LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Tale of Two Cities, with apologies to Charles Dickens.
It was the best of times for the underdogs. It was the worst of times for the last No. 1 seeds standing in the NCAA tournament. It was the night of determined defense in one place, it was the night of unflappable offense in the other. It was the handiwork of belief, with results that begged incredulity. It was the moment of lightness for San Diego State and Miami, it was the moment of darkness for Alabama and Houston, the two highest-rated heavyweights in the bracket.
Except they aren’t anymore.
San Diego State 71, Alabama 64 in Louisville.
Moments later, Miami 89, Houston 75 in Kansas City.
And just like that, the Final Four was assured of no No. 1 seeds for the first time in 12 years, And no No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
From the victor in Louisville, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher: “There’s not a lot of difference between the best team in the country and the worst team in the country. You’re seeing that on this stage.”
From the vanquished in Kansas City, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson: “Unfortunately one off-night and you go home in this tournament.”
Two cities, two narratives of scores that made the NCAA tournament shake.
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The winners were not shocked. “We recruit and say our goal is to win a national championship so we can’t be surprised when we have an opportunity to advance to the Final Four,” Dutcher said. “It’s just not words to get them to come here. It’s words we believe in.”
Said guard Matt Bradley, one of seven seniors to play Friday night for San Diego State, “We’re just a mature group. It’s win or go home for us. I think that's the mindset for a lot of people on this team. I think it was a matter of us not wanting to go home.”
In Kansas City
The winners weren’t surprised either.
“I think we’ve got to worry about them,” Miami forward Norchad Omier said of the thinking about the imposing Cougars before the game. “But they’ve got to worry about us, too. I don’t know if they thought about Miami, that we’re not physical. I love the physicality and I think my teammates do, too.”
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The Muhammad Ali Center museum is three blocks from the KFC Yum! Center. Some quotes from there found their way into the San Diego State locker room for Dutcher’s pregame speech before the Aztecs went out to battle Alabama.
“We talked about confidence the key to confidence is being fearless, and I thought we were fearless tonight,” he would say later.
“I know his wife went to the museum. She found quotes that were almost made for us,” forward Aguek Arop said.
Darrion Trammell heard them, before he went out to score 21 points and change the game with two baskets in the second half; a 5-10 guard who turned out to be the biggest man on the floor. “That’s been my mindset for life, being fearless,” he said. “I’m not even supposed to be here, really. You can’t be scared of anything.”
In Kansas City
Many hands were required for Miami’s preparation to play Houston, and that included the fire department. It started with coach Jim Larranaga doing some decorating in the hotel space the Hurricanes were using for a video room, putting down a free throw lane and then packing five players into it.
“I told them to beat Houston, you’ve got to have five guys in the paint, everybody’s got to block out and everybody’s got to rebound,” he said. “Then the guys left the meeting and got in the elevator. They packed 12 guys into the elevator and it got stuck, and it took a half hour for the firemen to get them out of there.
“I told them today at our shootaround, ‘hey, the defense was too stretched out. You guys got to be in the paint like you were in the elevator yesterday.’ And they did that.”
Miami matched Houston rebound for rebound. Omier got 13. “That’s a tough hombre,” Sampson said. The Cougars shot 37.5 percent. The curse of the elevator.
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Alabama built a 48-39 with under 12 minutes left in the game and seemed on the verge of taking control. Dutcher called a timeout and Trammell had a few words for his teammates in the huddle.
“I told them it was March,” he said later, walking back to the locker room. “This game could change very quickly. And it did.”
Because of him. He hit a 3-pointer, then a layup off a steal. That started a 23-5 run as San Diego State went rushing past Alabama like a freight train, on its way to the first Elite Eight in school history.
Once in the lead, the Aztecs very rarely give games back. They're 26-2 this season when leading with five minutes left, and 389-15 in their past 404 games with the lead. They don’t blink, especially now with all these seniors.
“We had 1,000 close games and we found a way to win them,” Dutcher said. “So I guess the difference between being on the top and being on the bottom is finding a way to win a close game.”
In Kansas City
The No. 1 team in the country would be in front only 2:20 and trail by as many as 17. Houston spent the night chasing a Miami team that would not be caught. “We had a lead throughout the whole game. I wouldn’t say a comfortable lead but a lead,” guard Jordan Miller said. “And we just didn’t want to let it go.”
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Defense carried the night.
Alabama shot 32 percent, with its 3-point performance something from the ice age; 3-for-27. All-American Brandon Miller had an awful time, going 3-for-19 with six turnovers.
The Aztecs expected to make trouble with their defense because that’s what they do. They had seen how much the Tide liked to attack individually, breaking down the other team one defender at a time. They didn’t think it would work.
“We knew their style, they like to go one-on-one and go downhill,” Bradley said. “We were ready for it. It takes a team effort to beat us, not individuals.”
If San Diego State practices an hour, Bradley mentioned, the Aztecs might spend 45 minutes on defense. “The coaches love it and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to love it too,” he said.
“You could tell they hadn’t seen a team like us all season,” Arop said.
Indeed, as Alabama grew frustrated, the Tide’s shot selection grew worse, the pleading to the officials grew more common. “Once they started asking for fouls, you knew they were worried about other things other than just basketball,” Bradley said.
In Kansas City
Houston came in leading the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.1. Miami shredded the Cougars for nearly 52 percent.
Houston was second in the nation, allowing only 56.6 points a game. The Hurricanes scored 28 more than that. They had 47 just in the second half. The hottest hand was Nijel Pack with his 26 points and seven 3-pointers. Rather than challenge the commanding Cougars inside. He merely shot over them.
“He was ridiculous,” Larranaga said. “I don’t know how far those shots are. People say to me, what do you say when he misses one of those long shots. What I say is keep shooting.”
Said Miller, “We just play a style that’s hard to prep for. When we play teams in the ACC we usually play them once or twice, so the second time they are familiar. The game is usually closer. But we know we have kind of an advantage when it’s the first time we play a team,”
The door is open now to San Diego State, the team that was a popular upset victim pick in the first round against Charleston. The Aztecs do not exactly draw a lot of national buzz, but know this: The only teams with better records than San Diego State’s 106-22 since the start of the 2019-20 season are Gonzaga and Houston. Better than Kansas, better than Baylor.
“We’ve had a chip on our shoulder this whole tournament,” Bradley said. “They picked us to lose to Charleston even though we were seeded above them. Furman, Alabama. We’ve always been picked to lose and we like that.
"They’ll probably doubt us until we win the championship game. We’ll take it. We like people betting against us, we’re fine with it.”
Next is Creighton, and there are unusual connections there.
The Bluejays broke the Aztecs’ hearts last spring, knocking them out in the first round of the NCAA tournament 72-69 in overtime after closing regulation on a 9-0 run to tie. Bradley missed a possible winning free throw with seven seconds left.
San Diego State guard Adam Seiko and Creighton guard Arthur Kaluma are brothers. They combined for 17 points Friday night. San Diego State’s Arop is from Omaha, same as Creighton.
And the two teams shared a flight to the Maui Invitational last November, the Bluejays picking up the Aztecs on the way to Hawaii and dropping them off on the way back. Sunday, they’ll share a shot at the Final Four, not a jet.
In Kansas City
Miami is in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year. Last March the Hurricanes could not handle Kansas 76-50. Now they’re older, wiser and get a different Big 12 team in Texas.
Karma seems to be in Miami orange and green. The women are in the Elite Eight for the first time and shocked their own No. 1 seed at Indiana.
But who knows anything anymore, in these two cities or anywhere else? Eight teams are left, no No. 1 seeds, and Connecticut is the only past national champion in the bunch.