• Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

The unexpected March Madness Sweet 16, previewed and how to watch

By MIKE LOPRESTI

NCAA.COM

The defending champion is gone. No Kansas. For that matter, none of the schools that have won the past seven national titles.

The favorite for national player of the year is gone. No Zach Edey, who somehow did not take a shot in the last 9:24 of Purdue’s loss.

The tournament champions of the Big Ten, ACC, Big East and Pac-12 are gone. No Purdue or Duke or Marquette or Arizona.

The top six winningest programs in the history of the sport are gone. You have to go down to UCLA at No. 7 to find a survivor.

The ACC and Big Ten are nearly gone. One Sweet 16 team each, same as the Ivy League. But the Big East and SEC each have three.

All the No. 12 seeds are gone. For only the sixth time since tournament expansion in 1985, none of them knocked off a No. 5.

The first week of the tournament presented some truly astonishing moments. Purdue done in by a 16 seed, a year after being done in by a 15 seed, a year by after being done in by a13 seed. That makes 18 Boilermaker defeats by a lower seed since their last Final Four in 1980. Kansas out, with no Bill Self on the bench. Princeton on the march. Not many classic endings, though. Of the 52 games played so far, 28 were decided by double digits and only eight by one possession. There have been no overtimes.

But the Sweet 16 that all those exits produced is long on opportunity and novelty.

Twelve of the 16 have never won a national championship, seven have never been to a Final Four. Florida Atlantic had never won a game in the tournament until last Friday.

Consider the South Region this week in Louisville, where the only team in the field with prior Final Four experience will be . . . Princeton?

It is a Sweet 16 of the absent and the hurting. UCLA is there without star guard Jaylen Clark, Tennessee without all-SEC guard Zakai Zeigler, Xavier without second leading scorer and top rebounder Zach Freemantle. Houston still has All-American Marcus Sasser, but his sore groin is the most scrutinized muscle of the month. And Jamal Shead’s knee hurts, too. “We’re not the team we were that was 31-3 and a 1 seed,” coach Kelvin Sampson said the other day.

It is a Sweet 16 that includes the absent and the hurting. UCLA is there without star guard Jaylen Clark, Tennessee without all-SEC guard Zakai Zeigler, Xavier without second leading scorer and top rebounder Zach Freemantle. Houston still has All-American Marcus Sasser, but his sore groin is the most scrutinized muscle of the month. And Jamal Shead’s knee hurts, too. “We’re not the team we were that was 31-3 and a 1 seed,” coach Kelvin Sampson said the other day.

It is a Sweet 16 that proves sometimes, the beloved 3-point shot doesn’t mean squat. Princeton shocked Arizona while going 4-for-25 from the 3-point line. Arkansas took out Kansas while hitting only three of 15. Michigan State dumped Marquette while missing 14 of 16. Kansas State was under 24 percent from out there against Kentucky and Fairleigh Dickinson hit barely 30 percent against Purdue. “That’s why your defense matters,” Tom Izzo told his Michigan State Spartans when they were clanging 3-point attempts.

Here, then, are the games of the Sweet 16, and reasons to pay attention to each.

SOUTH REGION

No. 5 San Diego State vs. No. 1 Alabama: Friday, March 24 | 6:30 p.m. | TBS

The scoreboard might be a little quiet. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Maryland could shoot only 34.7 and 35.2 percent against the Tide defense last weekend. San Diego State held Charleston and Furman to 57 and 52 points and 32 percent shooting. “Defense travels,” said San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell. “That’s something we have on the paper every away game.”

Speaking of away games, Alabama thrived in the neighborhood thunder of Birmingham last weekend. The Louisville crowd might not be so friendly. As for San Diego State, the last Final Four appearance of a sitting Mountain West member was UNLV 32 years ago.

No. 15 Princeton vs. No. 6 Creighton: Friday, March 24 | 9 p.m. | TBS

This pair is on the road rarely traveled. Princeton hasn’t been this far in the tournament in 56 years and Creighton is in only its second Sweet 16 since 1974. They haven’t met since 1961.

Arizona was fifth in the nation in scoring at 82.7 points a game, but the Wildcats managed only 55 against Princeton. Missouri was 23rd with a 79.5 average, but scored only 63. Princeton dominated them both by a combined 30-4 in second chance points.

In other words, these guys aren’t exactly cute, lovable underdogs. They do the tough stuff. “The world looks at us as two upsets,” Tosan Evbuomwan said. “But I feel like we’re supposed to be here.”

Here is about the last thing the Tigers want to see Friday in Louisville: Creighton at the free throw line. The Bluejays have taken 75 free throws since the Big East tournament began. They have missed six. That includes 22-for-22 in dumping Baylor. Four players have broken 30 points in this NCAA tournament so far and two play for Creighton — Ryan Kalkbrenner with 31 against North Carolina State, Ryan Nembhard with 30 against Baylor. The Bluejays sports information department dug up the fact that the only other team to ever have two guys with same first name score 30 in the same NCAA tournament was Memphis with Larry Finch and Larry Kenon 50 years ago.

By the way, that team ended up in the Final Four.

“We give everybody the respect they’re due,” Nembhard said. “But at the end of the day we think we’re just as good as anybody in the country.”

EAST REGION

No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Kansas State: Thursday, March 23 | 6:30 p.m. | TBS

Now here’s something of an odd couple. Jerome Tang is in his first year as a head coach, Tom Izzo is in his 15th Sweet 16. This will be Tang’s third NCAA tournament game. It will be Izzo’s 79th.

The Michigan State defense made life utterly miserable for Marquette Big East player of the year Tyler Kolek Sunday — 2-for-8 shooting, six turnovers — and now focuses attention on Markquis Nowell. He went for 17 and 27 points in the first two rounds with 14 and nine assists. Of the 58 Kansas State field goals in the tournament so far, Nowell has either scored or passed for 37 of them.

Meanwhile, Michigan State’s Tyson Walker is averaging 17.5 points a game in the tournament and has not made a single turnover in 67 minutes. So guard play should be interesting to watch.

No. 9 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 4 Tennessee: Thursday, March 23 | 9 p.m. | TBS

Remember the worries about the Vols, with Zeigler out and staggering down the stretch, losing seven 12 games? They flexed their muscles, started banging bodies and shut down the opponents, giving up 55 and 52 points to Louisiana and Duke. Also in those games, 31 of their 44 field goals came off assists.

“We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we played everybody,” said Olivier Nkamhoua after scoring 27 points and roughing up Duke. “What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it.”

The mud now awaits the upstarts from Boca Raton, who had all the warriors they needed over the weekend. First, it was Nick Boyd beating Memphis in the last seconds. Then a stat line for the ages from Johnell Davis against Fairleigh Dickinson: 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five steals, just one turnover against the FDU press. The Owls, who had only 16 turnovers in their two early round games, apparently understand what they’re getting into. This from coach Dusty May: “We’re going to study Australian rugby rules and get ready for the Vols.”

MIDWEST REGION

No. 5 Miami vs. No. 1 Houston: Friday, March 24 | 7:15 p.m. | CBS

Nothing much has been easy so far for the banged-up Cougars, who had trouble shaking off Northern Kentucky and had to rally from 10 points down at halftime to pass Auburn. But when crunch time comes, the Cougars just turn up the thermostat on the defense. Auburn was 4-for-24 in the second half, Northern Kentucky 9-for-39. Together they were 3-for-26 from the 3-point line after halftime.

Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn observed afterward, “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we outplayed Houston. We just didn’t make enough shots.” But then, lots of Cougar opponents go away feeling like that. In some ways, they get uglied into defeat.

Houston is two wins away from getting to the Final Four, which will be played in . . . oh, right. Houston.

Miami poses a threat, just off scoring 85 points against Indiana and pounding the Hoosiers into submission with a 48-31 rebound blowout and 29-11 gap in second chance points. Guard Isaiah Wong, the ACC’s player of the year, scored 27 points against the Hoosiers and will lead the drive against the Cougars defense. Except, that’s often not a lot of fun.

For being ACC co-champions and back in the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive year, the Hurricanes don’t seem to get a lot of national buzz. “All we can do is just come out and win basketball games,” guard Jordan Miller said. “I feel like winning a game in itself is a way to get recognition.”

Win the next one, and they certainly will.

No. 3 Xavier vs. No. 2 Texas: Friday, March 24 | 9:45 p.m. | CBS

The proud, the few, the Musketeers. With Freemantle out, Xavier is pretty much a six-man operation. The rest of the roster combined for 10 total minutes in the first two tournament games. But all six who play scored in double figures against Pittsburgh and the assists keep coming for a team that led the nation in those for much of the season. They had 38 in two games the past weekend.

That thin blue line now faces Texas and its nine players who average at least 11 minutes a contest. Seven of them have played a combined 913 college games. With such veteran depth, no wonder the Longhorns have trailed only 4:37 in two games against Colgate and Penn State. One Texas player likely to be prominent on the Xavier scouting report is the suddenly go-to force Dylan Disu. He came into the NCAA tournament averaging 8.3 points and 5.6 shots a game. He must like March. He scored 17 points against Colgate, 28 against Penn State, hitting 14 of 20 shots against the Nittany Lions.
The Longhorns are going to Kansas City, where they just won the Big 12 tournament.

WEST REGION

No. 3 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA: Thursday, March 23 | 9:45 p.m. | CBS

Think replays of Jalen Suggs’ Hail Mary banker from their 2021 Final Four overtime epic will get much air time this week? Here’s the rematch. Since Groundhog Day, these two are a combined 26-2.

UCLA’s only loss since early February was a two-pointer in the Pac-12 final against Arizona. That apparently miffed the Bruins and sent them on a mission. They have trailed 44 seconds in the NCAA tournament so far against UNC Asheville and Northwestern, allowing 37 percent shooting and outscoring their opponents 45-20 in points off turnovers.

“We don’t take losing well at UCLA,” coach Mick Cronin said after the UNC Asheville romp. “We spell fun w-i-n. We lost our last game. These guys took it personal.”

If they took that game personal, what must they think about the stake in the heart Gonzaga and Suggs inflicted on them in the 2021 Final Four? One look at Drew Timme will remind them, and he’s been on a tear himself with 28 points against TCU, including his first 3-pointer since December. That made him only the seventh player in history with at least 20 points in nine NCAA tournament games.

Gonzaga has won 11 games in a row and just cliched a rather remarkable eighth consecutive Sweet 16 spot, but somehow has been able to hide in the shadows late in the season. That changes Thursday in Las Vegas.

No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 4 Connecticut: Thursday, March 23 | 7:15 p.m. | CBS

Questions abound. Can Connecticut’s Adama Sanogo be stopped? He has scored 28 and 24 points in the tournament, shooting 73 percent, but now faces the long arm of the Arkansas law. Six Razorbacks have a wingspan of at least seven feet.

Will Arkansas’ Davonte Davis continue to come out of the halftime locker room as a scoring machine? He has put up 31 of his 41 tournament points in the second half.

What if the Razorbacks ever actually need a 3-pointer? They tend to build their leads the old-fashioned way, two points at a time. They’re 342nd in the nation in making 3-pointers and have only six in two tournament games. This while Connecticut is 21-for-47 from the arc.

Can Connecticut ride a good omen? Last time the Huskies played in the Sweet 16 was 2014. The national champion in 2014 was . . . Connecticut.  Come to think of it, the Huskies are the only program that has won any of the past 21 national championships to still be playing.

And finally, the big one. If Arkansas wins, will Eric Musselman keep his shirt on?

All 16 teams have reason to be grateful, just look at the victims left behind.  Marquette’s Shaka Smart spoke for a lot of them after being taken out by Michigan State Sunday: “This game does not define the season that our team had, but what it does do is it knocks you out of the NCAA tournament. That’s how it works. It’s a one-time single elimination deal. And as sweet as it feels to advance, it’s even worse to lose.”