The top-ranked Gators smell blood in the next round, the Pac 12 makes a comeback, an 11 seed fights a 10 seed, and how the West will be won
What a phenomenal week of college basketball we were provided as the first two rounds (and First Four games) of the NCAA Tournament tipped off and never really slowed down. From the stunning early losses by Duke in the first round and Kansas in the second round to the onrush of close contests on Thursday and Friday, you did not have to look far to find something to chew on in the world of college hoops. How about the statistic that this is the first time since 1976 (the last time we saw an undefeated national champion) that neither Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, or Syracuse got past the first weekend! The fact that we had six games go into overtime in the tournament before midnight on Friday (the record for most overtimes in an entire tournament is seven) should give you an idea of how airtight many of these matchups have turned out to be. Unfortunately, with every great finish or impressive performance comes with it the requiem for a school, team, or player to whom we are simply never ready to bid adieu.
That was unfortunately the case for the college career of soon-to-be Wooden Award winner Doug McDermott, whose Creighton Blue Jays were demolished by 30 points against Baylor. This was a fate shared by the previously unbeaten Wichita State Shockers, who fell in the second round thanks to a phenomenal performance by John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats in a superb game. There will always be the melancholy moments that you never forget like when Kennedy Meeks cried openly after the North Carolina Tar Heels barely lost to Iowa State or when that white dude for Mercer busted out an orgasmic dance sequence after upsetting Duke. But more than 50 of the 68-team field is history and we are now down to the Sweet 16, then to be whittled down to an Elite 8, then the winners of their respective regions punch their tickets for the vaunted Final Four in Arlington, TX, in hopes of winning it all. Let’s start with the regions that play on Thursday night.
11 Dayton vs. 10 Stanford
I would not go as far as to call it a battle of Cinderellas in the NCAA Tournament given that Stanford is a major conference school, but there is definitely a sense of the underdog nature for both of these teams. The team that fits the glass slipper role the best this year has to be the Dayton Flyers, who were the last of six teams out of the Atlantic 10 to make it into the tourney. One week later, the other five of the A-10 teams (including regular season champion Saint Louis) are gone and Dayton is still standing. Not only that, but the Flyers did not get a walk in the park in their subregional to get there. Vee Sanford laid it in with seconds to go to take down Ohio State 60-59 on Thursday then Dayton outlasted a late rally by Syracuse to win 55-53 and reach their first Sweet 16 since 1984. That year, the 10th-seeded Flyers were led by legendary head coach Don Donoher and star player Roosevelt Chapman and beat a then-Pac 8 team in Washington to get all the way to the Elite 8, where they were wiped out by eventual champion Georgetown.
Roosevelt Chapman isn’t walking through that door for Dayton, but head coach Archie Miller’s smaller lineup has put on their hard hats and never stopped playing hard in the postseason. Archie Miller is Arizona head coach Sean Miller’s brother and was once an assistant there. They may mirror Arizona in terms of style, but the Flyers love their taller slashing guards. To put their accomplishment last weekend into perspective, Ohio State and Syracuse hadn’t not done worse than reach the Elite 8 for the past two seasons before Dayton took them out in consecutive games. Now, just like in 1984, Dayton will have to go through a West Coast team in order to get to the Elite 8. This time, instead of Washington, it is the Stanford Cardinal. Although they did not have to sweat out their spot in the tournament come Selection Sunday, Stanford knew that they still had a lot of prove after a spotty regular season, including a bad loss to UCLA in the Pac 12 Tournament.But after blasting New Mexico early on to take a big lead that they ultimately held onto in the first round, Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins got a little creative against 2 seed Kansas.
Knowing that big man Joel Embiid’s absence due to a back injury would hinder Kansas’ inside presence, Dawkins employed a strict zone defense on the Jawhawks that included a fortified front line of at least three power forwards or centers. Not only did it work in frustrating forwards like Andrew Wiggins and Perry Ellis, but Stanford did a great job of mixing up the tempo with quick baskets by guard Chaisson Randle and strong, more stretched out possessions from big men Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic. By the time Kansas finally figured out how to press Stanford, the lead was already more than two possessions and a desperation three from Conner Frankamp came up short at the buzzer. Stanford has usually gotten far in the NCAA Tournament with great size, such as in 2008 when the Lopez twins got them to the Sweet 16.
This is Stanford’s first appearance in the Sweet 16 since ’08 and forwards like Powell, the resurgent Nastic, and rebounding machine Josh Huestis have been main contributors. But what if I told you that the player with the highest regular season scoring average left in the tournament is none other than Chaisson Randle at over 18 PPG? The Cardinal is one of three teams out of the Pac 12 that will compete this Thursday, and they were the lowest seed at 10 of all the teams from that conference that got invited to the tournament. Now that the Kansas upset is in the rear view, Stanford now focuses on Dayton. If they want to prepare for them, they should just slap on that DVD of their games against Arizona, whom they lost to twice. Dayton is clearly not as talented as Arizona, especially in the front court, but they do have depth and a knack for taking the right shot.
Dayton has the underdog nature and the exuberant pace thanks to their guard play, but Stanford has a lot more experience (5 seniors and 5 juniors) and size to man up on the Flyers. The one thing Dayton does have that Stanford does not is a true point guard thanks to an injury to Stanford’s Aaron Bright earlier in the season. I still see Stanford eking out this win thanks to their balance and dedication on defense lately, but we have to remember that the last 11 seed to make it to the Final Four was VCU in 2011, and it had only happened twice ever before that. Just like Dayton in 1984 , will the lowest seed left in the tournament merely be lambs to slaughter?
1 Florida vs. 4 UCLA
After easily dispatching their first two opponents in the Orlando subregion, the Florida Gators continue their winning streak to an astounding 28 games as they mosey into the Sweet 16. If they go through this weekend unscathed, they will have won 30 games in a row. What impressed me about Florida’s win over Pittsburgh on Saturday was not just the fact that they took care of business against a surging ACC team, but that it seemed at times like the Gators did not even break a sweat as they distanced themselves late in the game. The winning has almost gotten to a point where they can ease their way into doing things right instead of trying to force up bad shots, and that is the mark of a great team. Florida fans will be glad to know that the #1 overall seed, which they are this year, has won the national title over the past two seasons, and it seems likely that Florida will at least make it to the Final Four.
Over the past three years, the endgame for Florida has been the Elite 8, but given the fact that an 11 or 10 seed will be on the other side of that round, it seems like the true testing of mettle for the Gators in Memphis will occur tonight against the UCLA Bruins. We do not have to go on and on about UCLA’s embarrassingly rich history in the NCAA Tournament over the years, but this is definitely one of the better teams the school has put on the court recently. When Steve Alford was hired away from New Mexico to replace Ben Howland last spring, the fanfare was more than bipolar with open questions about Alford’s past tournament shortcomings as a coach. But in his first year there, it seems like Alford has at least diffused the criticisms by easily gliding UCLA through two easy wins over Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin. This is the first Sweet 16 appearance for UCLA since 2008 when Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Darren Collison reached the Final Four, and the second time for Alford, who did it at Southeast Missouri State back in 1999.
Alford, like his playing days at Indiana, loves running motion offense with a quick tempo, and the heartbeat and pulse of that offense are Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. While Adams is a more natural two-guard with guts and ball skills, Anderson (nicknamed “Slo Mo”) is a lengthy forward with the mindset of a point guard in the same vein as Syracuse’s Michael Carter Williams last year. Throw in another blue chip guard in Zach LaVine and an athletic forward in Norman Powell, and you have one of the most efficient offenses in the country for a team that is playing at their best right now. Unfortunately, the step up from Stephen F. Austin to Florida from round to round is pretty damn steep, and I am not sure if UCLA has truly been challenged in the same way that Florida will. It will be the battle of elites at the guard spot as SEC Player of the Year and defensive hound Scottie Wilbekin will battle Anderson or Adams (or both) in order to slow down UCLA’s fine-tuned offense.
The odds are not on UCLA’s side today, and neither is history. Since 2006, Florida and UCLA have played each other three times in the NCAA Tournament, twice in the Final Four or national title game. Florida won each time, and most are expecting them to do it a fourth time. The one flaws you can find in Florida is in their two losses on the road to UConn and Wisconsin back in the previous year. The one thing that UConn, Wisconsin, and UCLA all have in common is that they are all highly efficient when it comes to three-point shooting. The Bruins will have to shoot quite accurately to stay in it and not allow Florida to put them into a turtle’s pace for the game (UCLA has one of the fastest tempos in the country while Florida has one of the slowest).
Whatever pace the game is dictated will be crucial to its outcome. UCLA’s front court (which includes Powell, Tony Parker, and Wear twins) is seen by many as soft on muscle. Can the Bruins muscle their way in the paint against the likes of Patrick Young and Casey Prather and play big in the big moments? I say that will not occur and that despite a decent challenge, Florida moves on and makes Gator bait out of Stanford or Dayton. The Fed Ex Forum in Memphis may have been the site for the now infamous “Occupy Raw” segment a couple weeks ago, but the only thing being occupied on Saturday night will be Billy Donovan’s suit as he celebrates winning the South Region with his elite Florida team.
1 Arizona vs. 4 San Diego State
It is fitting that Arizona and Florida, who sit on opposite sides of the NCAA Tournament picture, will be showing their stuff on the same night because after the first weekend, it felt like these were the two teams to look up to going into the Sweet Sixteen. Whatever advanced stat or unselfish compliment Florida has attained over the past few months, Sean Miller‘s Arizona Wildcats have done just as much. While Florida killed Pitt softly in their second round win, Arizona spent Sunday night dismantling a decent Gonzaga team early and often to a final score of 84-61. There is tons of talk leading up to the tournament about the eye test and, if that were in play right now, Arizona would more than pass as an elite team in college basketball this year.
Even after losing big man Brandon Ashley in February to a broken foot, Arizona has rebounded by, well, rebounding the ball a lot. They are one of the best in the country at that category along with a top ranking in KenPom in defensive efficiency, even better than Florida. Nick Johnson and T.J. Connell are a lethal dose of athleticism and heady play at the guard spots while NBA small forward Aaron Gordon is growing up before our eyes by expanding his role as a scorer. One similarity they do share, however, with conference rival and fellow Sweet 16 member UCLA is that they did not play a major conference team leading into tonight, and they won’t do so tonight either because they will be playing the San Diego State Aztecs. It is funny that Arizona will travel to Anaheim to play San Diego State after using the Aztecs’ home arena in the subregional to really flex their muscles on national television.
Steve Fisher told his coaching staff to not sit in the San Diego stands to watch Arizona out of respect for the teams involved, which gave them a little more time to quietly game plan against the 1 seed in the West. The first tape they should have been looking at was Arizona’s 69-60 win in that very building back on November 14 that included a lot of fouls and some bad shooting from San Diego State. Until mid February, that was San Diego State’s only loss. Brandon Ashley had 6 points and 6 rebounds in that game, so with him gone, there is now more room for SDSU big guys like Josh Davis, J.J. O’Brien, and Skylar Spencer to try to bully Arizona’s top scoring big man Kaleb Tarczewski. San Diego State is a unique team because although the Mountain West Conference has been notoriously bad in tournament play, the Aztecs always hang in there thanks to a suffocating defensive focus and a shocking amount of height and length.
San Diego State got to the Sweet 16 after barely getting past a feisty New Mexico State squad in overtime in the first round, then completely disarming 12-seeded North Dakota State to the tune of 63-44. Xavier Thames is the team’s leading scorer by a wide margin, and he showed why against the Bison when he scored 30 points, nearly half of the team’s output. The Aztecs win by holding their opponents to records in offensive futility and, although they are cooking right now, Arizona does tend to struggle finding points in the late stages of games.
If you have not read much poetic being waxed about this game in the media this week, it is because it has the potential for a rock fight. Arizona and San Diego State are both in the top five in the nation in points allowed at less than 60 points per game. The Wildcats are also one of the worst teams left in the tournament in terms of free throw percentage at 65 percent. Thankfully for Arizona, SDSU is pretty bad at the charity stripe at 66 percent, but Thames is one of the best in the country at drawing fouls. If Thames can find his shot and the rest of the long-armed Aztecs like Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II can muddy up Arizona’s potent inside game, they have a shot at righting the wrong from last November. Otherwise, I see at least one Pac 12 team moving on.
6 Baylor vs. 2 Wisconsin
Despite losing three teams in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and the First Four, the Big Ten Conference, one of the best in the country all year, is well represented in this year’s Sweet 16. Michigan and Michigan State still being around may not have surprised too many people, but people have always been unsure about the prospects for Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers. After beating Virginia and Florida while going undefeated in non-conference play, Wisconsin was ranked as highly as 3rd in the country before they inexplicably dropped 4 out of 5 games early on in conference play, including a home loss to lowly Northwestern. After some soul searching in January, Wisky bounced back strong in February and March, not losing again until their last regular season game at Nebraska.
What makes Wisconsin stick out this year compared to other years are two things: The ultra athleticism of their highly touted small forward Sam Dekker, and their ability to make a multitude of three-pointers out of Bo Ryan’s swing offense. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) on the starting lineup can make three’s and do not apologize for taking too many, judging by the fact that they have attempted 51 in the last two tournament games. No one player ever goes into takeover mode under Ryan and it shows on the court, as they have six players who average between 8 PPG and 13 PPG. The key to their three ball offense, which really bailed them out in a fun 85-77 win over Oregon in the second round, is the awareness by every teammate to find the open man against either a soft zone or a scattered man-to-man defense. Although Ryan has had better defensive teams and more talented star players in the past, this is probably the most efficient scoring team he has ever had at Wisconsin.
It is a good thing that Wisconsin finally has some offensive chops this year to go with their traditional strengths on the defensive end because they are going need every red cent of both skills against the Baylor Bears. If you had asked me if Baylor were properly ranked as a 6 seed going into the NCAA Tournament, I would say that depending on the month, you would get an entirely different answer. Baylor was a top ten team going into Big XII play after getting to the finals of the Maui Invitational and beating Kentucky in Arlington. Then the moment conference play started, the Bears fell off a cliff, starting out a putrid 2-8 against rival schools. Just like Wisconsin’s January drags, Baylor was able to find themselves and only lose one game in the regular season (a road loss to Texas on 2/26) before going to the Big XII Tournament. They blasted Texas in the semis, then played a red hot Iowa State team in the finals.
Baylor lost a close Big XII title game, but what really stuck out was that head coach and recruiting pied piper Scott Drew installed a 2-3 zone that really stymied Iowa State and forced them to miss their first 11 shots of the game. It did not work for the entirety of the game, but it was a carbon copy of what Providence did to Baylor’s eventual tournament opponent, Doug and Greg McDermott’s Creighton Blue Jays. After quickly getting rid of an offensively inept Big Ten team in Nebraska, Baylor not only threw shades of that zone defense at Creighton to prevent easy entry passes to McDermott, but they shot a blistering 63.8 percent from the field (including 11 of 18 from three) and cleaned up on the boards for a convincing 85-55 win.
We have never seen Drew’s team play so well and free-flowing since the season started, and if you really look at the stats and the roster, Baylor truly has it all. They have elite three-point shooting with Brady Heslip (a poor man’s Kyle Korver) and Royce O’Neale. They have tons of strength in the paint thanks to Rico Gathers and the high-flying Cory Jefferson. They even have three de facto point guards that can shoot in rhythm in O’Neale, Gary Franklin, and Kenny Chery. Then they have the star player in their big man Isaiah Austin, who lost one of his eyes at a young age but is a dangerous shooter and shot blocker with incredible height and length. I should have known Baylor was peaking when they went toe to toe with a great three-point shooting team in Iowa State, then they took out the best three-point-shooting team in the country in Creighton.
Now they will have to stop the highly efficient Badgers and their sudden love for dropping bombs from the outside. The key match ups will be Austin at center going up against Frank Kaminsky, a man with nifty post moves under the basket and a knack for popping out for jump shots. Austin is not as good of a shooter, but a much more intimidating defender in the post, so if Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes get overwhelmed by Austin and Jefferson’s power, it could spell doom for Wisconsin. Nearly all the starting guards for both teams are excellent ball handlers, so expect a lot of isolation offense at times in order to get both teams’ offense flowing off pick and roll. If you told me Wisconsin would have to reach at least 80 points to win a tournament game six months ago, I would have said they were mince meat, but they have expanded their scoring to do such. Can it take down the terrific all-around game of Baylor? I say that Baylor takes down the Badgers, but lose to a national championship caliber team in the Elite Eight in Arizona. It happened in 2010 against Duke and in 2012 against Kentucky, so it would seem serendipitous for Baylor to fall to another 1 seed just one win short of a Final Four appearance.