Know what this NCAA Tournament is missing? Besides Villanova and Duke? Buzzer-beaters. You know, the kind that get showed a gazillion times on highlight shows? As scarce as short pants.
Know what else? Overtime games. Not one yet. There were several close finishes, and some mesmerizing storylines, but none with the truly unforgettable ending. Turned out the most re-played moment of the weekend was a missed Gonzaga goaltending.
Not that the first week didn’t have its interests. For example, you could count the ACC teams fall, one after another. Eight of the nine vanished by Sunday night. Michigan’s storybook March, South Carolina’s dropping in unexpectedly, Xavier’s recovery act, Butler back on stage, all there. And some truly intriguing matchups ahead.
Where does March go from here? The Sweet 16, from A to X. That’d be Arizona to Xavier.
ARIZONAWhen Sean Miller left Xavier for Arizona eight years ago, a put-off Cincinnati radio talk show host said on the air, “Sean Miller is dead to me now.” But Miller is quite alive, and so are his Wildcats, and guess who they play Thursday in San Jose? This happened once before, in the 2015 Sweet 16, and Arizona beat Xavier 68-60. Arizona has been to three Elite Eights in Miller’s era and that’s where it stopped. Maybe it’s time, with the Final Four just up the road in the Phoenix area.
BAYLORSuddenly, the East is Villanova-less and Duke-less, so where does that leave Baylor? The highest seed still kicking at No. 3. Sunday’s win over USC was the 13th time this season the Bears trailed in the second half and won, and the 18th time they have outrebounded the opponent by double-digits. So much for that 5-6 finish to the regular season. In case anyone asks, Baylor hasn’t been to the Final Four in 67 years. Now let’s see what the Bears do with the South Carolina defense.
BUTLERIn Memphis, it’ll be Butler and the Three Blueboods. Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA will be there with 24 national championships among them. Then again, this decade began with two Butler national runner-ups, so the Bulldogs can come in the front door, too. Those were the golden days of Brad Stevens, but Chris Holtmann has returned them to this level with leading scorer Kelan Martin willing to take the role as a game-changer coming off the bench. The Bulldogs, picked to finish sixth in the Big East, beat six ranked opponents during the season, and did not trail a second in the first two rounds. But none of those opponents were named North Carolina.
FLORIDAAnd now, the halftime score from Orlando. Virginia 39 . . . wait a minute. That was for the game. Florida’s defense strikes again. Only two teams scored above their average against the Gators this season. Florida has quickly recovered from the late-season Vanderbilt flu, when the Gators lost to Commodores twice in six days. “Going into the postseason,” coach Mike White said, “we were in a tough place.” The place they’re going now is Madison Square Garden, to see if they can vex the Wisconsin seniors who brought down Villanova.
GONZAGATimes have changed. Once, the Zags were everyone’s lovable underdogs. Now, they’re the brutes who were aided and abetted by a bad call to get past poor old Northwestern. Still, their endless pursuit to rid themselves of the Final Four void has its charm. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to accomplish that Final Four to kind of put it to rest,” coach Mark Few said. They’re second in the nation in both shooting and field goal defense; the kind of combo that could get a team places. Where it’s gotten Gonzaga and its vastly balanced offense this week is looking down the business end of the West Virginia press.
KANSASThe Jayhawks scored 100 and 90 in their first two games, and now have to make the 40-mile trip from Lawrence to Kansas City to play the Midwest Regional in neutral Kansas City. Yeah, as neutral for Purdue as Bill Self’s backyard. Meanwhile, Frank Mason III, meet Caleb Swanigan. Two national player of the year candidates will be on the same court Thursday, though not exactly eyeball-to-eyeball. But it’s hard to imagine either team winning with an off-night from them.
KENTUCKYAnd now, the rematch. UCLA made its first trip ever to Rupp Arena in December and said hello by ending the Wildcats’ 42-game winning streak, 97-92. This one will be in Memphis, with Kentucky bringing a 13-game winning streak, but coming off the first two rounds where the shooting didn’t always look great. Malik Monk was 6-for-21 in two games, and that won’t work. But Bam Adebayo has 28 rebounds in two tournament games and with the Wichita State game on the line, the Wildcats simply refused to let the Shockers get off a shot. Are the Kentucky kids ready for this week? “We’re maturing,” Adebayo said, “and we listen.”
MICHIGANThe Wolverines haven’t lost since that plane slid off the tarmac, six victories ago. It is a team that just won one game with 16 3-pointers, and the next with 43 points from two forwards, while making 10 turnovers in 80 minutes. Get a Hollywood scriptwriter here, ASAP. There is a certain karma about this team. We’ll see if it’s still there for Oregon Thursday. “At some point. they went beyond buying in,” assistant coach Jeff Meyer said of the players. “They’ve taken ownership. We’re on the ride with them now, that’s the reality of it. They are running the Wolverine express right now.”
NORTH CAROLINAIf not for the Tar Heels, the ACC in this tournament would have gone the way of the carrier pigeon. Their quest to return to the championship game and get it right this time lives on. Barely. They now have 119 all-time NCAA Tournament wins -- only four other schools have even played in that many -- but it was a close call with Arkansas Sunday, the Tar Heels blowing every inch of a 17-0 lead, then saving their season with a 12-0 closing run. They got by with 38 percent shooting, which is the worst in a North Carolina tournament victory in 50 years. But what’s that phrase? Oh yeah, survive and advance. Next, Butler.
OREGONThe postseason apparently piqued sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey’s interest, not to mention his shot. He scored 29 points in the last four regular season games combined for the Ducks. And then . . . 21, 23 and 23 in three Pac-12 tournament games. Followed by 24 against Iona in the NCAA Tournament opener. And then 27 in the narrow escape against Rhode Island, when he hit nine of 10 shots, including the 3-pointer that won it. In the first two rounds, Dorsey took 23 shots and missed six. Paying attention, Michigan?
PURDUEAfter squandering leads and losing in overtime in the first round the past two years, Matt Painter might have needed a battery of therapists had the Boilermakers not survived, after blowing all of a 19-point advantage against Iowa State. But they got by with Swanigan’s 28th double-double and good old-fashioned execution -- 27 assists on 31 field goals. “You always remember that last loss and how it felt,” Painter said afterward. “And so when you lose back-to-back years in overtime, it sits with you.” And now, Kansas. In Kansas City. Don’t mind the din.
SOUTH CAROLINAEverybody give a warm greeting to the Sweet 16 rookies. The Gamecocks have been this far before in the current regional format. The last time they even won an NCAA Tournament game, they were an independent, 44 years ago, so everything is new to them. What is not new is how they will be trying to stifle Baylor’s offense Friday night. If you want to get noticed nationally for something, do it against Duke. So a lot of people just found out found out how well South Carolina can play.
UCLALet’s see, in two NCAA Tournament games, UCLA had 68 field goals, 46 assists . . . and nine turnovers. Just a couple more nights at the office for the Bruins’ amazing offense. They could be Showtime, but the Lakers beat them to it. Now they could conceivably be facing a tournament road of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas all in a row. So coach Steve Alford is a little busy right now to keep getting all the questions about the Indiana job.
WEST VIRGINANobody plays quite like the Mountaineers, with their relentless pressure and waves of numbers that by late in the game can turn an opponent in pudding. Notre Dame did not commit 10 turnovers in 22 games this season. The Irish had 10 by halftime Saturday. But while the defense gets all the buzz, has anyone noticed the Mountaineers average 82 points a game? “There’s days, honestly, I don’t know how we get to 82,” coach Bob Huggins said. “But somehow we do.”
WISCONSINThere were times during the Big Ten season, the Badgers could not have hit Lake Mendota from the shore. They shot 42.6 percent in conference play, the losses piled up, and everyone more or less forgot about Wisconsin. But not after last Saturday. Few things can be more potent or inspiring in March than seniors who don’t want it to end, and keep making plays to make sure it doesn’t. The fight-to-the-last shell mentality. Shake hands with Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, who have each played in 16 NCAA Tournament games.
Yes, Xavier did indeed go a month and six games without a victory as injuries nearly wrecked the season. But the Musketeers just beat the No. 6 and No. 3 seeds from Maryland and Florida State by 10 and 25 points, so that slide to 13 losses is irrelevant. What is relevant is how Trevon Bluiett turns into a monster during the halftime break, with 39 points in the second halves of two tournament games. Also relevant is how good the zone has been. Remember how far zone defense took a 13-loss Syracuse team one year ago.
Lots of intrigue in those 16 teams, and no dead wood. Who needs overtime?