This is what happens when things go mostly by the book. Anyone who picked the Sweet 16 by just marking the top four seeds in each region was 87.5 percent correct.
Not that there weren’t strange, even unforgettably dramatic plot twists over the weekend. Or maybe you didn’t see Duke and UCF. How to explain it when . . .
Duke, one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation, is saved from extinction by bombing away? And by getting a rebound on a miss free throw? And by pure luck?
Tennessee outscores Iowa 49-28 in the first half, then gets outscored 43-22 in the second, then survives in overtime while Admiral Schofield, one of the team stars, banishes himself to the bench?
Wofford loses to Kentucky when Fletcher Magee, the most prolific 3-pointer in NCAA history, goes 0-for-12?
A guy supposedly in a deep shooting slump, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, scores 42 points?
Tremont Waters, a 5-11 LSU guard known mostly for his defense, hits the only last-second winning shot so far in the tournament?
Kansas looks up at halftime and is behind 51-25? Barely 12 months after its second national championship in three years, Villanova takes the worst tournament loss in its history?
How to explain?
Maryland coach and LSU victim Mark Turgeon had a thought. “Basketball is crazy.”
So did Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, after the Vols’ narrow escape. “Any time you win a game in the NCAA Tournament, you ought to be proud, I don’t care if you win by two, overtime or 35.”
So did Villanova’s Jay Wright. “This game is a humbling game. You could be on either side of it.”
The Sweet 16 teams on the right side of it at the moment were mostly expected. It’s only the second time since seeding began in 1979 that all nine of the top three seeds in each region made it through, 2009 the other.
So here are 16 sweet – and not-so sweet – things about the first week’s advancers and survivors.
Sweet . . . It’s always nice to have a nationally-televised cheerleader. Charles Barkley is like a kid on Christmas morning about his old school’s first Sweet 16 in 16 years. “He has a statue in front of our gym now,” said Jared Harper, “so we have definitely met him a couple of times.”
The Tigers are a free-wheeling, fire-away bunch, hitting 25 3-pointers in their tournament games with 18 steals, and scoring 32 fast break points against Kansas. Bill Self talked of the Jayhawks getting rolled over by 22 Auburn transition points, “in the first eight minutes. That shouldn’t happen in three games.”
Not so sweet . . . Dead ahead, North Carolina. Might be a tough night for Barkley.
Sweet . . . Survival, plain and simple, because the Blue Devils are fortunate to still be around. UCF’s considerable heroics notwithstanding, Duke got another monster game from Zion Williamson, who has 57 points and is shooting 60 percent after his first two tournament appearances. And a game-winning shot from RJ Barrett. And the steadiness to commit only 14 turnovers in two tournament games. And maybe the sense of destiny from just having dodged a bullet the size of a locomotive. “You guys were made for these two minutes,” Mike Krzyzewski told them at crunch time Sunday.
Not so sweet . . . Not being able to stop, nor even slow down Aubrey Dawkins, before he scored 32 points and nearly shot them into the off-season. And though Duke hit 10 3-pointers Sunday to stay afloat, being 336th in the nation in that department still makes it something of an enigma. Also, did UCF just give Virginia Tech a game plan, or was this just one team’s remarkable effort?
Sweet . . . Lots of numbers suggest nobody would want to play these guys. The 16 wins in 18 games, with the only losses to Duke and North Carolina. The 77-13 advantage in bench points so far in the tournament. The defensive shackling they just put on Ja Morant and Murray State, inspired not only by their own considerable talents but the memory of teammate Phil Cofer’s father, who died this week. Terance Mann, who did most of the heavy defensive lifting against Morant, said the night before he had Googled and YouTubed up material about Mike Cofer’s determination as an athlete. “I just wanted to bring that with me,” he said afterward. “I played my heart out for that.”
Not so sweet . . . The Seminoles had slow starts against Vermont and Murray State, falling behind by nine and seven points. Do that against Gonzaga, and the gap might be 18.
Sweet . . . The supercharged engine that is the Gonzaga offense has been in full throttle for the NCAA Tournament, rolling up 87 and 83 points, with 54 percent shooting and 41 assists in two games. Brandon Clarke has been a terror, taking 26 shots and missing six, while helping an 86-57 rebounding dominance. The biggest Zags’ deficit over the weekend was three points, as they stormed to their fifth consecutive Sweet 16, which is the longest streak in the nation. “We do not take that for granted at all,” Mark Few said.
Not so sweet . . . Rui Hachimura struggled against Murray State. The Zags will need every A-game against a surging Florida State team that knocked them out of the tournament last March 75-60. “We have a special itch to take care of against them,” Corey Kispert said.
Sweet . . . It was 1984, six U.S. presidents ago. No shot clock, no 3-point line, only 53 teams in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the last time the Houston Cougars were in Sweet 16. Until now. The team that is somehow 33-3 and still not in the Associated Press top 10 keeps marching on, partly because it is the hardest defense in the nation to make a basket against, according to field goal percentages. Tournament opponents Georgia State and Ohio State proved no different, shooting 34 percent. And though Kentucky Friday would seem a step up in class for the Cougars, they’ve already beaten LSU and Oregon, who are still around, too.
Not so sweet . . . With defense like this, who needs to hit 3-pointers? Houston might sometime, and the Cougars have made only 27 percent so far in the tournament.
Sweet . . . The Wildcats held their first two tournament opponents to 35 percent shooting. Look what they did to poor Magee. They also had 33 more rebounds, and are showing every sign of being in March form, which John Calipari knows something about, since this is his eighth trip to a regional in 10 years. “I just want my team in the hunt,” he said. It never gets old or a burden – which is why he was dancing in the locker room after the Wofford game. “In this profession I’m in, if winning is a relief, it’s time to retire.”
Not so sweet . . . The cast doesn’t come off PJ Washington’s sprained left foot until later this week. Then they’ll know more if he can play.
Sweet . . . This is on the verge of becoming a true March epic. Player Wayde Sims shot and killed in September. Coach Will Wade suspended this month. The distractions could be laid out from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but here the Tigers are, getting by their first two round games by five and two points, the latter on Waters’ scoop shot. These are the same drama kings who won five SEC games in overtime.
"They’re not afraid of the moment,” said interim head coach Tony Benford.
Not so sweet . . . The Tigers shot 30.8 percent in the second halves of their NCAA Tournament games. That probably won’t work against Michigan State.
Sweet . . . The Wolverines have allowed 55 and 49 points, and 34 percent shooting in the NCAA Tournament. Which is one reason why they’ve trailed only 80 seconds so far. They threw a real blanket on Florida – “We wanted to shut off their water,” is the way Charles Matthews put it – and upheld John Beilein’s mantra. “You can win scoring 64 points, right?” he said. “If you hold them to 49.”
Matthews described where this team’s defensive determination was born. “I think the pride part started last summer when guys were in here playing one-on-one from sunup to sundown . . . and nobody wanted to be the guy that was embarrassed and talked about the day after, and that’s what started us locking up.”
Not so sweet . . . There should be nothing sugary when Michigan and Texas Tech match defenses that seldom give a basket, or an inch. First team to 50 wins.
Sweet . . . The rebounding margin was 81-45 the first two tournament games. The defense zeroed in on Minnesota and the Gophers went 2-for-22 from the 3-point line. Cassius Winston might the best leader in the field. Yeah, the Spartans are back in the Sweet 16 business, after being away for three seasons. Not long at most places, an eternity in Tom Izzo’s world. “There’s nothing like playing when it stays daylight longer,” he said. Credit daylight savings time, and Michigan State muscle.
Not so sweet . . . Twenty-two turnovers against Minnesota. Won’t do against LSU. “We had 11 turnovers at halftime and talked about it.” Izzo said. “So one thing about my team, they listen well. We had 11 turnovers in the second half, too.” One other thing. The closer Michigan State gets to playing Duke in the regional final, the more Izzo is probably going to get annoyed that the Big Ten champion Spartans were put in the same region to begin with.
Sweet . . . Atonement. For 12 months, the Tar Heels had brooded about how last season ended; a 21-point second round shellacking by Texas A&M. “We talked about it all summer,” Luke Maye said. They have blown through that wall this March, scoring 88 and 81 points and absolutely owning the glass in two tournament games with a 100-50 rebound gap, and 42-7 advantage in second chance points. Freshman Nassir Little scoring 39 points in two games off the bench has helped take North Carolina up another level.
Not so sweet . . . Garrison Brooks’ ability to bite into an apple anytime soon. The sophomore took an inadvertent Washington elbow in the face, lost one tooth, had another broken, and needed stitches for his lip. He came back and played, but the team dentist has a new customer.
Sweet . . . The No. 12 Ducks are the lowest seed left, by a bunch. Next closest is Auburn at No. 5, so all underdog lovers, put on your green and yellow. They also might be on the most amazing roll in the field, going from 10th place in the Pac-12 to winning 10 in a row, with an extraordinary show of defensive force. The 73-54 win over UC Irvine Sunday made it eight opponents out of the 10 held to 54 points or under. And the team once fighting to stay above .500 has blown through those 10 games by an average winning margin of 18.
One other thing. For all the ridicule heaped upon the Pac-12 this season, the league has as many teams in the Sweet 16 – one – as the Big 12. And one more than the Big East.
Not so sweet . . . It’s been a blast for Oregon, having the best defense on the court every game. That won’t be so easy to say Thursday when the opponent is Virginia.
Sweet . . . So much for that shooting slump. Edwards had heard enough of the discussion about his recent woes. “If we’re being really honest, I’m very tired of it,” he said. A first-class way to shut that up is score 42 points, the most for a player in the tournament in 15 years. That gives him 78 in two tournament games, and with 7-3 Matt Haarms adding 31, the Boilermakers have an inside-outside combo that has been wrecking defenses from the start. Their combined halftime margin so far in the tournament is 75-43.
Not so sweet . . . Historically, this is when things go south for Purdue. Since their last Final Four 39 long years ago, they have advanced to the Sweet 16 nine times, and are only 2-9. “We want to do better,” coach Matt Painter said. “We want to do better for ourselves and our fans.”
Sweet . . . A far different ending in the second round than last year, when the Vols lost by a point to Loyola Chicago. “To be on the other end of that, to have the feeling they felt . . . I feel like a fifth grader who just ate some Skittles,” said Grant Williams. The good news for Tennessee Sunday was the history it didn’t make. Had the Vols lost after leading by 25, they would have matched Iona against BYU in 2012 for the largest comeback victim ever in the NCAA Tournament. “Honestly I was thinking, man, we just gave up a 25-point lead, that’s got to be, like, a record,” Turner said. “I was thinking that during the game.”
But Tennessee showed its power by taking that big lead – “The team you saw the first half is what won 31 games,” Schofield said – and their purpose by saving the game in overtime. That included Schofield, feeling that four fouls made him less effective, telling coach Rick Barnes to keep him out and play 6-11 Kyle Alexander, who is also his roommate. Schofield didn’t play a second in overtime. How many seniors would do that? “We’re a team. In that moment, I just wanted to win, and I didn’t think I was giving us the best chance,” Schofield said.
Not so sweet . . . The Vols led Colgate by 16 in the first round, Iowa by 25, and were caught by both. That’s living very, very dangerously. Also, they have lost twice this month to 3-point-loving Auburn. Guess what Thursday opponent Purdue likes to do? And a certain Boilermaker star appears to have found his missing shot. “Carsen Edwards is playing out of his mind right now,” Williams said.
Sweet . . . Forty-seven seconds. That’s how long Texas Tech has been behind in the NCAA Tournament so far. Fourth. That’s what Buffalo was in the nation in scoring, at 85 points a game. Their meeting ended Sunday 78-58, with Buffalo shooting under 37 percent. The Red Raiders’ defense had hit the mute button on another offense. They have still let only five opponents get past 70. Jarrett Culver has been his Big 12 player-of-the-year self with 45 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists in two tournament games. And Texas Tech is in the Sweet 16 after being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12.
Not so sweet . . . What’s national free throw percentage leader Davide Moretti doing missing two free throws in two games? He had missed six all season.
Sweet . . . Remember that Oklahoma team that scored 95 points and shot 57.6 percent in the first round against Mississippi? The Sooners were a tad less productive Sunday – 51 points and 36.5 shooting. This often happens when the Virginia defense says hello. The Cavaliers know how to win a clean game. This one had only 11 combined free throws and 13 turnovers. And this is still the team beaten only three times.
Not so sweet . . . Kyle Guy is likely glad to be out of Columbia. He was 4-for-23 for the weekend, including 1-for-15 on 3-pointers. Virginia will need the rims to look much wider to him in Louisville.
Sweet . . . Break out the record book. This is the first time the Hokies are in the Sweet 16 since the field expanded in 1985 and the first time they are this far in the tournament in 52 years. Sunday was also the 26th win this season to set a school record, and Buzz Williams’ 100th as a coach. All those landmark moments crammed into one defensive stuffing of Liberty. Virginia Tech has allowed 52 and 58 points and 37 percent shooting in its first two NCAA Tournament victories. Does anyone notice the only two Hokies losses in a month were both in overtime to on-a-roll Florida State? It’s also nice to be in the ACC parade. Five league teams made it another week.
Not so sweet . . . Virginia Tech beat Duke 77-72 when Zion Williamson was out. He’ll be on the court Friday. Then again, Hokies point guard Justin Robinson was out, and he’ll be playing, too.