by Joseph Declan Moran
Wednesday, March 27, 2019 – 12:44 p.m. CST
And then there were 16.
In the exciting first full weekend of the Big Dance, five schools won games for the first time EVER in their schools’ history. Add to that a couple of memorable survive-and-advance buzzer beaters, and brackets were busted from coast to coast.
Belmont, Fairleigh Dickinson, Liberty, UC-Irvine and Wofford were all first- time winners, and North Dakota State won for just the second time in its NCAA Tournament history. FDU and Belmont were among the First Four players, but for the first time since the First Four began in 2011, none of those winners advanced beyond the First Round.
Now that the men have been separated from the boys, it’s time to rock chalk (not you, Jayhawks. You won’t get a chance at a made-to-order Sweet 16 in Kansas City) as 14 of the top 16 teams are seeded 1 through 4. Only Auburn (No. 5) and Oregon (No. 12) crashed the party as lower-seeded teams. (Only one No. 12 seed has EVER won in the Sweet 16 – that was Missouri in 2002, when it defeated Oklahoma.)
Amateur bracketologist that I am, 12 of my Sweet 16 remain, as do six of my Elite Eight and all four Final Four teams.
The conference makeup of the Sweet 16 includes five from the ACC, including three No. 1s – Duke, North Carolina and Virginia – Virginia Tech (No. 3) and Florida State (No. 4). Four teams make up the SEC contingent: Tennessee and Kentucky (both No. 2s), LSU (No. 3) and the aforementioned Auburn (No. 5). The Big Ten teams remaining include No. 2 seeds Michigan and Michigan State, followed by Purdue (No. 3). And there is one team each from the AAC (No. 3 Houston), Big 12 (Texas Tech), Pac 12 (No. 12 Oregon) and West Coast Conference (No. 1 Gonzaga).
There are three games to watch that could turn out to be upsets. Oregon- Virginia in the 1-12 game, Purdue-Tennessee in the 2-3 game and Texas Tech-Michigan in the 2-3 game.
While I have Virginia moving on to the Elite Eight and Final Four, the No. 12 Ducks pose a threat to the Wahoos. Virginia is vulnerable to a team that can best utilize the press, and I will be surprised if Oregon coach Dana Altman, a veteran of NCAA Tournaments past, does not devise a press with occasional traps that keeps Virginia from getting into an offensive rhythm. On defense, Oregon has held its first two opponents to 54 points each. On offense, veteran guard Payton Pritchard has led a solid three-point shooting team that can play half-court and hurry-up offenses.
Virginia’s performance against Gardner-Webb (another No. 16 seed) was unimpressive. The Bulldogs did not look like a team playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament game. After Virginia’s debacle last season against the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the Wahoos needed to come out and play like a No. 1 seed to send Gardner-Webb back to the Big South. It did not, having to come back from a 14-point deficit. And even though the Wahoos have De’Andre Hunter back, the question remains if he can be that go-to player at crunch time when Virginia needs a bucket. If the team has a similar start against Oregon, Virginia could suffer the ignominy of losing to not only a No. 16 seed, but to a No. 12 seed as well.
Purdue’s matchup with Tennessee will be worth watching. The Boilermakers are playing their best basketball right now. The way Purdue dispatched defending National Champion Villanova by double digits was impressive. Purdue has nice momentum coming into this matchup against the No. 2 seed Volunteers, who are attempting to get to their first Final Four in school history. It reached its only Elite Eight in 2010, but has the coach (Rick Barnes) to get them to the Final Four. Barnes led Texas there in 2003, losing to eventual National Champion Syracuse. With experienced guard Carsen Edwards running the show for Purdue, I have the Boilermakers winning a tight one down the stretch.
No. 2 Michigan versus No. 3 Texas Tech could turn out to be one of the great defensive battles of the round of 16 as both teams are stubborn. The Wolverines’ defense has been stingy all year and held both Montana and Florida in check. Texas Tech held Buffalo scoreless in 19 possessions in the Red Raiders’ 20-point win. When these two battle, something will have to give.
John Beilein has the Wolverines in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, finishing last season as national runners-up. Chris Beard led the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight last season and the team’s slogan this year is “Don’t lose your chip.” Texas Tech has won a tournament game in back-to-back years for just the third time in school history.
Michigan’s talented group includes Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Iggy Brazdeikis and Jon Teske, while the Red Raiders have the talented Jarrett Culver, Tariq Owens and center Norense Odiase. As well as Michigan’s offense can score in bunches, it can experience scoring droughts. It may suffer the same fate as Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State and Wisconsin where the teams had no legs under their perimeter shots or free throws late in the second halves of their tourney games. The longer Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State remain in the tournament, the more that the number of Big Ten regular season conference games, plus the conference tournament, could take a toll on the teams.
Even with that caveat, Michigan should have just enough in the tank (for now) to get to the Elite Eight.
Auburn’s Bruce Pearl has now taken three different teams to the Sweet 16 during his collegiate coaching career. After serving time in coaching purgatory at Division II Southern Indiana, Pearl resurfaced at Tennessee and now at Auburn. Unfortunately, the FBI shoe scandal wound up touching his program recently as his assistant Chuck Person had to leave the War Eagles and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the investigation.
This should be the end of the road for Auburn, which will have to find ways to cool off the hot shooting freshman Coby White of the Tar Heels and stop the secondary fast break of UNC, a staple of Roy Williams’ teams going back to his days at Kansas.
UNC gets it done in this matchup and moves on to the Elite Eight.
Another coach who ran afoul of the NCAA, Kelvin Sampson, has his No. 3 Houston Cougars in the Sweet 16 against No. 2 Kentucky. Sampson is hoping that the third time is the charm after having to leave both Oklahoma and Indiana in his previous coaching stops to work as an NBA assistant in Milwaukee and Houston for six years. The win over Ohio State was number 616 for his career. This game is a win-win situation for Sampson. He could very well get another shot at moving up the coaching ladder with the University of Arkansas, which just fired Mike Anderson.
Houston’s win over Ohio State was the Cougars’ 33rd win this season, setting a school record that had stood since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama in the early 1980s.
Sampson and the Cougars remember their buzzer-beating exit from last season’s tournament against Michigan all too well and don’t want a repeat. Like Kentucky, Houston likes to go downhill with its excellent backcourt of Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr. But the guards are versatile enough to set up their 6’10” and 6’8″ big men Chris Harris Jr. and Brison Gresham, respectively, in a half-court grinder.
While the Cougars have a nice mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen, the Kentucky Wildcats have a plethora of talented freshmen and sophomores to complement just two seniors and a junior. The big question for the Wildcats is whether sophomore forward P.J. Washington will play in the game. He has been in a walking boot since tournament play began.
This is the type of game that could turn into a track meet as both teams transition at a high rate. An entertaining and high scoring game should result, but in the Sweet 16 talent wins out, which means John Calipari’s Wildcats advance to the Elite Eight.
LSU (No. 3) and Michigan State (No. 2) features a matchup of two of the games great guards: The Tigers’ Tremont Waters and the Spartans’ Cassius Winston. Both teams rely on these floor generals to make them go.
LSU’s last-second win over No. 6 Maryland was entertaining and showed how a go-to player (Waters) operates at crunch time. As Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon noted after the game, everyone knew what was going to happen. The question was how to stop it. Maryland could not.
Winston also knows how to operate in the clutch and sets up his teammates as well as anyone in the game. He seems to know where to find Nick Ward, Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman or Matt McQuaid as the clock is winding down.
Despite season-ending injuries to Josh Langford, Kyle Ahrens and a less-than-100 percent Ward, MSU has found ways to win. A prerequisite for teams wanting to make a deep run in March. But as with the other Big Ten teams, all of those regular season games, plus the Big Ten Conference Tournament games, could make second half fatigue a factor.
While this one could go down to the wire, I like the NCAA Tournament experience of Tom Izzo versus Tony Benford, filling in for the suspended Will Wade. The Spartans advance.
In last season’s Sweet 16, underdog Florida State handed Gonzaga a 15-point drubbing. That embarrassing loss remains fixed in the minds of the Bulldogs as the rematch takes place this weekend in Anaheim.
The Seminoles have won their tournament games convincingly and could give the No. 1 seed a definite run for its money. While Gonzaga is a 6.5-point favorite, this game is not a gimme. Both rosters are heavy with juniors and seniors.
One of the matchups to watch is Bulldog 6’10” junior Killian Tillie facing off against 7’4″ senior Christ Koumadje. At guard, experienced 6’7″ senior Terrance Mann of FSU against 6’5″ sophomore Zach Norvell. Rui Hachimura, who has had a great year for the Bulldogs, will be another player to watch for the Bulldogs.
Florida State’s length and quickness could pose problems for Gonzaga. This is the second straight Sweet 16 for the Seminoles and coach Leonard Hamilton but the fifth straight for the Bulldogs and Mark Few, who I am sure has reminded his players about how the Seminoles ended their run last year.
Gonzaga prevails this year.
In the most competitive and exciting finish thus far in the tournament, the son of a son of Coach K almost sent the Blue Devils packing early.
Aubrey Dawkins, son of Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins, who is a son of the Coach K coaching tree, just missed sending the Blue Devils packing early when his tip-in attempt at the buzzer rolled off the rim for a 76-75 Duke win. The younger Dawkins led Central Florida with 32 points.
The Blue Devils were down four after officials could not find indisputable evidence to overturn a Central Florida basket with less than a minute left. After Duke put in a rebound of a missed Zion Williamson free throw for the one-point lead, Dawkins’ tip-in would not go in, ending the game.
Next up is No. 4 seed Virginia Tech and coach Buzz Williams, who had beaten Duke earlier this year when Williamson and Hokie Justin Robinson were not playing. Both are back and ready to rumble.
In the past 10 tournaments when the Blue Devils were seeded No. 1, they went to the finals five times and were ousted in the round of 16 the other five.
The Hokies’ first two wins thus far in the tournament are the first for Williams as head coach at Virginia Tech, and its 26 wins is the most ever in school history. But whether the Hokies are distracted by all the talk that Texas A&M wants Williams to replace the fired Billy Kennedy, remains to be seen. He has avoided answering questions regarding his possible next move. Win or lose, expect Buzz to head back home to Texas as the Aggies next coach.
Having Robinson back to take the load off Kerry Blackshear Jr. will be a big plus. But Coach K’s group, as young as it is, has met every challenge with poise and mettle. For one reason or another, this group of NBA-ready freshmen: Williamson, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett don’t believe they can lose. As Coach K told Williamson in the huddle before he made his basket: “You were made for this moment.” And the man-child delivered, matching Dawkins 32 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. It is an unwritten adage that teams aspiring to win a national title have to be able to win a one-point game during a six-game tournament.
The other difference maker for the Dookies is the guard Jones. He is everything Coach K hoped Grayson Allen would be last year but wasn’t: poised, mature, talented and a leader. Another reason Duke will prevail in this matchup on the way to the Final Four.
In the Sweet 16, the higher seeded teams with the experienced talent usually move on. Expect three No. 1s and a No. 2 to reach Minneapolis in a couple of weeks.
Enjoy the Madness!