INDIANAPOLIS — With the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament three-quarters over, we’re on the cusp of finalizing the Sweet 16 on Sunday. With eight slots to be filled, here’s eight thoughts on Saturday’s games and Sunday’s matchups.
1) The NCAA admitted it got something wrong on Saturday. No, it wasn’t the egregious seeding errors that have had coaches and fans scratching their heads all weekend. But it was perhaps an even more baffling officiating error on an uncalled goaltend that swung the momentum of Northwestern’s upset bid against Gonzaga. Instead of Gonzaga’s 18-point halftime lead being cut to three with five minutes left, Northwestern trailed by seven after the missed call and technical foul against Chris Collins. (He had a point). Northwestern never really threatened again in a 79–73 loss. “The officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot,” the NCAA said in a statement.
2) The biggest stunner of the day came when No. 8 Wisconsin topped No. 1 Villanova, 65–62, to dethrone the defending champions. It again put a spotlight on the second-worst seeding of the bracket. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten and somehow ended up as a No. 8? The game would have been more fitting in the Elite Eight or at least the Round of 16. But Villanova can’t seed them, they can only play them. “To me, there's no dishonor in losing in this tournament but I do know that—and we've lived through it,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “You are judged by how you play in this tournament and that's the reality of it. So, you have to accept it.”
3) The worst seeding of the committee will be on display on what’s considered the most intriguing game of Sunday. That’ll be when No. 2 Kentucky plays No. 10 Wichita State. Kentucky is just a 4.5-point favorite, a game that serves as an insult to both programs. (And a reverse revenge game for No. 8 Kentucky ending No. 1 Wichita’s undefeated season in the 2014 NCAA tournament), Dayton coach Archie Miller’s No. 7 Flyers got knocked out by Wichita, 64–58, and said that the Shockers looked more like a No. 4 seed. “Kentucky having to play a No. 4 seed in the second round,” Miller said. “I don't know if that's right.”
4) The only double-digit seed in the Sweet 16 so far is No. 11 Xavier. And it should never be cast as a Cinderella. The Musketeers deserve credit for overcoming serious personnel losses to deliver Chris Mack to the Round of 16 for the fourth time since 2010. Mack has had so much success at Xavier that it makes it almost surprising when his team doesn’t reach the second weekend. Credit Mack for adjusting on the fly after losing starting guard and potential first-round pick Edmond Sumner to injury and veteran guard Myles Davis (Davis left the team after a lengthy suspension). Few coaches had better seasons that Mack, who has transitioned Xavier seamlessly to the Big East.
5) As predictable results go, there were few easier to see than the way Virginia flopped in the NCAA tournament. The No. 4 Cavaliers fizzled out with a 39-point offensive performance against No. 4 Florida, emblematic of Virginia’s annual offensive struggles when the tournament lights go bright. One year after Tony Bennett melted down on the sidelines against Syracuse in the Elite Eight, the Cavaliers put up an eye bleeder for the ages against a Florida team playing without its starting center. In its past four NCAA tournament losses, UVA has averaged nearly 53 points. The good news for the No. 5 Cavaliers losing to No. 4 Florida is that at least they didn’t lose to a worse seed like they did the past three seasons.
6) Don’t be surprised if Bill Self has trouble sleeping Saturday night. He goes up against No. 9 Michigan State in a game that bubbles with upset potential. Realistically, this Spartan team isn’t very good. But this is the statistic that will impress your friends after church tomorrow—Izzo is 21–4 in the one-day turnarounds in the NCAA tournament. That makes Izzo advancing after winning one of the great certainties in sports. (Kansas fans don’t need to be reminded that Self has been eliminated by underdogs Bucknell, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, VCU, Bradley and Stanford.)
7) Who can save Cinderella from showing up on a milk carton? Of the eight teams that advanced Saturday, the only two outside top-4 seeds are Xavier and Wisconsin. The only double-digit seeds playing tomorrow are No. 10 Wichita and No. 11 Rhode Island. The Shockers have to contend with Kentucky’s waves of talented young guards. The Rams have been a trendy upset pick over No. 3 Oregon because of the injury to Ducks center Chris Boucher. The Ducks didn’t appear to miss him much against No. 14 Iona in the first round. But defense has always been optional at Iona, and this Rams team is No. 36 nationally in effective field goal percentage and has the good karma of Lamar Odom hanging around in Sacramento. Don’t be surprised if the Rams advance.
8) Writing a column Saturday in the concierge lounge of an Indianapolis hotel, the name Steve Alford was mentioned in relation to the Indiana job in overheard conversation no fewer than seven times. All the buzz here is that Fred Glass wants to bring back the “double check plus” alumnus and hopes to erase 30 years of history to start winning national titles again in Bloomington. It will be interesting to see if any of that has impacted the No. 3 Bruins. They shouldn’t be overlooking No. 6 Cincinnati, which could pull an upset if it slows the pace and showcases its No. 19 effective defensive field-goal percentage.