This is how Cinderella stories end. There’s no 'Hoosiers' moment for a 14-seed. But it’s those Cinderella moments we remember most. We don’t remember Northern Iowa lost to Michigan State in the 2010 Sweet 16; we remember Ali Farokhmanesh drilling the silliest 3 ever that downed Kansas. We don’t remember FGCU couldn’t hang with Florida in 2013; we remember Dunk City got a 15-seed to the Sweet 16 for the first time. And we won’t remember Georgia State lost to Xavier Saturday; we will remember the coach who tore his Achilles tendon, and the son who hit the 3 to knock his dad off his stool. The father-son emotions in Georgia State’s win over 3-seed Baylor might have been one of the sweetest moments in NCAA history. We saw the flip side when Georgia State lost and Hunter tearfully professed his love for his team and his son.
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This might have been the best shot to beat Kentucky until the Final Four.
Kentucky shot just 37 percent vs. Cincinnati, and just 26 percent from 3. It was only the seventh time this season Kentucky shot worse than its foe. A big reason was Cincinnati’s defense, ranked 14th in the nation on KenPom.com. But Kentucky did what it does and just wore down Cincinnati for a 13-point win. It had upset written all over it, and yet Kentucky didn’t really break a sweat. If that happens in the Final Four — against Arizona or Wisconsin — we could see the perfect season end. And that’s why Devin Booker, Kentucky’s top 3-point shooter, is its most important player. Booker has made only six 3s in the past eight games, shooting a measly 21 percent. The best development for Kentucky would be for Booker to find his stroke. If that happens, this team could be close to unbeatable.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY SportsBrian Spurlock
It was a bad day for the Big East.
The Big East, which sent six of its 10 teams to the tourney, has only one team left: Xavier, its sixth-place team. That comes after zero Sweet 16 teams last season. It’s silly to judge a season on a few games in March, but that’s what happens. St. John’s got knocked out in the first round after center Chris Obekpa was suspended just before the tourney. Providence got knocked out in the first round, too, by an inspired and inspiring Dayton team. On Saturday, Georgetown lost to Utah, Butler lost in overtime to Notre Dame in what was an incredibly well-played, well-coached game by Butler, and in the biggest upset of the day, 1-seed Villanova lost to NC State. It’s an unfortunate ending to a season in which the Big East seemed to fully reestablish itself as one of the top conferences.
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Speaking of Villanova, we got another lesson in ‘live by the 3, die by the 3.’
If it seemed like Jay Wright’s team couldn’t buy a bucket Saturday, it’s because it couldn’t. One reason is that it was a bad matchup for Villanova against a big, athletic, unpredictable NC State team. The other reason is pretty simple: Wide-open looks weren’t falling. It was bizarre to watch such a great shooting team shoot four airballs in one day. Villanova shot only 32 percent from 3, and just as tellingly, it shot only 30 percent from two. Get this stat: Of the 10 teams in the tourney that attempted the most 3-pointers this season, zero of them will be playing in the second weekend. (In order, starting with the most prolific 3-point shooting team: Davidson, Belmont, Eastern Washington, VCU, North Florida, Villanova, Indiana, BYU, Boise State, Iowa State.)
If Iowa upsets Gonzaga on Sunday, we’re going to have four straight days of buildup of Steve Alford stories.
Because Iowa would face UCLA in the Sweet 16. I’m not looking forward to all the rehashing of Alford’s rough tenure at Iowa; it was dredged up when Alford was hired at UCLA, and as an Iowan, I’m sick of hearing fellow Iowans tell me how much they hate Alford. I’d rather focus on the way Lady Luck has chosen UCLA this tournament, and I’d rather focus on how Bryce Alford has transformed from the unfair scapegoat for all of UCLA struggles this season into a hero. Let’s face it: Bryce Alford is the reincarnation of Reggie Miller at UCLA. Miller averaged 15.2 points his sophomore year; Bryce Alford is averaging 15.4 points his sophomore year. Of course I’m kidding, but Alford has 49 points in two tourney games and is shooting an otherworldly 75 percent from 3. Those sound like Reggie Miller stats, right?
Delon Wright may not have the gaudiest traditional stats, but I’m not sure one player in this tourney is more crucial to his team.
Wright was one of five Utah players to score in double digits in Saturday’s win over Georgetown that propelled Utah to its first Sweet 16 in a decade. Wright didn’t have his best game (12 points, five assists, five rebounds, a block, a steal and three turnovers) but make no mistake: Wright is the straw that stirs Utah’s drink. His stellar defense is the sparkplug for a Utah defense that’s ranked seventh in the country on KenPom.com. Analytics folks love Wright’s two-way game. KenPom has him ranked fifth in the country in its player of the year rankings; on ValueAddBasketball, a site that puts extra emphasis on steals, Wright’s greatest strength, he’s ranked as the nation’s top player. A possible Sweet 16 matchup against Duke and its stacked backcourt will be the ultimate test for Wright’s defense.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
Arizona-Xavier will be a fascinating Sweet 16 game.
Expect a flurry of stories about the coaching connections that come out of elite-coach-incubator Xavier. Sean Miller’s Arizona team beat Thad Matta’s Ohio State team to get this Sweet 16 berth. Miller had been an assistant for Matta at Xavier before Matta left for Ohio State. Guess who was an assistant on both of those coaches’ staffs at Xavier? Chris Mack, the Xavier coach. And while I don’t think Xavier will be able to upend Arizona, I’m really excited to to see how Xavier sophomores Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis progress next season. In Saturday’s win over Georgia State, Reynolds had a career-high 21 points with six rebounds. Davis scored 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3. The Musketeers won’t lose too much next season. This team could win the Big East next season.
The Pac-12 is undefeated so far in the NCAA tournament.
So is the ACC. That’s impressive.
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I don’t understand NC State.
You don’t either. The same team that lost to Wofford, Boston College and Wake Forest during the regular season has beaten Duke, Louisville and now 1-seed Villanova. The only reason the Wolfpack were still in the tourney Saturday was because of that improbable BeeJay Anya last-second shot that beat LSU on Thursday. NC State looked shaky for much of the LSU game (5 of 24 from 3) and then overcame a nine-point LSU lead in the final six minutes. Then NC State came out blazing against Villanova, outhustling and outrebounding the ’Cats by 13 boards. I don’t know which NC State team we’re going to see in the Sweet 16, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be exciting.
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The first weekend has been about everybody but Kentucky.
No matter what, the biggest story will be Kentucky, win or lose. We weren’t on the edge of our seat to see Kentucky against Hampton (blowout) or Cincinnati (pretty good for a half). But the first weekend has been about what we’ve learned about how everyone else can fare against Kentucky. We learned that Notre Dame, which has the best chance to upset Kentucky in the Midwest, can get put on the ropes by tough defense and methodical basketball, which Butler used to almost pull off an upset. We learned — or re-learned — that Arizona is really big on the boards, as the 'Cats had 11 more offensive rebounds than Ohio State in Arizona’s 15-point win. That could matter against Kentucky, due to its inconsistency on the defensive glass. We’ll learn more about a few other possible Kentucky-beaters, like Wisconsin, Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga.