Some first weekend of the NCAA tournament! There are no great surprises as we glance at the sixteen teams still standing. When Gonzaga and Syracuse are the lowest seeds still playing, you can’t really call them Cinderellas. But there was a lot of fun in getting to this point.
First, my Jayhawks. A nearly perfect first weekend. Which means nothing going forward, other than they’re still playing. Which is something the last two KU teams could not say.
They took care of business in style in their first game, thoroughly whipping an over-matched Austin Peay team. And then they jumped all over UConn in the round of 32, basically putting the game out of reach before the 10:00 mark of the first half. UConn made a nice run to open the second half, but were always one basket away from making it really interesting.
Experience was the key for KU. Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden made the big plays to quash the UConn rally. Landen Lucas was dominant on defense and the boards. Jamari Traylor brought energy in his minutes. All guys who have played at least three years.
Devonte’ Graham didn’t do much in the first game. Frank Mason was off offensively in the second. But the rest of the team was always there to pull them through. Just like all year.
Now an intriguing match-up with Maryland. The Terps are one of the biggest teams in the country, were ranked in the top 5 much of the year, and like KU are playing to erase the memories of bad experiences last year. But they’ve also been a bit up-and-down at times. I expect a very good battle, and KU’s experience is the difference late.
Worth noting that should KU win Thursday, I will be attempting to obtain tickets to Saturday’s regional final. It’s only a couple hours to Louisville, you know.
And now I’ve jinxed them.
A Sweet 16 without Calipari or Izzo? Cancel the tournament!
Michigan State’s absence is, obviously, the biggest shock. Izzo’s teams just do not have losses like that in March. They were, in many ways, absolutely pounded by Middle Tennessee. There have been other 15-over–2 upsets, but this feels like the biggest in tournament history. And it destroyed my bracket, taking out my champion before they won a game.
And then Indiana knocking out Kentucky wiped out the whole right-side of my bracket. I hedged my bets in my predictions, pointing out that Indiana was fully capable of beating the Wildcats. But I figured Calipari >>> Crean, and that would be the difference.
Indiana’s almost frightening athletic ability was the difference. Kentucky’s front court did absolutely nothing all day, which meant the Cats were often playing 2-on–5 on offense. Tyler Ulis can only do so much, especially when Jamal Murray isn’t hitting shots. Meanwhile the Hoosiers were slashing through, around, and over the bigger Wildcats for dunks, tips, and loose balls. They were more athletic, hungrier, and flat-out better.
As fun as that game was, the Hoosiers running up-and-down the court with North Carolina should be fantastic.
I’ve thanked the Hoops Gods for 13 years that Bill Self said yes to replacing Roy Williams at KU. Not just because of all his accomplishments over that span, but because the assumed second choice for the job was Tom Crean. Crean isn’t a terrible coach, but I also don’t think he’s one of the top 10 in the game. Or even 15 or 20. Worse, he’s a complete lunatic on the sidelines. What if I hated the head coach of my alma mater? Would have I stopped watching KU games completely a decade ago if Crean had taken the job and turned the Jayhawks into a team that only competes for the conference title every 4–5 years while he ranted and raved on the sideline?
All that said, he’s done an amazing job with this year’s Indiana team. He lost arguably his best player in James Blackmon, Jr. in January when the team was already floundering. But losing Blackmon, who is a fantastic scorer but a complete black hole with the ball, freed up Troy Williams, OG Anunoby, and Thomas Bryant to take on bigger roles. And it made Yogi Ferrell the focus of the offense, which is where it should have been.
I still think Crean is a freak show and overrated as a coach. But I’ll give him immense credit for what he’s done over the past 10–12 weeks.
Hey Baylor and West Virginia: thanks for nothing. The two Big 12 teams who play styles that are supposed to be “hell to play in March!” both went out to huge underdogs. And West Virginia got flat blown out in the final five minutes of their loss to Stephen F. Austin. Scott Drew likes to trumpet his March success, but he’s never made a deep run where he had to beat higher seeded teams. And he’s accumulating quite a collection of bad losses to balance those Elite 8 runs.
Poor Northern Iowa. Not sure there’s ever been that big of a swing in a team’s fortune’s, either over a two-game span, or over a 40-some second span. The half-court winner against Texas on Friday followed by the epic meltdown against Texas A&M Sunday were fan whiplash of the highest order. The end to the game last night was so insane I completely forgot about the Wisconsin-Xavier game and missed that buzzer-beater. I bet you could play out the last minute of the A&M game a thousand times and not get that same result on more than a handful of occasions.
I’m not one of those KU fans who hates UNI for their win over the Jayhawks in 2010. I was pulling for them hard both Friday and Sunday. Their win in 2010 was one of the signature moments in the tournament this decade. And their loss last night will go down in history as well. Perhaps that’s when you’ve made it to the big time as a program: when you have both monumental wins and losses that fans everywhere remember. Not sure if that will keep them from being under-seeded every year, though.
Obviously a big part of televised sports is showing the emotions of the fans. But do we really have to have the long, awkward shots of crying fans and cheerleaders when games end? It’s especially bad when the cameras go back to the same person multiple times. Please stop. Show the winners.
My updated Final Four picks:
And now it’s time for the best week of the tournament: Sweet 16 week!
- How did this kid get out of Jefferson City, MO to Indiana? ↩