KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Assorted thoughts on the Friday Sweet 16 games, which were published only after making a championship belt motion once I hit send…
The tournament’s first buzzer-beaters were worth the wait. Emphasis on the plural.
Down three in regulation, Wisconsin had possession with 6.5 seconds left against Florida. The Badgers’ top clutch three-point threat, Bronson Koenig, was incapacitated by what looked like a pulled or cramped muscle in his leg. So the ball found its way to Zak Showalter on the inbounds, and the former walk-on hit a one-legged, game-tying shot from beyond the arc to send the game to overtime.
And after the shot, he turned in the direction one of the more notable Badgers fans in the crowd at Madison Square Garden.
And then Zak Showalter discount double-checked Aaron Rodgers.
Guys, the massive frustration and pain over an NCAA tournament without a single memorable shot at the horn: It was all for this. It was all for this.
Florida’s lead and what seemed like a sure spot in the Elite Eight evaporated with Wisconsin’s 14–1 run over the end of regulation and into overtime. But the Gators lingered, tying it on a Chris Chiozza layup with 24 seconds left, and then faced a two-point hole after Nigel Hayes made two free throws with four seconds remaining in the extra period.
And then Chiozza caught the ball on the run on the inbound pass. And then he dribbled, and somewhere across half-court Wisconsin left him, and after a jump stop at the top of the key, the Florida sophomore hoisted a shot. It fell as time expired. Florida had its spot in the Elite Eight with an 84–83 win and the 2017 NCAA tournament had its new best game.
We went 59 games in this event without overtime or a buzzer-beater. It was about time.
SEC: Basketball conference. Florida and South Carolina play for the East Region championship and a spot in the Final Four. Kentucky looks to upend North Carolina and join one of them in Arizona. The regularly scheduled cynicism about basketball in this league is bumping up against some invigorating March results.
Here’s where we remind everyone that the NCAA tournament is wildly unpredictable at times, and as such, it’s dangerous to make any declarations on conference strength based on performance in this event. But there’s no doubt it’s been a good spring for the SEC, and not just because the backup Will linebacker has really made strides in the weight room.
De’Aaron Fox had the game of his life and was the best freshman point guard on the floor. Kentucky’s lanky floor general was absurd in the Sweet 16 win over UCLA. This is the only way to describe Fox scoring 39 points in 36 minutes and controlling the flow of the game. He and fellow freshman Malik Monk accounted for 58 of Kentucky’s 86 points and they all but single-handedly pushed Kentucky ahead by dominating the ball and the scoring for a long stretch in the middle of the game.
By contrast, UCLA’s normally incendiary Lonzo Ball was merely normal on what will be the final game of his short college career. Ball scored 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting, adding eight assists and four turnovers in 38 minutes. Typically he’s able to be the brick on the gas pedal and get the Bruins humming. But Fox was vastly more productive and, just as importantly, deftly kept the game to a pace that benefited his team. Which brings us to our next point…
Give John Calipari and Kentucky credit for figuring out how to keep tempo under control. At one point, UCLA was shooting 80% in the second half and trailing by six. A few minutes later, it was still shooting 73.3% and trailing by eight. For the night, the Bruins shot better than the Wildcats (52.7% to 49.2%) and were pretty much exactly as efficient from three-point range (nine makes from long distance compared to Kentucky’s 10). So how in the world does Kentucky pull away and win fairly comfortably?
In the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 3, UCLA scored 97 points in an 83-possession game. On Friday, UCLA scored 75 points in a 65-possession game. Despite deploying a team equipped to run and push tempo, Calipari evidently knew better against this UCLA squad. For the night, both teams combined for 17 fast-break points. Kentucky’s defense wasn’t incredible. But its ability to manage pace of game was.
So, yes, a good offense is still vulnerable to good defense or good tempo management. UCLA’s prolific attack couldn’t overwhelm its way past the Sweet 16. And now the program arrives at an identity crossroads. Will head coach Steve Alford abscond for alma mater Indiana despite having never coached a team to the Elite Eight? What does Bruins basketball look like post-Lonzo Ball? If Alford leaves, do the younger Ball siblings (LiAngelo and LaMelo) still play for the program?
If Indiana wants Alford, we’ll arrive at a resolution either way sooner than later. And then we’ll start to figure out what UCLA basketball will look like.
North Carolina has a fully functional engine at the time it needs to rev up the most. Joel Berry II’s ankle looks just fine, thank you, as evidenced by 8-of-13 shooting and 26 points and 36 minutes played against Butler. This is a vast improvement over the 3-of-21 shooting over the tournament’s first weekend. But the impact of the junior point guard’s health extends beyond giving North Carolina a second top-shelf perimeter threat. The Tar Heels like to play fast, and Berry II is the fuel for that; moreover, they’ll need to play fast from here on out while maintaining a high level of offensive efficiency. (That said, North Carolina only posted 13 fast-break points on the night.) Kentucky surely isn’t going to walk the ball up in the South Region final. And if North Carolina survives that, the odds are Kansas is next, and no one in the country gets the ball up the floor any faster than the Jayhawks.
Berry II’s production is a huge boon. But his wheels are just as significant.
Probably not ideal to count on career nights from Luke Maye. Full marks to the 6’8” sophomore forward, who came off the bench to post a career-high 16 points and 12 rebounds for the Tar Heels. (Fourteen of those points came in 11 first-half minutes.) That’s a nice luxury for North Carolina, to rotate that sort of player in as your third or fourth big man option, but here’s guessing Roy Williams would rather not press his luck on that from here out. Instead, he’d likely prefer that Isaiah Hicks wouldn’t battle foul trouble and log just 17 minutes, as was the case against Butler, or that Kennedy Meeks would offer a bit more than a five-point, three-shot effort—though Meeks did grab 11 boards in 27 minutes.
Maybe Maye becomes a darling of late March/early April. But North Carolina deploys Meeks and Hicks first for a reason. That reason is to provide more reliability in the post than they offered Friday.
Kelan Martin is interesting, but interesting turned to vexing on Friday. It’s not every day in college basketball that you send your most talented player to the bench, and everyone benefits. But the 6’7” junior came into the Sweet 16 averaging 17.9 points in his previous eight outings…and then promptly disappeared for almost 30 minutes against North Carolina. The final line of 16 points and five rebounds was respectable only if you neglect the fact that Martin didn’t hit his first shot until 11:20 remained in the game. Butler badly needed that hot streak much earlier. The hole was far too deep by then.
Oh, Baylor. Some day, they’ll sit on their porches in Waco as the summer wind rustles the tree branches and caresses their Magnolia Market ceramic jug vases, and they’ll tell the children about The Great Baylor Bucket Famine of ’17.
For dang near eight minutes in the first half on Friday night, Baylor did not score against South Carolina. This is a major problem in any case, and especially against a team that is unlikely to let you up off the mat without bloodying its knuckles first. So while the Bears at last made a clean escape into the Sweet 16 after two straight first-weekend exits, this was a dismal enough performance to revive all those bad feelings about the program’s recent postseason failures. While Johnathan Motley finished with 18 points, the junior All-Big 12 star was just 3 of 9 in that fatal first half. While second-leading scorer Manu Lecomte hit a couple three-pointers to revive his team a bit in the second half, he missed eight of his 11 shots overall and recorded just one assist in 35 minutes. The Bears were suffocated into 30.4% shooting against a team that played zone, which might be understandable if Baylor didn’t play a lot of zone itself.
Again, merely getting to New York City got Baylor off the hook, somewhat, for those recent early exits. But the scope of this failure will help people remember the bad times for a long time.
Meanwhile, let’s get Cocky. Let’s be real clear about how real South Carolina is: It’s very real. We can be very serious when we discuss the Gamecocks as a Final Four team. South Carolina shot 46% and won the rebounding battle (40–37) against a Baylor team overloaded with size and athleticism. Sindarius Thornwell accounted for 24 points but was just one of four double-digit scorers. If we’re sticking with the story that Baylor was the most talented team left at Madison Square Garden, then logically, South Carolina’s chances against Florida should be even better.
We’ll see if the offense holds up for a team that, at the moment, still rates 121st in offensive efficiency. As boa-constricting as the defense is, the Gamecocks still need buckets to win. You wonder if they’re one dry stretch away from the whole endeavor collapsing.
We have our Elite Eight. And here’s the undisputed ranking of the Elite Eight games.
1. Kentucky vs. North Carolina
2. Xavier vs. Gonzaga
3. Oregon vs. Kansas
4. South Carolina vs. Florida
That is official and true. Discount double-check it.