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This NCAA tournament is easy to predict, unless you want to be right. Then you have a problem. I realized this while watching Northern Iowa repeatedly give the ball and finally the game to Texas A&M, in a game that was like a Jackson Pollock painting: I’m sure it belongs in a museum somewhere, but I won’t pretend to understand it.
How does a team blow a 12-point lead in 38 seconds? We now know that Northern Iowa is better at half-court shots than inbounds passes. That does not make sense, but neither does this: Middle Tennessee State’s Reggie Upshaw sank 8 of 14 shots for 21 points against Michigan State in arguably the biggest tournament upset ever—and two days later, in the same building, he shot 1 for 10 in a blowout loss to Syracuse. If that doesn’t give Tom Izzo a drinking problem, nothing will.
Speaking of drinking, a word here about the great state of Wisconsin. The Badgers’ Bronson Koenig knocked Xavier out of the tournament with a crazy three-pointer that Koenig knew was going in the moment he released it. It was cold-blooded. Ruthless. If you see Koenig on the street, do not take his parking spot.
And yet, this shot was perfectly normal for Wisconsin. Sam Dekker hit shots like that against Arizona last year. Wisconsin has played 13 games over the last three tournaments, and six have been classics: Back-to-back Elite Eight wins over Arizona, back-to-back Final Four games against Kentucky, the national title game loss to Duke, and now this.
So maybe we should have predicted Koenig’s shot. We did not. But we can imagine what might be coming in the next two weeks, like ...
... a Duke-North Carolina final, which sounds exciting until you realize most Americans hate Duke and North Carolina.
... a North Carolina-Kansas final, which would be delayed 16 times so ball boys could wipe Roy Williams’s tears off the floor.
... four ACC teams in the Final Four: Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia. It’s possible. But even more riveting would be Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and longtime ACC power Maryland. It’s tantalizing to imagine the Terrapins facing former rivals Duke and then North Carolina in the Final Four, though I think we can agree that those rivalries pale compared to what Maryland-Nebraska has become.
... an all-Big 12 semifinal of Kansas-Oklahoma. This would be an epic game (the teams have already played two epic games this season); it would mean at least three more games of the Buddy Hield Experience at Oklahoma; it would give Big 12 people a chance to call everybody at the College Football Playoff and say “THERE is our damn conference championship game,” and it would be a rematch of one of the great games in NCAA tournament history, the 1988 final.
The ’88 final was so good, Kansas coach Larry Brown waited until it ended before taking another job. It was tied 50–50 at the half before Danny Manning and the Miracles stunned the favored Sooners. Those mid-‘80s Oklahoma teams are largely forgotten now, but they were one of the great black-hat teams in college hoops history. Coach Billy Tubbs seemed to revel in running up the score and rubbing it in opponents’ faces. In 1984, the Sooners beat Kansas for a share of the Big Eight title, then celebrated by cutting down the nets—at Kansas.
Anyway, let’s return to the current century. I suppose Kansas, the pre-tournament favorite, is now the Sweet 16 favorite. But I’m skeptical. (Kansas fans, everything you are about to read is just one man’s opinion. So settle down.)
This year’s Kansas team reminds me of the 2014 Florida Gators, who only lost two games before the tournament and appeared to be clear favorites entering the second weekend, even though they didn’t have much NBA-level talent. The Gators made the Final Four but were then upset by Connecticut.
Those Gators could have won the title, but they did not have the talent of a prohibitive favorite. Kansas’s next opponent, Maryland, may be a more talented team. That’s probably a toss-up game, or close to it.
One reason to have faith in the Jayhawks, though: They do not play in the Pac-12. Our West Coast friends are down to one team in the Sweet 16: Oregon. And that is not surprising.
Seriously, Pac-12: Since 2001, one school from your league has made it to the Final Four. That would be the UCLA Bruins of Ben Howland, who did it three straight years from 2006 to 2008.
One school. In 15 years. That is laughable, and it is why, fairly or unfairly, people don’t see Oregon as a true No. 1 seed. The Pac-12 can tout its seven NCAA teams this year, but six of them are gone, and we can’t dismiss that as a small sample size. A 15-year sample size tells us the Pac-12 does not belong in the same conversation as the ACC or the Big Ten, especially if that conversation is about the Final Four.
Maybe Oregon will change that whole narrative. In the meantime, we break down the Sweet 16 like this:
Title favorites: Kansas, North Carolina, Buddy Hield, Duke, Maryland, Virginia.
Could win it: Miami, Indiana, Villanova, Oregon.
Quite unlikely: Iowa State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Syracuse.
Story of the century: Gonzaga.
Again, that’s just my opinion, but you should know that I’m doing quite well in both of my pools. Of course, my champion was Michigan State.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Lisa House always told her son Danuel to never give up hope until the clock hit zero, zero, zero. But that doesn’t count when your team trails by 12 with 34 seconds remaining, does it? Because that game is over. Isn’t it?
“Never give up,” said House, the Texas A&M senior guard who missed his first nine shots Sunday and finished with 22 points. “Never give up.”
Before House had even made his first field goal, Aggies guard Admon Gilder put back an Alex Caruso miss with 33 seconds remaining to cut Northern Iowa’s lead to 10. Double digits in 33 seconds? Forget it.
House made his first field goal with 25.8 seconds remaining in regulation. After that layup dropped, the deficit in the most mind-bending comeback in NCAA tournament history fell to eight points. Eight points in 25.8 seconds? Impossible.
The Aggies pressed again. Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson caught the inbound. Jesperson, less than 48 hours removed from a half-court buzzer beater to sink Texas, tried to bounce the ball off Texas A&M’s Tonny Trocha-Morelos and out of bounds. Trocha-Morelos dodged. Aggies forward Jalen Jones grabbed the ball and dunked it. Six. In 21.7 seconds? No way.
Then the Panthers’ Wyatt Lohaus threw the inbound across the sideline and out of bounds. Alex Caruso then hit House, who drained a three-pointer from the wing. Three points. In 19.6 seconds? O.K. This might happen.
Jesperson, one of the players who befriended Northern Iowa alumnus Kurt Warner during these past two seasons, did his best Warner impression. The Panthers finally broke the press when center Klint Carlson ran a go route, hauled in Jesperson’s pass and dunked it. Five points. In 17.9 seconds. Crisis averted.
Texas A&M’s Caruso took the inbound, dribbled the length of the floor and bore down on Jesperson. Just before the right block, Caruso darted left. Caruso figured Jesperson would expect him to use his left hand, so he kept the ball in his right. Caruso would surmise later that had he chosen his left, Jesperson never would have touched the hand that held the ball. Instead, Jesperson’s right arm collided with Caruso’s right arm just as Caruso let the ball go. A whistle blew as it fell through the net. Foul. And-one. Caruso made the free throw. Two points. In 11.8 seconds? The Aggies still needed a miracle.
The same two words thundered in the head of Trocha-Morelos. Don’t foul. Don’t foul. Truth be told, he was shocked to be playing. Aggies coach Billy Kennedy had yanked Trocha-Morelos earlier because he couldn’t guard Carlson, a 6'7" stretch four who played the five much of the weekend so he could befuddle centers from the top of the key. But here came Trocha-Morelos and Gilder, closing in on Northern Iowa senior Wes Washpun, the man with the best handle of anyone on the court. Washpun, who makes magic when he dribbles, never dribbled. Trocha-Morelos and Gilder raised their arms and quickly sucked out all the oxygen. Washpun tried to curl around Gilder but gave up when he saw the sideline. He then leaned back toward the end line. He had no timeouts. He couldn’t pull a Chris Webber. But with six seconds remaining, he had an idea.
For the rest of his life, Washpun probably will wonder, What if he’d simply held the ball? He hadn’t yet dribbled, and since there is no longer a rule against keeping the ball for more than five seconds while dribbling under close guard, he might have been able to stretch his time had he found some open floor. Or what if he’d chucked it? He certainly could have thrown the ball to the other end of the court. It probably would have been grabbed by an Aggie or gone out of bounds, but Texas A&M would have had to travel the length of the court and score.
Washpun didn’t do either of those things. Like Jesperson earlier, he tried to bounce the ball off a defender and out of bounds. Sensing Washpun’s desperation, Trocha-Morelos jumped away. The ball bounced once and landed in Gilder’s hands. Gilder dribbled once and went up and under Jesperson for a layup. Tie game. With 1.8 seconds remaining. Holy mackerel.
“Half the crowd left,” Jones said. “I was about to start crying on the court.”
House had no idea at first that Gilder’s layup had pulled the Aggies even. Neither did Trocha-Morelos. Only when the players saw their coaches waving them back toward the other basket did they realize what had happened. And then they remembered Texas. Hadn’t Northern Iowa just won on a half-court shot? That would never happen twice. Would it? Hell, scoring 14 points in 33 seconds never happens, either. So House put up his hands and repeated to himself, Not the Texas game. Not the Texas game. Washpun’s heave hit high on the backboard and fell to the ground.
It is a testament to the resiliency of the Panthers that it took the Aggies two overtimes to turn the most mind-bending comeback in NCAA tournament history into a 92–88 win. By the time it was over, Washpun had fouled out. So had Jesperson, who had a chance at another half-court game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Texas A&M will go on to face Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif. The Panthers will return to Cedar Falls, Iowa, acutely aware of how close they came.
“It felt like we were a minute away from dancing,” Jesperson said.
Said Washpun: “It sucks. I mean, I love these guys to death and wish we could keep going.”
To a man, the Aggies heaped praise on Northern Iowa.
“Those guys are very well coached,” Jones said. “They executed well and they made shots. Northern Iowa’s a great team ... We just happened to pull off some great things.”
Some amazing things that had never been pulled off before and may never be pulled off again. Even after two overtimes and a celebration that left attendants warning of copious amounts of water-bucket ice on the Texas A&M locker room floor, they still weren’t sure exactly what they’d done or how they’d done it.
“I've never been a part of a game like that. Never saw one,” Aggies coach Kennedy said. “Still really don't know what happened when I heard we were down 12 with 34 or 43 seconds to play and won. I mean, come on, man. I don't know what Vegas’s odds are on a situation like that, but people know about my faith, and all I can do is say I told them to God be the glory.”
During and after the comeback, House heard his mother’s words echoing in his head. House has a daughter of his own. Her name is Ava. She’s too young now, but the moment she begins playing sports, her dad knows exactly what he’ll tell her.
“Never stop playing,” he’ll say, “until the clock says zero, zero, zero.”
ST. LOUIS—It started with belief. Coming out of a timeout, Bronson Koenig was not the first option for what would become perhaps the most dramatic and consequential shot of his career. With two seconds left in the game and Wisconsin knotted with Xavier at 63, Badgers coach Greg Gard drew up a play designed first to get forward Nigel Hayes the ball in the paint, either for a turnaround shot or a chance to draw contact. But Koenig, the junior guard who was seeking a shot when the timeout was called, approached redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who would be inbounding the ball. “He came over to me,” Happ recalled after the game, “and said, ‘If I’m open, give it to me, and I’m gonna knock it down.’”
Koenig’s chance at fulfilling his prophecy began with Hayes drawing a pair of Musketeers defenders in the post. Happ, quickly spotting the double team, instead turned to Koenig, who was streaking in front of him toward the right corner with Xavier defensive specialist Remy Abell on his tail. After catching the pass and taking one dribble, Koenig stepped back, rose and launched a three. The horn sounded. The ball swished. Seventh-seeded Wisconsin, just weeks ago considered on the wrong side of the bubble, had felled the second-seeded Musketeers, 66-63. The Badgers rushed over to mob the night’s hero. Watching on TV, Frank Kaminsky, who won the Wooden Award last season while leading Wisconsin to the national title game and now plays for the Charlotte Hornets, leapt from his chair and into a baseball slide across a nearby kitchen floor. A wild night of college hoops, capping a wild tourney-opening weekend, had been given its own fittingly wild cap.
“I knew it was going in,” said Koenig, who scored a game-high 20 points, “before it even left my hand.”
Less than six minutes earlier, the Badgers had trailed Xavier by eight, the largest gap since Wisconsin had raced out to a nine-point lead in the game’s first nine minutes. But the Badgers chipped away and trailed by just one entering the final minute. After Musketeers guard Edmond Sumner scored on a reverse layup with 31 seconds to play, Xavier led 63-60, setting the stage for a Koenig shot that was, by virtue of what would soon follow, almost immediately overshadowed: a pull-up trey from NBA range that tied the game with 14 seconds on the clock.
On the other end, with the clock ticking, Sumner again drove to the hoop. This time, Wisconsin’s sophomore guard Zak Showalter stood between Sumner and the basket, armed with a belief of his own: that in a potentially game-deciding moment, with the season hanging in the balance, he could bait Sumner into an offensive foul. “He went right all game,” Showalter explained later. “I tried to take (a charge) a couple of times.” He believed at this most crucial time he would succeed. When he and Sumner collided, as expected, Showalter fell backwards to the floor. A ref’s whistle blew. Charge. Wisconsin got the ball, four seconds from a dagger.
“This game was kind of a microcosm of our season from the standpoint of November, December, January,” Gard said. “It was like three minutes to go being down seven or eight, whatever we were, and this group would not quit, would not give in. We knew we had some fight left in us.”
So too did Hayes, the team’s leading scorer, who spent the early morning hours before the Badgers’ first-round win over Pittsburgh combing YouTube for videos about mental self-empowerment. One such clip mentioned As a Man Thinketh, a 6,800-word essay penned by the British self-help pioneer James Allen. Hayes downloaded a PDF file of the work onto his iPad and read it immediately, around 2 a.m. on Friday, and was struck by its message. “Not what he wishes and prays for does a man get,” Allen wrote, “but what he justly earns. His wishes and prayers are only gratified and answered when they harmonize with his thoughts and actions.” Hayes screen-shotted a pair of particularly apt pages and sent them to the Badgers’ group text-message chat. “I’m telling the guys,” Hayes explained Sunday night, “think we’re gonna win, believe we’re gonna win and then we’ll do the actions necessary to win the game.”
Before Sunday’s game against Xavier, Hayes and Koenig met in the right corner of the court’s north side for a traditional pregame one-on-one battle. Koenig hit, as he often does, several stepback jumpers over the 6’ 8” Hayes, each of them high-arcing and true. Some two-plus hours later, on the court’s opposite end, Hayes saw his teammate rise over Abell and knew, from having seen the action himself so many times, the swish that would follow. “He hits that shot on me five or six times before every game,” Hayes said.
Koenig had never done so with the stakes so high, and thus he had never done so to reap such a reward: a place in the Sweet 16, where Wisconsin now advances for the fifth time in six seasons. This, to many, may be the most surprising trip of all, not because of the late-game drama but because of all that had preceded it during the season. First came the surprise retirement of longtime coach Bo Ryan in mid-December, after the 12th game of the Badgers’ then-middling season. Then, a month later, they had just a 9–9 overall record and a 1–4 Big Ten mark, and there was a lot midseason speculation over whether Gard, the interim coach and Ryan's longtime right-hand man, would or should land the permanent gig as his replacement. And then, Gard and his team went on a tear, finishing the season by winning 11 of their last 13 games.
Even in Sunday’s buoyant locker room, where Badgers players had doused one another with water in a celebratory mosh pit upon convening after the win, the way their tribulations once dominated chatter around the team was not far from their minds. “The first part of the season we were always told how good we weren’t going to be,” Hayes said, adding: “When Coach Ryan left, people said this program was in shambles. Now we’re here, in the Sweet 16.” It was a turnaround that was not, for him, hard to believe.
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BROOKLYN — Demetrius Jackson’s eyes lit up as he leaned forward in a chair inside Notre Dame’s locker room and recounted the play that ended with teammates bounding around the court inside Barclays Center, reveling in another wild finish in this NCAA tournament.
“I wanted to go downhill,” he said smiling, despite the repeated requests from reporters to explain the same thing. “I wanted to be aggressive.”
In the final minute of No. 6 Notre Dame’s game against No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, Lumberjacks star Thomas Walkup drove the ball hard at Irish guard Steve Vasturia. He drew contact and then lofted a floater that didn’t even draw iron, but two Stephen F. Austin players, sophomore Ty Charles and senior Clide Geffrard, were there to try and corral the miss. Instead, they tipped it over the rim, and Irish forward Zach Auguste snared the rebound and dished the ball to forward V.J. Beachem, who promptly dribbled it into the secure arms of Jackson. He gripped the ball firmly with two hands and pounded it with his left hand three times before crossing half-court.
As Jackson approached the three-point line, Auguste began positioning for a ball screen, and when Jackson made his move, Trey Pinkney—a 5'9", 160-pound senior of whom, days earlier, SFA head coach Brad Underwood said, “as good on-the-ball defender as I've been around in my time as a coach”—needed to hook Auguste’s left thigh just to keep up. Jackson blew by Geffrard and met Walkup just outside the restricted area. He rose and maneuvered the ball away from Geffrard before flinging it at the rim. Way off.
“Probably not the best shot in the world,” Jackson said in reference to the missed layup that preceded the final scramble around the basket.
Auguste secured the rebound and tossed it back up as he fell backward, but the ball bounced off the back of the rim and fell to the right. It was in that moment that Rex Pflueger, a 6'6", 198-pound guard with volleyball experience, a 38-inch standing vertical leap, according to Notre Dame’s strength coach, and a reputation as a defensive specialist, became, for the time being, the most beloved freshman in South Bend, Ind. He rose, extended his right hand and tipped the ball off the glass for the lead. By the time it fell through the hoop, the Lumberjacks had 1.5 seconds left to concoct a miracle. They could not.
“Rex, the young guy, was able to come in,” Jackson said as he wound toward the end of a detailed breakdown of the decisive play, “and tip the ball in.”
Notre Dame will savor its 76–75 win over Stephen F. Austin not only because it sent the Fighting Irish to their second straight Sweet 16 for the first time under the current NCAA tournament format, nor because of the exhilaration of a game-winner in the final seconds. More than anything else, they’ll savor this game, in which Notre Dame was favored by only 3.5 points, because of how unlikely it seemed that the Irish could actually win it. The Lumberjacks had absorbed Notre Dame’s strongest blows, knocking down timely shots and getting stops to stay within striking distance of a team that led the ACC in offensive efficiency during conference play.
And when they scored seven consecutive points for a five-point lead, there was little reason for optimism beyond the prodigious talent possessed by one, and only one, player in uniform.
“It was going to be a theft if we got it,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The Irish needed something, anything, from Jackson, and he delivered by setting in motion the sequence that culminated in Pflueger’s only bucket of the game.
“Unbelievable experience,” Notre Dame sophomore guard Matt Farrell said. “Unbelievable win.”
In this NCAA tournament—where a popular national championship pick is stunned by a nondescript program from Conference USA; where a program located outside the contiguous United States can topple an outfit with multiple projected NBA lottery picks; where a No. 11 beating a No. 6 is the expected outcome; and which, in the first round alone, produced 10 wins by double-digit seeds and 13 results that qualify as upsets—perhaps the only characteristic that distinguishes greatness from an ocean of just-O.K. was on display Sunday afternoon.
Jackson is a player few teams can reasonably expect to contain. He is capable of hoisting the Irish past an opponent they otherwise have no business beating, of willing his teammates up hills they’re not expected to ascend.
“He’s kind of our catalyst,” Vasturia said of Jackson. “And makes us go.”
After arriving at Notre Dame as the No. 33 prospect in the class of 2013, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), Jackson shared a backcourt with at least one other dominant playmaker and shot-taker: Eric Atkins in 2013–14, Jerian Grant in ’14–15. That changed this season after Grant was selected in the first round of last summer’s draft. It was incumbent upon Jackson to take the scoring and facilitation he’d done in a complementary role as a freshman and sophomore and expand it as a junior. With opponents focused on shutting him down, Jackson would need to learn how to navigate more intense defensive coverage while serving as the Irish’s primary source of offense.
He’s managed the added responsibility about as well as expected. Though Jackson is shooting lower percentages inside and outside the three-point arc, he’s assisting on a larger portion of his teammates’ baskets (15.9% to 24.8%), drawing an average of one more foul per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com, and converting at a better clip from the free throw line (74.5% to 80.9%).
“It’s much different from having Jerian out there,” said Jackson, who’s ranked higher on the latest DraftExpress 2016 mock than all but two other players left in the tourney (Buddy Hield, Brandon Ingram). “And so I was able to learn and watch what Jerian did and learn from him and just try to help this team in a similar fashion.”
Said Brey of Jackson, “It’s his show now. He’s the voice. He’s the quarterback.”
On Sunday, Notre Dame’s demand for brilliance from its transcendent point guard was more acute than usual. The Irish had been held below a point per possession in three of their final five games before the tourney (they scored 1.15 PPP against Michigan in the first round, but the Wolverines are woeful defensively), and Stephen F. Austin had suffocated teams all season long with an aggressive scheme predicated on turnover creation. The Lumberjacks lead the nation in forcing giveaways on 25.9% of opponents’ trips down the floor, and rank 21st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. For Notre Dame to advance, it would need to solve a unit that two days earlier forced No. 3 seed West Virginia to cough the ball up 22 times and record only 0.80 PPP.
Brey conceded that the Irish basically couldn’t run their typical offense and needed to make instinctual plays on the fly.
“You weren’t running sets today,” he said.
From the moment Jackson buried a three from the left corner to give the Irish their first lead to the drive that inspired Notre Dame fans to erupt in joy, he was a problem for Stephen F. Austin. He created off the dribble and finished at the rim, drew contact and converted at the free-throw line, found open space and drilled deep jumpers and, most memorably, delivered a thunderous dunk that roused the crowd and left Pflueger motionless. On a day in which the Irish had to effectively abandon the plays that gave ACC opponents fits all season, Jackson was an elixir of sorts.
“He’s just been so huge for us this season,” Vasturia said of Jackson, who finished with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
In the locker room after the game, as players laughed and spoke with reporters, Jackson conveyed a relief that reflected the the breadth of their accomplishment. A Notre Dame team that lost two of its top three scorers from last season, cannot consistently get stops (ranked 172nd nationally in adjusted points allowed per possession) and was obliterated (78–47) in its final game before the NCAAs has advanced to the second weekend, having overcome two quality opponents with disparate styles.
“We took punches,” Jackson said. “And we just kept fighting.”
The Irish are moving forward, and if Jackson doesn’t slow down, they may not, either.
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A pair of underclassmen carried No. 1 Oregon in the final five minutes as the Ducks rallied from behind to a 69–64 victory over No. 8 Saint Joseph’s. The Hawks led 58–51 after Lamarr Kimble made a step-back jumper with 5:34 to play, but Oregon closed the game on an 18–6 run. Freshman guard Tyler Dorsey scored a game-tying layup, a go-ahead three-pointer and two free throws to end the game, while sophomore forward Dillon Brooks scored the first three points of the run and nailed a three to give the Ducks the lead for good.
Oregon built 10-point leads in each half, but Saint Joseph’s responded with runs of its own. Momentum swung in favor of the Hawks after they went on a 10–0 run, followed by an 8–0 run to take their 58-51 lead, but it was all Oregon after that.
Brooks scored a game-high 25 points, senior forward Elgin Cook added 18 and Dorsey chipped in 14 points. Saint Joseph’s forward DeAndre’ Bembry led the way with 16 points and 12 rebounds, while three other Hawks reached double figures. Bembry’s layup with 27 seconds left cut Oregon’s lead to two points, but Saint Joseph’s never got any closer in the game’s final seconds.
In an NCAA tournament with a record number of upsets, the top-seeded teams have survived the madness. All four No. 1 seeds will move on to the second weekend, which hasn’t happened since 2012. Seven Pac-12 teams made the NCAA tournament, but only Oregon remains after knocking out Saint Joseph’s (and the Atlantic 10 Conference).
Playing on the West Coast limits the Ducks’ visibility and exposure, but they’re riding a 10-game winning streak with a high-powered offense and one of the country’s 50 most efficient defenses. They’re getting the chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage in front of national audiences.
Oregon will play No. 4 Duke in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils have a perimeter-oriented attack with matchup nightmares in freshman Brandon Ingram and sophomore Grayson Allen, but they have a thin rotation, especially in their frontcourt. Duke struggled to put away UNC-Wilmington and Yale in its first two NCAA tournament games, which makes one wonder how the Blue Devils will perform against a more talented and athletic opponent like Oregon.
The game will feature two of the top 10 most efficient offenses in the country, creating the potential for a high-octane matchup in the regional semifinals.
Despite falling behind by as much as nine points with six minutes left, No. 7 Wisconsin fought back on the strength of a game-winning corner three as time expired from junior guard Bronson Koenig to upset No. 2 Xavier, 66–63, and advance to the Sweet 16 in the East. Koenig led the way for the Badgers with 20 points. He had two huge threes in the final 11 seconds to tie and then win the game. Freshman forward Ethan Happ scored 18 points and added seven rebounds. For the Musketeers, junior forward Jalen Reynolds scored 13 points, including a three-dunk spree to start the second half.
Wisconsin found its new Frank Kaminsky. Happ, the 6'9" freshman from Illinois, plays a very similar game to Frank the Tank, and went up against him often in practice last year as a redshirt. The combination of Happ’s inside skill with Koenig’s experience and clutch shooting is one that few teams match. With veterans from last year’s run to the championship game like junior forward Nigel Hayes (six points and eight rebounds), and contributions from 6'8" junior Vitto Brown (12 points), the Badgers can follow the same formula that took them to the precipice of a championship. There’s a new star in Madison, but with its familiar faces, there’s the same recipe for success.
On Friday in Philadelphia, Wisconsin will take on No. 6 Notre Dame. The Irish foiled would-be Cinderella Stephen F. Austin, 76-75, earlier Sunday.
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Two days after the greatest buzzer beater in its NCAA tournament history, No. 11 Northern Iowa suffered maybe the greatest meltdown the tournament has ever seen.
Despite a 12-point lead with 38 seconds remaining in the second half, the Panthers turned the ball over four times in the final minute and surrendered a 14–2 run in a 31-second span. Two overtimes later, the exhausted Panthers were headed home after an astonishing 92–88 loss to No. 3 Texas A&M in double overtime.
“To God be the glory,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy told CBS’s Jaime Maggio after the game concluded.
The Aggies’ comeback could be the greatest to ever occur in the NCAA tournament despite the lofty standards the event sets on an annual basis. The chaotic final 45 seconds that saw the Aggies go from 12 down to tied featured multiple botched inbounds passes, a smothering full-court press from Texas A&M that no Northern Iowa ballhandler could weather and a confused Panther team that had carefully handled the Aggies’ defense all night.
Texas A&M’s Alex Caruso hit several key shots down the stretch in regulation and in the first overtime to finish with a team-leading 25 points while Danuel House scored 22 points despite not scoring until 5:14 remaining in regulation.
The teams traded buckets to start the first overtime until a deep three-pointer from Wyatt Lohaus, his first made field goal of the game, put the Panthers up 82–79 with 29 seconds remaining. Caruso charged to the basket for an easy layup to pull the Aggies back within one before Jeremy Morgan split a pair of free throws to push the Panther lead to two.
Then, it was Caruso’s time again, knocking down a midrange jumper to tie it at 83. Paul Jesperson, the man who hit a half-court buzzer beater in Thursday night’s win against Texas, inexplicably hoisted another half-court shot with over three seconds remaining in the first overtime that thudded off the backboard to send the game into a second one.
By then, Northern Iowa’s senior leaders (Wes Washpun, Jesperson) had fouled out while Morgan, who had a heroic 36-point performance, ran out of gas, allowing the energized Aggies to finish off what will likely be the 2016 tournament’s most memorable game.
It’s going to take a while to deconstruct this one if anybody chooses to do so. Simply put, the Panthers had the game in hand then somehow found a way to surrender it. Head over to the Bill James lead calculator and type in a 12-point lead with 38 seconds remaining or an eight-point lead with 23 seconds remaining and the calculator will tell you that the lead is 100% safe. Color commentator Mike Gminski repeated that he couldn’t believe his eyes about six different times and it was hard to blame him. It’s supposed to be mathematically impossible to blow a double-digit lead with just over 30 seconds remaining.
The Aggies’ resilience should give them a boost before their Sweet 16 matchup against No. 2 Oklahoma. What appeared to be a nightmare night for House, who entered the game averaging 15.6 points per game, became one of his most memorable after finding a rhythm late in the contest. The trusty senior leadership of Caruso will be another boon for A&M, which now may maintain the momentum to win the West region.
Texas A&M will take on Buddy Hield and No. 2 Oklahoma, which escaped No. 10 VCU on Sunday, on Thursday night in Anaheim.
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No. 5 Maryland staved off an upset bid from No. 13 Hawaii on Sunday, winning 73–60 and booking its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2003. Hawaii jumped out to an early start against the Terps, driving to the basket for its first three buckets. After a defensive adjustment from Maryland, both teams struggled to score with the Rainbows leading 6–2 at the 15-minute mark. Despite poor shooting from Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors dominated the offensive boards, leading to second-chance opportunities. The Terps were ice cold from three-point range (1 for 18, their worst performance since 2011) but back-to-back dunks from Diamond Stone helped Maryland heat up, going on a 12–2 run to take an 18–15 lead.
The two squads traded baskets for the remainder of the first half before Maryland’s Melo Trimble put up five points in the final minute to give it a 28–27 lead going into the locker room. The Rainbow Warriors came out strong in the second half, putting together an 8–2 run before Maryland took over and never looked back. Capitalizing on turnovers and fast breaks, the Terps went on a 14–0 run that run included their only three of the night and gave the Terps a 12-point lead with seven minutes to go.
Hawaii netted only seven points in over 10 minutes of second-half play before a deep three from Stefan Jankovic cut the lead to 10 with 3:52 to go. Maryland’s solid free-throw shooting prevented Hawaii from going on a run, hitting an astounding 90% from the charity stripe, including 13 of 14 for Trimble and 8 of 9 for Rasheed Sulaimon down the stretch.
Maryland once again relied on stingy defense and the ability to capitalize on turnovers, as they struggled offensively in the first half. Impressive free-throw shooting was instrumental for the Terps again, but they’ll have to do more if they hope to keep advancing.
Maryland will take on No. 1 Kansas, which dismantled No. 9 UConn, on Thursday, March 24 in Louisville. The Jayhawks will pressure the Terps with their suffocating defense, which ranks No. 5 nationally in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
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After a closely played first half between Syracuse and Middle Tennessee, the Orange turned a four-point lead into a 20-point one across a dominant seven minute stretch in the second half. The Orange moved on to the Sweet 16, winning 76–50.
Why it matters
The Orange are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they went to the Final Four in 2013. They were one of the last teams in the field, and it was a bit surprising to see them get in and avoid the First Four. All that chatter about them being undeserving is in the rear-view mirror, though they certainly owe the Blue Raiders a note of thanks for taking down Michigan State. Michael Gbinije bounced back from a terrible performance against Dayton, scoring 23 points on 10-for-14 from the floor. If the Orange are going to keep getting the better of their pre-tournament doubters, they’ll need the Gbinije who showed up against Middle Tennessee State, not the one who foundered in their 19-point win against Dayton in the first round.
Syracuse will meet fellow double-digit seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. That will pit the Orange’s vaunted 2–3 zone against one of the best shooting teams in the country. The winner of that matchup within the matchup will likely advance to the Elite Eight.
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After a slow start, Buddy Hield came alive, caught fire in the second half and carried No. 2 Oklahoma past No. 10 VCU, 85–81. Hield scored 29 of his game-high 36 points after halftime, including a 12-minute stretch in which he scored 24 of the Sooners’ 28 points.
VCU played valiantly, scoring 50 points in the second half and twice cutting its deficit to three points in the final two minutes of the game. The Rams had opportunities to tie the game or cut into Oklahoma’s single-digit lead, but their upset bid never materialized.
JeQuan Lewis was the primary playmaker for the Rams, scoring 22 points and nine assists, but he committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the final minutes with VCU trailing by five. Jordan Burgess missed a pair of free throws with VCU trailing by four with 27 seconds left.
Oklahoma took a 44–31 lead into halftime despite 3-of-14 shooting from behind the arc in the first half and just seven points from Hield, who had to go to the bench with two fouls. But when his teammates went cold in the second half, Hield ignited Oklahoma offensively and led the Sooners to the Sweet 16.
Buddy Hield showed why he’s a national player of the year candidate, if not the favorite to win the award. He played one of his best halves of the season when his team needed him the most on the biggest stage in the sport. He scored his 36 points on 9-for-18 shooting and now leads the Sooners into the second weekend with an eye on cutting down the nets in Houston.
Hield is also arguably the best individual player and the biggest name still alive in the tournament. Denzel Valentine’s Michigan State team was upset in the first round, Providence and its star point guard Kris Dunn were eliminated in the second round and LSU wasn’t good enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament in Ben Simmons’s only season of college.
Hield has had a phenomenal season, but an extended run in the tournament fueled by dominant performances can only add to the legacy of Oklahoma’s Bahamas-born shooting guard.
Oklahoma advances to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row and will play the winner of Texas A&M-Northern Iowa. The Sooners are the third team from the Big 12 to advance to the second weekend and Texas A&M could become the fourth on Sunday night.
Despite the loss, VCU had a very productive season under new head coach Will Wade. The Rams won a share of the A-10 regular-season title and won a game in the NCAA tournament, something former coach Shaka Smart hasn’t done since 2013. The team’s leading scorers, Korey Billbury and Melvin Johnson, will graduate this spring, but the Rams still have the talent in place to succeed under Wade going forward.
But there isn’t another year of college basketball for Hield and fellow seniors Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins, as they look to navigate through the West region and end their careers as national champions.
Notre Dame, the No. 6 seed in the East Regional, escaped against No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin on Sunday thanks to a Rex Pflueger tip-in with 1.5 seconds remaining that gave the Fighting Irish a 76–75 win. Junior guard Demetrius Jackson missed a baseline runner and senior forward Zach Auguste couldn’t put it back in but Pflueger, a freshman backup, tipped it in for his only points of the game. Out of timeouts, the Lumberjacks had to settle for a half court heave that wasn’t close. It appeared as though Stephen F. Austin would push the nation’s longest winning streak to 22 games when it turned a 62–55 deficit into a 75–70 lead with 2:02 remaining on a pair of free throws by bearded star forward Thomas Walkup, who finished with 21 points. But Jackson made a layup and two free throws while Walkup missed a pair of jumpers, leaving the Irish down one and with possession with the clock running out. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey elected not to call timeout, a decision that paid off when Pflueger tipped home the game-winner.
The Lumberjacks were bidding to become just the third No. 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16, and they would have pulled it off if the Fighting Irish hadn’t shot almost 57%. That’s exactly the kind of offensive efficiency that helped Notre Dame reach the Elite Eight a year ago and got it back to the Sweet 16 this season, the first time the school has reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in consecutive years since it went six straight years from 1974 to ’79. The 6'10" Auguste was especially brilliant on Sunday, making 8 of 9 shots—his only miss coming in the final, frantic seconds—and scoring 16 points to go with 15 rebounds. Notre Dame is the fifth ACC team to reach the regional semifinals, tying an NCAA tournament record for one conference. The regular season and tournament champions of that league, North Carolina, is on the opposite side of the East Regional bracket and will join the Irish in Philadelphia.
The Fighting Irish will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Xavier and No. 7 Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia next Friday.
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No. 2 Villanova smothered No. 7 Iowa almost from the beginning in Brooklyn. Hawkeyes senior forward Jarrod Uthoff hit an early three-pointer and his team jumped to a 6–5 lead with 18:37 left in the first half. It was the last time the Hawkeyes would be ahead in the game. Eight rotation players scored in the first half for the Wildcats, who went to the locker room with a 54–29 advantage. By the final buzzer, four Villanova players had scored in double figures, led by 19 points from Josh Hart. The Wildcats shot 59% from the field, 53% from three and led by as many as 34 points en route to a 87–68 win.
Since 2009, when it made a magical run to the Final Four, Villanova had failed to win its way into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament—until this season. The Wildcats looked motivated by past failures and poised to prevent them again from tip off against Iowa. For coach Jay Wright, the win helps to curb the narrative that he is an excellent regular-season coach who has taken advantage of the weakest of the big basketball conferences but failed in March, when coaches are judged the most.
For Iowa, it’s another disappointingly early exit from the NCAA tournament. This team had looked like a Final Four contender in January, but lost six of its final eight games heading into the Big Dance, including an inexplicable loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. Iowa has been to three straight tournaments now under head coach Fran McCaffery, but it hasn’t made the Sweet 16. As Wright has shaken off the stigma, McCaffery may be succumbing to it.
Villanova will face No. 3 seed Miami in the Sweet 16 in Louisville on Thursday. The Hurricanes beat the 11-seeded Wichita State Shockers on Saturday to advance to Louisville.
Half of the Sweet 16 field was set on Saturday, and on Sunday, eight more teams will advance to the regional semifinals. At least one double-digit seed is guaranteed to get there, with the possibility of as many as five. This group of teams gave us one of the single most unpredictable days in the NCAA tournament’s history on Friday. Let’s see what they have in store for their encore performances.
12:10 p.m. ET on CBS
South Regional: No. 2 Villanova (30-5, 16-2 Big East) vs. No. 7 Iowa (22-10, 12-6 Big Ten)
When Iowa was at its best earlier this season, its defense was playing nearly as well as its offense, which is led by senior forward Jarrod Uthoff and junior guard Peter Jok. If the Hawkeyes are to advance to the Sweet 16, they’ll need to find at least a measure of that defense to slow down Villanova’s offense, which is ranked 10th nationally in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com. That’ll be easier said than done against the Wildcats' elite two-point shooting, which features four guys connecting at a minimum of 52.2%.
2:40 p.m. ET on CBS
East Regional: No. 6 Notre Dame (22-11, 11-7 ACC) vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin 28-5, 18-0 Southland)
The Lumberjacks are a small-conference power that gets it done with defense, as West Virginia learned all too well on Friday. Given their deliberate style of play, however, Notre Dame, with its No. 11 offense by adjusted efficiency, is likely a tougher matchup. Junior forward V.J. Beachem in particular will be a tough cover for Stephen F. Austin, which can counter with senior wing Thomas Walkup, who scored 33 points against the Mountaineers.
5:15 p.m. ET on CBS
West Regional: No. 2 Oklahoma (26-7, 12-6 Big 12) vs. No. 10 VCU (25-10, 14-4 A-10)
Shaka Smart may have left Richmond for Austin, Texas, but the Havoc defense he made famous sure didn’t. The question now is whether or not that pressure D will be enough to discomfit Buddy Hield and the Sooners. It’s worth noting that Oklahoma went 2-1 against West Virginia, aka "Press Virginia," this year, and it was a waved-off halfcourt buzzer-beater by Hield in the Big 12 tournament away from sweeping the Mountaineers.
6:10 p.m. ET on TNT
Midwest Regional: No. 10 Syracuse (20-13, 9-9 ACC) vs. No. 15 Middle Tennessee State (25-9, 13-5 Conference USA)
This is the second-round matchup we were all expecting from this pod, right? Syracuse went from being one of the last teams in the field to being favored to reach the Sweet 16. The Blue Raiders were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country this season, and that showed up in their monumental first-roound upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State, when they went 11-for-19 from deep. They’ll need a similar shooting performance against the Orange's 2-3 zone to advance.
7:10 p.m. ET on TBS
South Regional: No. 5 Maryland (26-8, 12-6 Big Ten) vs. No. 13 Hawaii (28-5, 13-3 Big West)
The Rainbow Warriors put on an impressive showing against California in the first round, but the Golden Bears were without guard Tyrone Wallace (broken hand) and Jabari Bird (back spasms), while Cal's two freshmen stars were either ineffective (wing Jaylen Brown, four points) or burdened with fouls (big man Ivan Rabb). Maryland is healthy and may be even more talented than Cal. The Terrapins, a preseason top five team, fell short of expectations this season, but they beat just about every team they were supposed to, with the exception of a loss at Minnesota. They should win this game.
7:40 p.m. ET on TruTV
West Regional: No. 3 Texas A&M (27-8, 13-5 SEC) vs. No. 11 Northern Iowa (23-12, 11-7 Missouri Valley)
Northern Iowa pulled off one of the most thrilling victories of the first round, knocking off Texas on a banked in, half-court buzzer-beater by Paul Jesperson. The Aggies, however, are really clicking and have a veteran-laden team that won’t be cowed by the moment. The Panthers are going to have their hands full trying to slow down senior guards Danuel House and Jalen Jones.
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8:40 p.m. ET on TNT
East Regional: No. 2 Xavier (28-5, 14-4 Big East) vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (21-12, 12-6 Big Ten)
The clashing tempos of Xavier and Wisconsin should make for an interesting test of wills in their second-round matchup. These are two evenly matched, similar looking teams, though the Musketeers have more players who can create their own shot. That will be a key against the Badgers' strong half-court defense.
9:40 p.m. ET on TBS
West Regional: No. 1 Oregon (29-6, 14-4 Pac-12) vs. No. 8 Saint Joseph’s (28-7, 13-5 A-10)
Saint Joe’s doesn’t turn the ball over, forces opponents to work long, patient possessions and shoots better than 52% on its two-pointers. That’s a great formula against a fast, lethal offensive team like Oregon. The matchup between Ducks' forward Dillon Brooks and Hawks counterpart DeAndre Bembry may hold the key to the outcome.