Sweet 16, here we come…
Every year it’s amazing how a hope-filled Selection Sunday for so many programs progresses to finality for 52 schools in a matter of days. Some, like your primary bracket 16 seeds, enjoy the big stage with a realist perspective — appreciating the opportunity and soaking up the spotlight no matter how temporary. Others, like Duke or defending national champion Villanova, return to campus stunned and unsure of how to occupy chunks of time they never expected to be available.
Sixteen schools, however, have important dates beginning this Thursday in the four regional semifinals. Here’s a look at a few story lines:
Second seed Arizona (32-4) used 59.1 percent shooting in the second half to erase a deficit and prevail over an incredibly talented St. Mary’s team (29-5) by a final of 69-60. Paced by Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier, the ‘Cats held up their chalk end of the bracket in advancing to the Sweet 16. There are no gimmes in March (as the aforementioned Blue Devils and the other Wildcats from ‘Nova can attest), but this is what was expected of Sean Miller’s team. What was not expected is that he’d being seeing his former school, the Xavier Musketeers opposite his team in this Sweet 16 match-up. Of course, Miller led the Muskeeters to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances between 2005-09 and compiled a 120-47 record while in the Queen City. Current Xavier head coach Chris Mack (who Miller brought to X in 2004-05) has guided the Muskies to seven NCAA Tourney trips in his eight years, including this year. After losingdynamic guard Edmond Sumner to a season ending injury on January 29th against St. John’s, Xavier sputtered along the rest of the regular season, losing six straight at one point and sneaking into the field as an 11-seed.
But what a difference a week makes. After putting away six-seed Maryland in the first round, the Musketeers annihilated third-seed Florida State 91-66 on Saturday. Junior guard Trevon Bluiett was immense, scoring 29 points on efficient shooting and the suddenly confident Musketeers now get a crack at ultra-talented, but young, Arizona out in San Jose. Will Mack & Co. have a blueprint to succeed against the pack-line defense and old pal Miller? We’ll see.
Under the radar.
Keep an eye on West Virginia. Bob Huggins kids rather quietly disposed of a Notre Dame team whose last four postseason losses have come only at the hands of Duke, North Carolina (twice) and Kentucky. Oh, and the Irish were gunning for their third straight Elite 8 appearance. But not to be. Huggins Mountaineers (28-8) frustrated the heck out of Notre Dame, beginning with star and second-leading scorer V.J. Beachem, forcing the senior into 2-14 shooting in what would be his final collegiate game. They also turned the Irish over 14 times and, on the other end, operated efficiently on offense. WVU speeds teams up and does an excellent job at forcing out of rhythm shots from opponents (in addition to stripping them clean). Now they’ll face the top seed in the West Region, 32-1 Gonzaga.
One Thursday game not to miss. Midwest Region
Seven seed Michigan (26-11) versus (31-5) Oregon. I’m not sure too many are playing better than the Wolverines right now, winners of seven in a row including a Round of 32 defeat of two-seed Louisville. Oregon is fortunate to be playing, having escaped a Rhode Island team which lead them for 30 minutes on Sunday. But the trio of Dillon Brooks, Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey (who willed the Ducks to victory over URI) are exceptional at generating paint touches, which the Big Ten champs must find a way to deter. If the Wolverines can web-up and protect the paint, I like them to keep dancing.
One Friday game not to miss. South Region
Third seed UCLA (31-4) versus second seed Kentucky (31-5). On December 3rd, UCLA snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak, beating the ‘Cats 97-92 in a defensive battle (or not). So why not toss it up again on a semi-neutral (it’s in Tennessee) floor with a berth to the regional final on the line. This game is teeming with such an array of offensive talent it’s scary. And fun. From do-it-all Lonzo Ball for the Bruins to Kentucky’s Malik Monk, it’s play-makers galore. Even if you ignore me and blow off my Thursday recommendation above (and all other games for that matter), strap your rear-end to the couch for this one.