There's no player left in the NCAA tournament who is more critical to his team's success than San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames. Carving up opposing defenses via the pick and roll, Thames had 23 points in the Aztecs' opening-round win over New Mexico State and delivered maybe the performance of the tournament in the round of 32 against North Dakota State. His 30 points and six asssists accounted for 45 of San Diego State's first 55 points and one more than the Bison scored the entire game in a 63-44 rout. The defensive-oriented Aztecs need him to continue this hot streak to advance any further because he is their catalyst and their best weapon in half-court offense.
Stanford's array of zone defenses turned Andrew Wiggins into the world's most athletic spot-up shooter. The freshman phenom and potential No. 1 pick in this June's NBA draft attempted only six shots and sank only one of them in Kansas' stunning 60-57 loss to the 10th-seeded Cardinal in the round of 32. Worse yet, Wiggins was content to float around the perimeter and take jump shots when he did shoot, a product of both his own lack of aggressiveness and Bill Self's unwillingness to go to a smaller lineup and try playing him in the high post. Regardless, it was a poor last impression for Wiggins to leave after a largely successful freshman season.
You won't convince me that more than three SEC teams should have made the NCAA tournament, but credit the three who did for proving they certainly belong. Top-seeded Florida, eighth-seeded Kentucky and 11th-seeded Tennessee have amassed a 7-0 NCAA tournament record, taking down Wichita State, UMass, Pittsburgh and Kansas State in the process. The SEC's three Sweet 16 teams are tied for the most by any conference. The Big Ten and Pac-12 also produced three apiece, while the American and the Big 12 sent two and the ACC, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West have one apiece.
Considering that newly hired Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams fled Marquette in part because he wasn't happy coaching in the new Big East, the league could have benefited from the positive publicity that a successful NCAA tournament brings. Instead its four teams all lost in the opening two rounds, making the Big East the only top nine RPI conference not to send a team to the Sweet 16. Xavier lost a First Four game to NC State, Providence put up a good fight before falling to North Carolina in the round of 64 and Creighton and Villanova both lost to lesser seeds in the round of 32, the Wildcats by 12 to UConn and the Blueyjays by 30 against Baylor.
The two most surprising Sweet 16 teams both play one-another for a spot in the Elite Eight. Only a couple weeks ago, Stanford had lost three in a row and had jeopardized its NCAA tournament hopes and endangered its coach's job. Now the tenth-seeded Cardinal are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008 after victories over Mountain West tournament champion New Mexico and Big 12 champ Kansas. Their opponent in Memphis ended a much longer Sweet 16 drought. Eleventh-seeded Dayton, once 1-5 in the Atlantic 10 entering February, rebounded to finish tied for fifth in its league, sneak into the NCAA tournament and upset in-state power Ohio State and third-seeded Syracuse en route to the Sweet 16.
From Virginia-Michigan State, to Arizona-San Diego State, to Kentucky-Louisville, there are a handful of must-see matchups in the Sweet 16. The one that could be truly can't-miss though is the South Region showdown between No. 1 Florida and surging UCLA. Having defeated Oregon, Stanford and Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament before overwhelming Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin this past weekend in San Diego, UCLA enters playing by far its best basketball this season. The Bruins have the offensive firepower to challenge Florida's stingy defense, but they'll have to keep the Gators off the offensive boards to avoid being eliminated by Billy Donovan's team for the fourth time in eight years. Added intrigue for this matchup? A Final Four bid is likely at stake. The winner will be a heavy favorite against either Dayton or Stanford two days later.
Somehow, someway, the matchup between the nation's lone unbeaten team and college basketball's preseason No. 1 actually exceeded the hype. Wichita State and Kentucky traded big shot after big shot for 40 minutes with the Wildcats prevailing by two after Fred VanVleet's potential game-winning 3-pointer missed the mark as time expired. In many ways, the Shockers may have won over some of their doubters more in losing for the first time than in winning 35 straight. They saw Kentucky's A-plus game and nearly matched it for 40 minutes, just falling one basket short.
Brilliant as Doug McDermott has been throughout his four years at Creighton, it would have been nice to see him make one run past the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. Instead the national player of the year favorite endured one of his worst performances of the season against Baylor in the round of 32 on Sunday, getting into early foul trouble and finishing with a quiet 14 points. It might not have mattered if McDermott was at his best because Baylor was too big, too strong and too athletic for the Bluejays. The Bears shot 63.8 percent from the field and rolled to an 85-55 rout.
Neither fourth-seeded Louisville nor its Sweet 16 opponent Kentucky were seeded high enough. The fourth-seeded Cardinals weren't especially scintillating in surviving Manhattan and Saint Louis this past week, but they entered the NCAA tournament having won 12 of 13 to finish with 29 wins and a sweep of the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles. And eighth-seeded Kentucky certainly didn't live up to expectation in the regular season, but it was still top 20 in the KenPom rankings entering the NCAA tournament and deserved a seed line or two better.
With a borderline resume and its second-leading scorer having torn his ACL in the WCC title game, BYU either belonged in the NIT or the First Four in Dayton. Instead the Cougars received a No. 10 seed and were about as non-competitive as you'd expect in an 87-68 loss to seventh-seeded Oregon. Somewhere in Dallas, SMU players and coaches had to be watching that game and shaking their heads. Somewhere in Green Bay, Brian Wardle and his team was probably doing the same thing.
1. In answering a post-game question about the memories he'd take from North Dakota State's NCAA tournament run, teary-eyed Saul Phillips revealed how much his team means to him. "It's only the greatest professional week of my life," he answered, choking back his emotion. Later he added, "This season? Wow. Let's just say this: It's why I do what I do. And I lose the six guys out that door. Charles Barkley can make fun of me now, it's fine. Hey, I love these guys. Absolutely love them. Love 'em."
2. How could anyone not feel good for Desmond Haymon after the Stephen F. Austin star's four-point play to force overtime and enable the Lumberjacks to defeat VCU? Haymon's father overcame his fear of flying and took his first-ever plane flight from Mississippi to San Diego to watch his son play in the NCAA tournament for the first time. The reward was a shot from Haymon that could be the shot of the tournament thus far.
3. If it's true someone's character is revealed after a loss, then Mike Krzyzewski showed a lot of class Friday. He took the time to visit the Mercer locker room and congratulate the Bears after they upset third-seeded Duke in the round of 64. “You guys have a hell of a basketball team,” Krzyzewski said. “I love the game and you guys play the game really, really well and your coach coaches it well. If we had to be beaten, I'm glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. So good luck to you.”
1. Watching Iowa State's Georges Niang hobble to the locker room with a season-ending broken foot on Friday night was heart-breaking because of the timing and the implications. You have to feel for Niang going down at the worst possible time of year. Plus, even though the Cyclones got past North Carolina on Sunday, it's difficult to imagine them making a Final Four run without one of their three most important players and their biggest matchup problem.
2. Speaking of Iowa State-North Carolina, everything about the last 1.6 seconds of the game deserves mention here as well. There was North Carolina not getting a timeout after DeAndre Kane's go-ahead basket with 1.6 seconds to go. Then there was the clock error that stemmed from the clock not starting on time after the Tar Heels inbounded the ball. And then there was the lengthy delay that ensued before referees decided to end the game and award the victory to the Cyclones. Bizarre ending to a game that deserved better.
3. There's no way of knowing whether Wichita State could have gotten a better look at the rim had Gregg Marshall not called timeout with three seconds left Sunday afternoon, but it sure would have been nice to find out. Instead Fred VanVleet ended up with an off-balance 3-pointer that badly missed the mark, ensuring Kentucky a 78-76 victory and ending Wichita State's bid for perfection.
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