Life in the NCAA Tournament is harsh, and Wichita State became the latest to learn that lesson on Sunday when the Shockers’ unbeaten season came to a crushing end in a 78-76 loss to Kentucky that was nothing less than a brilliantly played basketball game.
We’ll go into the specifics of that game further down, as we review the eight games in the Round of 32 from Sunday. But ultimately, the game was a vivid reminder of a basic truth of the NCAA Tournament—what you did in the regular season simply doesn’t matter.
Kentucky might have underachieved, they might have looked like a young and dysfunctional team through much of this season, but the NCAA Tournament sets everyone back to zero. You have a clean slate—there’s no homecourt advantage given to the best regular season teams like in the NBA. There’s no first-round byes as in the NFL. Not even an additional one-game wild-card knockout like non-division winners face in baseball.
Essentially, the Madness comes at a price. It adds to the romance when a 14-seed like Mercer can knock off Duke. But it also means that teams which didn’t play up to their potential all year for the worst of reasons get a new lease on life.
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When I did a pre-NCAA Tournament podcast with Hall of Fame basketball writer Frank Burlison, Frank said that if Kentucky beat Wichita it would repudiate everything we believe we know about the finer virtues of basketball—the importance of team play. Harsh words, and they accurately indict Kentucky’s season, but I don’t see the Wildcat win in quite that dark of terms.
It just means if you keep giving talent a chance—and don’t at least put it at any disadvantage for previous failures—then eventually that talent is likely to figure it out. Kentucky played like a team yesterday. Whether their young kids would have the mental stamina to do it in a best-of-seven setting, I have my doubts. But for one game they could do it.
Normally that dynamic works to the advantage of someone like Wichita—it did last year when they banged home 14 treys in a Round of 32 upset of Gonzaga, who was the #1 seed of 2013 that everyone doubted. This year it bit the Shockers.
Enough with the philosophical musings for this morning. Let’s go around the bracket and look at yesterday’s games that completed the field for the Sweet 16…
Virginia 78 Memphis 60: This was the poor man’s version of Wichita-Kentucky, with Virginia being the overachiever and Memphis being the talented underachiever. In this case, virtue triumphed—it would also figure that I picked against Virginia while picking Wichita, but never mind. Virginia shot 55 percent from the floor, owned the glass and got 16 points from Joe Harris, who led a balanced offense.
Iowa State 85 North Carolina 83: Iowa State got 24 points/10 rebounds/7 assists from DeAndre Kane, who then finished it off with a driving layup in the closing seconds. North Carolina came rushing up the court to try and call timeout, but the clock expired. A terrific showing for the Cyclones, who survived the loss of Georges Niang, one of their Big Three (along with Kane and Melvin Ejim), who was injured in the Round of 64.
Virginia now gets set to play Michigan State, while Iowa State will match up with UConn, as the East Regional goes to Madison Square Garden on Friday.
UCLA 77 Stephen Austin 60: The Bruin trio of Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell combined to shoot 19-for-30, and the UCLA defense forced Stephen Austin into a tough 35 percent from the floor night. This one was never in doubt.
Stanford 60 Kansas 57: This was one of the two games I was able to watch start-to-finish (Wichita-Kentucky being the other) and it was another “life in the NCAA Tournament moment.” Kansas simply couldn’t buy a basket. Whether it was perimeter shooting, drives to the basket, even put-backs at the rim, everything the Jayhawks put up rolled off. It clearly was not Kansas’ day.
Andrew Wiggins scored only four points on 1-for-6 shooting, and I agreed with CBS analyst Kenny Smith who said after the game that Wiggins was too tentative in looking for his shot. You want a player like that taking double-digit shots. Six shots isn’t enough to even know if you’re cold, but Wiggins seemed absent too often.
One player who wasn’t absent was Dwight Powell, as the Stanford post player had 15 points/7 rebounds, and it seemed hit every bit shot. Whether it was popping out for a jumper at the free throw line or getting an offensive rebound, Powell’s play seemed to have more impact than the stat line would suggest.
The South Regional will resume on Thursday in Memphis, with the matchups being Florida-UCLA and Stanford-Dayton.
Wichita 78 Kentucky 76: In spite of high defensive intensity in a front of a raucous crowd, both teams shot well over 50 percent, an indicator of how good this game was. Cleanthony Early had 31 points and Ron Baker finished with 20, as both were spectacular. Kentucky got great guard play from the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, who combined for 39 points, with the latter hitting four treys. Julius Randle had 10 rebounds and keyed a Kentucky rebounding advantage that was at the core of concerns for Wichita coming in.
I do question Wichita coach Gregg Marshall’s decision to call a timeout as his team brought the ball over midcourt with three seconds left. Everyone was in transition and you’re very likely to get an open three, or even a few more dribbles and a pull-up to force overtime. Instead, Marshall allowed Kentucky to reset its defense, and three seconds is not enough time to get a good look. Fred VanVleet was able to get open behind the arc, but he was also closer to where the NBA line would be. I have to think they get a better shot if they stay in transition.
Tennessee 83 Mercer 63: This was just a beatdown in every way. Jarnell Stokes had 17 points and 18 rebounds down low, while Josh Richardson poured in 26 from the perimeter. Tennessee is more physically talented than Duke on the interior and Mercer clearly poured out its emotion in that first round win.
The road to the Final Four goes through Indianapolis in this regional, and it will be Kentucky-Louisville and Tennessee-Michigan on Friday.
Baylor 85 Creighton 55: Example #3 of a matchup between a very talented team that underachieved and a gritty overachiever. Score a second win for raw talent. Doug McDermott was able to shoot 7-for-14, but he only got 15 points as Baylor kept him from scoring behind the arc or at the foul line. The Bears then just dominated in every way, shape and form, shooting 64 percent and all five starters going for double digits.
Arizona 84 Gonzaga 61: You never complain about any win in the NCAA Tournament, much less a 23-point rout in the Round of 32. But if I’m Arizona coach Sean Miller, I’m wondering why I lost the rebounding battle 32-23 to a team that’s not incredibly dominant on the front line. It didn’t matter in this one. Arizona played a good all-around game, led by Aaron Gordon’s 18/6/6 line and cruised on to the Sweet 16.
Now the West heads to Anaheim, where Thursday’s action will feature Baylor-Wisconsin and Arizona-San Diego State.
TheSportsNotebook’s NCAA Tournament coverage will roll on tomorrow with some general thoughts on the bracket as a whole, followed by two more days of regional previews.