• Retrievers, nuns and fruit were notable among the craziness of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Through all that, contenders Kentucky and Gonzaga stayed out of trouble and made it through to the Sweet 16.
By Greg Bishop
March 18, 2018

BOISE – Upsets unfolded all week in the NCAA tournament, upsets marked by nuns and dogs and fruit and the most improbable victory in men’s tournament history. There was Sister Jean and her favorite team, Loyola-Chicago, beating Miami and Tennessee and topping the very 2018 notion of universal divisiveness because everyone loves nuns who know their basketball and everyone loves upsets.

There were the UMBC Retrievers bludgeoning top-overall seed Virginia to become the first No. 16 seed to win on the men’s side of the tourney. While they hogged the headlines with Loyola, Syracuse also topped TCU and Marshall vanquished Wichita State and, even here, Buffalo ended Arizona’s tumultuous season before the weekend. And yet, for all the chaos and all the drama and a March defined so far by faith and fur and another round of upsets, by the time the games ended here on Saturday, the teams left standing were two legitimate national title contenders, making Taco Bell Arena the antidote to college basketball calamity.

The two teams that will move from Boise into the tournament’s second week are Kentucky and Gonzaga. No surprise there. They may be seeded lower than usual—a 5 for the Wildcats in the South, a 4 for the Zags in the West—but it’s still, well, Kentucky and Gonzaga. The Wildcats have won eight national titles and their latest crop of stars on NBA layovers are rounding into typical March form. Gonzaga is playing in its 20th straight NCAA tournament and fourth straight Sweet 16, and it lost in the title game last season and posted another 30-plus-win season this year.

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The Zags’ priest may even feel a little Sister Jean envy. But he gets to do this every season. Wash, rinse, advance in the NCAA tournament. Chaos? What chaos?

Late Friday, Gonzaga’s players watched UMBC bludgeon Virginia from inside their respective hotel rooms. Group chats were filled with giddy messages, laden with emojis, gifs and exclamation points. The Bulldogs were watching history unfold in real time, but that also underscored the depth of the tournament field, the way any team, even the very best team, could be beat. “Watching those guys reminded me what March is all about,” guard Silas Melson said. “They also reminded me we can’t take anything for granted.”

Down the street from the team hotel, longtime Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd watched the upset unfold while dining with his parents at an Old Chicago restaurant. It was harder for him to watch, mostly because of the flashbacks from Gonzaga’s close win over 16th-seeded Southern in 2013. “On one hand, we’ve been there,” Lloyd said. “We’ve been a No. 1 seed twice, and both of them were tough games. It’s not easy, playing with that, the weight of those expectations, everybody talking about it’s never been done before, it’s never been done before.”

Lloyd said an upset like UMBC’s was inevitable, because not only has parity in college basketball existed for decades, but it seems particularly pronounced now. “I’ve been at Gonzaga 19 years,” he said. “So I’ve seen that underdog mentality and understand how good those players are on those programs. We were those teams. We have those guys.”

What’s harder, Lloyd continued, is to do what Loyola-Chicago did and follow one upset up with another shocker. Like with Buffalo, which beat Arizona here but couldn’t top Kentucky.

The Zags were also mild favorites over Ohio State on Saturday, and they jumped to a 15-0 lead, withstood a furious late rally from the Buckeyes and prevailed, 90-84. They showcased the versatility that should serve them well the rest of the tournament, with star forward Johnathan Williams in foul trouble (he played only 19 minutes) and freshman guard Zach Norvell Jr. notching career highs in points (28), rebounds (12) and 3-pointers (6). This after his late triple clinched the Bulldogs opening win over UNC-Greensboro. Meanwhile, Japanese forward Rui Hachimura added 25 points and five boards off the bench.

The performance so impressed Gonzaga’s coach, Mark Few, that he did a handstand in the locker room. And Few wasn’t even the most celebrated person in his family this week. There were memes and pictures circulating of a “Gonzaga granny” who TV cameras captured throwing both arms skyward after the Zags first win saying, “thank you, Father.” Lloyd said the woman in the picture is Few’s mom.

So it went. Norvell is known as “Snacks” around Gonzaga’s program, because as a child growing up in Chicago he never stopped downing candy and chocolate. These days he feasts on 3-pointers. On Saturday, Few ranked Norvell among the most clutch players he’s ever had—while citing guys like Adam Morrison and Dan Dickau who made Gonzaga into Gonzaga in comparison. Lloyd said Norvell had “one of the best freshman seasons in the history of our program,” and he’ll need to continue that in Los Angeles next week, when Gonzaga could face the team it beat to finally reach a Final Four last season (top-seeded Xavier) and the team that topped the Bulldogs to win the national title (North Carolina, the second seed). (Both Xavier and UNC play on Sunday.)

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The Zags will be joined in the regional semifinals by Kentucky, a team that lost four straight for only the seventh time in the program’s vaunted history earlier this season and dropped out of the top 25. Its coach, John Calipari, has noted several times this week that he saw fear in the eyes of his young players, one of whom texted him something to the effect of “we need you more than ever now.”

Kentucky did what Kentucky does from there. It went on a winning streak and won the SEC Tournament and saw its point guard, Shai Alexander-Gilgeous  (a freshman, naturally) remind anyone who had forgotten why he should be an NBA lottery pick this summer. Calipari stuck with struggling players like guard Hamidou Diallo, who scored 22 points against the Bulls, while Alexander added 27 and six assists. The duo of guards basically took turns ending Buffalo runs. They Bulls cut the Wildcats lead to four once and five three times near the game’s end. Every time, one of the Kentucky guards answered, which had Calipari calling this season the most rewarding of his long career. “It just took us a long time,” he said, while Diallo nodded next to him.

Like Gonzaga, Kentucky showed it could contend in Boise, uneven season notwithstanding. It won another tournament game in unfriendly environs, with fans even lining up to welcome Buffalo’s bus as it arrived. (Although not that unfriendly; Calipari took one question from a reporter wearing a “UK” hat.)

His team shot the ball well, making the same amount of 3-pointers as sharpshooting Buffalo (seven) but in half the attempts (15 to 31). The Wildcats also badly out-rebounded the Bulls (42-30) and stopped their guards from penetrating. With Virginia gone from the South portion of the bracket now, an Elite 8 run isn’t just possible for Kentucky. It seems likely.

That’s how Saturday ended in Boise: with the Bulldogs and the Wildcats moving forward, into the tournament’s second week. Others could focus on the upsets, the dogs and the nun who became famous. The teams here, though, are more likely to be playing in San Antonio in two weeks.

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