Favorites dominate to set up a pair of 1 vs. 2 Elite Eight showdowns
The way things left off in this NCAA tournament—with Wisconsin’s buzzer-beating three against Xavier, just after Texas A&M completed the greatest last-minute comeback in college basketball history—the roughly 90-hour break before the Sweet 16 tipped off seemed particularly long. The second round had largely bucked the first’s embrace of the underdog, but the upside to that was that the first four games of the Sweet 16 would be loaded with firepower. The top three seeds in the West and South regions, plus a No. 4 in the former and a No. 5 in the latter. It looked like we were set for another night full of high-stakes drama, even without any appearances from Cinderella.
What we ended up getting was . . . not very dramatic at all. A Villanova-Miami shootout ballooned into a Wildcats blowout. Oklahoma handily dispatched the Texas A&M team that had to come from 12 points down with 44 seconds left against Northern Iowa last Sunday in what became a double-overtime win. Kansas came out of halftime scorching hot and left Maryland burned and beaten. Oregon simply ran Duke out of Anaheim. As analytics guru Ken Pomeroy pointed out on Twitter, the tightest game of the night was NJIT edging UT-Arlington, 63-60, in the CIT quarterfinals to earn a date with Columbia.
Which is not to say that Thursday’s games were not worth watching. They didn't go down to the wire or bust many brackets, but they may have hinted at what's to come in this tournament for each of the victorious teams.
For the Jayhawks, the top seed in the South, it was the brilliance of senior forward Perry Ellis, subject of approximately 5,000 Twitter jokes about his age and purveyor of nearly as many moves in the post. The 22-year-old (really) finished with 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 10 points in the game’s first 12 minutes. He and junior frontcourt mate Landen Lucas (14 points, 11 rebounds) dominated the interior, while Terrapins uber-freshman Diamond Stone put up just five points, with four rebounds, and four fouls. The game was close for a little while, but Kansas made six straight field goals to open the second half, quickly extending what had been a two-point halftime lead to seven. Maryland never seriously threatened after that. The biggest remaining moment of uncertainty came when the officials reviewed a replay of Frank Mason’s layup as time expired, which would determine whether Kansas won by 14 or 16. Fittingly, it counted.
Oregon also ended its win on a why-not high note, when sophomore Dillon Brooks chucked up an NBA-range three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 10 seconds left in the game. When it went in, pushing the Ducks’ margin to 14, all TBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist could manage was a sigh. (According to a tweet from SI's Pete Thamel, Brooks said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told him in the handshake line that he's "too good of a player to be showing off like that." In the postgame press conference Krzyzewski said, "I didn't say that . . . I said 'You're a great player.'") Brooks made four of his nine threes and the team shot 43.5% from deep, but more importantly the Ducks showcased the length and explosiveness that made them the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champs and a threat to win the school’s first national title since FDR’s second term in the White House. They locked up in their zone press. They pushed the ball up the floor. They threw down dunks. The NCAA tournament’s first-ever champion knocked out the defending one by playing like the perennial Final Four threat it has not been. Things got so backward that Grayson Allen actually got tripped, albeit incidentally.
The No. 2 seeds made statements of their own. For Villanova, it was the continuation of its first-weekend proclamation: These are not the same Wildcats that have made a recent habit of early exits. The Wildcats beat the Hurricanes by 23, and it was only five points away from being their smallest margin of victory in this tournament. Yes, Villanova can be reliant on threes, but as it showed against Miami, it can also bury you with them. Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins each had 21 points and combined to make nine of 16 triples. The Wildcats’ team stats were even more eye-popping: they shot 62.7% from the field, 66.7% from three, and 94.7% from the free-throw line, averaging an astounding 1.6 points per possession. (They also thoroughly dominated the glass, rebounding nine of their 19 misses.) Or maybe it’s the Hurricanes’ stat line that is more telling: they shot 53.2% from the field and 58.8% from three . . . and got manhandled. As concerning as that is for Villanova’s defense, it’s also proof of how dangerous its scorers can be once they get rolling.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, showed once again that it has more to it than just its irrepressible star guard. Texas A&M keyed on Buddy Hield from the start, and the result was that even though the Wooden Award co-favorite was held to 17 points, eight below his average, four other Sooners ended up scoring in double figures. Junior Jordan Woodard had 22 points, making five of six threes. Forwards Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin each had 10. And of course, Hield still added 10 rebounds, for his first double double of the season. He may be contained, but he won’t be stopped. Perhaps no play better exemplified the Aggies’ losing game of whack-a-mole than one in the final minute of the first half, when Hield was trapped by two defenders in the corner. He dumped the ball to Spangler, who clanked a jumper off the backboard, missing iron. But Woodard, without a defender near him, corralled the ball and touched off a floater as the shot clock hit zero. It fell, and the Sooners led by 19 going into halftime.
It was that kind of night for all of the favorites. None of them could do much wrong. Which is why Thursday’s chalk portends so well for Saturday’s heavyweight double main event. The banging and balanced Jayhawks will face the lights-out Wildcats in the South. Oregon’s wings will run into Hield and his buddies in the West. It’s two No. 1s against two No. 2s. Surely, one would think, it will be must-see TV.