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SPOKANE — Friday in the NCAA tournament was madness. Friday featured a half-court game-winner that was sunk just before the final buzzer for Northern Iowa to topple Texas. And Friday supplied a dunk from Cincinnati that would have tied Saint Joseph’s but was slammed milliseconds after the final horn. Friday produced upsets from a 15-seed (Middle Tennessee), a 14 (Stephen F. Austin), a 13 (Hawaii), an 11 (Northern Iowa) and two 10s (VCU and Syracuse).
It seemed like the NCAA tournament might continue this way until a champion is crowned in Houston at NRG Stadium on April 4. That’s because of how the 2015–16 college basketball season unfolded, in a fashion best described as chaotic and uneven, leaving few clear favorites—many of which are flawed. One of those darlings, Michigan State, fell to Middle Tennessee, seemingly confirming the wobbly state of the field. That also happened Friday. Naturally.
Then the Saturday games tipped off, and Saturday wasn’t madness. Saturday was calm. Saturday was chalk. O.K., so a No. 11 in Gonzaga destroyed a No. 3 in Utah, leaving the Pac-12 with only Oregon remaining from among the seven teams the league sent to the tournament. And Indiana, seeded fifth in the East region, did down a presumed contender in Kentucky, but the Wildcats were seeded fourth.
Saturday, the tournament waved goodbye to a trio of Cinderella hopefuls in Arkansas-Little Rock, Wichita State and Yale. While the Trojans were beaten handily by Iowa State in the Midwest Region, the Shockers and Bulldogs, both playing in Providence, fell behind by more than 20 points before mounting impressive comebacks but ultimately losing to Miami and Duke, respectively. Saturday saw three No. 1 seeds advance in Kansas, North Carolina and Virginia.
Those who expected the unexpected got the opposite on Saturday. But they did get a noteworthy surprise—Indiana’s victory over Kentucky—with significant implications.
It felt, according to those in attendance in Des Moines, more like a Final Four game than a second-round contest, with the Wildcats and their eight national championships going against the Hoosiers and their five titles. The power programs, universities located on opposite sides of the Ohio River in neighboring states, had played at least once every season from 1969 to 2012. John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, was charged in some quarters for ending the series four years ago over a disagreement as to where any future games should be played, and the schools have been unable to work out a solution.
They cannot avoid each other in the tournament, though, where they last met in the Sweet 16 in 2012. The Wildcats won that game en route to their most recent national title. They did not win this one. Indiana freshman center Thomas Bryant scored 19 points and senior point guard Yogi Ferrell added of 18 of his own. The Hoosiers made 13 of 24 shots in the second half, and Bryant sealed the 73–67 victory by making two free throws with 10.4 seconds left.
Aside from a one-and-done NIT trip in 2013, this was Kentucky’s earliest exit from the postseason since Calipari’s arrival before the 2009–10 season, and it marked the first time the Hoosiers had beaten the Wildcats in the tournament since 1973. The history, the rivalry, the cancellation of the series, and the fact that Indiana coach Tom Crean had critics calling for his job this season, combined for a win that meant more than most second-round wins mean.
Fred Glass, Indiana’s athletic director, admitted as much. Asked by reporters if beating Kentucky made the triumph sweeter, he said, “Yes,” while admitting that “I know the politically correct thing to say is it doesn’t matter.”
But it did matter. Of course it did. It put the Hoosiers in the second week, although the East region, with top-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Xavier still alive, is one portion of the bracket that hasn’t been busted much. Yet, anyway.
Early Saturday, two ACC power programs in Duke and Miami nearly joined the brigade of teams that suffered upsets. The Blue Devils, in a contest of future world leaders, stretched their lead over Yale to 27 points, only to watch the Ivy League champion claw its way back. Late in the second half the Bulldogs trimmed the Blue Devils’ advantage to three points, as one of their fans, clad in a Santa Claus hat, provided a national television audience with a double-barreled middle-finger salute.
So Saturday also gave us the Yale Santa Middle Finger Guy.
Duke survived what coach Mike Krzyzewski expected—that his inexperienced team would lose focus with that large of a lead—because he deployed a 1-3-1 zone in the second half. That zone slowed Yale just enough. Sophomore guard Grayson Allen’s performance embodied Duke’s on Saturday. He scored 22 points in the first half—and seven in the second.
The Blue Devils will meet either top-seeded Oregon or eighth-seeded Saint Joseph’s in the Sweet 16 of the West Regional. Miami advanced there, too, with a win that was nearly identical to Duke’s victory. The Hurricanes, seeded No. 3 in the South region, saw their 21-point lead evaporate in the second half. They needed 28 points from senior guard Angel Rodriguez to hold off the Shockers, a team whose fans did not wear Santa hats but instead shouted, “We Shock! We Shock!”
The Hurricanes fans countered with shouts of “Sweet 16!” as the final seconds ticked away. They’ll be joined by yet another ACC team in Virginia, which bested ninth-seeded Butler, 77–69, in the Midwest Regional. And by Iowa State, which battered Little Rock, 78–61, to set up a meeting with the top-seeded Cavaliers next week in Chicago. Senior forward Georges Niang scored 28 points and snagged six rebounds for the Cyclones, same as he did against Iona in the first round. He had perhaps the most impressive first week of the tournament for any single player.
The final day of the first week of this NCAA tournament tips off Sunday, with eight more games that will decide which teams round out the regional semifinals. What Friday and Saturday taught us was to not only expect the unexpected but that it’s O.K. to sometimes expect the expected, too. That’s worth a Santa hat and two middle fingers, easy.
RALEIGH — As Virginia tells it, that didn’t matter: the notion of what did or didn’t lie ahead, the unwritten chapter of the program’s 2016 NCAA tournament future. On Saturday night, 20 minutes after the Cavaliers capped an edge-of-your-seat, 77–69 second-round win over No. 9 Butler, several Virginia players spent time answering questions about Michigan State. Why? Because Virginia, which is headed to its second Sweet Sixteen in three years, knows it won’t have to face the pesky Spartans in March for the third season in a row.
On Friday, No. 2 Michigan State shockingly fell to No. 15 Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a setback that took place while the Cavaliers practiced at PNC Arena. Afterward, a few Virginia players might have noted a suddenly more favorable path to the Final Four as a result. But in a tightly packed locker room on Saturday night, the Cavaliers did their own bit of politicking during election season, offering canned answers and suppressed smiles at the thought of Sparty’s demise. No one admitted a Michigan State loss served as added motivation against Butler.
Still, at least one Cavalier couldn’t live with a politically correct answer. Junior guard London Perrantes said that, yes, he cared about Michigan State’s loss, but for a different reason. It meant the revenge-minded Perrantes wouldn’t get another shot at the Spartans in the Big Dance.
“I was a little upset they lost,” Perrantes said, “but things happen.”
Nice try, London. Of course Virginia is downright giddy to avoid Michigan State in its quest to reach the Final Four. Of course the Cavaliers are thankful not to have to play the team that beat them in the last two NCAA tournaments. That big green obstacle is no more, and no matter how you slice it, Virginia’s path to Houston became much more attractive after Michigan State tumbled out of the bracket.
But the Cavaliers aren’t too happy to ignore a salient truth: A loss by another Final Four contender hardly guarantees their own success. This Virginia team, with its bleak, downright embarrassing recent tournament history, still must prove its viability as a legitimate title contender. That much is clear to the Cavaliers, and another Sweet Sixteen berth is exactly the shot they need.
“It’s just now about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “and it’s possession-by-possession. And that was one of these possession games tonight.”
Indeed, Butler forced Virginia to slog out a win that tested the top seed’s mettle in Raleigh. The two squads used lock-down defense to stifle one another in the first 20 minutes at PNC Arena, with the Bulldogs carrying a 25–23 lead into halftime. Neither team led by more than three points in the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Virginia All-America Malcolm Brogdon ventured to the locker room shooting 4 for 10 from the field, including 0 for 3 on three-pointers.
“I said, ‘Butler will not lose,’” Bennett said. “‘You have to go get it. You will have to beat them.’”
Bennett was right. The Bulldogs, who willed their way to a first-round win over No. 8 Texas Tech on Thursday, pressed the fight well into the second half. They took a 39–34 lead over Virginia on a Kelan Martin jumper with 15:58 to play. But a key defensive switch turned the tide for the Cavaliers; the 6'5" Brogdon matched up with the 6'7" Andrew Chrabascz, who’d scored 24 points five minutes into the second half. With Bogdon shifting down low, Bennett slid reserve guard Marial Shayok into the lineup for Butler’s version of small ball.
Butler enjoyed a shift in momentum as a result. Chrabascz scored only a single point the rest of the way, and an and-one from Virginia forward Anthony Gill with 5:56 to play gave the Cavaliers a 64–66 lead, one which they wouldn’t give up.
“We wanted it a little bit more,” Gill said. “Not saying we didn’t want it last year around this time, [but] this year we knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
Virginia has to want it more because its recent trips to the Big Dance have been chock full of disappointment. In 2014, the Cavaliers carried a No. 1 seed to the Sweet 16 before losing by two points, 61–59, to No. 4 Michigan State. A year later that same Spartans’ squad kicked No. 2 Virginia, a 30-win squad, out of the tournament in the second round. Tremendous regular seasons under Bennett have done little to cultivate deep runs into March. That’s the history the Wahoos hope to change in the coming weeks, and for now at least, they won’t have to worry about Sparty darkening their door.
Still, the next step in that journey begins next week in Chicago, where Virginia will face No. 4 Iowa State, which got past No. 12 Little Rock, on Saturday. The Cavaliers say this tournament run won’t again end in painful fashion; Perrantes, who was a freshman on Virginia’s Sweet 16 squad two seasons ago, spoke at length about a renewed focus this time around.
“We’re a different team,” Perrantes said.
The numbers back that up as well. Virginia is one of only two tournament teams—fellow No. 1 seed Kansas is the other—to rank in the top 10 nationally in adjusted efficiency in offense and defense, according to kenpom.com. Brogdon and Gill, in particular, have helped the Cavaliers gel into a more effective offense than in years past, one factor that could help alter their tournament luck.
Perhaps Virginia is different. Perhaps Bennett’s crew has learned from its recent futility in March, and this particular group has figured out how to tap into its immense potential. But it’s also possible a greater opportunity has yet to present itself to the Cavaliers. With no Michigan State looming large, with no Sparty-feuled monkey on its back, Virginia enters this year’s Sweet 16 with a burden of realistic expectations.
“We all know last year what happened,” forward Evan Nolte said, “so it feels good to be back.”
There’s no doubt Virginia is back. Now, the talented Cavaliers get to see just how far they can go.
ST. LOUIS — They had been so cool. They had shocked the world, yes, but they had not shocked themselves, and so as 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee walked off the court after Friday’s fearless and complete victory over No. 2 seed Michigan State, the Blue Raiders carried themselves more like, say, a No. 9 seed toppling the No. 8, rather than only the eighth No. 15 in NCAA tournament history to win a game. They smiled and hugged, but they did not bounce off the walls. Their feet didn’t leave the ground. Within minutes their brilliantly named sharpshooting guard, Giddy Potts, was dispassionately telling reporters in the locker room about the unfinished and even more improbable business of advancing further still. “We just made history,” he said then. “It's a big deal, but it's not a big deal really.”
As the adrenaline wore off and the team left the cocoon of competition, the magnitude of the accomplishment took root. The team bus idled outside the Scottrade Center, waiting for a few players and coaches to wrap a series of interview requests, leaving those already on board to begin reliving a game they will remember all their lives. Jaqawn Raymond’s four-point play. Potts’s block. Reggie Upshaw Jr.’s dunk. The chatter continued over dinner at the team hotel overlooking the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium and then deep into the night, as Middle Tennessee's players fluttered in and out of one another’s rooms to watch highlights, waves of social media notifications draining their phone batteries. When they awoke on Saturday, a new day had recast the previous one in an uncanny hue. “Reggie and Jaqawn were talking at breakfast,” sophomore guard Edward Simpson said Saturday afternoon, some 22 hours after the final horn. “They were like, Damn, when we woke up this morning, I forgot that we played. It’s like a dream. Some people are still in awe.”
It had been, in the word’s truest definition, an awesome performance. The Blue Raiders had pushed repeatedly into the teeth of the Spartans’ defense, then buried it with bombs launched from beyond the arc. They had stymied the potential national player of the year, Michigan State point guard Denzel Valentine, with a revolving array of defensive schemes (switching among man-to-man, 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones), and grabbed nearly a third of their misses against the nation’s eighth-best defensive rebounding team. “We got beat by a team that played better than us today,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo, a current Hall of Fame finalist, told reporters after. His counterpart, Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis Jr., was kept so long by post-game TV and radio appearances that the bus ended up leaving the Scottrade Center without him.
The Blue Raiders enter Sunday’s game against Syracuse as the unlikeliest second-round party crashers in a tournament that has been overrun by them. They will again oppose an elite coach (Jim Boeheim, inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2006), a vaunted and difficult defense (Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone), and a name-brand program easily cast as one of March’s Goliaths. (That this year’s Orange team is seeded 10th and has lost 13 games will do little to dissuade that perception.) Middle Tennessee snuck up on Michigan State and the rest of America as a collection of directional-school unknowns with a clunky moniker (the full run-on: Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders) from an institution whose most famous alumni include Al Gore's father and one of the singers from the country band Lady Antebellum. Friday’s win was the school's first in the NCAA tournament in 27 years and the fifth ever for a program that has produced just two NBA players—Warren Kidd and Duane Washington—who combined to play 87 games in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Now thrust into the spotlight, the school's current representatives had proven to be well-cast for their center stage roles in March’s ever-refreshing drama. After Friday’s introduction, they are worth revisiting in more detail:
• Potts, the Blue Raiders’ burly, bearded sophomore shooting guard whose nickname (so given because of his mother’s giddiness at his birth) and shooting ability (his 50.3% mark leads the nation) seemed wished into existence by a March Madness marketing department. Against the Spartans he scored 19 points but most memorably full-palm swatted a three by Bryn Forbes (the nation’s third-best shooter) in the final 30 seconds. He was never one for fear: As a high school freshman in Athens, Ala., he had defeated a senior in a game of one-on-one, after which the senior threatened him. Soon thereafter they crossed paths at school. “I went into the hallway,” Potts recalled Saturday, “and told him I was gonna beat his ass, and I got suspended.” After beating Michigan State he spent much of the night playing Call of Duty: Black Ops III on the Xbox One he often brings on road trips and hanging out with his family. “We just talked about the game,” he said, “and how my uncle was on TV.”
• Upshaw, the springy, freckled 6'7" junior forward who led Middle Tennessee with 21 points on Friday, two of which came on a rim-hanging, tongue-darting dunk in the closing minute. His father played defensive end for the Blue Raiders in the mid-90s, but Reggie Jr. grew up in Chattanooga as a fan of the University of Tennessee. He had drawn interest from the Volunteers and Vanderbilt as a tight end but decided to stop pursuing football after breaking his ankle. Middle Tennessee offered him scholarships in both sports, and the football program has extended him a standing invitation. (Asked Saturday if he thought about accepting it, the junior paused and smiled: “We’re still thinking about it.”) His team bio touted his 2012 state title in the high jump (a 6'4" leap) as his greatest athletic achievement. It had since been topped, easily. “This,” he said Saturday, “is definitely the highlight of my life right now.”
• Darnell Harris, the senior 6'10" pick-and-pop specialist from Milwaukee who attended camp at Michigan State in high school, then scored 15 points against it as a college senior. He began his collegiate career at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, then headed to Northwest Florida State College to play juco ball before landing at Middle Tennessee last year. It was a long journey to NCAA tournament stardom and perhaps an even longer one to go without getting a haircut, which Harris has not done in five years. “I hated barbershops,” he explained Saturday. “I hated going and waiting for hours. That was one of my pet peeves.” Before this season he had promised his teammates that if they won the Conference USA tournament, he would shave off the long dreads he now keeps tied behind his head. He has yet to follow through. “They’ve been on me about it, so I guess I’ll do it someday,” he said. “I thought about cutting it, but in reality I get scared and can’t do it.”
• Simpson, a mechatronics engineering major and normally a 6'2" part-time starter who was recast as the team’s top bench cheerleader when he broke his right fibula and tore two ankle ligaments during a practice drill before the Conference USA tournament. Surgery was initially scheduled for this past Tuesday, but when his teammates won the league’s NCAA bid—as they had vowed after lying with him on the court following his injury, reciting prayers—he pushed the surgery back 10 days. When he tired of crutches, his insurance covered the purchase of a scooter on which he could rest his right leg at the knee while kicking it along with his left. On the first day his left foot caught a front wheel, nearly sending him toppling into a faceplant. He has since gotten the hang of it, and spent late Friday afternoon wheeling around the Blue Raiders’ locker room in joy. “People say I have too much fun on it,” he said, “like I look like a little kid.”
And so on. Despite the makings of a crowd-pleasing underdog they have carried themselves through St. Louis with the air of a top seed. The day before upending brackets everywhere they had spoken confidently of the matchup problems they would present for a team many were tabbing for the national title. They knew of the past 15-seed winners, but did not discuss them as motivation because they considered themselves relatives only on the bracket and not in truth. At one point in Friday’s second half, Aldonis Foote, a reserve juco transfer averaging eight minutes per game, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his hips while Valentine brought the ball up court against him. Asked about it after the game, Foote said, “I do commend the player that he is, but I don’t think he’s ever played against anybody that just really wanted to go at him and really just beat him.”
That belief in themselves “all starts with coach,” said Jarrod Lazarus, the team’s director of operations. Davis too had an enticing backstory, having risen to become Idaho’s head coach at age 28 and taken the Vandals to consecutive NCAA tournaments in his first two seasons. He left to take over at Texas A&M in 1990, then went 8-21 and resigned after the Aggies were found to have committed NCAA violations by providing benefits to a recruit from, of all places, Syracuse. “I made some mistakes there,” he said Saturday of his time in College Station. “We kind of had to recycle our career.” The process began with an assistant job at Chipola (Junior) College, then continued with another at Utah State, the head job again at Idaho for one season, and five years under his good friend John Brady, who was then the coach at LSU. In 2002 his climb back up the coaching rungs reached Middle Tennessee, where he has been since.
His rise was catalyzed by his preparation, for which he is known to be fanatical; after the Michigan State win, Blue Raiders assistant Win Case said they had gone into the game knowing everything the Spartans would run. Whatever element of surprise might have helped power Friday’s upset, Middle Tennessee carries into Sunday not only newfound expectations but also the placement under a greater microscope. Syracuse players watched the Michigan State game in their hotel, balancing a fan’s enjoyment with an opponent’s anticipatory focus (sharpened, one imagines, by the caliber of team the Blue Raiders were soaring past). Adrian “Red” Autry, the Orange assistant responsible for scouting Middle Tennessee, estimated he had watched 10 Blue Raiders games on film since Selection Sunday, searching for a tell that might reveal when Davis’s defense might shift. “I watched them enough yesterday and in tapes last night to know as much about them as I need to know,” said Boeheim, who before Friday night had not seen the Blue Raiders all season. “Maybe I know too much about them, in fact.”
He could be forgiven for the feeling. Middle Tennessee Mania had gripped the St. Louis sub-regional, providing insatiable fodder for the reporters who drive a site’s off-day media conversations. (See: this story.) On Thursday, during the Blue Raiders’ availability on the eve of their first game, their locker room was so devoid of outsiders that when a reporter (and always a reporter) spoke with a player many of his teammates looked on, rapt. In Saturday’s session multiple players held court with more than one interviewer at a time, their faces alit by TV cameras.
What they said remained unchanged: follow the game plan, trust in their coach, play how they play and more good will come. Now they said it to more people, who had more reason to believe them. Only Potts, the team’s burgeoning media star, seemed at all bothered by the sudden crowd. “I really don’t like doing media, but Eric, he made me do it,” he said, referring to Eric Beovich, the team’s communications director. “I’m getting used to it. It’s great to be part of this.”
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DES MOINES — Not everyone listens to Yogi Ferrell. There are those immune to his commands, and they occupied two first-row seats at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday evening. Their names are Khloe and Kelsey Ferrell, and they are Yogi’s little sisters. And before big brother began his final NCAA tournament run with Indiana, they drove to the Greenwood Mall outside of Indianapolis and commissioned T-shirts especially for this occasion. Normally, they wear gear that simply identifies them as Yogi’s siblings. But his final run in this event required special messages, delivered with deep, abiding affection.
who is yogi? read the back of one shirt. yogi isn’t famous, he’s just my annoying brother, read the other.
After this was brought to Yogi’s attention—“I guess they think it’s a comedy show for them,” he said—he instructed his sisters not to wear those shirts again when Indiana played Kentucky, with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line, in a renewal of one of college basketball’s most venomous rivalries that also doubled as one of the most consequential basketball moments of his life. And they didn’t. His sisters didn’t wear those shirts again.
They wore other shirts.
yogi’s a bear to have as a brother, read one. i can beat yogi 1-on-1, read the other.
So not everyone listens to Yogi Ferrell. But that list isn’t long. In fact, the reason his sisters could even make the shirts, the reason that everyone gathered in the arena, was because the other most important people in Yogi’s life listen to his every last syllable. They listen to him talk defending a screen-and-roll. They listen to him talk about plays before they happen, one or two steps ahead all the time. They lose a game in early December, their third of a young but despairing season, and they listen to him talk about personal accountability, about having the pride to make sure you’re doing the right thing.
And that brings them all the way to a regular-season Big Ten title. That brings their embattled coach reprieve. That brings them all the way to one of the most indelible victories in the history of a program teeming with them, a cathartic 73–67 win over fourth-seeded Kentucky, delivering fifth-seeded Indiana to the East regional semifinals in Philadelphia next weekend. In this win, the Hoosiers broke open a tie game and took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish with Ferrell resting on the bench. A freshman center became the offensive focal point and hit the clinching free throws down the stretch. A freshman guard made enormous shots and enormous blocks. In the final minute of the biggest game of his career, in fact, Ferrell barely had the ball in his hands.
That was the whole idea of it, really. That was the idea behind the prodding and demanding. Ferrell, the one player Indiana can’t do without, had to push this team to the point where it didn’t need him to win a game. That’s how the Hoosiers would get to where they wanted to go. The who is yogi? notion made for a funny T-shirt, yes. It was also kind of the point.
In an almost palpably happy locker room Saturday, Tom Crean was even more kinetic than usual. He wiped some fog from his glasses and shook everyone’s hands and generally acted like someone with active defibrillator pads strapped to his chest. He only paused to hug his athletic director, Fred Glass, and snap a group picture with Glass and other Indiana officials.
“I love coaching these guys,” Crean told Glass. “I love it.”
On Dec. 2, Indiana visited Duke and flat-lined, losing 94–74. That dropped the Hoosiers to 5–3 on the season and a not-so-subtle discontent bubbled up once more, mostly directed at the head coach. Indiana missed the NCAA tournament in 2013–14, lost in the round of 64 in 2014–15 and had gone a combined 16–20 in Big Ten conference games in those two seasons. The 2015–16 season looked like another brewing disappointment, and that was increasingly unforgivable.
It was maybe easy to say amid the satisfaction of Saturday’s result, but Glass insisted that there was no panic internally.
“He’s got a sign in his office that says, ‘Just coach the team,’” Glass said of Crean. “I think almost the louder it got, the easier it was for him to hone in and close ranks and generate belief with the guys. There was almost an inverse relationship: the worse it got out there, the calmer and more focused it got in here. That’s a great tribute to Tom.”
It’s also a tribute to Ferrell, the 6-foot senior from Indianapolis, who as of Saturday has started an Indiana-record 136 games and has played in an Indiana-record 137, because he essentially served as Crean’s collaborator. He was the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game during the season, but he was more significantly the dominant personality in the room, whether it was during a players-only film session after the Maui Invitational in which the Hoosiers kicked around ideas on how to defend better, or when he reminded everyone after the Duke loss to focus on doing their jobs and nothing more. If he wasn’t exactly setting game plans, Ferrell was nevertheless managing his team’s approach and demeanor while imparting all the knowledge he’d accrued over the years.
“The main thing with me is, I have to stay on these guys,” Ferrell said.
If freshman walk-on guard Harrison Niego didn’t realize that reading an offensive player on the weak side could help him better diagnose how to defend a screen-and-roll, Ferrell took time to explain that, in detail, to a guy who averaged 4.7 minutes per game. His word was gospel. The Book of Yogi.
“He’s taken ownership of this team,” said senior forward Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana this year from Big Ten rival Michigan. “He should. He’s that guy we definitely trust with our lives.”
No one could know in early December what it all pointed toward, but it pointed toward this. It pointed toward a time when Ferrell would be an important part of a win but not necessarily the only way Indiana could win.
“Yogi makes it go, but the way he shares his knowledge, shares the ball, shares the game, is just incredible,” Glass said. “Yogi is great and he’s going to walk out with most of the records, but at Indiana, we celebrate winners. If he’s going to be a winner, he’s going to have to share and make the other guys better. That’s what he did.”
The transformative moment against Kentucky, and one that augured well for Indiana from here out, arrived with 8:40 to play. Crean subbed for Ferrell after he committed his second foul, looking to steal some rest for his indispensable leader during the imminent under-eight-minute media timeout. When that break arrived, the score was tied 50–50. The first team to stop crawling across broken glass to find anything resembling one or two decent offensive looks was probably going to take firm control.
And when the huddle broke, and Indiana’s five players took the floor, Ferrell was still on the bench.
On the first Indiana possession following the break, the Hoosiers fed 6'10" freshman Thomas Bryant, who converted a three-point play. On the next trip, freshman OG Anunoby drained a three-pointer from the wing. Kentucky coach John Calipari sensed the seismic momentum shift and called a timeout with Indiana suddenly surging and the Hoosiers fans in full throat. While his teammates celebrated the spurt, Ferrell trotted stone-faced to the scorer’s table to check back in.
Seconds later, he’d hit a pull-up jumper, and Indiana had an 8–0 run that effectively decided the game. And it all started without him.
“They probably could do without me,” Ferrell said. “I feel like we know ourselves so well, know exactly what we want to do on the court, that we could do it almost blind. We prepared very well for this.”
As the Hoosiers sought to finish the game, Ferrell offered Crean a suggestion: Feed the post. Get the ball to Bryant, a hyper but hyper-efficient scorer; while prone to overexcitedly dribble around the perimeter and get his pocket picked by Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, as happened in the second half Saturday, the freshman center also finished his first two NCAA tournament games shooting 11 for 15 from the floor, upping his season-long rate to 68.9%. Instead of looking to secure the result on his own, as one might expect from a player who has appeared in more games than anyone else in Indiana history, Ferrell delegated to a teenager.
“I feel like Thomas can close out a game for us,” Ferrell said.
He did. Bryant drained four free throws in the final minute to keep the Wildcats at bay, including two with 10.4 seconds left to make it a four-point game. That finished a 19-point performance in which Bryant recovered from early foul trouble to outduel and outfox Kentucky’s entire legion of big men. Indeed, when the game ended, Bryant uncaged his emotions: He took a detour past the Indiana fan section and pounded his chest.
“This is why I’m here! This is why I’m here!” he shouted.
“What was mostly going through my mind was staying calm, breathing and then not letting my adrenaline pump so much where it was too much for me,” Bryant said of his final-minute poise. “We go through this in practice all the time. So I was just lucky to make them.”
The Hoosiers do actually go through this in practice all the time. Though Ferrell averaged 34.6 minutes per game during the regular season, Crean deliberately set lineups during certain practice periods where his services and leadership were not available on the floor. Indiana had to learn to live without him. Those lessons were especially helpful early Saturday, when Kentucky used two defenders to deny Ferrell the ball even on routine inbounds plays after baskets. It took Ferrell almost eight minutes to take a shot and almost 12 to score. By then, his opposite number, the Wildcats’ Ulis, had his fingerprints all over the action. The SEC Player of the Year had 10 points by the time Ferrell got on the board, and after a deep three-pointer midway through the first half, Ulis backpedaled, shook his head and murmured, “I’m a bad mother------.”
And Ulis nearly willed Kentucky all the way back, finishing with 27 points. But he would foul out with two seconds left, somewhat fittingly hacking Ferrell after the Wildcats’ last-gasp shot from Jamal Murray wildly missed the mark. Ulis took a seat, finally helpless, as Ferrell marched to the line. Long after the game, Ulis shuffled down a Wells Fargo hallway in black jeans and a black hoodie, wearing a red sneaker on his right foot and a bag of ice on his left, carrying his other shoe in his right hand. There were two irrepressible point guards in this game. Only one was left standing. The other limped out.
“I turned to my wife with about three minutes left and I said, ‘Yogi is going to will us to win. He’s not going to be denied,’” said Glass. “There were a lot of guys contributing. But Yogi made it go.”
There is a very specific inspiration for the T-shirts that Yogi Ferrell’s sisters wear. Libby Ferrell, the family matriarch, explained that her son is actually a pretty funny guy, even if people don’t get to see that side of him much. And, as you’d expect, Yogi gives his sisters a hard time. But by putting the zingers on the back of shirts for the world to see, it ensures that there is no way Yogi can get the last word in.
“He can’t say anything back,” Libby said. “It’s too late.”
They remain the only people uninterested in what Yogi has to say, not least because they already have T-shirt ideas for the Sweet 16 games. Everyone else is certainly paying rapt attention, as Indiana emerged from a college basketball apocalypse with one of its most memorable victories. In it, Ferrell essentially cemented his legacy. There is more to do and more to achieve, but no one will forget how he drove this team out of the dark of winter and into the bliss of spring.
“I just wanted my mark to be me as a winner and to try to put up another banner,” Yogi said. “That’s the main goal, ever since summer workouts, when we’re out there dying, doing what were doing trying to get better. That’s been the main thing. That’s what we’re pushing for.”
That the Hoosiers vanquished a most despised rival along the way is a notable bonus.
“I’m 1–0 against Kentucky,” Ferrell noted with a wide smile Saturday night.
He said this just after he arrived in the locker room to a horde of cameras curled around an empty folding chair, a seat meant for Indiana’s star guard, conscience and unquestioned voice. The chair was positioned in front of an NCAA tournament banner, which was shifted in front of a white dry-erase board to make for a nicer backdrop.
And while the dry-erase board was all but clean, that event banner did not obscure the single word left on it. It hovered over Ferrell’s right shoulder, in blue ink of all colors, after a moment he spent an entire season pushing for: Recognize.
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After a close first half, No. 1 North Carolina broke away in the second to defeat No. 9 Providence, 85–66, and advance to the Sweet 16 in the East. Senior forward (and current SI cover man) Brice Johnson led the way for the Tar Heels, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. It was his 21st double double of the season. Senior guard Marcus Paige heated up in the second half and scored 12 points, while adding three rebounds, and the Tar Heels starters combined for 65 points. For the Friars, star junior guard Kris Dunn led the way with 29 points and shot 62.5% from the field, while sophomore forward Ben Bentil, the Big East’s leading scorer, added 21 before fouling out with just under eight minutes left.
Why It Matters
North Carolina defeated a tough Providence team filled with NBA talent and made it look easy. National Player of the Year candidate Johnson is averaging 19.5 points in the tournament and has been an absolute difference maker on defense (17 rebounds in two games). The Heels also won this game without a significant performance from key junior forward Kennedy Meeks, who scored only two points. With Johnson, the best two-way defender in the tournament, a steady point guard in Paige and one of the best coaches in the game, North Carolina has proven why it’s a favorite to win it all.
On March 25th in Philadelphia, North Carolina will take on No. 5 Indiana. The Hoosiers beat No. 4 Kentucky, 73–67, earlier Saturday. The UNC-Indiana game will feature the fifth- and seventh-most efficient offensives, respectively, per kenpom.com.
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Gonzaga dominated the first half and never looked back, led by Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Kyle Wiltjer (17 points). Wiltjer went 3 of 4 from beyond the arc and Sabonis dominated the boards on both ends of the court to finish with a double double. Eric McClellan got hot in the final six minutes of the first half when he hit two threes and finished with a game-high 22 points.
Utah’s Jakob Poeltl had only five points and two rebounds in the first 20 minutes, spending much of the time on the bench after two early fouls. Kyle Kuzma, who averages just 10 points per game, kept the Utes in the game with three three-pointers of his own and finished with a team-high 15 points. Nine Utah turnovers led to 15 points for the Zags and a 44–29 lead heading into the locker room. In the second half the Bulldogs quickly pushed the lead to 20, shooting an astounding 60% from the floor. Utah, meanwhile, never found its footing, turning the ball over a total of 13 times. SI All-America Poeltl went scoreless in the second half.
Why It Matters
Never underestimate the Zags in March. As Gonzaga moves on to face another high seed, it has a real shot at going even deeper in the tournament, and with monster nights from Wiltjer, Sabonis and McClellen, the Bulldogs look unstoppable.
The Zags will face the winner of No. 10 Syracuse vs. No. 15 Middle Tennessee on Friday in Chicago.
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To the addictive and casual basketball fan alike, the narrative was ripe for an upset. A matchup between Kansas, the overachieving, ultra-talented regular season that underachieves in the postseason against UConn, the underachieving regular-season squad that has two national championships to its name over the past five years. Then the Jayhawks ran out to an 18–5 lead. Then they held UConn scoreless for over six minutes to build a 24-point lead. The narrative was over before the end of the half.
The Jayhawks blitzed the Huskies for a 73–61 win on Saturday night, solidifying their role as the favorites to win the tournament after the unlikely departure of Michigan State. The Jayhawks held UConn to 26% from the field in the first half despite the Huskies making five of their 10 three-point attempts, and Perry Ellis overcame an early cramp to finish with 21 points and eight rebounds. Wayne Selden Jr. contributed 22 points in a game that wasn’t particularly close from the start.
Why It Matters
The Jayhawks are known for their untimely exits from the tournament, but after their 16th consecutive victory (and one in completely dominant form), they should be considered the outright favorite for the national title. Bill Self’s squad features a balance of perimeter threats and inside-out play to keep any team off-balance. Selden Jr.’s exceptional play from the perimeter coupled with Ellis’s versatility will cause problems for any team facing the Jayhawks in the coming rounds, and their destruction of the Huskies may just be the beginning.
Kansas will take on the winner of Sunday’s matchup between Maryland and Hawaii in Spokane. The winner will meet the Jayhawks next week in Louisville.
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Butler made a valiant effort to add to its impressive collection of NCAA tournament upset victories in its second-round matchup against No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday, but the Cavaliers were resilient and put on an offensive clinic in the second half.
Virginia was 19 of 26 from the field (73.1%) after halftime and scored a season-high 54 points in the half en route to a 77–69 win. Senior guard Malcolm Brogdon scored a team-high 22 points, including the game’s final four points at the free throw line, to go along with five assists and four rebounds.
Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz scored 12 of his game-high 25 points in the first half as the Bulldogs took a 25–23 lead into halftime. Both teams traded baskets for the first 20 minutes as Butler stretched its largest lead of the half to three points, but no further.
Virginia scored the first six points of the second half but Butler countered with a 14–5 run fueled by three three-pointers, a layup and a free throw from Chrabascz. Butler fifth-year senior Roosevelt Jones scored 17 points in the second half and carried the Bulldogs down the stretch.
After first-half turnover issues, Virginia took care of the ball in the second half, posted a plus-six rebounding advantage and found secondary scoring options off the bench en route to a Sweet 16 berth.
Why it matters
Virginia’s second-round win improved the ACC to 9–1 in the NCAA tournament, with three teams having already advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16 under head coach Tony Bennett but they’ll look to make their best tournament run since going to the Elite Eight in 1995.
Malcolm Brodgon’s big performance reaffirmed his status as one of the best college basketball players in the country and a Virginia star who will go down in Cavalier lore.
Butler finished the season 22–10 but was just 11–9 in this calendar year. The Bulldogs put a scare in the Cavaliers as they tried to send the first No. 1 seed home in this year’s tournament but they came up short, ending the careers of Roosevelt Jones, Kellen Dunham, Austin Etherington and Jordan Gathers in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Ever since No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee upset No. 2 seed Michigan State on Friday, the Midwest Region became Virginia’s to lose. The Spartans sent the Cavaliers home in the last two NCAA tournaments, so Middle Tennessee’s upset certainly made Virginia’s path to Houston more favorable.
The Cavaliers will face No. 4 seed Iowa State and the country’s third-most efficient offense in the Sweet 16.
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With less than three minutes remaining in the first half on Saturday, Grayson Allen drained a jumper to give No. 4 Duke a 27-point lead over No. 12 Yale. He’d scored 22 points in the game’s first 17 minutes and appeared to be in such a zone that Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski later joked his sophomore guard was in “La La Land.”
With less than a minute remaining in the game, that 27-point lead seemed like it happened during Jay Bilas’s playing career. After Duke senior center Marshall Plumlee accidentally tipped in a Yale free throw miss, the Bulldogs found themselves down by just three points with 39 seconds remaining. They’d gone from being blown off the floor to threatening the biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history.
Duke settled down to restore order and topple Yale 71–64. But amid the frenetic extremes of a first-half blowout and a second-half meltdown, Duke showcased its potential and flaws. These Blue Devils are viable and vulnerable, with enough talent to defend their national title but enough holes to get outclassed in the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif. (They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 Oregon and No. 8 St. Joseph’s).
Duke is equal parts ability and fragility. It has two of the country’s best players in potential No. 1 NBA draft pick, freshman forward Brandon Ingram, and first-team All-ACC guard Allen. But there’s a precipitous drop off after that duo—especially at point guard and in the post. Krzyzewski concedes that the Blue Devils are essentially a six-man team. Last year’s motto was “Eight is Enough,” a nod to the thin rotation on Duke’s title team. This year, Duke is attempting not to get Deep Sixed. “Our house is on a cliff, and we hope it doesn’t rain,” he said. “That’s who we’ve been.”
Duke’s performance offered a microcosm of its season. The Blue Devils that torched Yale in the first half were the same team that ran off consecutive wins over Louisville, Virginia and at North Carolina in mid-February. That Duke team is crisp on offense, assertive in man-to-man defense and is illuminated by superstars. Then there are the second-half Blue Devils. They struggled with the Yale press, got outmuscled in the post and resembled the team that sputtered through a three-game stretch where they lost at Clemson and then at home to Syracuse and Notre Dame in mid-January. “That’s who we’ve been all year,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “There’s times we’ve put it all together. But can we sustain that? The first 17 minutes of the game, we were awesome. In the second half, it was everything.”
But Duke stayed composed when it mattered, a good sign for a young team that lost three one-and-done players to the NBA draft last year. Krzyzewski pulled the right strings down the stretch, including switching to a 1-3-1 zone that stalled Yale’s momentum. He also pounded the ball to Ingram in the waning minutes. Krzyzewski left the game impressed by Ingram’s work at the top of the 1-3-1 zone to rattle Yale point guard Makai Mason, as the zone changed the game just enough to allow Duke to hold on.
After Duke lost senior forward Amile Jefferson to a foot injury nine games into the year, Krzyzewski worried about the Blue Devils even making the NCAAs, he said Saturday. That may be an exaggeration, but Duke clearly needed to overhaul its identity. The 6'9" Ingram has arrived as a transcendent NBA prospect whose production is beginning to mirror his potential. He scored 25 points on Saturday, including both ends of a one-and-one after Yale cut the lead to three points. (He did miss the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left, but by then it was a five-point game).
Ingram is an embryotic version of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant who’ll be the most talented player on the floor in every game he plays the rest of the tournament. “He’s not a plant that should be put in a jar,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a plant that should be allowed to grow, and he’s growing immensely.”
Allen has also blossomed after rocketing from relative obscurity at the Final Four last year. He scored 16 points in the national title game victory over Wisconsin and outshined, on that night, Duke’s starry freshman class. “We feel like we have two of the best players in the country,” Capel said. This season, Allen (21.6 ppg) has evolved into a star and a lightning rod. Few players have overhauled their image in a year like Allen has, as his 29-point performance on just 15 shots didn’t register as anything other than the expected excellence. “He’s had to work for everything,” Capel said. “His journey to get to Duke was a story in itself. He basically recruited us. And thank God he did that.”
But those two stars can’t obscure Duke’s obvious weaknesses. Plumlee is a serviceable presence in the post, but he scored just one field goal in 31 minutes versus Yale. Freshman guard Luke Kennard helped Duke launch out to its big lead, then disappeared in the second half, scoring just two points. Junior guard Matt Jones is supposed to be a calming influence, but he managed to foul out without scoring in 20 minutes. Freshman point guard Derryck Thornton is serviceable but unspectacular. It’s not often that one leaves a game wondering why an underdog team didn’t press Duke more, but that was exactly the impression left after Yale rattled Duke in the second half. Nor is it often that such a player with a straight face will say of Duke’s thin frontcourt: “We thought we could take advantage of them on the inside and beat them up in there.” Yet that’s what Yale junior Anthony Dallier said in the postgame after Yale outscored Duke 32–18 in the paint.
This is a flawed Duke team that will remain a flawed Duke team. In a year without a clear-cut favorite, Duke shows just enough potential to make you believe and just enough flaws to keep you skeptical. “We feel like we have a shot,” Capel said, summing up Duke’s future with simple wisdom. “Things just have to go right.”
In a matchup between two power-conference champions and bitter rivals that share a state border, No. 5 seed Indiana beat No. 4 Kentucky, 73–67 on Saturday. Freshman center Thomas Bryant scored a team-high 19 points, including four free throws in the final minute, while senior point guard Yogi Ferrell added 18.
Kentucky’s backcourt combination of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray—maybe the best in the country—scored 43 of Kentucky’s 67 points, led by Ulis’s game-high 27. But the Wildcats’ starting lineup dealt with foul trouble and their frontcourt couldn’t match the high-energy play of Bryant and Troy Williams.
Kentucky jumped out to a 9–2 lead but Indiana went into halftime with a 33–32 lead, despite shooting 3 of 11 from three in the half and the Wildcats holding a plus-five advantage on the boards.
Despite three of its players—Robert Johnson, Juwan Morgan and OG Anunoby—leaving the game with injuries, Indiana shot 13 of 24 from the field in the second half and repeatedly got to the free throw line down the stretch.
It was Indiana’s first NCAA tournament win against Kentucky since March 17, 1973, and the Hoosiers earned their third Sweet 16 appearance in five seasons.
Why it matters
It had been 1,457 days since Indiana and Kentucky last met on the basketball court. The Wildcats defeated the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 of the 2012 NCAA tournament and the teams hadn’t played since.
With a Sweet 16 appearance on the line, the two programs with a combined 13 national championships met in Des Moines, Iowa, where Kentucky’s season ended and Indiana’s extended as it pursues another title.
It was Kentucky coach John Calipari’s earliest NCAA tournament exit since 2004, while Indiana coach Tom Crean, the subject of frequent hot seat discussions, takes his team to the second weekend for the first time since 2013.
Saturday also featured a game within a game: a matchup between two All-American point guards in Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. There may not be a better individual matchup in the NCAA tournament and the two diminutive point guards did not disappoint, combining for 45 points and seven assists.
The two schools have been unable to reach a new agreement to restore their once-annual non-conference series, but the Selection Committee set up an exciting second-round matchup in Des Moines.
Under normal circumstances, an NCAA tournament game between two power conference champions wouldn’t take place in the second round. However, the two blueblood programs were placed in the same pod as the East Region’s No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.
Kentucky’s season ends in the second round. Alex Poythress played his final game on Saturday and Kentucky’s backcourt of Ulis and Murray could both be on an NBA roster next season.
Meanwhile, Indiana moves on to face the winner of Saturday night’s No. 1 North Carolina-No. 9 Providence game. The Hoosiers will look to recover from their physical game against Kentucky in an effort to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002.
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Iowa State put an end to Little Rock’s Cinderella story, taking command of their second-round matchup right from the tip and never letting go en route to a 78–61 victory. The Cyclones advanced to the Sweet 16 behind 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting from Georges Niang.
Why it matters
After a one-year hiatus, Iowa State is back in the Sweet 16. Steve Prohm has done an excellent job in his first year as head coach, keeping in place the systems that worked so well under Fred Hoiberg. It helps, of course, when you have players like Niang, Monte Morris, Abdel Nader, Jameel McKay and Matt Thomas. The Iowa State starting five played a complete game from start to finish, and that’s what the Cyclones are going to have to take forward from this game. There’s no doubt this team has Final Four potential, but when it struggled from time to time in the Big 12, it typically was because it didn’t receive any contributions from at least two of its key players. This is a team that lives by its hyper-efficient offense. That’s what will continue to carry it in the tournament.
Iowa State will take on No. 1 Virginia in the Sweet 16.
In the first half of Sunday’s West Regional second round game, Duke looked every bit the power conference heavyweight that it is, using a 34–6 run to take a 27–point lead over Ivy League champion Yale, fresh off its first ever NCAA tournament win. The fourth-seeded Blue Devils still led by 22 at intermission. But in the second half, the 12th-seeded Bulldogs bit back, dominating the glass and outscoring the defending national champions 15–0 to get within seven with 11 minutes remaining. They eventually got within three in the final minute, but Duke made just enough free throws down the stretch to hold on for a 71–64 win that sends the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16.
Why it matters
For the second straight game, Duke got a battle from a double-digit seed. After trailing by as many as six points in Thursday’s first-round game to No. 13 UNC Wilmington, when they didn’t put the game away until the final minute before winning by eight, the Blue Devils appeared to be on cruise control against Yale. Instead, they instead had to battle to avoid one of the biggest collapses in NCAA tournament history. With the increased quality of competition they’ll face from here on out, they will have to play well for 40 minutes if they expect to reach another Final Four. The good news for Duke is that after making just 4 of 15 from three-point range against the Seahawks, Mike Krzyzewski’s team made 10 of 18 in the first half on Sunday. When the Blue Devils shoot like that they are extremely tough to beat. That’s even more true when both Ingram (25 points) and sophomore guard Grayson Allen (29 points) are playing well, as they did in combining for 54 points against the Bulldogs.
Duke faces the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 Oregon and No. 8 Saint Joseph’s in the Sweet 16 next Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.
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No. 3 Miami was all over No. 11 Wichita State early. Hurricanes senior guard Angel Rodriguez scored a quick 17 points, and the Shockers only made one field goal for the first 11:49. The result was a 27–6 Miami lead with 8:28 left in the first half. But an 11–0 run by Wichita State over the next five minutes helped close the gap and shorten the lead to 10. At the end of the first half, Miami had shot 60.0% from the floor to Wichita State’s 24.1%. The Hurricanes led 32–19.
But the Shockers weren’t done. They outscored Miami 24–10 to open the second half and took their first lead of the game on a three-pointer from senior guard Ron Baker with 10:29 left in the game. From there, it was back and forth between Miami and Wichita State. In the stretch run, the Hurricanes were boosted by strong a strong defensive performance from junior guard Davon Reed and some much needed offense from senior guard Sheldon McClellan (18 points on 5 of 11 shooting). Rodriguez led all scorers with 28 points, and the Hurricanes held on to win 65–57.
Why it matters
The storied college careers of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are over. The two have played in a Final Four (2013), started a season 35–0 (2014) and made the Sweet 16 by beating instate juggernaut Kansas (2015). Under head coach Gregg Marshall, Wichita State helped change this program from an obscure mid-major that had made one NCAA tournament in the 2000s to an annual contender. Despite tired legs from playing three games in six days, the Shockers showed how tough they are by withstanding an early Miami run and making the second half competitive.
The Hurricanes, for their part, have moved into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013, the last time they made the NCAA tournament. What Miami has done this season—and in the past few years—is a testament to coach Jim Larrañaga’s ability to build a program. Miami was an ACC doormat before Larrañaga arrived and is now in position for a deep tournament run.
The Hurricanes will face the winner of No. 7 Iowa and No. 2 Villanova in the Sweet 16 in Louisville.