The other day we said something about the pure nature of the NCAA Tournament, how it rises above the sometimes tawdry parts of the game to something that everyone is united in: disbelief at the majesty of the competitions before us.
That has never been more true than it was Thursday night.
Let’s start with the only game that wasn’t close, UConn’s destruction of Arkansas, which, among other things, meant no one had to see Eric Musselman strip down on the court again, and you can’t overprice the value of that.
Arkansas is a pretty good team and UConn just crushed the Hogs. Moreover, it’s the third straight butt whipping the Huskies have inflicted in the tournament. UConn beat Iona 87-63, Saint Mary’s 70-55 and now Arkansas 88-65. We’ll have to think more about it, but right now, it’s hard to not see them as the favorite. Who is playing better?
The problem in that game was that Arkansas couldn’t reach UConn’s level. That was not a problem in the other three games.
The Michigan State-Kansas State game is one that both fan bases will talk about for decades to come. It was that delicious, that special, that amazing.
Part of you wants to go, well in a game that racked up a total of 191 points, was anyone playing defense?
And the answer is: yes. But both offenses were just that good, and in the case of Markquis Nowell, he was fully off-planet.
Nowell finished with 20 points and an NCAA record 19 assists and Kansas State needed all of it because Michigan State was just as sharp. Check this out: K-State hit 45.8 of their threes and 55.9 percent overall.
The Spartans hit 52 percent of their threes and 49.2 percent overall.
This game was just on another plane. Spartan Tyson Walker tied it up with :06 left in regulation and when Nowell missed a layup, the game went into overtime. And it was tight there too, but when Nowell found Keyontae Johnson for a massive backwards alley-oop with :58 left to put K-State up 94-92. (See today’s YouTube Gold for all Nowell’s highlights.)
After a Malik Hall free throw, Nowell passed the ball in to Ismael Massoud who hit a jumper to put the Wildcats up 96-93.
Then Nowell stole the ball from Walker and made a late layup for the final five-point lead.
This game was like the fights Sugar Ray Leonard fought against Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns or Robert Duran: two great, great teams that took it to the absolute limit. What a stunning performance by both. We should all thank them for giving us such a gift.
Florida Atlantic struggled with Tennessee for about 30 minutes before their three point game returned in the last 10. When the game came down to winning time, much like we saw from Purdue, the Vols shrank from the moment. It was pretty clear that the Owls were in control. They couldn’t be pounded into submission, as Tennessee did to Duke, and they didn't self-destruct.
If Tennessee plays like grown men on defense, well, so did FAU. UT seemed to understand that Florida Atlantic wasn’t going to buckle and that they weren’t good enough to take it from the Owls. As time ran down, there really wasn’t much question about who was better. FAU was, clearly.
Tennessee does play great defense, but at some point you have to put the ball in the basket. Tennessee shot just 33.3 percent for the game
And in the nightcap, UCLA took a 46-33 lead into halftime. Gonzaga began to narrow the lead and caught up at 59-59 with 9:32 left and then began building a lead that stretched to 72-62 with 2:30 left.
Then UCLA mounted a fierce comeback of their own and the end of this game was off the charts good.
UCLA went up 76-75 on an Amari Bailey three, then called timeout. Then came one of the great moments of this tournament. Gonzaga brought the ball up and ran a version of the play that Villanova used to beat UNC in 2016 when Ryan Arcidiacono turned and pitched the ball to Kris Jenkins.
Gonzaga ran that play with Julian Strawther getting the shot, only the Las Vegas native took his gamble from the logo - and nailed it.
You may recall that Mike Krzyzewski praised Strawther extravagantly the last time he coached Duke against the Zags. Looks like he was right about that.
We really admire how Mick Cronin has made UCLA into one of the toughest teams in the country. The downside to this game is not seeing Jaime Jaquez again because that guy is some kind of competitor. He’s tremendous.
We haven’t heard it yet but apparently in his somewhat sour post-game presser, Cronin ripped the officials, specifically for not calling alleged fouls against Jaquez. Apparently he was in quite the mood following the loss.
Worth mentioning: the ACC got slammed all year as being down, but look at the almighty Big Ten and SEC. With Michigan State out, so is the Big Ten, and only Alabama is left from the SEC.
The Big Ten has had 17 bids over the last two seasons, and not one has made it to the Elite Eight and their last national championship was in 2000. Not a great track record.
So....how’s about Friday’s encore?
It’s hard to imagine it could top what we saw Thursday, which is going to be a legendary night in tourney history, but we can be greedy. We can still hope.
San Diego State and Alabama tee things off and we’re going to bet on defense and go with the Aztecs. They’re less well-known in the East, but that’s a very good program year in and year out and Alabama seems due. Maybe just karma. But they do seem due.
Houston and Miami play the next game and as much as we admire Houston, we’ll go with the ‘Canes, who are seasoned and tough and belong. Norchad Omier is a real challenge for teams that haven't played him, and Miami’s a load on both ends.
Princeton and Creighton is a fascinating game. The Tigers are having a great run and Creighton has been outstanding. Logic says go with the Blue Jays but when did logic have anything to do with this event? We’ll ride with the Tigers here in a magnificent if ultimately futile display of contrarian stupidity.
Xavier and Texas are next up and while Xavier has been great, Texas is on a mission. That program has overcome a lot in the light of Chris Beard’s firing earlier in the season and they have the benefit of playing a rugged Big 12 schedule. The Big East is nothing to sneer at, but you have to be damned good to finish second in the Big 12. So Longhorns over Musketeers.
Keep in mind that Xavier is missing Zach Freemantle, their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder.
The further they go in this tournament, the harder it will get without Freemantle. Plus Xavier is not very deep anyway. They could survive Texas. We don’t think they will, but of course they could. Even if they do, their long-term prospects are not good. Much like UCLA, they are soon to run into limitations imposed by injury and depth.