FIRST WEEKEND MVP: Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Oregon’s point guard was the best player on the floor for the Ducks in both of their games as the Pac-12 tournament champions became the only team seeded lower than fifth to get to the second weekend of the tournament. In wins over Wisconsin and UC Irvine, Pritchard averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 assists and 4.5 boards while also sparking late runs that turned close games into blowouts.
And frankly, Pritchard has been terrific for a month at this point. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 7.0 assists over his last five games and has looked like one of the best point guards in all of college basketball as Oregon has reeled off a ten game winning streak, eight of which have come on the road or on neutral courts.
ALL-FIRST WEEKEND TEAM
CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: After putting up 26 points for the Boilermakers in the first round of the tournament, Edwards followed that up with 42 point explosion against Villanova in the second round, the most points scored in an NCAA tournament game since 2004. In total, Purdue has scored 148 points in two games in this even, and Edwards and 68 of them.
NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina: Little averaged 19.5 points in the first two games of his first (and only?) NCAA tournament. We wrote a column yesterday on why that is so important for the Tar Heels.
ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke: Williamson was, as you might expect, the best player for Duke over the course of the first weekend. He finished with 25 points and three boards in the opening round win over North Dakota State and followed that up with 32 points, 11 boards and four assists in the win over UCF.
BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga: Clarke didn’t do much in Gonzaga’s first round win over Fairleigh Dickinson because he didn’t need to do much. But in a second round date with a Baylor team that actually showed up and gave the Zags a fight, Clarke put together one of the best performances in the tournament this season: 36 points, eight boards, five blocks, three assists and two steals.
MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State: How many teams can say that their best player comes off of the bench? That’s the case for Florida State and Kabengele, who was simply terrific in two wins this weekend. He had 21 points and 10 boards against UVM and followed that up with 22 points, seven boards and three blocks in a blowout win over Ja Morant and Murray State.
MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: Texas Tech
Every one of the top two seeds got pushed at some point in the first weekend of the tournament. Virginia and North Carolina trailed at the half of their first round games. Duke came a couple of inches away from losing to UCF. Gonzaga was pushed by Baylor in the second round. Tennessee nearly blew not one, but two huge leads. Kentucky was in a dogfight with Wofford. Michigan State nearly lost to Bradley while Florida made it difficult for Michigan to get to the Sweet 16.
Texas Tech, however, didn’t really have those problems. Northern Kentucky kept it close for 15 minutes before Jarrett Culver went nuts and the Red Raiders ran away with it. Buffalo had one run late in the first half that seemed like it was going to make the most intriguing matchup of Sunday’s second round action worth watching, but that only last about five minutes.
This Texas Tech team has a real shot to make a run through Anaheim to get to Minneapolis. They are the nation’s best defensive team, but with the way they have been shooting the rock of late, they are also a threat to put up 90 points on any given opponent. On a weekend where every other title contender was pushed, Tech cruised, and that should tell you something.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The Big East
So it turns out the Big East was pretty bad after all.
Their run in the NCAA tournament ended on Saturday evening, with Carsen Edwards dropping 42 points in a rout that saw Purdue lead 59-24 at one point. It was an embarrassment, really, but one that we all probably should have seen coming.
Villanova won the Big East regular season title, but it never felt like they actually were trying to win. They lost five of their last eight regular season games and only managed to take home the league title because Marquette, the only other team in the league that we thought was any good, lost their last four games. That same Marquette team was run out of the first round by Murray State, who looked every bit the part of a mid-major in their loss to Florida State on Saturday.
Villanova beat Seton Hall in the Big East tournament title game, and the Pirates got drubbed by 16 points by Wofford in the first round. The only other Big East team to get into the tournament was St. John’s, and they got smoked in a play-in game by an Arizona State team that proceeded to lose to Buffalo by 17.
The league should be better with the amount of talent that they have coming back.
And they’re going to need to be.
Because this was not the kind of season that the conference will want to be known for.
FIVE OVERREACTIONS MOVING FORWARD
1. A DISMAL FIRST WEEKEND SETS US UP FOR THE PERFECT FINISH TO THE TOURNAMENT
That first weekend sucked.
We got a thriller with Duke and UCF on Sunday, Maryland played a couple of barn-burners against Belmont and LSU and Tennessee’s inability to protect a lead made for a couple of interesting games, but there wasn’t a true buzzer-beater in the first 52 games of the NCAA tournament. All of the Cinderellas have seen their carriages turn into pumpkins unless, of course, you consider No. 12-seed Oregon — who was a top 15 team in the preseason, reached the 2017 Final Four and is currently in their third Sweet 16 in the last four years — a Cinderella.
What we have right now is a tournament that still features all four No. 1 seeds, all four No. 2 seeds and all four No. 3 seeds. One of the two No. 4 seeds that was knocked out get sent home by a No. 5 seed. This has only happened once before in the NCAA tournament, in 2009, and that was the year that Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina cruised to the national title.
So yeah, the first weekend of the tournament sucked.
But what that means is that the final 15 games of this event are set up to be absolutely magical.
Think about it like this: The only two teams in the Sweet 16 that weren’t considered top 16 teams by the selection committee on Selection Sunday were both preseason top 15 teams. If you were going to build the perfect 16 team tournament from scratch, the only change that anyone would make is dropping Oregon for someone, but I’m not sure that the Ducks, given the way that they have been playing of late, aren’t actually a top 16 team in college basketball right now.
I’ve always said the ideal NCAA tournament has upsets early and chalk late. We didn’t have the upsets this year, but we do have the chalk.
So be ready. Every game from here on out is going to be a heavy-weight fight.
2. THE UCF PERFORMANCE SAID MORE ABOUT THE MATCHUP THEN IT DID DUKE
I tried to warn you guys on Sunday morning.
UCF was the perfect matchup for this Duke team. They are traditionally a really good defensive team that has big, athletic wings to guard Duke’s lottery picks and one of the world’s 40 largest humans to stand at the rim and make it difficult for R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson to finish. They also have a bunch of shot-makers on their perimeter, and all they needed to do to keep this thing close was for one of Aubrey Dawkins or B.J. Taylor to get into a rhythm while Tacko Fall stayed out of foul trouble.
Dawkins went off.
Fall stayed out of foul trouble for the most part.
And the end result was that Duke should have been knocked out of the NCAA tournament.
They are incredibly lucky to still be alive in this event, and I don’t think that they are going to face a team that will be able to challenge them the way that UCF did until the Final Four.
Look, we’ve known what the key to beating Duke is all season long. You need to pack in your defense, you need size at the rim and you need to be willing to let Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire shoot as many threes as they want to shoot. There aren’t many team that actually have the players to execute that game-plan as well as UCF did.
Duke certainly isn’t unbeatable, but this was the bullet they needed to dodge.
And they did.
3. THE BEST SPOT TO BE NEXT WEEKEND IS …
KANSAS CITY: The North Carolina-Auburn matchup has a chance to be one of the most entertaining games in the history of college basketball — if you like run-and-gun hoops, this is for you — while a Sunday evening matchup between UNC and Kentucky is very much in the cards.
ANAHEIM: This is the most unpredictable region left in the field. Texas Tech and Michigan might be the two best defensive teams left in the tournament, and they will be battling it out for a spot in the Elite 8 in what might as well be a street fight. On the other side of the bracket, we get a rematch from last year’s Sweet 16, when Florida State upset Gonzaga. Is this the revenge game?
WASHINGTON D.C.: I have a sneaking suspicion that Duke is going to have a pretty easy time making their way through this region, but remember: Virginia Tech has already beaten the Blue Devils this season, and they did it without Justin Robinson. On the other side of the bracket, LSU has somehow morphed into a team of destiny, and they will face off with Michigan State in a battle between two of the best point guards in the country in Cassius Winston and Tremont Waters.
LOUISVILLE: Virginia-Oregon is a battle between two really good teams, but there’s a real chance that game goes under the total of 118.5. On the other side of the bracket is Purdue-Tennessee, and as good as both of those teams are, that matchup just doesn’t have the pop of some of the others. That said, should this turn into a Virginia-Tennessee Elite 8 matchup, there’s a chance that ends up being the weekend’s best game.
The fact that Louisville is fourth on this list should tell you all you need to know about just how good the games are this weekend.
4. AN ALL-ACC FINAL FOUR CAN STILL HAPPEN
We’ll dive into this more during the week, but the chance of getting a Final Four that features Duke (or Virginia Tech), Virginia, North Carolina and Florida State is a very real possibility. The biggest reason for that is that three of the No. 1 seeds are from the conference. They’re obviously, then, the favorites to get to the final weekend out of their region.
But the other part of this is that Florida State seems like a good bet to knock off Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
I’ll have a full breakdown on why later in the week.
5. AND YOUR FINAL FOUR IS …
My Final Four is still alive! Duke vs. Texas Tech and Virginia vs. North Carolina.