March Madness Opening Weekend Recap: Villa(NOOOO!)va

Ah, the Monday after the opening weekend of March Madness.  At some point over the past four days, things went from “here’s the perfect bracket, read it and weep” to a game of “hey, at least my bracket’s not as busted as yours.”  Only a few people in the world managed to go undefeated during the first round and by the end of Saturday and Purdue’s defeat of Iowa State, no perfect brackets remained.    While the first round was relatively calm by tournament standards with all 1-4 seeds advancing and only 5/32 lower seeds winning (not a knock on the quality of the games, more so just the better teams prevailing), the round of 32 sent shockwaves left and right.

First, it was Villanova, the #1 overall seed and defending National Champions, who fell 65-62 to #8 Wisconsin.  Later that day, #11 Xavier blew out #3 Florida State, becoming the sole double-digit seed moving on to the second week of the tournament.  That surprise doesn’t hold a candle to Sunday, however, which might go down as one of the best tournament days of all-time.

Two #2 seeds went down to #7s on the day.   One was Louisville, defeated by the red-hot Michigan Wolverines, now winners of six straight tournament games between the Big Ten tourney and March Madness.  Stunningly, the other was Duke, victims of a South Carolina team that scored a simply unbelievable 65 second-half points.

Outside of the major upsets, another #1 nearly went down as North Carolina trailed Arkansas by five with three and a half minutes remaining before closing the game on a 12-0 run.  Additionally, despite the lopsided 20-point final scoreline, Michigan State played Kansas close well into the second half.

Kentucky and Wichita State played an incredible game in their rematch of the 2014 second round matchup where Kentucky took down the undefeated Shockers on their way to a championship appearance.  Rhode Island nearly pulled an upset off against Oregon while Baylor held on late against USC.  Even UCLA-Cincinnati was tight in the second half before the Bruins pulled away.

Interestingly, the only seed line that got all four teams through to the Sweet 16 was the #4s.  There’s a ton to talk about, so here’s a recap of what happened in each region.

East (Survivors: #3 Baylor, #4 Florida, #7 South Carolina, #8 Wisconsin)

Can I really give analysis if I’m still trying to figure out what happened myself?  The #1 and #2 seeds are toast, and so is my region.  I, like most people, saw Villanova and Duke meeting up in the Elite Eight.  I even took things a bit further, with Duke falling in the National Championship game.  How’d South Carolina pull this off?  Get back to me on that.  Wisconsin, on the other hand, is exactly what you want in an upset candidate.  They entered the tournament underrated and experienced, with four senior starters who made the 2015 National Championship.  Add a clutch shooter like Bronson Koenig and a slower playstyle and you’ve got a team waiting to pull off a big one.

They entered the tournament underrated and experienced, with four senior starters who made the 2015 National Championship.  Add a clutch shooter like Bronson Koenig and a slower playstyle and you’ve got a team waiting to pull off a big one.  Still, I thought poor free throw shooting would do them in (and it almost did).  Plus, Nova’s Nova!  Only two teams had beaten them all year.  Huge upset by any definition.

Outside of the big ones, I was surprised by SMU’s opening round exit to USC.  The Trojans followed up their impressive First Four comeback against Providence with another impressive come-from-behind victory led by forcing turnovers and shooting the three.  Considering SMU finished the year as #12 in KenPom and winners of 26 of 27, I thought SMU would coast to the round of 32, where they’d also take down Baylor before falling to Duke.  However, the game ended with the same result as USC’s home game against the Mustangs in November – a Trojan victory.

Now, Baylor is likely the region favorites, although any one of the four teams could easily be advancing to Phoenix for the Final Four.  Florida will be liking their chances after a dominant defensive performance against Virginia, and the final two teams are coming off big upsets.

West (Survivors: #1 Gonzaga, #2 Arizona, #4 West Virginia, #11 Xavier)

What a ride for Northwestern.  The school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game lived up to expectations.  The Wildcats pulled out a nail-biter over Vanderbilt thanks to a mental error intentionally fouling Bryant McIntosh while up one with just 15 seconds left in the game.  Despite trailing by 22 points against Gonzaga, Northwestern pressured the region’s #1 seed, cutting the lead down to just five points before falling by six in the second round.

As far as upsets are concerned, Xavier was the only team from the region to successfully pull one off, and they’ve done two…so far.  Despite struggling with the injury to Edmond Sumner, the Musketeers have found their form in the tournament, playing like they did early in the season.  They won’t be an easy out for Arizona, but I love freshman Lauri Markkanen and his ability to lead the #2 seed through to the Elite Eight.  I had picked Saint Mary’s to reach the Elite Eight, but despite matching up well and controlling the tempo for the majority of the game, the Gaels couldn’t get it done in the end.

Should Gonzaga manage to survive the swarming press of West Virginia, we’ll likely see a matchup of two highly successful programs looking for their first Final Four appearances under current head coaches Mark Few and Sean Miller.  However, I’ll repeat it again – any team could win.  This is March Madness we’re talking about, and any team that makes it this far can go all the way if they stay hot.  Be prepared for great basketball.

Midwest (Survivors: #1 Kansas, #3 Oregon, #4 Purdue, #7 Michigan)

My National Champions are still alive, so despite the fact that I’m less than thrilled with the rest of my bracket, I’m at least doing better off than many Duke and Villanova fans, among others.  In both of their first two games, Kansas has started off a bit slow before really turning on the jets, forcing turnovers and running the fast break effectively to build up leads in a heartbeat.  Josh Jackson, in particular, shook off a slow start to play poised and hit some huge shots in the second half against Michigan State.

The Jayhawks will be thrilled to see #4 Purdue in the Sweet 16.  Well, maybe not thrilled, but certainly more pleased compared to the alternative, #5 Iowa State, who beat Kansas in Lawrence earlier in the year.  Caleb Swanigan is simply a monster, and will likely win the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award for the nation’s best center.  Perhaps what impressed me the most about Swanigan’s game against the Cyclones was his passing ability, which led to seven assists.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure anyone can stop Michigan the way they’re playing right now.  It’s simply a ridiculous run for John Beilein’s group, who used excellent free throw shooting to seal the deal against Louisville in the second round.  Oregon will certainly give it their best shot, though.  The Ducks faced a tough #11 Rhode Island team that led for most of the second half and never gave up but managed to stay calm and slowly chip at the deficit before hitting a huge three to seal the win in the game’s final minute.

A Purdue-Michigan matchup would be an interesting Big Ten rematch, but I think it’ll be the #1 seed Kansas that’ll face the Wolverines in the Elite Eight.

South (Survivors: #1 North Carolina, #2 Kentucky, #3 UCLA, #4 Butler)

With as stacked a region as the South, it’s almost shocking none of the top four seeds were upset.  Here’s where the fun begins.  Well, perhaps I’ve misspoken.  This region was home to the opening round’s biggest upset in terms of seed differential, as #12 Middle Tennessee won as a double-digit seed for the second year in a row.  However, the Blue Raiders fell short of taking down Butler.  Arkansas and Wichita State were in great position late to make major noise as well, but North Carolina and Kentucky proved why they are the region’s top seeds.

Now it’ll be the ACC regular-season champion Tar Heels, somehow the only ACC team left standing in the tournament out of nine, facing off against Butler, who twice beat Villanova earlier in the year.  On the other side of things, it’s a classic matchup between the two most successful schools in college basketball history.  UCLA has 11 titles, and Kentucky owns eight.  Whoever wins will become one step closer to earning another trophy.  I can’t wait.

Additional Notes

  • The number of dunks missed in the tournament so far is mind-blowing.  I chalk it down to guys jumping from too far away from the net.  It seems like everybody wants to put someone on a poster these days, and players seem to be stretching their physical limitations for that opportunity.  To some level, a lack of concentration must also be responsible.
  • In the Big Dance, no lead is safe.  Just ask me.  It seems like in every game I’ve missed, my team led at one point by at least 10.  The first was UNC Wilmington to Virginia, and since then, at least SMU has to USC, Miami has to Michigan State, St. Mary’s has to Arizona, Rhode Island has to Oregon, and Duke has South Carolina.  These are just the ones I can name off the top of my head.  There have definitely been a few more.
  • From the Seton Hall flagrant foul to the Gonzaga goaltending no-call and Kansas phantom technical, there’s been no shortage of questionable officiating decisions in the tournament.  On a general level, I think the refs have been too whistle-happy, blowing a lot of cheap fouls for light touching.  It’s a contact sport!
  • Mostly me looking to complain here, but doesn’t it always feel like your team can’t hit the front end of a 1-and-1?  It doesn’t help that the other guys are consistently knocking down both.

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