One week down, leaving 16 survivors, some of them slightly dazed. So what do they bring to the next round of the NCAA tournament?
The first nine games of the second round were won by teams from nine different conferences, so lots of leagues are still in the room. The Big 12 and ACC lead the way with three each. The poor SEC had its entire penthouse whacked – Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee. Only Arkansas remains, which means the MAAC has as many teams in the Sweet 16 as the SEC.
A rainbow of seeds.
Three No. 1’s – Gonzaga, Kansas and Arizona – rumbled onward, but there are also a No. 10, two No. 11s and Saint Peter’s No. 15 fairy tale. Shocking losses to some were warnings to others. The UCLA Bruins, for example, were very aware of Kentucky’s fate before they went out to play Akron. “That’s March for you right there,” Jaimie Jaquez Jr. said. “It happens every year, teams get upset. And we were watching that game thinking to ourselves, that can’t be us tonight.”
Thing is, it almost was. Akron led for 27 minutes before losing by four.
Matchups of all flavors.
UCLA vs. North Carolina in Philadelphia represents 17 national championships, or 21 percent of the trophies ever handed out. Villanova vs. Michigan in San Antonio is a reprise of their 2018 national title game, which was played in . . . San Antonio.
And who here had Miami vs. Iowa State in Chicago in their bracket? That’s a meeting of two teams who were a combined 12-39 last season. That will put either an 11 or 10 seed in the Elite Eight.
Great defense. Or was it bad offense?
Thirty years ago, Kentucky played a famous game against Duke, scored 103 points and lost. Arkansas scored 53 points this weekend and won. Iowa State scored 59 and 54 and won twice. UCLA got by with 35.2 percent shooting. Texas Tech’s field percentage was 35.6 and the Red Raiders missed 10 of their last 11 shots against Notre Dame. Still advanced. Kansas’ starters hit under 37 percent and escaped Creighton, a team whose depth had been so decimated by injury, the Bluejays were outscored in bench points in two games 55-1.
Lots of clanking going on out there, and maybe defense is mostly responsible. Either way, survival is the issue, not style.
“You can’t apologize for winning games in this tournament,” Kansas’ Bill Self said.
A sign of changing times.
Houston returned to the Sweet 16 with Kelvin Sampson, Saint Peter’s busted brackets with Shaheen Holloway, Providence is in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 25 years with Ed Cooley, Michigan made it through as an 11 seed with Juwan Howard, North Carolina is back in the second week with Hubert Davis.
In other words, it has been a very big tournament so far for Black coaches — or of Native American heritage in Sampson’s case — with emotions to match.
“It just shows you that doesn’t matter what color you are,” Holloway said. “If you can coach the game of basketball, if you can get guys to buy in and believe in you, that’s what it’s all about.”
Said Cooley of his Sweet 16 trip, “I’m emotionally just trying to get the enormity of it. I grew up a Providence fan. I grew up in that city hoping and praying just to get a chance.”
Mike Krzyzewski still on the active list.
It nearly ended against Michigan State and Tom Izzo, but a gritty 20-6 close from his Duke guys kept him around another week, and now with a shot at a nice, round number. If the Blue Devils beat Texas Tech, it’s NCAA tournament victory No. 100 for him.
“Look, I’m 75. To have moments like that, really, how damn lucky can you be?” he said after the Michigan State game. “And I want to share it. I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘you guys enjoy it.’ I want to be in the party a little bit. That’s the enjoyment I’ve had for 47 years. Today was one of the really good days.”
By Sunday, the field still standing had all manners of special incentives to want to play on.
Here are 16 teams, 16 reasons to be hungry:
Kansas . . .
A program with this staggering level of consistency could sure use another national championship to go with the one from 14 years ago. The Jayhawks’ fellow blue bloods – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova – all have titles since then.
Number to know for the Providence game: All-American Ochai Agbaji needs to find his missing shooting range after going 10-for-28 in the tournament. “I’m not stressing or pressing or anything so far as my shot,” he said. “But my teammates, they’re telling me to shoot every time I’m open. They have full confidence in me so I’m going to keep shooting.”
North Carolina . . .
The Tar Heels have averaged a Final Four trip every 3.1 years since 1967. It’s been five seasons since the last one. It’s time.
Number to know for the UCLA game: True, Saturday was a date that almost lived in North Carolina infamy, when a meltdown of 16 turnovers after halftime turned a 25-point Tar Heels’ lead over Baylor into a four-alarm overtime fire. But know this: North Carolina trailed only 3:49 total against Marquette and Baylor and led by 35 and 25 points in those two games. So the Tar Heels must be doing something right.
Michigan . . .
When the Wolverines tossed away a 17-point lead to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, some scratched them right out of the bracket. They noticed. “Making it to the Sweet 16 is, as literal as it is, sweet, because nobody believed in us,” Hunter Dickinson aid. “Everybody thought we shouldn’t be in the tournament. And now people that were hating on us are going home and about to watch us play next week.”
Number to know for the Villanova game: Michigan has developed a nose for the finish line. The Wolverines gave up 13 points combined to Colorado State and Tennessee in the last five minutes of their first and second-round wins.
Providence . . .
Respect. The Friars have it in their minds they don’t get it, and frankly, they’re tired of asking. “You try to block that out but some of it’s inevitable. You know, it challenges you. It challenges your manhood, it challenges your team,” Cooley said. “Last time I checked, we weren’t that bad.”
Number to know for the Kansas game: It’s been a defensive tour de force for Providence so far in the tournament, holding South Dakota State and Richmond to an average of 54 points, and 17.8 percent shooting from the 3-point line, including Richmond’s 1-for-22.
UCLA . . . .
Remember how UCLA exited the Final Four last April – Jalen Suggs’ Gonzaga Hail Mary in overtime? The Bruins do. They must figure fate owes them one.
Number to know for the North Carolina game: It was the Johnny Juzang Show last March. He scored 27 and 17 points the first two games and by this point had become one of the faces of the tournament. He had nine and 14 over the weekend, but other Bruins – Jaquez, Tyger Campbell – are carrying more of the load. Still, sooner or later, the Bruins will need a Juzang special won’t they?
Gonzaga . . .
Nobody has a plainer motivation than the Zags. A program that won zero games in the first 50 years of the tournament has won 36 in the past 22. Gonzaga has accomplished about everything a program could dream about in this sport. Except one.
Numbers to know for the Arkansas game: 54-52 and 43-31. Those were second half deficits that required Gonzaga to rally in the first two rounds against Georgia State and Memphis. They know the danger of that trend. “I would like to stop doing that,” Drew Timme said. “That’s not a recipe to go far.” Here’s another way to ask for trouble: The Zags have missed 25 of 54 free throws so far in the tournament.
Arkansas . . .
With so much attention on other more renowned SEC teams, the Razorbacks didn’t always get a lot of notice. Now they’re carrying the league banner.
Numbers to know for the Gonzaga game: The handiwork of Arkansas defense: Having torched Connecticut for 37 points, New Mexico State’s Teddy Allen was looking for another big day against the Razorbacks. With 90 seconds left in the game, he had only seven. The entire team finished with 48, or just 11 more than Allen had scored by himself in the first round. “The way he played tonight was as good as any defender that I’ve ever coached,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said of Au’Diese Toney, who did most of the work against Allen.
Saint Peter’s . . .
You’d think the scene-stealing Peacocks would relax now, since they’re playing with house money. But no. They have other big fish to fry. No 15th seed has ever won a regional week game. Ever. That ought to keep them interested. “We’re not going to get too high,” Doug Edert said Saturday after helping beat Murray State. “What we did is amazing, but it’s already in the past.”
Numbers to know for the Purdue game: For anyone thinking this is a fluke, consider Saint Peter’s at crunch time. The Peacocks outscored Kentucky and Murray State 34-14 in the last four minutes of regulation and overtime. Take away Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, and they’ve allowed their two victims 34 percent shooting. The results have been no accidents.
Houston . . .
Know who’s been to more Final Fours than any school without winning a championship? Yep, the Cougars. Six times, and still waiting. It’s a trivia question for which they’d just as soon stop being the answer.
Number to know for the Arizona game: When leading scorer Marcus Sasser and key sub Tramon Mark went down with season-ending injuries, it meant the top seven scorers from the 2021 Final Four team were no longer on the court. But here Houston is, with new faces from other places. Plus defense. The Cougars have the lowest field goal percentage allowed in the nation.
Villanova . . .
The Wildcats have won two of the past five national championships. If they make it three for six, is this officially the Villanova Era?
Numbers to know for the Michigan game: Woe be the opponent that has to depend on the Wildcats missing free throws at the end. They lead the nation at 82.6 percent. They’ve also – almost quietly – won 21 of their past 24.
Duke . . . .
Mike Krzyzewski is four games away from a storybook ending. And everyone knows it. Plus, seven years between Final Fours is a long time in Duke-land.
Number to know for the Texas Tech game: It’s been all Duke hands on deck to keep the Coach K farewell tour going. Six different Blue Devils have scored in double figures in the NCAA tournament.
Iowa State . . .
Anyone who predicted a Sweet 16 bid for Cyclones in November would have been asked to take a sobriety test. Iowa State went 2-22 last year. Then a new coach and a platoon of fresh faces hit town. If it seems like a miracle story now – one the likes the NCAA tournament has never seen – what do we call it if the Cyclones end up in the Final Four? “It’s crazy,” Izaiah Brockington said. “I couldn’t say mission accomplished. We’re still on a mission.”
Number to know for the Miami game: These guys guard the arc like they would their computer passwords. LSU was 4-for-19 out there against the Cyclones in first round. Wisconsin even worse at 2-for-22.
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Miami . . .
This isn’t football, there is no glorious past of national dominance for the Hurricanes. They have never won a Sweet 16 game in their history. But now they can, in the season they were picked to finish 12th in the ACC.
Number to know for the Iowa State game: Miami committed only four turnovers against Auburn. Excellent. But the Hurricanes had only three in beating USC. In two tournament games, they have outscored their opponents 39-6 in points off turnovers. So, Coach Larranaga, how does a team do that? His honest answer: “I don’t know.”
Texas Tech . . .
Texas is gone, and the Red Raiders aren’t. That ought to be a little extra breeze behind them. And now they get the chance to be the folks who throw Mike Krzyzewski his true going-away party.
Number to know for the Duke game: Texas Tech played 11 games against ranked opponents this season, so the Blue Devils shouldn’t be anything new.
Purdue . . .
Forty-three years. Every Purdue fan understands the number. Forty-three years since the Boilermakers’ last Final Four. And now the next step is Saint Peter’s. Sounds manageable, but ask Kentucky about that. “Every team’s here for a reason,” Purdue’s Trevion Williams warned.
Number to know for the Saint Peter’s game: How does a defense cope with the size of Zach Edey and Williams and the quickness of Jaden Ivey without fouling? Good question, especially so far in the NCAA tournament. Purdue outscored Yale and Texas Tech 60-13 from the free throw line.
Arizona . . .
From a program in darkness to the Sweet 16, and a chance to do more. That ought to get a program’s blood pumping. Also, there’s the chance to do something about a frustrating stat. The Wildcats have lost five Elite Eight games in a row going back to their last Final Four in 2001.
Number to know for the Houston game: While scoreboards elsewhere might have been muted, Arizona is on a roll, putting up 87 and 85 points. The Wildcats held off TCU with the most powerful 1-2 punch of the tournament so far; 30 points from Bennedict Mathurin, 28 more from Christian Koloko. Now let’s see how that works against the Cougars’ defense.
That’s a lot of intrigue to squeeze in one tournament. But it seems to fit the motif. There have already been six overtime games and we’re just out of the first week.