. The Pack were almost out of it against LSU, but they stormed back from a huge deficit and slipped past the Tigers at the buzzer. Then, the real magic happened. NC State took down top-seeded Villanova in Pittsburgh. After going back and forth, the Wolfpack led at halftime. Their biggest lead was 12 points, which was cut to two with 36 seconds to play. A missed Dylan Ennis three was the Cats’ last real chance to salvage their season, but they didn’t deserve to win this game. NC State dominated in the paint, and they will have to do the same against Montrezl Harrell and the Cardinals. Rick Pitino’s squad knocked out Northern Iowa in impressive fashion, one game after nearly falling to UC Irvine. All of a sudden, Louisville looks like they could make a run behind Harrell and Terry Rozier. These two teams are actually very similar from a statistical standpoint. They score at about the same clip. They bang the boards on both ends. Louisville has the advantage on the defensive end, holding opponents to lower shooting percentages and forcing more turnovers. But given the way Mark Gottfried’s team is playing at the moment, this one might not be cut and dry for Lousiville. If I’m forced to choose, I think that Rick Pitino’s boys will prevail, but this one could really go either way. I just expect that Louisville is going to be out for vengeance after their Valentine’s Day loss. Plus, don’t we have to see an upset sometime? (More on that later.)
Duke over Utah, 82-72
Few teams looked as good as Duke on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After flying past Robert Morris, the Blue Devils were supposed to be facing a much more difficult challenge in San Diego State. The result? A 68-49 drubbing in Charlotte, led by Jahlil Okafor’s 26-point performance. Duke held the Aztecs under 33% shooting and 2-for-15 from outside. Oddly, Duke only got to the foul line once in the entire game. They’ll probably want to draw some more fouls when they face Utah in the Sweet 16. The Utes have been consistently good-but-not-great all year long. When they put it together, they can hang with anyone. They haven’t been putting it all together lately, though. Delon Wright, one of the best players in the country, has yet to turn it on in the postseason, shooting 2-for-7 in both of Utah’s first two games. He has made some nice assists, but not as many as you might hope for if he isn’t going to be scoring much. Jakob Poeltl has been a big bright spot for the Utes, taking up space in the post and grinding out baskets and drawing fouls. But Poeltl, who is 12-for-13 in the Tournament, only grabbed one rebound against the Hoyas. If the Utes are going to stand a chance, they will need to do something they haven’t done against either Big Dance opponent: outrebound the other team. Utah shot the lights out against Georgetown, and they’ll have to do it again on Friday. Duke is no slouch on the offensive end, though. Coach K’s squad is fourth in the nation in scoring and third in field goal percentage. With Okafor playing like he is, and Delon Wright slumping a bit, I think that this is definitely Duke’s game to lose. This would set up a Duke-Gonzaga game that might rival Wisconsin-Arizona for the best game of the tournament. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Michigan State over Oklahoma, 65-62 (OT)
Hats off to Tom Izzo. He just knows how to win in March. This Spartans team is a really cohesive squad, and they can play with anybody in the nation. Just ask Virginia, who fell to Sparty last weekend in a defensive battle, losing 60-54. Now, the Cavaliers hadn’t been looking the same since Justin Anderson missed a stretch of time near the end of the season, but don’t let that take anything away from this win. Travis Trice and Michigan State came out of the gates sprinting, building a 15-4 lead in the first eight minutes of the game. They held the Cavs at bay for most of the game, although London Perrantes cut the lead to five with 1:33 to go. MSU hit enough of their free throws down the stretch to hold on for the win, knocking Virginia out for the second straight season. Later on Sunday, Oklahoma took down Dayton to reach the Sweet 16. It looked for all the world that the Flyers were going to ride the home-state advantage past the Sooners after Kendall Pollard’s free throws put UD up 56-49 in Columbus with 10:23 to go. Little did anyone know that these would be Dayton’s last points for over nine minutes. Instead, a remarkable defensive clinic was put on by Oklahoma, who erased the deficit slowly but surely. In all, the Sooners went on a 13-0 run in those nine minutes, sparked by a two-minute span that saw three OU steals converted into baskets. By the time Scoochie Smith finally ended the drought for Dayton, it was already too late. Jordan Woodward went 7-of-8 from the line in the final minute to ensure the victory. Lon Kruger’s Sooners head to Syracuse to take on Izzo’s Michigan State in what should be a very gritty, hard-nosed game. The Spartans are talented enough that they probably should have earned a higher seeding, but lost an astonishing six overtime games throughout the course of the season, including in the Big Ten championship. The backcourt matchup of Trice and Denzel Valentine against Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins is going to be phenomenal. Both teams have solid frontcourts, as well. This one is a toss-up in my opinion, but my gut tells me that we’ll finally get one upset in the Sweet 16.
Okay, well… we went 4-for-4 yesterday. Let’s see if I can keep the magic alive!