ATLANTA — I first settled into my seat at the studio desk in the Turner Broadcast Center here on Tuesday night, when I worked the halftimes and bridge shows for the First Four telecasts on truTV. Six nights and 52 games later, my eyes are blurry, my mind is fried, and my heart is pure. Imagine—all that time flapping my gums on TV, and I still have so much to say!
Seeing as I am pumped full of all this adrenaline—along with way too much coffee, energy drinks and green juice, not to mention the Pringles and Kit Kats I culled from my hotel minibar—I am ready to take my fellow Hoop Thinkers on a region-by-region fast break through my addled brain. We’ve only got 15 games left in this thing, so let’s make sure we take time to enjoy the ride.
• A major question all season long was how Gonzaga would handle the unfamiliar game pressure it did not experience during the West Coast Conference season. The answer in Salt Lake City: not well. The Zags clearly looked tight in the first half against South Dakota State (after which they only led by four), and they almost choked away a 22-point lead in the second round against Northwestern. I saw two problems for the Bulldogs while the Wildcats were making their comeback. First, their half-court offense stagnated, usually with senior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss pounding the ball and trying to play hero. (He shot 10 for 32 in the two wins.) Second, Mark Few could not play his 7’1”, 300-pound senior center Przemek Karnowski down the stretch because Karnowski was a defensive liability. He is a big (literally) reason why I picked the Zags to go to the Final Four, but if it’s hard to leave him in the game against a Northwestern team that maintains a slow tempo, I can't imagine him being much of a factor against Press Virginia. That's a problem.
• Northwestern, of course, took all of us on a wonderful ride, and it’s a shame that the missed goaltending call and the technical foul on coach Chris Collins overshadowed the ending. With respect to that exchange, there is no question the refs missed the goaltend, and there is no question Collins deserved to be teed up. Still, it’s worth remembering that the play happened with five minutes remaining. The Wildcats had plenty of time to recover. Also, even if there were a rule allowing officials to review the call, it’s likely that would only be applied to the final two minutes, as is the case with shot clock violations and out of bounds calls. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, and refs make mistakes. That’s not an excuse for losing.
• At some point—and I know I am guilty of this—when we talk about West Virginia, we need to talk about more than just that vaunted full-court press. In wins over Bucknell and Notre Dame, the Mountaineers scored 31 combined points off turnovers; their opponents score 26. So that’s not the only reason they won. West Virginia also won because it was efficient in its half-court offense, which hasn’t always been the case this season. The Mountaineers shot 46% against Bucknell and 50% against Notre Dame, and they made a combined 52% from three and 76% from the foul line while taking 55 total attempts. This is a team functioning at an extremely high level offensively.
• Setting aside who should be national coach of the year, there is no doubt who the Coach of the Sweet Sixteen should be. Xavier’s Chris Mack put on an absolute clinic in his team’s evisceration of a “more talented” Florida State team. Remember, after the Musketeers lost point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury, they dropped six in a row and needed a win over Butler in the Big East tourney just to assure themselves an NCAA bid. That losing stretch also included a lingering ankle injury to leading scorer Trevon Blueitt. You can see how important a healthy Blueitt is to this team—he had a combined 50 points and 10 rebounds in the wins over Maryland and Florida State—and while it has taken some time, Xavier’s various defenses (including a heavy reliance on zone) give the Musketeers a chance to confuse “more talented” opponents. Plus, the fight through adversity has revealed this team’s toughness: Xavier shot 50 free throws in the two games and out-rebounded its two opponents by 13.
• Arizona is a good team but a weird one. I love the Wildcats’ athleticism and size, but they do not have a traditional point guard, and frankly I wonder sometimes if Sean Miller’s hyper-intensity doesn’t render his guys a little tight in March. The point guard issue means the Cats depend quite heavily on one-one-one isolation plays. My favorite stat from Saturday night was that Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan had seven assists, while Arizona had four as a team in its win against Saint Mary’s. Will that come back to bite the Wildcats when they play against a better defensive team? I wonder.
Three questions for San Jose:
1. Will Gonzaga be able to defend West Virginia in the half-court?
2. Will the Zags be able to handle game pressure when the score is close and the end is nigh?
3. Will Arizona be able to make enough midrange jump shots to force Xavier to come out of its zone?
• Needless to say, I was shocked to see Duke lose to South Carolina (the Blue Devils were my pick to win the title). But in hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Blue Devils went through all kinds of adversity and disruption this season, and it turns out their four-day romp through the ACC tournament was more of an aberration than an evolution. It is always dangerous when a team, especially a young one, relies on jump shooting. We knew South Carolina would defend Duke’s perimeter better than any team has this season, but we could not have foreseen how the Blue Devils would wilt under the pressure of the tournament and the physicality of the Gamecocks’ defense. Nor could anyone have anticipated that a mediocre offensive team like South Carolina could hang 65—65!—second-half points on Coach K’s team. Finally, do not underestimate the impact of the game being played in a pseudo-road environment in Greenville, S.C., where Bon Secours Wellness Arena was jam packed with Gamecocks fans as well as North Carolina fans. You will recall that Duke’s home state lost the opportunity to host an NCAA tournament sub-regional when its government passed the controversial HB2 bathroom bill. At any rate, Duke has no excuses. South Carolina was the better team Sunday, and the Gamecocks deserved to advance.
• My favorite part about South Carolina’s win was that a nation of casual college basketball fans got to see Sindarius Thornwell in all his glory. I’d bet most of the people watching had never heard of Thornwell, much less knew that he (and not Malik Monk or anyone else from Kentucky) was the SEC player of the year. Thornwell was the best two-way player in college basketball this season, and he turned in a time-capsule performance by scoring 24 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists. It’s pretty amazing that this program had not won a tournament game in 44 years, and now it’s going to its first-ever Sweet 16. I guess this Frank Martin kid can coach a little.
• Florida also suffered a key injury late in the season when its best defensive center, John Egbunu, was lost to an ACL tear. While that did not require a makeover quite on the scale of the one Xavier went through, it is equally impressive that the Gators have gone this far. That is especially true considering that the Gators’ leading scorer, KeVaughn Allen, shot a combined 3 for 21 from the floor during the first week of the NCAA tournament. Florida overcame that through tenacious defense, which has been its calling card all season, and an offensive jolt from junior forward Devin Robinson. Of course, the Gators were also aided by a putrid offensive performance by Virginia. Let’s also note that Mike White has done a nice job following Billy Donovan, which is not an easy thing to do.
• Speaking of Virginia, it was hardly surprising the Cavaliers struggled to score, but to go 1 for 15 from three against Florida (senior point guard London Perrantes was 2 for 12 from the field) was pretty embarrassing. Tony Bennett is obviously a terrific coach, but I wonder if that loss might prompt him to do some soul searching about the system he runs in Charlottesville. Given the way the college game is going, it’s only going to become more difficult to beat good teams by playing a grind-it-out style. You've got to be able to score to succeed.
• USC is no longer in this tournament, but the Trojans had themselves a heck of a week. They overcome double-digit deficits in both their wins—including a 17-point hole in the First Four against Providence—which makes it 13 times (out of 26 wins) that USC came back from at least 10 points down this season. Also, thanks to the Trojans, ever since the NCAA added the First Four seven years ago, at least one of those victorious teams has gone on to win at least one more game. Remember that next year when you are filling out your brackets.
• I still worry about Baylor’s guard play, but this team knows where its bread is buttered, and that is by scoring and rebounding in the post. Baylor out-scored New Mexico State in the paint by 22 and USC by eight. That will be a lot harder to do against the strong, physical Gamecocks in the Sweet 16, and you can be sure South Carolina will defend Baylor’s guards like they haven’t seen all season. But for the first week, anyway, it worked. Oh, and if you’re counting at home, this is Scott Drew’s fourth Sweet 16 in the last eight years.
• It’s okay to admit that you gave up on Wisconsin in late February. I know I did, after seeing the Badgers lose five out of seven. They hadn’t notched any marquee wins before that stretch, but looking back, it’s obvious that that skid was caused by one thing and one thing only: Bronson Koenig’s calf injury. If you’ll recall, that injury kept Koenig out of a loss at Michigan on Feb. 16 and caused him to shoot poorly while he was still recovering. (He went 1 for 9 in a loss at Michigan State, for example.) This was problematic because a) Koenig is Wisconsin’s only dependable three-point shooter and b) the Badgers need those threes to go down in order to make defenses pay for double teaming Ethan Happ. In Buffalo, we saw what Wisconsin can do when Koenig is healthy and on his game. He scored a combined 45 points and made 11 of his 23 three-point attempts in wins over Virginia Tech and Villanova. Koenig might not technically be the Badgers’ best player, but he is certainly their most important one.
Three questions for New York City:
1. Who will make more jump shots, Baylor or South Carolina?
2. Will the Badgers’ suspect foul shooting be their comeuppance?
3. Will KeVaughn Allen re-discover his stroke?
• Is there any doubt that the best team last week was Kansas? Bill Self is basically only playing six guys (sophomore forward Carlton Bragg played just nine minutes Sunday against Michigan State), yet the Jayhawks’ legs looked pretty fresh as they blitzed the Spartans during the last 10 minutes. I like the way Self has moved junior guard Svi Mykhailiuk into the starting lineup and is bringing sophomore guard Lagerald Vick off the bench. Mostly, I like the way Josh Jackson is playing. He had 23 points (many of the highlight reel variety) on 9 for 16 shooting against Michigan State. And think about this: Kansas dominated a pretty good Spartans team even though Frank Mason, the national player of the year on many ballots, shot 6 for 16 from the floor and 0 for 4 from three. Mason still contributed five assists (to zero turnovers) and went 8 for 8 from the foul line. There will be closer games to come in Kansas City, but the Jayhawks are plenty comfortable playing in close games.
• Michigan is obviously a terrific story right now—a near-death experience on that airplane, followed by a Big Ten tourney title, followed by a win over Louisville to get into the Sweet 16—but what’s being lost is that the Wolveriners were actually playing really well for the month leading up to the Big Ten tournament. That is mostly due to the dramatic improvement of senior point guard Derrick Walton. I have watched Walton’s career at close range in my role as a game analyst with the Big Ten Network, and I don’t mind telling you that I am plenty surprised that he got to be this good, especially this late in his career. He is doing everything better (especially shooting) but mostly he is thinking the game well. Sunday’s win over Louisville was a case in point. Walton had a pretty lousy shooting game (3 for 13), and in the past he would have let that bring his overall game down. Instead, he found other ways to help his team win, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing six assists without a turnover while still making two big buckets down the stretch. Sometimes, it just takes a while for the cake to be baked.
• As for Louisville, far be it from me to second-guess Rick Pitino, but I’ve always found it curious when a coach is so committed to switching on ball screens that it inevitably leads to a favorable matchup for his opponent. Every time Wolverines center Moritz Wagner (Mo Buckets!) had a mismatch switched onto him, he was able to beat his man off the dribble or in the post. It reminds me of the 2015 Final Four, when John Calipari was similarly married to the switching strategy, which led Wisconsin to run screen after screen until the Badgers got the mismatch they wanted. Food for thought.
• Raise your hand if you’re aware that Tyler Dorsey was the best player in the first two rounds. Many of you probably never heard of him before, but Oregon’s 6’4” sophomore guard was absolutely sublime, scoring a combined 51 points and making 18 of his 23 field goal attempts in the Ducks’ wins over Iona and Rhode Island. Dorsey also hit the biggest shot of the week when he drilled a three-pointer with 40 seconds left against Rhode Island to break a 72-all tie and send the Ducks to the Sweet 16. This is no fluke, either. Dorsey has now eclipsed the 20-point mark in five consecutive games. We know Oregon is having to play in this tournament without its outstanding shot blocker/three-point shooter Chris Boucher. It’s apparent that Dorsey is the one who is most capable of picking up the slack in Boucher’s absence, even though they play different positions.
• To my earlier point about Gonzaga and Karnowski, I was impressed that Purdue was able to knock off Iowa State by asserting its frontcourt supremacy. Rather than conceding to the smallball Cyclones, Matt Painter went with his big-boy trio of Caleb Swanigan (20 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists), Vince Edwards (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Isaac Haas (14 points, 3 rebounds). Yes, it became a problem when the Cyclones started moving the ball and making threes and the Boilermakers almost coughed up a 19-point second-half lead, but in basketball and in life, you have to pick your poison. I expect Painter to continue to play big—Biggie?—moving forward.
Three questions for Kansas City:
1. Will Biggie Swanigan get Kansas senior center Landen Lucas into foul trouble?
2. Will Tyler Dorsey come back to earth?
3. Will Jordan Bell and the Oregon defense avoid the mental lapses against John Beilein’s intricate offense that sank Louisville?
• Nobody knows better than Roy Williams how fortunate North Carolina is to still be alive in this thing. In many ways the worst thing that could have happened to the Tar Heels was getting off to a 17-point lead in the first half against Arkansas. The Razorbacks closed with a run to trail by five points at intermission, and that gave them a lot of confidence heading into the second half. Needless to say, North Carolina cannot survive another hellacious performance from point guard Joel Berry (2 for 13 shooting, 10 points), nor can they afford to cough the ball up 17 times. However, when you are as good as they are on the offensive glass (No. 1 nationally in offensive rebound percentage; 18 offensive board against Arkansas), then you have a whole lot of margin for error. So give them credit for overcoming a five-point deficit in the second half. On each team’s final seven possessions, the Tar Heels scored six times, while the Razorbacks scored none. If coffee is for closers, then North Carolina was the Starbucks of the tourney’s first week.
• Between the way Lonzo Ball runs his team and the way his dad runs his mouth, we occasionally forget there are some other really good players on UCLA. Collectively, the Bruins might be the best offensive team I have ever seen in my quarter century on the beat. It’s not just that they score a ton of points (90.4, best in the nation), it’s that they are also first in effective field goal percentage, second in efficiency and ninth in turnover percentage despite being 15th in tempo. This should be mathematically impossible, but it’s happening, and it is not just because of Ball. Consider that in their two wins, the Bruins had 46 assists to just nine turnovers. Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, the best sixth man in college hoops, had 16 assists to just two turnovers in the two games. This is why UCLA was my pick to go to the Final Four. They are a talented group of individuals, but they are also collectively excellent. Perhaps Ball Pere might want to acknowledge that during his upcoming media tour this week.
• Remember when Butler used to be the cute, cuddly underdog? That was so 2010. Now, the Bulldogs are the big bully from the Big East who squashed the Sweet 16 dreams of Middle Tennessee, that mid-major darling from Conference USA. And they did it the Butler Way, stymying the Blue Raiders with tough, smart defense. That began with freshman guard Kamar Baldwin’s velcro act on Middle Tennessee senior guard Giddy Potts, who had averaged 20 points per game over his previous six outings but put up a big, fat bagel in the loss. Baldwin added 13 points, four rebounds and four assists in the win. I also respect the way that the team’s leading scorer, Kelan Martin, a 6’7” junior swingman, has accepted his role as a sixth man after Chris Holtmann benched him early in the season for poor defense. Martin still plays starter’s minutes and gets plenty of shots, but his willingness to embrace the sixth man role could only happen at a place with a winning culture. That’s as big a reason as any why Butler is in the Sweet 16. Again.
• You have to be impressed that Kentucky got to the Sweet 16 without vintage performances from Malik Monk. But does that make anyone in the BBN worry? Because to get to a Final Four—and certainly to win a national championship—the Wildcats are going to need Monk to have one of his scoring explosions, at least for a half. Kentucky pretty much controlled its first-round game against Northern Kentucky even though Monk was 0 for 6 from three (3 for 11 overall). He struggled against Wichita State’s tough defense (3 for 10, 2 for 5 from three). That aside, I love that the Wildcats sealed their win over the Shockers with two blocks by Monk and Bam Adebayo because it underscored this team’s improved defense over the past six weeks. Also, I continue to find encouragement in the contributions from seniors Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins off the bench. It gives this team maturity and stability. The Kentucky of early February probably could not have beaten Wichita State with Monk not scoring a ton of points (remember, the Cats needed 30 second-half points from Monk to beat Florida at home on Feb. 25), but John Calipari didn’t get into the Hall of Fame without knowing a thing or two about developing a team.
• Finally, I want to offer a few words addressing the conversation about Wichita State. First and foremost, the Shockers had an incredible season, especially considering they lost one of the great mid-major backcourts you will ever see in Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, both of whom are currently in the NBA. That said, I find the complaints about the Shockers’ seeding in this tournament to be over the top. Personally, I would have seeded them around an 8 or a 9, but to suggest they should have been much higher is just ludicrous. Consider that this team had only three top 100 wins all season long, and two of them were against Illinois State. The Shockers played three nonconference games against top 50 teams and lost all of them. That includes a 17-point loss at home to Oklahoma State on Dec. 17. That’s the same Oklahoma State team that started out 0–6 in the Big 12. Furthermore, I soundly reject any narrative that NCAA tournament results validate or invalidate the committee’s decisions. The fact that Wichita State played such a competitive game against Kentucky does not mean the Shockers deserved a higher seed, any more than the fact that South Carolina beat Duke means the Gamecocks deserved better than a No. 7. I mean, Xavier was a No. 11 seed and no one said a word, yet the Musketeers are in the Sweet 16. Are we really so positive that Wichita State is better than Xavier? Look at the four No. 9 seeds: Michigan State (which beat Wichita State over Thanksgiving), Vanderbilt, Seton Hall and Virginia Tech. Are we so sure that the Shockers are better than all of those teams? If Gregg Marshall wants to play the we-don’t-get-no-respect card to serve his own needs, then he should have at it. He is certainly not the first coach to do so. But everyone respects Wichita State because we all know this is an elite program. That’s the bottom line for me.
Three questions for Memphis:
1. Will Malik Monk play like Malik Monk again?
2. Will Joel Berry play like Joel Berry again?
3. Will UCLA maintain its commitment to playing defense for a full 40 minutes?