It looks like we may have been spoiled with dramatic finishes in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame’s buzzer-beating tip-in to defeat Stephen F. Austin was probably the third-wildest finish of Sunday alone, and the few days between Sunday and Thursday felt like weeks.The opening night of the Sweet 16 produced four double-digit winners; all of whom were higher seeds. Regardless, there were some miraculous performances that will have huge implications towards the rest of March Madness.
Here were the highlights from Thursday night.
Oregon 82, Duke 68
Going into Duke’s Sweet 16 clash against Oregon, the Blue Devils weren’t exactly known as a defensive juggernaut. While Duke ranks fifth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, it is out of the top 100 on the defensive side of the ball.
The Ducks are an extremely difficult team to defend – all five of their starters, including center Chris Boucher, are capable 3-point shooters and ball-handlers. But Oregon doesn’t get enough credit for being an incredible passing team, and they proved how unselfish they are on Thursday night.
The Ducks assisted on 22 of their 31 field goals, and most of their possessions look the same. Pass, pass, pass, find a gap in the defense, drive, kick to an open shooter or dump off to Boucher or Jordan Bell down low.
That strategy is efficient and absolutely exhausting to guard; Duke has a famously short rotation, and its fatigue showed in the second half. The Ducks outscored the Blue Devils by nine in the final 20 minutes.
Casey Benson had eight assists against Duke and just one turnover. On the season, he has 24 turnovers in 1,058 minutes played. He handles the ball a hefty amount. That’s an incredible mark for a guard, and he set the tone for Oregon in Anaheim just like he has all season long.
Kansas 79, Maryland 63
In the NCAA tournament, you need to win six games in order to capture a national title. So while depth is pivotal in the lengthy regular season, in the postseason, one could reasonably argue that its importance is diminished.
But lineup flexibility is paramount in order to beat high-caliber teams multiple times, and that was Maryland’s downfall against Kansas. While similar in concept, it’s possible to have lineup flexibility without having depth. Unfortunately for Terrapin fans, Maryland had neither.
From a pure talent standpoint, Maryland is one of the few teams that can match up with Kansas. But the Jayhawks go about 11 guys deep; Maryland goes six or seven deep on a good night. The Terrapins proved unable to play multiple styles against the Jayhawks and ultimately paid the price.
Perry Ellis carved up Robert Carter and the Maryland defense to the tune of 27 points. Carter is an excellent player, but he struggles to contain big men that can put the ball on the deck and score with their back to the basket.
Maryland has an ideal candidate to guard Ellis – that would be Jake Layman. But sliding Layman to the 4 would force Mark Turgeon to take one of his best players (Carter or Diamond Stone) off of the floor in favor of either Jared Nickens or Jaylen Brantley. That’s a significant talent drop off for the Terps. One that, frankly, they probably couldn’t have survived against a team like Kansas.
In other words, Turgeon’s hands were tied. Maryland gave a valiant effort, but behind Ellis, Wayne Selden (21 points) and Landen Lucas (14 points and 11 boards), the Jayhawks were just too much to handle.
Oklahoma 77, Texas A&M 63
Buddy Hield is known as the most potent scorer in college basketball. And that’s accurate. But on Thursday night, Texas A&M was determined to make anyone, anyone other than Hield beat it.
In theory, that sounded like a reasonable gameplan. In practice, it didn’t go so well.
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Alex Caruso was the Aggies’ primary defender on Hield, and he did a decent enough job on the Naismith Award finalist, holding him well under his scoring average for the season. Paying no mind to the action on the weak side of the floor, Caruso was in Hield’s jersey tirelessly.
That was also a problem for Texas A&M. Thursday night was one of Hield’s best playmaking games of the season, and with A&M’s best defender glued to No. 24 in white, Oklahoma’s supporting cast had an absurd amount of room to operate. They made the most of it.
Jordan Woodard and Ryan Spangler had been slumping after sizzling starts to 2015-16, but they came to play against the Aggies. The two combined to score 32 points, and Khadeem Lattin’s explosive rolls to the rim kept A&M honest on the interior.
The worry going into this game for the Sooners was their over-reliance on Hield. They nipped that concern in the bud in Anaheim.
"Coach told me to just make sure I'm ready and locked and ready to shoot because a lot of attention goes on, you know, the other guys, Buddy, Isaiah, Ryan, they're going to focus in on them," Woodard said. "So I've got to be ready and find an open spot."
Villanova 92, Miami 69
In the South Region, Villanova and Miami put on a shooting clinic. Kris Jenkins going all Steph Curry on the Hurricanes was emblematic of the Wildcats’ night as a whole:
It was bound to happen at some point, right?
As I wrote earlier this season, Villanova attempts a ton of 3’s – almost 44 percent of its field goal attempts come from behind the arc. The Wildcats rank 148th in the nation in 3-point percentage; however, Jay Wright’s squad is stocked with historically good shooters that have simply had down years as marksmen. They had perked up in Big East play after an abysmal shooting start to the year, but still not to their full potential.
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It’s safe to say that Villanova is regressing to the mean at the perfect time. The Wildcats drilled 10-of-15 3’s on Thursday night, nine of which belonged to Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono. Against Iowa, the Cats sunk 10-of-19 triples.
“I think we're just taking better shots,” Arcidiacono said. “Throughout the season, we didn't really mix it up, catching and shoot and getting in the lane and kicking out to guys.
I think we are doing that now. We're taking what the defense is giving us while being aggressive. We're trying to get the threes up. If they're not wide open, we'll try to get in the lane and make a play for someone else.”
From earlier this season:
Villanova continues to carry No. 1 ranking w care. And Jay Wright thinks unlike last year's team that plateaued, this one can get better.— Dana O'Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) February 20, 2016
Turns out, Coach Wright was right.