We are in the midst of the most exciting time of the sports year. With the NCAA Tournament in March, followed by the Masters the second weekend of April, and then the NHL and NBA Playoffs through April and June, few sports fans would argue that there is a better four months of the year. College basketball fans have been entertained for the last five months by superstars, cinderella teams and Grayson Allen’s antics, but for the last two weeks the entire country has enjoyed all of that and more during March Madness.
Now March comes to a close with the Final Four beginning this Saturday (April 1st). It has been a thrilling month of basketball, cultivating with a phenomenal weekend of drama, buzzer-beaters, and SEC teams. Below you’ll find a brief recap of the weekend, along with takeaways and predictions moving forward.
16 Takeaways from the Sweet 16
- All winning streaks come to an end. Michigan kicked off the Sweet 16 against Oregon on Thursday night. For casual fans without a (positive or negative) affiliation with the Wolverines, the first two games Michigan played in the tournament were probably some of the most entertaining battles of the opening weekend. For those of us who do have an affiliation with the school, they were nerve-wracking as hell. Thursday night was no different, as Michigan fell by a point to the Oregon Ducks. The narrative was the same at halftime as it was in each of the first two games: given how the Wolverines played, the halftime deficit seemed manageable. And Michigan did go on a run to take a 3 point lead late in the game. It seemed as though the team of destiny would move on just for a moment as Dylan Ennis’ free throw missed and bounced off the back of the rim with Michigan up 68-65 with under 2 minutes remaining. However, Jordan Bell grabbed the rebound and made the putback layup, putting the Ducks right back into the game. If you haven’t seen how it ended, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, so I will just say this: Derrick Walton Jr. put together one of the best 10 game stretches of basketball I have ever seen a player have in college basketball. If his last shot had fallen just a couple inches farther, the Kemba Walker comparisons would have started instantly. Both Walton and Zak Irvin elevated their play over the last month and silenced all doubters from earlier in the season. I’ve enjoyed both of their careers at Michigan and I wish them well as they move on to a new chapter in their lives.
- Dylan Brooks and Jordan Bell are pro-ready. Casual fans probably wouldn’t have guessed that Brooks was the PAC-12 Player of the Year (in a conference featuring the (probable) first 2 picks in this summer’s NBA Draft and another surefire lottery pick) as he was probably Oregon’s 3rd best player in this game. However, he has played tremendously this season and he is going to be a good NBA player. He can score from anywhere on the floor and has the size to compete with talented NBA wings. On the other hand, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bell was the PAC-12 Defensive player of the year. He had an amazing game on both ends of the floor against the Wolverines and took DJ Wilson and Mo Wagner (see below) out of the game.
- DJ Wilson and Mo Wagner are not pro-ready. Maybe I’m being selfish and just want them to stay at Michigan for another year, but both guys struggled on the offensive end in the game against Oregon. I don’t know if either player will go through the NBA pre-draft process (players have until late May to announce if they are returning to college), but at this point I’d expect both to return. IF they do, we are looking at a starting lineup of Xavier Simpson, MAAR, Kentucky transfer and former 5-star Charles Matthews, and two NBA level bigs. Couple that with a bench featuring Duncan Robinson, 4-star freshman Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole, 3-star freshman Eli Brooks, and Michigan’s two bigs Jon Teske and Austin Davis. That’s a preseason top 15 team. Throw in Mo Bamba and that’s a preseason top 5 team. (Disclaimer: Mo Bamba is not going to Michigan)
- Press Virginia almost took down one of the best (in terms of Kenpom efficiency measures) teams of the last two decades. But that last possession was one of the worst I have ever seen. I feel bad for Jevon Carter because he is a great player who played a great game. But how did he manage to essentially dribble the clock out down 3? I personally love defense, and West Virginia’s press is thrilling to watch, but they just did not have enough offense to take down Gonzaga.
- Gonzaga is for real. Following a controversial win over Northwestern, Gonzaga faced its toughest test of the tournament against West Virginia and passed it (barely). They lost the rebound battle, the turnover battle, and took 16 less shots than the Mountaineers. They didn’t have a single player score more than 13 points. So how did they win? With the same stifling defense that has earned them the title of best defensive team in the country (again by Kenpom measures). WVU shot 16/60 (26.7%) from the field and 5/23 (21.7%) from 3. You can give up a hundred shots as long as they’re all well defended and that is exactly what Gonzaga’s mentality seemed to be. This whole weekend’s theme was defense and this low scoring slugfest was a prime example.
- Caleb Swanigan is a great player with a great story, but he just didn’t have enough in him to take down the Jayhawks. I have considered him to be an overrated player all season, mainly because I think he makes his team worse on defense. He obviously has a diverse offensive skill set but I think he has major effort lapses that will hurt him at the next level. Purdue started out strong, holding it close throughout the second half, but were run off the court late in the game.
- Let me explain what run off the floor means. Purdue cut Kansas’ lead to 53-51 shortly after the under-16 minute media timeout. From there, Kansas finished the game on a 45-15 run. The Jayhawks averaged over 90 points per game through 3 tournament contests. Everyone was on fire. That is all you need to know about Kansas from this game.
- Sean Miller will forever be the President of the Best Coaches to Never Make A Final Four Club. I mean seriously, 11 seeded Xavier. One of his best teams ever. A lead for basically the whole game. It just isn’t meant to be Sean.
- Only one region, the East, truly felt the effect of the first weekend in the Sweet 16. A Duke-Villanova Elite Eight matchup in Madison Square Garden must have had basketball media salivating. Instead they ended up with Florida v South Carolina. Wait, those are SEC teams. What in the name of football happened on Friday night?
- Butler misses Brad Stevens. They were unknown as a 4-seed, and had two quiet wins before getting pounded by UNC. Were they the worst 4 seed? Probably. Could I name a player on their team? No. They just don't have the same swagger that they did when Stevens was at the helm. (Stevens may be one of the five best basketball coaches in the world. The Celtics are currently tied with the Cavs for the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Besides Gregg Popovich, Coach K, and Steve Kerr, who would you rather having leading your ball club? College or pro I would take Stevens.)
- UNC shouldn’t have been in this game. I know this is supposed to be about the Sweet Sixteen, but anyone who watched the UNC-Arkansas thriller from last sunday knows that Kennedy Meeks got a piece of that shot and Joel Berry should’ve been called for a charge on the next possession.
- South Carolina’s defense is as good as Gonzaga’s. I thought Baylor was gonna lose in the first round. But they didn’t and with some help from USC (knocking out SMU, a bad matchup for Baylor), the made the Sweet Sixteen. And then they wished they hadn’t. (The other) USC ran them off the court and just decided that they wouldn’t allow Baylor to score. Or have fun. Or have anything that resembled offensive rhythm.
- As Stephen A. Smith said, Lavar Ball wrote one too many checks for his son Lonzo to cash. The pressure of the big game seemingly got to Ball and the Bruins. They never stopped Kentucky and after a close first half the Bruins were outclassed in the second half. (If the rumors that Ball’s mom suffered a stroke Thursday night and Lavar wouldn’t let Lonzo see her as to not distract him from the game are true, then Lonzo should get a pass for the game. I am already a member of the anti-Lavar club, because I think he has completely overstepped his bounds. I also hate the media for giving him the platform to do this on.)
- If De’Aaron Fox had a jump shot, he would go first overall in the NBA Draft. I have never watched a player who is that much faster than everyone else on a college court. Stronger, more athletic, better at shooting, taller, etc. Yes to all of them. But Fox’s speed is just at another level.
- I hate Aaron Rodgers, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t smile when Zak Showalter hit a running 3 under tight defense and then turned to Rodgers and did his classic discount double check celebration. I think it needs to be mentioned that if Bronson Koenig’s leg doesn’t get caught under a pile a possession earlier, Showalter never takes the shot. But he did, and then he celebrated his GAME-TYING shot the same way the SECOND best quarterback in the NFL celebrates clutch 4th quarter touchdown passes. Wisconsin had all the momentum and it translated to a lead for most of overtime. But then the Badgers couldn’t make free throws. And then Chris Chiozza one-upped Showalter in a way that I dream ever happens to Aaron Rodgers.
- Wisconsin-Florida was the best game of the tournament and it wasn’t even close. There aren’t any arguments that I consider to be valid against this statement, so I won’t defend it.
Eight Takeaways from the Elite Eight
- Being labeled the Cinderella in any round of this tournament has been a curse. FGCU in the first round, MTSU and USC in the second round, Michigan (don’t tell Mo Wagner) in the Sweet Sixteen, and Xavier in the Elite Eight all fell after receiving the title, and major hype from various sports media outlets.
- Gonzaga. Is. For. Real. Seriously, if any of the blue bloods of college basketball had a team that even closely resembled Gonzaga’s this year, I don’t think anyone in America wouldn’t have had them winning. They have an All-America point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss, two 7-footers, one of whom is 300 pounds and the winningest player in college basketball history (Przemek Karnowski) and the other of whom is going to be a lottery pick whenever he goes pro (Zach Collins), along with a supporting cast that would make the producers of Ocean’s 11/12 jealous. I am rooting for them to prove their legitimacy and make kenpom.com the new permanent gold standard of college basketball rankings. (Had the committee used kenpom to seed teams, Michigan and Oklahoma State would have both been 5 seeds)
- The NCAA Basketball Tournament is about making shots. Kansas did not make shots, so Kansas did not win. Everyone thought that Kansas was gonna roll through Oregon on their way to the Final Four. And then Kansas was down 18 in the second half. And then Kansas was down 6 with a loose ball in the air that Josh Jackson tipped out of the hands of Frank Mason and into the hands of Jordan Bell. Bill Self will have a hernia when he watches that play whenever he can force himself to watch the game tape. I won’t get into the Bill Self regular season vs tournament narrative. Go on literally any sports media outlet and you will find a story about that. But seriously, Oregon tried to give this game away but the Jayhawks couldn’t take the lid of the basket to the tune of Devonte Graham going 0-7 and Frank Mason going 8-20.
- Tyler Dorsey really is Mr. March! Dorsey hit contested 3 after contested 3 to keep Kansas at arm’s length. He was great against Rhode Island, great against Michigan, and then he topped it against Kansas. My only gripe with his performance is his post-game interview when he claimed that Oregon had been an underdog for 3 consecutive games. They weren’t against Rhode Island. But that’s just me being petty, congratulations to Dorsey and the Ducks on their first tournament in 78 years. If Gonzaga isn’t the new favorite to win it all, the Ducks are. (Oregon should write a thank you letter to Josh Jackson for picking up 2 fouls in the first two minutes of the game, which threw Kansas out of rhythm and in turn were unable to recover)
- Florida ran out of magic. They didn’t play bad, they just literally ran out of the magic you need to make a tournament run. Chiozza’s buzzer-beater will be shown in tournament hype videos for decades, but it wasn’t meant to be against the Gamecocks.
- Defense wins championships, and South Carolina’s defense has got it within 80 minutes of one. (80 minutes of game time appears to be the equivalent of about 27 hours based on some of the tournament games this year) I am so impressed by their defense that I texted a friend who goes to South Carolina and asked if it had been like that all year. She said yes. I also asked if Sindarius Thornwell had played this well all year. She said yes. I think the committee underseeded them, but it doesn’t matter at this point.
- In the battle of experience against young talent, experience won. North Carolina tried to blow a 71-64 lead with under a minute, but in the end Luke Maye (17 points) completed his career game on the biggest stage with a buzzer beating jumper to take the lead. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox came up just short in the thrilling comeback and will head to the NBA after a great season
- I didn’t think that Florida-Wisconsin could be topped, but it was. Honestly, the game might not have been quite as thrilling, but the stakes (Final Four Berth), the history of the programs (most combined tournament wins by teams playing in an NCAA Tournament game ever), and the rematch factor (Kentucky won 103-100 in December in a game where Malik Monk looked like a more athletic Klay Thompson) pushed it over the top. After a disappointing pair of games Saturday, Sunday made up for it with a couple of thrillers.
Four One-Sentence Predictions for the Final Four
*If you are still reading this, I’m really appreciative but I also question if you have too much time on your hands.
- After setting tournament records for viewership during the first weekend, TV ratings will crash in the Final Four thanks to a noticeable lack of big name programs.
- Gonzaga (1st in defensive efficiency in the country) and South Carolina (2nd) will play the lowest scoring Final Four game in decades.
- North Carolina’s bigs against Oregon’s guards/wings will be the storyline all week, but Jordan Bell will determine the outcome of the game.
- North Carolina will play two tight games against Oregon and Gonzaga but in the end, they’ll avenge last year’s heartbreak and raise a banner.