If you are a college basketball fan, this is the time of year that you live for. There is nothing else like March Madness, something that is especially true this year. What a weekend of games we witnessed: we saw the championship aspirations of the heavy favorites go down in flames and the Sweet Sixteen field now littered with double-digit seeds. We saw dramatics, late-game heroics, more buzzer-beaters and action that left you on the edge of your seat. Let’s rundown the action from this weekend with second-round thoughts and musings.
It’s Not Midnight Yet
The theme of this year’s tournament thus far has got to be something along the lines of “expect the unexpected.” There is no set definition for a Cinderella team, but double-digit seeds fit the profile. Last year, all 4 of the 1, 2, and 3 seeds made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in history. Yawn. Talk about top heavy. This year, we’ve already seen a 1 seed and a 2 seed eliminated, while THREE (Georgetown, Pittsburgh, New Mexico) of the 3 seeds have been sent packing early. We have a 10, 11 and 12 seed remaining, along with a 9 seed that took down the tournament favorites. In addition, other double-digit seeds, such as Missouri (10), Old Dominion (11) and Murray State (13) all came awfully close to crashing the Sweet Sixteen party.
You want to talk about brackets being busted? How’s this for a stat? Out of the nearly 4.8 million brackets filled out by ESPN members, not a single one predicted all 16 teams left standing. In fact, only FOUR brackets predicted 15 out of the 16 teams correctly.
Rock, Chalk, Jay-SHOCK
Unbelievable. That’s one word to describe what happened on Saturday. The Jayhawks had everything going for them. They had lost only two games all year and beat tournament teams Texas A&M and Kansas State on the way to winning the Big 12 tournament. They had the senior floor general in Sherron Collins, the skilled big man in Cole Aldrich, the young blood in Xavier Henry and their supporting cast even had NBA talent. And yet, they were thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by the Northern Iowa Panthers, a team with no NBA talent that hadn’t won a tournament game since 1990 before Thursday. Even more surprising, the Jayhawks never led in this game save for the opening basket. Maybe we should have all paid attention to the early signs but instead we all drank the Jayhawk Kool-Aid, and rightfully so. They were the best team in the country. Instead, Collins, the winningest player in Jayhawk history, had one of his worst games at the worst time, and Bill Self adds another notch to his ever-growing list of chokejobs. But Kansas didn’t lose this game so much as these guys from Cedar Falls, Iowa, took it from them.
Northern Iowa outplayed a much more talented Kansas team for 40 minutes. That doesn’t mean the team who played better will win, as we witnessed when Cornell visited Lawrence in January. However, the fact that Northern Iowa persevered at the end when Kansas turned up their press speaks to their presence as actual threats to make the Final Four. One image that college basketball enthusiasts will remember from this year’s tournament is the image of sharpshooter Ali Farokhmanesh hesitating for a split second before letting fly from three to sink Kansas’ comeback hopes with 35 seconds left. Look for these underdogs to be the favorites against a hurting Michigan State squad.
Lucious Replaces Lucas, Saves Spartans
The game of the day on Sunday was, without question, the thriller between the Michigan State Spartans and the Maryland Terrapins decided by Korie Lucious’s buzzer-beating three-pointer. Unfortunately, the Spartans will be without All Big-10 selection Kalin Lucas, who has a tore his Achilles in the second half, for the rest of the season. Furthermore, guard Chris Allen played only four minutes on Sunday. These injuries mar a great victory for the Spartans, who needed Lucious and guard Durrell Summers to step up big to replace the production of Lucas and Allen. And step up they did. Summers tied a career-high with 26 points while hitting six threes, not bad for a 33% three-point shooter.
The frantic final minute of this game was unbelievable to watch. Maryland rallied from a 9 point deficit with 10 unanswered points to take an 81-80 lead in the final minute. Draymond Green hit a deep jumper to regain the lead for the Spartans, while Greivis Vasquez answered for the Terrapins with a tough drive in the paint. This all set up Lucious’ buzzer-beater. It was good to see that this game was not decided by a bonehead mistake or a referee’s whistle, but instead by three tremendous plays by players who did not want to see their season end. Speaking of which, shoutout to Greivis Vasquez’s career. I was stuck between rooting for the ACC and hating Maryland, but Vasquez has really been a tremendous player in the four years he has been at College Park and leaves there as the Terps’ second leading scorer all-time.
Buckeyes Now Favorites in Midwest
Dispatching Georgia Tech, an underachieving team with a horrible coach, on Sunday isn’t all that impressive. Instead, Ohio State now has a much easier path to the Final Four after Northern Iowa knocked off Kansas. The Buckeyes are now the clear favorite to come out of the Midwest Regional in St. Louis. They have the best player in the tournament in Evan Turner, who almost dropped a triple-double on the Yellow Jackets. They match up well with Tennessee in their Sweet Sixteen matchup. However, Tennessee does get up for big games, as they have beaten both Kansas and Kentucky, so we could quite possibly see a Tennessee vs. Northern Iowa Elite Eight matchup.
Bulldogs Yap, Get Smacked by Orange
This Gonzaga team really does amuse me. After Duke destroyed them by 35 when they were ranked 15th in the country, I told everyone this team shouldn’t even be ranked at the end of the season. Of course, after being relatively unchallenged through their conference schedule, they remained in the top 20 at the end of the season. All of which begged the question why they were given such a low seed at 8? I thought they could have easily been a 5 or 6 seed. As it turns out, after Gonzaga center Robert Sacre called the Syracuse Orange “soft” before the game, the Orange go on to put a 22-point pasting on the Bulldogs. Sacre obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We’ve seen Sacre play against us; he’s probably the softest 7-footer with no perimeter game the world has ever seen.
Fear the Beard
Jacob Pullen is one of the best guards in the country that you still haven’t heard of, and he really does have a mean beard. The Wildcats have quietly put together two impressive victories in the first weekend of the tournament. Both victories have gone largely unnoticed because of the wild first afternoon of the tournament and Kentucky’s primetime annihilation of Wake Forest on Saturday. Kansas State blew out an overmatched BYU team on the strength of Pullen’s 34 points and 7 threes, some of which were about 3 feet beyond NBA range. The Sweet Sixteen matchup between Pullen and Xavier guard Jordan Crawford should be fun to watch, as these two prolific scorers will look to one-up each other to get their teams in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats should be Syracuse’s biggest competition to get out of Salt Lake City and make the Final Four from the West region.
Big Red vs. Big Blue
Conventional thinking tells us that Kentucky will walk all over Cornell in this Sweet Sixteen matchup. After watching Kentucky take Wake Forest to the woodshed it seems the Big Red have no chance. Will the clock strike midnight for Cornell in Syracuse on Thursday? First of all, don’t call Cornell a Cinderella team. They’re much better than that; and they’re right, with the way they dominated Temple and Wisconsin. You could argue that outside of Kentucky, no team looked more impressive than Cornell in their first two victories, especially considering that the team is a 12 seed. Newsflash: Get to know Ryan Wittman, because he can shoot the hell out of the damn ball. And the team doesn’t play small, not with 7-footer Jeff Foote controlling the paint.
But Cornell can’t expect to continue to shoot 60% from the field can it, especially against a team with such length in Kentucky? Well, Kevin Garnett once said “anything is possible,” and the tournament’s M.O. thus far has been to expect the unexpected. Crazier things have happened, so give Cornell more than a puncher’s chance against Big Bad Big Blue. Plus, we here at Crazie Talk hate Calipari so wouldn’t it be great for his team to lose to an Ivy League squad?
Huskies Rollin’, Meet Mountaineers
Many analysts said it spoke of the shock of the weekend that an 11 seed knocking off a 3 seed got almost no publicity. That’s what happened when Washington completely destroyed New Mexico 82-64 on Saturday. Things are different because this 11 seed is from a power conference (yes, even that Pac-10) while this 3 seed is from a mid-major conference. But what a run by Washington anyway. Almost left for dead two weeks ago before winning the Pac-10 tournament and sneaking into the tournament, the Huskies have knocked off Marquette and New Mexico in the first weekend. Now they run into their stiffest test of the season in the West Virginia Mountaineers, who coolly handled Missouri’s full-court press on Sunday.
The Big East certainly has suffered with the loss of Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame to double-digit seeds. However, the two best teams in the Big East all season have been Syracuse and West Virginia, and they have as good as chance as anyone to make it to the Final Four. As for New Mexico, they bow out of the tournament meekly like their Mountain West brethren BYU. The Mountain West, along with the Atlantic-10, were widely regarded as the best mid-major conferences during the year. Instead, only 1 team, Xavier, is left amongst those two conferences, while other mid-majors in the Sweet 16 come from the Missouri Valley Conference, the Horizon League, the West Coast Conference, and the Ivy League.
St. Mary’s Makes First Sweet 16; Baylor’s Good Fortune Continues
Omar Samhan is still a man. He completely exposed Villanova’s lack of interior defense by dropping 32 points on them. Helped by the luck shooting of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova, Samhan led St. Mary’s to their first ever Sweet 16. Who would have thought the team from the WCC would be St. Mary’s and not Gonzaga? After looking at the brackets, it wasn’t farfetched at all. As for Villanova, not even the referees could save Scottie Reynolds this time. Reynolds career ends the same way Sherron Collins did – with one of the worst performances he has ever given. Reynolds shot only 4-26 in the two games of the tournament, hurting his team more than helping it and showing none of the clutch ability we have come to expect out of him.
After dispatching Old Dominion with relative ease, Baylor will face its third consecutive double-digit seed in St. Mary’s. This game will provide a matchup to watch, as Baylor center Ekpe Udoh will go one-on-one against Samhan. Udoh is a physical specimen not entirely unlike a Dwight Howard-type player. Udoh has the advantage in his quickness and his springs, but Samhan has a more refined post game and is stronger and more of a load in the paint. Both of these guys will be playing in the NBA someday. Look for Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn to both step their games up, as they are much quicker than St. Mary’s sharpshooting guards.
Boilermakers Squeak by Aggies; Setup Rematch with Duke
Many didn’t even give Purdue a chance in its first round game, much less its second round game. But this squad has shown incredible toughness in advancing to the Sweet 16. A much bigger Texas A&M team only outrebounded Purdue by six, 45-39. Defensive whiz Chris Kramer’s tough drive in the final seconds of overtime gave the Boilermakers their ticket to Houston. Purdue is a much better matchup for Duke because the regional is in Houston, and the Blue Devils’ size will definitely be key in this game. Duke will almost certainly outrebound Purdue, but the key will be how much the Devils dominate the glass. Two Decembers ago, Duke dominated Purdue on the road, 76-60, in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This Purdue team is not even as good as last year’s, and Duke’s team is much better with the size its frontline presents. With that said, do not discount this Purdue team, who has overcome so many obstacles to get to the regional semifinal.
In the second round, Duke dominated California down low, as Brian Zoubek went for 14 points and 13 rebounds, while Lance Thomas also chipped in 9 rebounds. The Blue Devils’ perimeter defense was superb, as Nolan Smith put the straps on Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle, holding him to 12 (and questionable shot selection), and second-leading scorer Patrick Christopher only scored two points. What was most impressive about this victory was the fact that Jon Scheyer shot 1-11 and the team shot 3-17 from three and it still won going away. This was Duke’s best defensive effort of the season, as it held a high scoring Golden Bears team to 25 points below their season scoring average.
We’ll be back with a preview for Friday’s matchup with Purdue.