March Madness Saturday roundup: Favorites emerge, Jordan Poole becomes Michigan hero

The Dagger

Call it Moving Day. Or maybe Separation Saturday. Call it whatever you want. When the clock struck midnight on the east coast Saturday night, one last NCAA tournament game grinding toward its conclusion, the overarching story of March Madness was not underdogs. It was not nail-biters. It was convincing victories, and what they told us about the path ahead.

As the Ramblers rambled on to the Sweet 16, favorites elsewhere held serve. Three in particular emerged. They established themselves as the top dogs in their respective regions, the teams to beat on the road to San Antonio. And their names were familiar ones. It was time to talk about Villanova, Duke and Kentucky.

And then it wasn’t. At 12:18 a.m. ET, it was time to talk about an unheralded Michigan freshman by the name of Jordan Poole.

The very last shot of Saturday was undoubtedly the best. Isaiah Livers zipped a baseball pass, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stayed composed, and Poole, later described by coach John Beilein as having an “overdose of swag,” etched his name in March Madness lore.


Then he sped down the court, boomeranged back to where he came from, and set off a frantic night of polarizing emotions: Ecstasy in Ann Arbor, emptiness in Houston, and both in uncomfortably close quarters at Intrust Bank Arena.

He gave us the single greatest moment of the tournament so far (non-UMBC category), the best GIFs, the best video and the best still image. All that is below.

But so is that discussion Poole interrupted. There were seven other games to react to, and Final Four odds to reassess.

STARTING FIVE

1. The favorite of Final Four favorites

The most frightening part about Villanova’s 81-58 victory over Alabama wasn’t the early second-half barrage that turned a tight affair into a rout. It was the first half that made the barrage necessary – but also enabled it. It was the early struggles, but also the reason those struggles didn’t put Nova in a hole.

Over the game’s first quarter, the Wildcats attempted 12 3-pointers. They made just three, and added only one 2-point field goal. The start, at least on offense, was reminiscent of Villanova upsets past. And it surely would have provoked early stages of nightmares in Nova Nation if not for what the Wildcats were doing on the other end. And that’s precisely why the nightmares will instead belong to Purdue, or Texas Tech, or whoever might dare stand in Villanova’s way in the East.

The Wildcats played active, aggressive, sound defense, and held Alabama to 19 points over 16 minutes. The defense didn’t just keep the top seed in the game; it allowed Nova to build a small lead. And when shots began to fall, the lead exploded. It was up to 17 less than four minutes into the second half.

Jay Wright’s team appears to be head and shoulders above the rest of its region. Its closest competitor, Purdue, will likely be without 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas going forward. In the 23-point Bama beatdown, the Wildcats confirmed what many already suspected: They are a better Final Four bet than any other in the now-24-team field.

2. Duke at or near its best

A half-hour after Nova polished off its masterpiece in Pittsburgh, Duke put together one of its own. The Blue Devils, like the Wildcats, turned heads on the defensive end of the floor. Their zone was as pesky and inhibitive as it’s been all season. It reined in a Rhode Island offense that can be tough to corral when it gets going downhill. It held the Rams to 0.91 points per possession.

On the offensive end, Marvin Bagley did Marvin Bagley things. Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen combined for seven 3-pointers. And Duke, for almost all 40 minutes, was Good Duke. Its path to San Antonio is much more perilous than Villanova’s, with Michigan State and Kansas perhaps both impeding it. But while the Jayhawks struggled to put Seton Hall away Saturday, Duke dumped Rhody, and looks like the best of the three. By how big a margin? Let’s hold off on any declarations until we see Sparty against Syracuse on Sunday.

3. Kentucky and chaos down South

Had you posited prior to Thursday that, three days into the tournament, Kentucky would be the favorite in its region, the only plausible explanations would be overreactions, hyperbole, or both. But implausible things have happened down South. Arizona imploded. Virginia choked. Tennessee simply ran into a darn good team – more on that team later. Which leaves us with … who?

You could argue Cincinnati. But it’s very difficult to argue against what Kentucky did Saturday, albeit against Buffalo. It’s difficult to argue against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company, especially because “company” came to play Saturday. Hamidou Diallo in particular looked like an elite slasher. Oh, and Gilgeous-Alexander looks like the undisputed best player left in the region. The Wildcats still have their flaws, outside shooting chief among them. But they also have either Kansas State or UMBC up next, and will have a talent advantage in the Elite Eight. A seventh Final Four for John Calipari is within reach.

4. Another late Loyola game-winner

One of the teams standing in Calipari’s way might just be Loyola Chicago. The Ramblers will be dubbed Cinderella, and associated with words like “darlings” and “miracles” for a few reasons: A) Because they’ve advanced to the Sweet 16 in dramatic fashion, and B) because of their recent track record and mid-major status.

But neither of those tell us anything about the team on the floor. And that team is absolutely legitimate. It wouldn’t look out of place in the Big 12. It didn’t get outmuscled or overwhelmed athletically by a physical Tennessee team. It deserved the kindness of a Dallas rim, and will have the opportunity to prove it deserves more than just a Sweet 16 berth next week.


5. Jordan Poole’s shot, and the images that define March

Seconds after a wild day of basketball ended, Jordan Poole was running. Running like a goalscorer in a World Cup final. Running, evading teammates, his destination or purpose not exactly clear. Not even Poole could have answered questions such as, Where? or Why?

That, in so many ways, is the beauty of March. It’s the impromptu elation, the unscripted reactions of joy and dejection. Those emotions gave us a very strong contender for GIF of the tournament:


As it turns out, though, Poole’s aimless running wasn’t even the second-best image of the day.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

The second-best image of the day came seconds later, with Poole having made his way back near the spot on the court from which he cast himself as a Michigan legend:

Michigan players celebrate Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater as Houston’s Devin Davis lies face-down on the court. (Getty)
Michigan players celebrate Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater as Houston’s Devin Davis lies face-down on the court. (Getty)

And seconds after that, as he and his Michigan teammates spilled to the hardwood, the chaos turned into one of the greatest microcosms of the NCAA tournament.

GIF OF THE DAY

Devin Davis could have prevented all of this. He could have nipped it in the bud. Houston’s senior forward had been immense all night long, and had sunk all eight of his free throws. Sent to the charity stripe twice more in the game’s final 30 seconds, though, he faltered.

He missed one of two from the line with a chance to put Houston up three. He then missed two of two with a chance to clinch the win. Michigan rebounded the second, called timeout, and the rest, of course, is history.

The celebration culminated with those Michigan players in a pile under the basket, and with Davis mere feet away from them, in a nearly identical prone position, unable to show his face. This, in one image, is March:


But none of those images, you could argue, captured the most touching moment of the Michigan-Houston aftermath.

VIDEO OF THE DAY

Michigan players running around like children on a kindergarten playground. But as they chased Poole, Moe Wagner spotted Corey Davis standing to the side in disbelief. He spotted a player whose season had just ended in the most gut-wrenching of ways. And he realized that the other side of March just couldn’t be ignored.


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Henry Bushnell covers soccer and college basketball for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

More March Madness from Yahoo Sports:
Why UMBC will have to overcome history again to make Sweet 16
Loyola Chicago’s magical run continues with another game-winner
Coach K earns win 1,099 passing Pat Summitt for most ever
Duke star Wendell Carter Jr.’s mom said URI fan called her ‘b—-’
Auburn tricked unknowking refs to seal its NCAA tournament win

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