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Saint Joseph’s handed Cincinnati its second heart-breaking loss in a row. After Isaiah Miles hit a three with 11 seconds left to give the Hawks a two-point lead, Cincinnati pushed the ball down the floor to Octavius Ellis, who had a game-tying dunk at the buzzer. The refs ruled it good in real time.
Upon further review, it was ruled that Ellis dunked after the buzzer sounded.
Saint Joseph’s won, advancing to the second round while Cincinnati’s season and Ellis’s college career ended. The Hawks beat the Bearcats, 78–76, one game after Cincinnati lost in four overtimes against Connecticut after Huskies guard Jalen Adams made a three-quarters court heave at the end of the third overtime to force a fourth one.
DeAndre’ Bembry scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half as Saint Joseph’s took a 41–40 lead into the break. Cincinnati countered with Jacob Evans III, who scored a game-high 26 points with several clutch shots down the stretch, and Coreontae DeBerry, who scored a career-high 18 points.
On three consecutive possessions, Evans III scored a game-tying or go-ahead basket, but Saint Joseph’s found an answer every time, none bigger than Miles’s three.
Why it matters
Four Cincinnati seniors had their hearts ripped out against UConn in the American Athletic Conference tournament, then licked their wounds, regrouped for the NCAA tournament and then had their hearts ripped out again. This game was March at its best and worst: great competitive spirit from both sides but for some, it was their final time in a college uniform.
Looking at the bigger picture, this 8–9 game may have meant more to each team’s respective conference than most first-round matchups. The American Athletic and Atlantic 10 conferences are regarded as second-tier conferences nationally. With just four and three tournament teams, respectively, each tournament game is crucial to how the conference is viewed nationally.
When Saint Joseph’s-Cincinnati tipped off, only one team from each conference remained in the field. The A-10 now sends VCU and Saint Joseph’s to the second round, while the AAC is only represented by UConn. All three of those teams will play a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the second round, creating difficult paths for the two conferences to advance to the second weekend.
No. 1 seed Oregon awaits Saint Joseph’s. The Ducks had the largest margin of victory of any first-round matchup—39 points—in their win against Holy Cross, led by Chris Boucher’s 18 points. Nine players scored at least six points and Oregon had a plus-16 rebound advantage on the boards.
Saint Joseph’s looks to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004 while Oregon looks to do so for the second time in four years.
A No. 11 and No. 12 seed have already won in the West, and the Hawks hope to keep the upset trend with a win on Sunday.
Sometimes, all it takes is a heave and a prayer. After giving up a 16-point lead, No. 11 Northern Iowa beat sixth-seeded Texas on a half-court shot from Paul Jesperson to win the game 75–72 at the buzzer and advance in the West region. After Texas junior guard Isaiah Taylor tied the game at 72 with just under three seconds remaining, Jesperson arched a sky-high shot from half-court to shock the Longhorns at the buzzer. Jesperson scored 14 points and shot 4 of 7 from beyond the arc, while senior guard Wes Washpun led the team with 17 points. For the Longhorns, Taylor led the team with 22 points and added six assists.
Why it matters
Northern Iowa looks like a Cinderella—again. The Panthers have a star scoring guard in Washpun, shooters in junior guard Jeremy Morgan and senior guards Matt Bohanan, as well as Friday’s hero, Jesperson. With their 11th-ranked scoring defense and 18th-ranked free-throw shooting, Northern Iowa has a good shot in a weak West bracket. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers make a run. Plus, they’ve already got a little midnight magic on their side.
On Sunday, Northern Iowa will take on No.3 Texas A&M in Oklahoma City. The Aggies beat No. 14 seed Green Bay 92–65 on Friday.
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Notre Dame entered halftime down 12 points despite shooting 59% from the field and outrebounding Michigan 16–10. If the perimeter defense remained porous and the Irish continued to turn the ball over, it wouldn’t matter how well they shot.
Both issues were remedied as soon as Mike Brey’s team started the second half, and the Irish surged to a 70–63 comeback victory over Michigan on Friday night in Brooklyn. Forward V.J. Beachem finished the night 7 for 7 from the floor (4 for 4 from beyond the arc) for 18 points, 13 of which came in the second half. His three-pointer with 3:12 remaining gave the Irish the lead it wouldn’t surrender, and he followed that with a mid-range jumper to make it a two-possession game.
After a sloppy first half that featured 10 turnovers, Notre Dame didn’t turn the ball over for the first 9:36 of the second half and received a stalwart defensive performance from Zach Auguste, who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Along with the needed offensive jolt, the Irish used two separate 8–0 runs and held Michigan scoreless for 5:54 midway through the second half to take their first lead of the game with 9:29 remaining in the game.
Why It Matters
Notre Dame looked destined for a loss after Michigan raced to a 7–0 run to end the first half and entered the locker room with a 41–29 lead. Instead, the Irish tightened their perimeter defense (allowing just three three-pointers in the second-half after surrendering seven in the opening 20 minutes) and found a rhythm that they sorely lacked in the opening frame.
Notre Dame will need similar discipline on offense before taking on Stephen F. Austin on Sunday, which embarrassed West Virginia by forcing an astonishing 24 turnovers.
The Irish take on Thomas Walkup and the Cinderella Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks on Sunday afternoon.
St. Joseph’s is moving on in the NCAA tournament. Barely.
The Hawks scored a 78–76 win over the Bearcats in a tooth-and-nail game between eight and nine seeds on Friday. Cincinnati appeared to tie the game as time expired in regulation, only for the Bearcats’ buzzer-beating dunk to be overturned to no basket.
St Joe's hangs on to beat Cincinnati in a crazy finish after Ellis' dunk was ruled to have been too late pic.twitter.com/j1yDiXH0yQ— The Cauldron (ICYMI) (@CauldronICYMI) March 19, 2016
The call was close, but went in favor of the Hawks, who will play Oregon in the next round.
Northern Iowa survived and advanced.
The No. 11 Panthers upset the No. 6 Texas Longhorns 75–72 on a half-court buzzer beater from Paul Jesperson. The teams traded the lead late in the game, but after an Isaiah Taylor layup tied the game at 72, Jesperson took the inbounds pass and let fly the game-winner from beyond half-court.
Northern Iowa will play Texas A&M in the next round.
ST. LOUIS — There had been and-ones and daggers, circus layups and wiggled hips. But it was not until there was a hair under 40 seconds left on the clock that the game between Middle Tennessee and Michigan State would get its exclamation point. It came from a Blue Raiders junior forward who spent high school dreaming of SEC football stardom and had now spent an afternoon thwarting the dreams of a Big Ten basketball powerhouse. Reggie Upshaw stood unguarded on the baseline as his Middle Tennessee teammates broke the Spartans' press after a turnover and then caught a short pass from teammate Darnell Harris. Michigan State forward Colby Wollenman closed quickly, colliding with Upshaw as he rose for a two-handed dunk that increased his team’s lead to seven. A referee blew his whistle, signifying Wollenman’s foul, and Upshaw swayed from the rim, clinging with his right hand. He grimaced, darting his tongue from his mouth. He mean-mugged toward the cluster of Blue Raiders friends and family erupting in the nearby stands. He lifted both arms to flex his biceps, then held the pose and turned around to face the arena’s other side, so that no one would miss the gesture.
Such will be the enduring image from one of the most shocking upsets in a month defined by them: 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee standing tall against the second-seeded Spartans, not only unbothered but defiant, for all the world to see. The Blue Raiders’ 90–81 win over Michigan State was a thorough, thrilling, theatrical victory begat not by flukes nor gimmickry but by an unrelenting aggression and a guiding lack of intimidation. They struck early and then repeatedly, matching every counterpunch from a balanced and experienced Final Four regular. They did not trail for a second and spent only the game’s first and third possessions tied. “They outplayed us,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “I mean, there's no way I can put it any differently. They deserved to win.”
It was a statement that would have been unbelievable only a few hours before. Michigan State had entered the tournament as a popular national title pick, held in such high regard that many considered the Spartans to have been underseeded as a No. 2. They were led by diversely talented star senior guard Denzel Valentine, who was recently named Sports Illustrated's national player of the year, and who just this week was declared the country’s best player by President Barack Obama. Their coach, a finalist this year for the Hall of Fame, has made a career of producing teams that are known not only for their toughness and defense but also—perhaps even more so— for their success in the NCAA tournament. Just last season Izzo had coached a team seeded No. 7 in the East Regional to his seventh career Final Four, five years after getting there as a No. 5 seed. In 18 tournament appearances, his teams had lost their first game just four times, and never as a top-four seed.
Middle Tennessee entered anonymously as champions of a declining Conference USA, with its best wins having come against Old Dominion and Toledo. The Blue Raiders had not won an NCAA tournament game since 1989—well before any of their current players were born—and had appeared just once since then, in 2013, when they lost to St. Mary’s in a First Four game. When this year's players set goals for the team, they talked about being like that 2012-13 squad, or a little bit better.
They were not coached by a living college hoops deity but instead by a onetime wunderkind who flamed out spectacularly only to claw his way back. Kermit Davis Jr. practically grew up on the bench, the son of the head man with the same name at Mississippi State in the 1970s. When Kermit Jr. finished playing guard for the Bulldogs in ‘82 he graduated into an assistant coaching job. By 28 he was the head coach at Idaho, which he led to two NCAA tournaments (1987 and ’88) in his first two years before leaving for Texas A&M. There he lasted just one season, going 8–21 and being implicated in a scandal in which a recruit was provided impermissible benefits. He was hired as an assistant at Chipola (Junior) College in Marianna, Fla., rose to the head job, headed back to Idaho for a year, then spent five years (1997-98 to 2001-02) as an assistant under then-LSU coach John Brady. Middle Tennessee hired him as its head coach in 2002.
Fourteen years later the players at his disposal had traveled similarly circuitous routes. His starting center, Harris, began his collegiate career at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, then transferred (somewhat hesitantly, given his enjoyment of D-III) to play juco ball at Northwest Florida State before Davis recruited him as a pick-and-pop threat. Upshaw, the team’s leading rebounder and the son of a former Blue Raiders defensive lineman, drew interest from Vanderbilt and Tennessee as a tight end before breaking his ankle and giving up the gridiron. And then there was leading scorer Giddy Potts, with a name and skill (his 50.3% three-point shooting ranks first nationally) so suited for March darlinghood it felt a bit too on-the-nose. Giddy’s nickname practically followed him into this world—it originated from a nurse remarking upon his mother’s unbridled post-birth joy—but his shooting touch developed only after spending his early high school years banging as a 6’2” post player. Davis gushed about his potential and Potts believed him. Now, Potts said, “I’m the best shooter in the country."
The Blue Raiders finished second in their conference this year, then lost valued defender and beloved sixth man, sophomore guard Edward Simpson, before the Conference USA quarterfinals, when he broke his right fibula and tore two ankle ligaments during a five-on-five transition drill. His teammates laid on the court with him until an ambulance arrived, then promised to win the conference tournament in his honor. When they did, Simpson delayed his scheduled surgery and bought a scooter so that he could accompany them to St. Louis, where he hobbled into team huddles, his heavily wrapped right foot jutting out behind him with a white sock bunched on his toes like a snow cap. He cared little about the inconvenience of getting around. He had to be a part of what came next.
Simpson could not resist the trip’s novelty, but the Blue Raiders did not believe that was all their trip had to offer. When their draw came out on Sunday night, their reaction was twofold. First there was the matter of being seeded 15th. “We felt disrespected,” said junior forward Aldonis Foote. Then there was their opponent, Michigan State, which offered them an opportunity to bust brackets that they could not ignore. In the four-day lead-up to the game they did not look to past No. 15 successes—most memorably Florida Gulf Coast—for inspiration. Outside of the coaches showing a “One Shining Moment” montage at a team meeting on the eve of the first round, “the main focus was us making our own history,” said Foote. The coaches preached that the Blue Raiders need simply to play the way that they play. The players talked about the matchup problems they could create. They scouted meticulously. “We prepared like there was no tomorrow,” said assistant coach Win Case. “We knew every single thing that they did.” Before Friday’s game, 14 points of emphasis were written on the team’s locker-room whiteboard. Two were circled: GET BACK and HIT 1ST.
That they did. The Spartans entered Friday wary of the mix of zone, man, and trapping defenses Middle Tennessee had at its disposal, and through the game’s first five minutes, Michigan State appeared fully flummoxed, scoring just two points, on a layup inside from Deyonta Davis. “It was probably the only team all year that went from 1-3-1 to 2-3 to man,” said Valentine, who finished with 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting from the field and four fouls.
Meanwhile four Blue Raiders combined to score 15 points in opening burst, prompting a flustered Izzo to call timeout. “We weren't scared of the moment,” said senior Blue Raiders swingman Perrin Buford. Even when the Spartans snapped out of their funk, shrinking a 12-point deficit to two at 20-18 with nine minutes left before intermission, the Blue Raiders remained unfazed. They traded buckets. They drove into contact. They scored coolly in the shot clock’s dying seconds. They grabbed 50/50 balls. With 1:21 to play in the half, senior JaQawn Raymond drained a three over Valentine then fell to the floor, drawing a foul. As he stepped to the free-throw line, he thought, This is really happening right now. We’re really up by 10 on Michigan State. “I never would have thought that in a million years,” Raymond said later.
Middle Tennessee entered halftime leading 41-35, having made eight of 12 three-pointers. Their supporters buzzed in the stands, more than one asking a variation of the question, “Do you believe this?” Members of the school’s band gawked at the scoreboard, as if expecting the scores to reverse. In the hallway, one of its members fretted that he might lose his job because he had not bothered to have anyone cover his weekend shift.
But inside the locker room the Blue Raiders remained calm. Keep it going, they said. When they emerged to re-take the floor, they stood quietly as they slipped into their white ALWAYS REPPIN’ warm-up shirts. A staffer called out repeatedly: “It’s all on us!”
In the second half came more resistance, then more resilience. The Spartans began to work the ball inside effectively, with senior big man Matt Costello on his way to scoring a game-high 22 points. Junior guard Eron Harris hit a pair of treys. Senior guard Bryn Forbes—second to Potts nationally in three-point shooting, but scoreless in the first half—hit four triples of his own, punctuating one with a shout in the direction of Middle Tennessee’s fans: “Here we come!”
They would not come far enough. When the Spartans cut the lead to three with 5:39 left, Raymond responded with a reverse layup. When it was down to one, Buford extended it with a bucket, then Potts (who scored 19 points) added a jumper with a minute to go. Then came Upshaw’s dunk, which gave him 21 points and pushed the lead to 83–76. Forty seconds later, the Blue Raiders were the eighth No. 15 seed to win a first-round game, the fourth in the last five years, and perhaps the most shocking among the bunch. Their celebration was subdued, bumping chests on the court and pointing to the stands, where their loved ones and fans were again beside themselves. The seven cheerleaders representing the school began to chant, It’s good! To be! From Middle Tennessee! When the Middle Tennessee cheering section lingered in celebration, an usher told them it was time to begin clearing out the stands for the arena’s second session of games. “We ain’t leaving!” came one response. They all believed now.
In the locker room they settled quickly. Potts was already talking about Sunday’s matchup with Syracuse and trying to remain on an even keel. “We just made history,” he said. “It's a big deal, but it's not a big deal really.” Around him his teammates clustered around smart phone screens to watch Snapchats and check social media and soak in the instant stardom in the viral age. Simpson, wearing a backward silver Conference USA championship hat, wheeled aimlessly on his scooter, unable to sit still.
In a nearby interview room was Davis, their coach, holding court at the postgame media conference. From there he did interviews for TV and radio, staying in the locker room area for nearly a half hour while his team waited on the bus. On his way out, as he walked across the court and up the aisles of Scottrade Center’s Section 123, he considered his long road down and back up the coaching rungs that preceded perhaps the crowning win of his career. “Sometimes you take different paths,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I think it all leads you to right here.” And then he exited the arena, onward.
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SPOKANE — Without shame, Melo Trimble admits that he loves his hair. Cherishes it, in fact. Worries about its future. Compares it to other perfectly curated manes. And so the Maryland sophomore guard takes no issues with teammate Rasheed Sulaimon’s accusation that Trimble, “Takes more time to get ready than my sister.”
“I don’t want it to look like his,” Trimble replied in mock horror, pointing out that Sulaimon, his 22-year-old road-trip roommate, is going bald.
Then, as often happens in the Sulaimon-Trimble relationship, the younger Trimble let out a big, hearty laugh.
Fifth-seeded and No. 18 Maryland won its first-round game over South Dakota State, 79–74, Friday night in Spokane Arena, shooting a stellar 24 of 27 from the free-throw line to stave off a late rally from the 12th-seeded Jackrabbits. Maryland got 27 points from senior forward Jake Layman and 14 points from sophomore reserve swingman Jared Nickens, but it was the play from Trimble and Sulaimon, one of the best guard tandems in the country, that kept Maryland from avoiding a first-round upset.
Before fouling out with a minute to play, Trimble had scored 19 points on 5-for-10 shooting (including 9 of 9 at the free throw line) and grabbing three rebounds. Sulaimon scored only seven points (3 of 8 from the field) but snagged four steals, including one with three seconds to go that he finished with a game-sealing dunk.
He might not have shot particularly well, but Sulaimon, a Duke transfer, gives the Terps a calm, poised presence on the floor. It’s his job, he says, to remind everyone to take a deep breath, stay calm in the chaos and remember to execute. After all, Sulaimon understands better than anyone else on this roster what it takes to make a deep run: As a freshman for the Blue Devils in 2012–13, he averaged 29.2 minutes and 11.6 points on an Elite Eight team. He also knows the risk of overlooking a lowly seeded opponent: He was also part of the Duke team that lost to 14th-seeded Mercer in the first round. Through those experiences, Sulaimon has learned a few things. Most notably, that people like him need to run the show.
“What we know for sure is that it’s a guard-oriented tournament,” Sulaimon said. “We have to dictate the tempo, so we’ve got a lot on our shoulders.”
He prefers it that way. Touted as a preseason national championship contender, the Terps have sometimes alternated between brilliant and bumbling in games. On Thursday, they looked like a title team for about 36 minutes, until South Dakota State made a furious comeback. “Basketball is a game of runs,” Trimble said. “The important part is that their run never turned into a lead.”
Sulaimon said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had stressed the importance of a close relationship between his starting guards in the summer. Sulaimon put the suggestion into practice, particularly using road trips—the two room together—to build a stronger friendship with Trimble. He teases Trimble about his primping routine—“that kid thinks he’s a male model,” Sulaimon said, rolling his eyes—and stays positive when criticism comes at his younger teammate.
“I try to be the big brother,” Sulaimon said. “I think our relationship has grown to where he values my opinion.”
Trimble and Sulaimon laughed when asked how many times they’ve been asked about the “Maryland has underachieved” narrative, saying they’ve lost count of the questions that begin and end with some version of, Why aren’t you guys better?
The postseason is a chance to stop those questions, Trimble said, and there are few who would deny Maryland has the talent to do so. It has the guards, the bigs, the balanced scoring (all five starters average double figures) and the free-throw shooting (78.6%). It has yet to peak. With fourth-seeded Cal falling to Hawaii, Maryland is a win over a mid-major away from its first Sweet 16 since 2003.
Of course Sulaimon won’t assume a win is imminent.
“It’s March,” he said, “so we’ve learned to expected the unexpected.”
It’s a postseason full of surprises. Maybe by the end of the month, Maryland will be booking its trip to the Final Four. Or maybe his roommate will learn how to get ready in less than 30 minutes.
Hey, Sulaimon said, anything is possible.
Xavier jumped out to a 15-point lead less than 10 minutes into its first-round East Regional game with No. 15-seed Weber State and was never seriously threatened in a 71–53 win. Senior forward James Farr continued his stellar late-season play with a game-high 18 points and 15 rebounds off the bench for the Musketeers, which shot 50.0% from three-point range and never let the Wildcats get closer than seven points in the second half.
Why it matters
After seeing a fellow No. 2 seed ousted in stunning fashion earlier in the day on the same Scottrade Center court in St. Louis Xavier made certain it would not fall into the same trap that had ensnared Michigan State in its loss to Middle Tennessee. While the Spartans had fallen behind 15-2 in that game earlier on Friday, the Musketeers were the ones that delivered an opening haymaker, running out to a 21-6 lead. Farr, who entered the game averaging 10.8 points and 7.8 rebounds, had four points, eight rebounds and a block in that opening stretch. Xavier has mostly relied on Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, its three leading scorers, but the improved play of Farr, the team's leading scorer, makes them even more dangerous as the Musketeers chase the first Final Four berth in school history.
Xavier will face Wisconsin, a 47-43 winner over No. 10 Pittsburgh earlier in the day, on Sunday with a berth in the regional finals on the line. The Musketeers are looking to get to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in coach Chris Mack's seven seasons. And with No. 3 seed West Virginia having also been upset on Friday, Xavier suddenly has a wide-open path to its first Elite Eight since 2008.
Oregon, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, kicked off its 2016 NCAA tournament with an easy tune-up against 16th-seeded Holy Cross. The Ducks' starting frontline of seniors Chris Boucher and Elgin Cook and sophomore Dillon Brooks combined for 41 points and 25 rebounds and backup Jordan Bell had eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks in the 91-52 win in Spokane. Overall, Oregon outrebounded the Crusaders 47-27 and ensured that No. 1 seeds would remain perfect against No. 16s in the NCAA tournament.
Why it matters
The Ducks, the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champions, didn't figure to get much of a challenge from the 14-19 Crusaders, but as we were reminded across the country this week, nothing is guaranteed in the Big Dance. For all intents and purposes, though, the tournament really begins for Oregon on Sunday. It unquestionably has the offense to advance all the way to the Final Four, as evidenced by its 55.7% shooting. We’ll begin to find out whether or not the defense is there, as well, in the second round when the Ducks face a much tougher opponent.
On Sunday Oregon will face the winner of the late game in Spokane between No. 8 Saint Joseph's and No. 9 Cincinnati. No matter which team it is, it will desperately try to slow the Ducks down. As they’ve proved all season and again on Friday, that is much easier said than done.
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Coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances, Wisconsin was far from the paradigm of offensive firepower in its first-round matchup against Pittsburgh like it has been in recent years. But the Panthers weren’t much better, shooting 37.5% from the field to Wisconsin’s 32.1%. The Panthers were the stronger group inside early on, scoring their first 10 points of the game in the paint and posting a plus-seven rebound advantage in the first half. They led 22-16 at halftime before ultimately falling, 47–43.
Led by its frontcourt trio of Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, Wisconsin clawed its way back with a 19–6 run that spanned more than 10 minutes across both halves. Happ gave the Badgers their first lead of the game, 25–24, with a dunk and the sides traded baskets down the stretch. The redshirt freshman led his team in scoring (15) and rebounding (nine).
Brown hit a three to give Wisconsin a 42–40 lead that forced Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon to call a timeout. Happ then reeled in a monster defensive rebound on the next possession and scored off the glass on the other end. Pittsburgh junior forward Jamel Artis made a three-pointer to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 44–43 with 40.8 seconds left, but it proved to be the Panthers’ last basket.
James Robinson missed a layup in transition—his 10th consecutive missed shot of the game—and Wisconsin won the game at the free-throw line.
Why it matters
Wisconsin’s streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was in jeopardy earlier this season when the Badgers had a 9–9 record and coach Bo Ryan unexpectedly retired in mid-December. But Greg Gard, the team’s once-interim head coach, rallied the troops, Wisconsin finished the regular season with a 20–11 record and Gard had the interim tag removed. On Friday, he earned his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach.
Wisconsin’s strong finish to the regular season, its 18th consecutive tournament appearance and the team’s first-round win against Pittsburgh make for a successful follow-up after the Badgers lost five rotation players and Ryan from last year’s team. And their season isn’t over yet.
Wisconsin will face the winner of No. 2 Xavier and No. 15 Weber State on Sunday. Normally, it would be safe to write about a potential Xavier-Wisconsin second-round matchup, but just hours earlier No. 2 Michigan State, one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Houston, suffered a first-round upset against No. 15 Middle Tennessee.
But, assuming Xavier does win its first game, the Musketeers don’t have many apparent weaknesses for the Badgers to exploit. They have a rotation that goes 10 players deep, multiple defensive approaches, three-point threats and a core that played in the Sweet 16 last season. Xavier ranks 13th in the country in rebounds per game, so a win on Sunday will require toughness on the boards and keeping the Musketeers off the free-throw line. They average 19 made free throws per game (7th nationally) at a 73.1% clip (59th nationally).
With the nation’s 24th most efficient defense, Wisconsin will have to slow down Xavier’s offense and hope the Musketeers don’t take advantage of the Badgers’ 320th ranked three-point defense.
Xavier has lost twice in its last four games, but it’s 27–5 for a reason: it’s one of the best teams in the country.
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It came as no surprise that turnovers made the ultimate difference in Friday’s matchup between No. 3 West Virginia and No. 14 Stephen F. Austin. The surprise was that Stephen F. Austin was the markedly better defense.
With 29 points off of 22 West Virginia turnovers, the Lumberjacks stunned a West Virginia side lauded for its high-pressure defense and transition offense with a 70–56 win on Friday night in Brooklyn. What was an impressive performance in the first half became a showcase in the second frame, as the Lumberjacks routinely picked off Mountaineer crosscourt passes and silenced an offense known for its speed and athleticism.
The upset didn’t jolt the college basketball world quite like Middle Tennessee State’s stunner over Michigan State, and it shouldn’t have. Just two years removed from their upset of VCU in the first round, the Lumberjacks logged their second tournament victory under head coach Brad Underwood, who may be a hot commodity once the season ends.
The two sides entered the matchup as the top two defenses in the nation in turnover percentage, but it was Lumberjacks, with relentless perimeter pressure and active hands inside, who showcased why they rank No. 1 in that category.
Senior Thomas Walkup led Stephen F. Austin with 33 points and nine rebounds, and was one of several guards who helped carve up West Virginia’s vaunted full court press. The senior guard, who could have been mistaken for the mascot in airport security, became an instant favorite of the Brooklyn crowd with some creative dribbling and a stepback jumper to seal the win with under two minutes remaining.
West Virginia’s struggles with turnovers, coupled with its inability to turn over Stephen F. Austin with its full-court press, manifested itself in a 31–28 deficit to end the first half. It only got worse after the break. The Mountaineers shot an abysmal 25% in the second half and never made a concentrated run after the Lumberjacks opened up their lead to eight with 7:53 remaining.
Why it matters
This wasn’t a game where everything clicked for Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks shot an underwhelming 31% from the field, finished the first half with only eight field goals from the floor and frequently struggled against West Virginia’s perimeter length.
The reality is that Stephen F. Austin is simply an outstanding defensive team that could make a legitimate run to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Despite a noticeable size and athleticism disadvantage to a Mountaineer team that thrives in transition and at forcing backcourt turnovers, the Lumberjacks’ organization on offense allowed them to slice up West Virginia’s press, and their pressure allowed them to continue to force turnovers.
It may sound crazy now, but Stephen F. Austin looked like a potential Elite Eight team on Friday night.
Stephen F. Austin will take on the winner of No. 11 Michigan and No. 6 Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center.
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SPOKANE, Wash. — The worst day? December 22. That’s when the NCAA levied the Hawaii men’s basketball team with the penalties from its yearlong investigation into the program under Gib Arnold, the Rainbow Warriors coach from 2010 to ‘14.
The players found out before they played Northern Iowa at home that night, and even though they knew that penalties were coming, what the NCAA imposed seemed particularly harsh. Three years of probation. The loss of two scholarships for the next two seasons. Vacated victories. And, worst of all, most pertinent of all, a postseason ban in 2016–17.
For the five juniors on Hawaii’s roster in particular, the final sanction only added to the importance of this season, their final chance to compete in the NCAA tournament. Junior guard Aaron Valdes spoke for the group on Twitter when he posted that “we still got a season to play and a NCAA tourney to make.” His teammates felt the same.
“I kind of looked at it, like, wow, [the NCAA] is really out to ...” says junior forward Stefan Jankovic, his voice trailing off.
“It motivated us,” he continues. “I’ll be honest. Because a lot of people wrote us off. We lost our coach the year before, 10 days before the start of the official season. Players transferred. The ban. Everyone looked at it like, oh, my God. [But] we’re living in the present.”
The best day? March 18, for now. That’s when Hawaii, a No. 13 seed in the South region of the NCAA tournament, upended fourth-seeded California, when it bottled a roster stocked with NBA prospects and overcame foul trouble and secured both the first tourney triumph in school history and a major upset.
The final tally read 77–66 in favor of the Warriors, who hugged and threw up hang loose signs and popped their jerseys for the TV cameras. They celebrated as if they had made history, which, of course, they had. “This,” athletic director David Matlin told SI.com outside the locker room, “is the biggest win in school history.”
Jankovic settled in front of his locker 30 minutes after the game ended, trying to make sense of everything. It wasn’t easy. Three countries. Civil war. The transfer.
He was born in Serbia, in Belgrade, the son of Drago, a professional handball player, and Aida Jankovic. They were family friends with the tennis star Jelena Jankovic but not related. Drago served in the military during the civil war, which lasted from 1992 to ‘95. He was a member of the special forces. He often told stories about war, about shooting at the enemy, and being shot at. “I lost a lot of family in the war,” his son says. “And he lost, growing up, pretty much all his best friends.”
They moved to Canada from there, settling near Toronto, in search of a better life. Drago worked six jobs upon arrival. He delivered pizza, did construction, drove a truck, painted, operated snowplows and worked at a car dealership. He watched his son leave for West Virginia, after a nine-inch growth spurt, to finish high school at Huntington Prep. He saw Stefan leave there for college at Missouri, where his coach (Frank Haith) was suspended, and from where he transferred after the 2012–13 season, in part because he wanted to play more, even if it was somewhere else.
So that’s how Jankovic landed in Hawaii, by way of Missouri, West Virginia, Toronto and Belgrade. People wrote him off, too, just like they wrote off the Warriors. They told him that no one would watch his games, aside from his parents. They told him that no one cared about Hawaii basketball, that it was a football school. And then he arrived and Arnold left and the NCAA investigation started.
Still, he fought, because that’s what Drago taught him. Drago watched every game this season, same as in every other season, rising sometimes at 2 a.m. in Toronto, then leaving for work as a truck driver at 4.
Hawaii opened its campaign with four victories and won eight of its first nine. Their arena started to fill up. Sometimes, it sold out. The turning points, junior forward Mike Thomas says, came in two losses—an 84–81 reversal against Oklahoma in late December that “showed us we can play with any team in the country,” Thomas says, and another to Long Beach State by two points in the final game of the regular season that “woke us up.”
The Rainbows won the Big West regular season and the conference tournament, and yet they arrived here as a 13 seed, feeling underrated. All the talk centered on Cal’s star freshmen, forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both potential NBA draft lottery picks. “We heard about all that, all the draft picks,” Thomas says. “But we took the same approach to that as we took to the postseason ban. We just have to play the games. It’s as simple as that.”
Few picked the Rainbows to advance but one bracket in particular caught the team’s attention. None other than President Barack Obama had tabbed the university from the state that he grew up in to pull the upset.
Hawaii took a 36–30 by halftime, boosted by Jankovic’s 10 points. The Warriors also benefited from the absence of Cal starters Tyrone Wallace (broken hand) and Jabari Bird (back spasms). But with 16:42 remaining in the game, Jankovic picked up his fourth foul, with Hawaii ahead by 8. He shook his head as he left the court.
Impending doom? Not exactly. Jankovic didn’t play again for about 13 minutes, as Cal, despite a rough game from Brown (four points, seven turnovers), closed the deficit to 47–46 after a 12–2 run. Hawaii’s veterans, like senior guards Quincy Smith (19 points) and Roderick Bobbitt (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) helped the Rainbows pull away. Brown fouled out with 6:22 left.
The jubilant Warriors retired to their locker room. Their phones were blowing up. Matlin had more than 100 text messages.
Jankovic kept coming back to two journeys—his and Hawaii’s—and how they gloriously overlapped. To the team barbecues and beach get-togethers and flag football games. To those who left. And those who stayed. He thought about his father and the civil war and the six jobs. He thought, too, about the ban.
“We can’t worry about that,” he says. “It’s definitely been on my mind all year. It’s made each practice more serious. It made each game more serious. We had to make this the best year that Hawaii’s ever had.”
With that done, he turned his attention to Sunday’s matchup against Maryland, a game that will decide who advances to the tournament’s second week. Because Jankovic and the Rainbows don’t see Friday’s triumph as their first NCAA win—they see it as their first “first,” in this, their historic season.
South Dakota State cut an 18-point Maryland lead down to two in the final minute and had the ball in the final seconds down three with a chance to tie, but the Terrapins' Rasheed Sulaimon got a steal and game-sealing dunk with 0.2 seconds left to beat the Jackrabbits 79–74 in the South regional on Friday.
Maryland, the No. 5 seed, never trailed in the game and led by 12 at halftime. The lead stretched to 18 on a Jared Nickens three-pointer with 13:58 remaining and was still 18 after a Robert Carter basket with just under nine minutes to go. But South Dakota State, bidding to become the third No. 12 seed to win a game in this tournament, made four three-pointers during a 24–8 run that to get within 72–70 with one minute left. The teams traded free throws, setting up the final play when Sulaimon took the ball away from Keaton Moffitt and went in uncontested for the dunk.
Why it matters
Maryland shot poorly in its Big Ten semifinal loss to Michigan State last weekend but recovered to make 52.3% on Friday, including 40.9% from three-point range. Jake Layman scored a game-high 27 points and point guard Melo Trimble added 19 before fouling out in the final minutes. Though the Terps would be wise not to let teams with less talent continue to hang around, they should be heartened by the performance of Layman, the 6'9" senior forward who set a new season high for points for the second time in three games. Layman, who averaged 11.2 points per game coming in, had 26 in the Big Ten quarterfinals against Nebraska before going for 27 on Friday.
The Terps will face No. 13 Hawaii on Saturday in Spokane. The Rainbow Warriors upset No. 4 Cal, 77–66, in the first round and will give Maryland a much harder matchup on the inside.
Denzel Valentine’s senior season for Michigan State ended with an upset, as the No. 2 Spartans fell to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State on Friday.
Valentine averaged 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game for the Spartans this season. He won Big Ten Player of the Year and Big Ten Tournament MVP. Valentine was also an integral part of the Spartans team which made last year’s Final Four.
After the loss to the Blue Raiders, Izzo thanked Valentine for his contributions to the school, with tears in his eyes and he recalled Valentine’s importance to the program.
Valentine was named Sports Illustrated’s National Player of the Year earlier this month.