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  • What did we learn as half of the Sweet 16's tickets were punched? While Michigan provided the dramatics, Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky and Gonzaga were a reminder that at the end of the day, everyone's still chasing the big boys.
By Chris Johnson
March 18, 2018

The NCAA tournament has a way of veering in a direction you don’t expect, at the moment that you least expect it. On Friday, University of Maryland, Baltimore County pulled off the most improbable upset in this event’s history, the same year that a different No. 16 seed, Ivy League champion University of Pennsylvania, was touted as a threat to knock off No. 1 Kansas. Instead, the Jayhawks beat back the Quakers with relative ease in the first round, winning 76–60 after getting off to a slow start. And on Saturday, head coach Bill Self’s group was one of a host of high-major heavyweights to move on to the second weekend.

The day after the Retrievers and their glorious Twitter account convulsed the college hoops world with a 20-point win over No. 1 Virginia that continues to strain credulity, the sport’s royal caste restored a semblance of order. No. 1 seeds Kansas and Villanova, No. 2 seed Duke and No. 5 seed Kentucky handled their second-round opponents with varying levels of difficulty to ensure passage to the Sweet 16. Coming as they did less than 24 hours removed from the UMBC-induced pandemonium in Charlotte, these victories amounted to a reminder that, for as much of the tourney’s appeal owes to its penchant for lifting underdogs into the spotlight, they’re still chasing the big boys.

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Here are our biggest takeaways from the first half of the round of 32:

• Michigan, is first and foremost, a college football blueblood, but it too advanced to its third game of this tourney, only it happened in a far more dramatic manner than it did for Kansas, Villanova, Duke and Kentucky. Down by two with less than four seconds remaining against No. 6 seed Houston, Wolverines freshman Isaiah Livers fired a one-handed inbounds pass to senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, who dribbled past half court and found Jordan Poole open from well beyond the three-point line. The short shorts-rocking freshman splayed his legs mid-jump as he heaved up a prayer that went down for a one-point win.

Poole’s shot offered yet another reminder that March does not need Cinderella stories, obscurely named small-school standouts or odds-defying giant-slayings to deliver thrilling moments. The Wolverines are coming off a Big Ten tournament title, they’ve enjoyed plenty of success in the NCAAs of late under head coach John Beilein, and the Cougars belong to one of the biggest leagues outside the football Power 5 (the American Athletic Conference). All it took was a score margin within one possession, a shrewd play design and enough luck to make a freshman with only 36 prior three-point makes entering Sunday connect on a deep rainbow at the buzzer.

• Villanova looks like it could be in the early stages of a run that ends with a net-cutting in San Antonio. Surely you remember the ridiculous shooting run the Wildcats used two years ago en route to the program’s second national title. The Wildcats rang up 1.30 points per possession—a big jump from the 1.12 they put up to lead the Big East during conference play that year—while shooting 62.8% from inside the three-point line and 50% from beyond it. Villanova caught fire at just the right time, and the six opponents it mowed down (UNC Asheville, Iowa, Miami, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina) were powerless to stop it.

The Wildcats have played only two games in these NCAAs, but over that sample they’ve hinted at the possibility that a similar scorching shooting run could be in store. Two days after Villanova connected on 68% of its 2s and 52% of its 3s in a 26-point rout over No. 16 seed Radford, the Wildcats blitzed Alabama and its stout defense for an 81–58 win on Saturday. Ranked 19th in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points allowed per possession, the Crimson Tide were undone by Villanova’s 41.5% shooting from long-range, including five treys from redshirt junior wing Mikal Bridges. Villanova scored 1.23 points per possession.

True, the Wildcats have faced only one opponent (Alabama) that could hope to muster even marginal resistance against their offense, which leads the nation in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency and effective field goal percentage. Villanova could well go cold in its matchup next weekend with the winner of Sunday’s meeting between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 13 Marshall. That said, it also feels possible that Bridges, junior point guard Jalen Brunson, redshirt sophomore off-guard Donte DiVincenzo and the rest of the Wildcats’ perimeter marksmen will carry Villanova to the Final Four by burying its forthcoming opponents in a torrent of triples.

• John Calipari is primarily associated with his annual mass recruitment of elite high school players and track record of developing them into first-round NBA draft picks. Yet he probably ought to receive more attention for his consistency as a tourney coach. Saturday’s 20-point win over the same Buffalo team that trounced Sports Illustrated preseason No. 1 Arizona in the first round on Thursday earned Calipari his seventh trip to the Sweet 16 in nine years. One more win would give Cal his seventh Elite Eight appearance since he took over at Kentucky in 2009, with a chance to get to his fifth Final Four during that span.

All “but he gets the best players” caveats apply here. There are very few coaches in the country who wouldn’t trade rosters with Calipari every season. Still, this particular version of the Wildcats is young even by Calipari-era standards, and it was floundering during the middle of conference play just last month, dropping four games in a row to fall into the bubble conversation. Kentucky may have lucked out by drawing Buffalo, but that framing glosses over the fact that 1) the Wildcats had to beat an offensively potent Davidson team just to get to the second round and 2) the Bulls were a dangerous No. 13 and proved as much by blowing out Arizona.

The South region is there for the taking. UMBC took out No. 1 Virginia on Friday, Loyola Chicago has upended No. 6 Miami and No. 3 Tennessee and, as noted above, No. 4 Arizona couldn’t handle Buffalo. For the Wildcats, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the program’s 18th Final Four berth is a potential game against No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the Elite Eight.

• Udoka Azubuike is getting healthier, which is good news for Kansas and bad news for the teams remaining in the Midwest region. A strained knee ligament had forced the 7-foot sophomore to sit out the Jayhawks’ three games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament and limited him to only three minutes in their first-round win in the NCAAs over Penn on Thursday. During Saturday’s 83–79 triumph over No. 8 seed Seton Hall in the second round, Azubuike logged 22 minutes (fewer than two below his season average of 23.6) and was, in Self’s assessment, Kansas’s “most valuable player.”

Azubuike countered a 24-point, 23-rebound double double from Pirates big man Angel Delgado by connecting on four of his five attempts from the field for 10 points, snaring seven rebounds, blocking two shots and recording two assists and two steals. “If his mind wasn’t so right to get healthy that fast,” Self said afterward of Azubuike, “there’s no way we would have won that game.” Azubuike’s return is particularly important because of how thin the Jayhawks’ frontcourt is. They typically roll with a small starting lineup in which two guards (Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman) and two wings (Lagerald Vick, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) surround Azubuike.

Kansas’s top recruit, five-star power forward Billy Preston, signed with a professional team in Bosnia and Herzegovina (which he has since left) after never suiting up while sitting in eligibility limbo, and true freshman Silvio De Sousa was playing high school ball at IMG Academy last semester before reclassifying. Besides those two, the Jayhawks’ only non-Azubuike, scholarship frontcourt player is 6’8’’ sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, who’s averaged only four points in about 15 minutes per game this season. Kansas needs Azubuike at full strength to reach its ceiling. He might not be there yet, but he seems to be getting closer.

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• Last season’s run to the national championship game should have squelched any doubts over Gonzaga’s status as a national powerhouse, but any lingering non-believers need to tip their caps at what head coach Mark Few’s squad is doing this month. On Saturday, two days after getting pushed by No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro in the first round in an eventual four-point win, it downed one of the Big Ten’s top squads in Boise, holding off Ohio State 90–84 in a No. 5 seed-No. 4 seed West region matchup to advance to a Sweet 16 meeting next weekend with whoever emerges from Sunday’s clash between No. 1 seed Xavier and No. 9 seed Florida State.

Gonzaga was rightly expected to take a step back this season after losing three members of its starting lineup, including Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goes, plus lottery-bound reserve big man Zach Collins. The Zags were voted 18th in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, and they were picked to finish behind Saint Mary’s in their own (small) league. Now it’s the middle of March, and the Gaels are reduced to watching the NCAAs from the couch, while Gonzaga is a pair of Ws away from earning just the program’s second invitation to the Final Four.

Few has adroitly blended proven a group of proven veterans (redshirt junior point guard Josh Perkins, redshirt senior forward Johnathan Williams), and promising underclassmen (redshirt freshman guard Zach Norvell Jr., sophomore forwards Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura) into a balanced group that stands as one of only three teams left in the field checking in the top 15 of Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. (The two others, Midwest No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Michigan State, could only meet the Zags in the title game.) Gonzaga’s next step could well be a second second-weekend date with the Musketeers in as many years.

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