Sunday's Round of 32 matchups set the table for what will be a compelling Sweet 16 on Thursday and Friday
One could forgive the basketball gods for a hangover. Saturday’s games had ended so late (around 12:30 a.m. on the East Coast) and been so dramatic (first the toppling of No. 1 seed Villanova, then Notre Dame’s emotional overtime win following the death of coach Mike Brey’s mother) that it only made sense for Sunday’s action to begin slowly. That it did, with the lone game in the day’s first time slot—Michigan State’s 60-54 upset of Virginia—becoming an unsurprising grind full of fouls and tipped passes, and the follow-up granting Duke a showcase for a devastatingly effective offense that San Diego State had no hope of stopping. The day never quite regained the previous night’s luster and fell even shorter of Thursday afternoon’s Vine-able kickoff spectacular, instead settling for a handful of tight games nonetheless decided prior to the final seconds. But because this is March, it was still an exciting day of hoops—and one that set the table for an intriguing weekend to come.
Take the day’s marquee game. No sooner had the Omaha subregional been announced last Sunday before all eyes darted to what would surely be the Round of 32’s juiciest matchup between No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 7 Wichita State. The storyline was as exhausted and simple as it was compelling: the Jayhawks, seeing little to no benefit to risking their status as the state’s hardwood kings, had not played the Shockers in 22 years, a refusal that drew increased criticism in recent years as Wichita State surged into national relevance. For all the objective stoicism to which the tournament selection committee swears, it just about gift-wrapped an alluring narrative, perhaps offsetting some of the ill will it garnered for its handling of UCLA, Dayton, and Dayton’s opponents.
What played out rose to the occasion, not as a down-to-the-wire rollercoaster but as a game played so intensely and in front of such a fervent crowd that the synergy between the stakes and the context more than compensated for what swelled to a 78-65 final margin. Kansas was bloodied by 10 Wichita State three-pointers and Fred VanVleet’s elbow, which busted open Perry Ellis’s nose on a first-half drive and sent him to the locker room to have his nostrils stuffed with cotton. Ellis’s old Wichita Heights High teammate Evan Wessel—with whom he won three Kansas 6A state titles—emerged as an unlikely Shockers hero, nearly tripling his season average with 12 points on four three-pointers. Wessel was not yet three years old the last time the programs met; Ellis was eight months from birth. Who knows whether the participants in the theoretical rivalry’s next installment are yet on this planet.
That games counterpart in the Midwest, in which West Virginia knocked off Maryland, also played closer than its 10-point final. At times the pace and style bordered in reckless, with the Terrapins answering the Mountaineers’ vaunted press with pressure of its own. But all that came at a price for Melo Trimble, Maryland’s transformative freshman guard. In the second half he was jarred violently by a screen from Mountaineers forward Nathan Adrian, tumbling to the court and holding a Powerade bottle to his forehead during the ensuing timeout. Shortly thereafter Trimble fell after leaping to disrupt a pass in transition and appeared to have his head kicked by teammate Damonte Dodd, who was running past him. Trimble left the game and buried his head in his jersey and then his folded arms on the bench, ruled out of the rest of the action due to an apparent head injury. Without its lone point guard, Maryland withered against the press, turning the ball over a total of 20 times as a back-and-forth game swung permanently in one direction.
Aesthetics aside, there was much to commend about Michigan State’s win, not only for its elimination of Virginia, one of the nation’s best and most disciplined teams, but for the accomplishment a Sweet 16 berth marks for a team that lost three key starters from last year’s Elite Eight team. Tom Izzo, now in his 13th Sweet 16 in the last 18 seasons, was choked up and as hoarse as ever in his postgame TV interview. “These guys surprised me this year,” he said, and soon the national conversation turned to how surprising any of that should be under Izzo’s stewardship.
The Spartans head to Syracuse for the East Regional, seemingly the tournament’s most open and unpredictable. One matchup will pair up-and-down No. 8 North Carolina State, the lone vanquisher of a top seed thus far, against No. 4 Louisville, which has ridden its defense and the continued emergence of Terry Rozier to weather the February dismissal of point guard Chris Jones. The Spartans’ matchup would have made that look like chalk had 11th-seeded Dayton been able to continue its undermanned, undersized run against Oklahoma. For a while it seemed the Flyers would do just that, launching a 15-0 run to put the Sooners on the midgame ropes, but Dayton’s legs finally gave out in its sixth game in 10 days, as it went nine minutes without a field goal late in the second half. The Flyers would have pulled within two with a minute left had Sooners guard Buddy Hield not made one of the young tournament’s most impressive plays, backpedaling to defend Scoochie Smith in transition before blocking his finger roll at the rim. Alas, those looking for a region of total chaos will have to settle for one in which the top two seeds were sent home before the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.
Outside of Virginia, the rest of Sunday’s top seeds held serve. On opposite ends of the South, Gonzaga kept pace with Duke’s dominance in its manhandling of Iowa, snapping the Zags’ five-year losing streak in the Round of 32. Wisconsin, though never safe until the closing minutes, withstood a mighty 30 points from Oregon guard Joseph Young despite an off night from deep. Greater tests await.
If the East now seems the most jumbled and the South seemingly defined by two top seeds’ collision course, it is the Midwest that offers next weekend’s most tantalizing hypothetical. Should Wichita State beat Notre Dame, it may find itself face to face with the biggest, bluest elephant in the room: undefeated Kentucky, which ruined the Shockers’ own perfect season in last year’s tournament. That game was an instant classic, as compelling as it was cruel in its first-weekend placement. A rematch with a Final Four trip on the line would surpass even Wichita State’s overdue date with Kansas for sheer clear-cut, readily digestible allure.
Should the Shockers advance that far, they will do so with a new fan among their supporters. Kansas governor Sam Brownback, who was heartily booed when shown on the jumbotron in Omaha, celebrated Wichita State’s win in the team locker room Sunday, having ditched the split-school T-shirt he sported during the game for a yellow number declaring the Shockers to be “KINGS OF KANSAS.” In his second term as governor, he is ineligible for re-election, and thus has no political standing to inflate or endanger. He is simply on the bandwagon, charging full speed ahead into a second week of madness.