The Sweet 16 kicks off tomorrow, so let’s have a little refresher on the first week of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
These are just a few thoughts I had on the goings-on for the first three rounds of March Madness, that I thought I would share with the MSR audience. Let’s get started:
You didn’t wanna be a 3-seed in the Round of 64: For all the hype that this year’s 3-seeds (Iowa State, Baylor, Notre Dame, Oklahoma) had gotten – especially the Big 12 three-seeds in the Cyclones and Bears – they certainly had a hard time in the first two days of the tournament.
Iowa State was a Big 12 Tournament champion heading into the NCAAs, and was among the favorites to make a deep run. But they somehow couldn’t hold on a late four-point lead against the scrappy Blazers of UAB, beaten on the boards in the second half, and ousted from the Big Dance, 60-59.
Meanwhile, Baylor went turnover-crazy (a total of 21 on the day) against a feisty Georgia State defense. Give them credit, though – the Bears did have the lead, until Georgia State went on a 13-0 run to end the game.
Granted, the Fighting Irish and the Sooners got through to the Sweet 16, but not after surviving their games in the Round of 64. Oklahoma had the most “comfortable” victory – a 9-point win over Albany – though the Great Danes did keep it close.
On the flipside … there WERE those 14-seed Cinderellas: Give it up for UAB and Georgia State. Sure, they were swept away by Xavier and UCLA, respectively, in the Round of 32 – but no one expected them to even get that far.
After all, take the Blazers – a school that had just lost their football program in December, and a team that didn’t even realize that their conference’s tournament champion got an automatic berth in the Big Dance. Yet the 19-15 school saw themselves on the right end of a huge upset win, thanks to William Lee’s double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds). It will be an achievement that will last Alabama-Birmingham the rest of the sporting year.
Then there were those scrappy Georgia State Panthers. Keeping it close the entire game, they took advantage of Baylor’s mistakes by outscoring them off turnovers, 21-4. Most importantly, they went on that 13-0 scoring run at the most critical of times, thanks to the play of G R.J. Hunter – he scored 12 of those 13 points. Plus, he ultimately made this game-winning shot:
And head coach/beaming father Ron Hunter became internet famous for doing this, on a busted achilles and a rolling stool:
It was the highlight of the second round.
That 5 vs 12 upset trend was finally busted: Much to my surprise – and anyone else who adheres to the “A 5-seed always loses in the Round of 64 to a 12-seed” rule – that all four 5-seeded teams (West Virginia, Arkansas, Utah, Northern Iowa) advanced to the third round. It was the first time since 2007 the feat occurred for all four 5-seeded teams.
It wasn’t easy, as the Northern Iowa Panthers were the only one of the four to win by double-digits (71-54 over Wyoming). WVU G Tarik Phillip needed a clutch three-pointer in the final minute of a close game to seal a six-point victory over Buffalo. Arkansas survived a slow-paced slugfest with Wofford, finishing with a 3-point victory thanks to G Michael Qualls’ 20 points and F Bobby Portis’ double-double (15 pts, 13 rebounds). And 12-seeded Stephen F. Austin was within 2 points of 5-seed Utah with 30 seconds to go, before succumbing to the Utes, 57-50.
This will likely be a statistical anomaly we won’t see again for quite awhile. But, with the strange seedings of this year’s tournament, who knows? It could happen again next year.
Michigan State: This year’s “2014 Kentucky”? Speaking of strange seedings, the Michigan State Spartans – a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament – may have been seeded too low in 2015. Yes, this was the same team that a disproportionate amount of people thought would win it all in 2014 – and this year, their perception might have caused an opposite effect.
In hindsight – which, of course, is 20/20 – it was likely completely unfortunate for a team like Virginia, who was projected to grab a 1-seed as late as conference tournament time, was slated for a Round of 32 matchup with the dangerous Spartans. Lo and behold, they were ousted earlier than most expected. You know who else fits that description, from last year’s NCAA Tournament field?
Those undefeated Shockers, slotted with a well-deserved 1-seed, faced off against an 8-seeded Kentucky team hitting their stride at just the right time – and a team that, had they played the way they did during the tournament for the entire year, likely would have garnered a Top-2 seed, themselves. They were also ousted – and some would say they were victims to bad seeding matchups.
Could the Spartans make a similar run to the Wildcats of 2014, who lost the title game to UConn? Perhaps. But one thing’s for sure – they probably didn’t deserve that 7-seed.
Wichita State wins the Battle of the Sunflower State: Hey, speaking of the Shockers — they sure shocked a lot of people in college basketball in their Round of 32 matchup against Kansas, didn’t they?
It was the first time the two schools had met on the basketball court since January 1993 – their last meeting ending with a 103-54 romp of the Jayhawks over their overmatched Wichita State brethren. Despite their close proximity, and Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall’s enthusiasm to schedule a regular season matchup, they had not met until this past Sunday.
And, boy, did the tables turn from 22 years ago. Wichita State G Fred VanFleet led the team with 17 points in a 25-8 run that lasted from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second. Kansas F Perry Ellis and G Devonte’ Graham did all they could with 17 points apiece, but couldn’t keep up with the Shockers in the second half. For WSU’s trouble, they get a Sweet 16 matchup with Notre Dame.
Gonzaga: Flying under the radar? With a nationally-recognized name like Gonzaga, you would think that they would get a little more love.
Though, the skepticism surrounding the now 34-2 Bulldogs is warranted – after all, they do play in a weak WCC, and they hadn’t made a deep NCAA tournament run since 2009. But this team is built for the long haul, and they proved it thus far in the tournament. It somewhat showed this season with their only two losses – one of them to the then-No. 3 team in the country, the Arizona Wildcats, by 3, early in the season.
The rest of their games? They defeated their opponents by an average of 17.7 points per game – and that includes NCAA tournament victories over North Dakota State (by 10) and Iowa (by 19).
It’s easy to see why – they hold the country’s top field goal percentage (52.4) and have a bevy of offensive weapons. But, hey – they haven’t done much with higher expectations, so it’s easy to see why not too many are paying attention.
A word on San Diego State: I have to talk about my alma mater at a time like this.
All credit to Steve Fisher’s squad – with a sub-par offensive attack (305th in points per game, 263rd in field goal percentage), they rode their a second-ranked defense in total points allowed per game (53.9) to the Round of 32.
Even more credit to the team and their coaching staff for trying to hang with offensive juggernaut and No. 1-seed Duke with some of them fighting a stomach bug. In the end, it was their lack of offensive prowess that failed them in the end. Ironically, it was a three-point barrage in their second-round game vs. St. John’s that got them to a third-round matchup with the Blue Devils.
Kentucky’s March toward History: It’s almost unfair, the kind of expectations that the Kentucky Wildcats have. After all, the the underclassman-laden squad is undefeated (36-0) headed into their Sweet 16 matchup with West Virginia.
It’s practically expected that this team, headed by junior F Willie Cauley-Stein and the vaunted Harrison Twins, Aaron and Andrew, win the NCAA Tournament in dominant fashion. They have somewhat accomplished that goal thus far, with blowout victories against Hampton and Cincinnati.
But can they bear this unprecedented load on their shoulders? Can they reach a record of 40-0 and cement themselves as one of the greatest college teams in NCAA Tournament history? That’s up to the players, and their head coach, John Calipari. After all, they did almost reach the mountaintop in 2014. Stands to reason that they can handle almost any adversity – even adversity placed upon a heavy favorite.