Sunday was not a great day to be a No. 2 seed. That alone was noteworthy in two games on the day, but each was also noteworthy for other reasons.
We’ll start by mentioning the lone No. 2 seed to advance, which was Gonzaga (South). The Bulldogs ran out to a 46-29 halftime lead, shooting 62 percent in the opening frame, easily handling No. 7 Iowa 87-68. It’s the first time in six years that Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16, and No. 11 UCLA awaits.
The first game of the day wasn’t so kind to No. 2 Virginia (East), who had to face the team that knocked them off last year in No. 7 Michigan State. Of course, these are two different teams, as both have had significant turnover, especially the Spartans. Michigan State ran out to a 15-4 lead and never relinquished it, beating the Cavaliers 60-54.
The game is symbolic of a lot aside from the fact that it was a rematch with the same end result. Many will not speak positively about Virginia from this, a team that for a time many were asking what would happen if they met Kentucky down the road. They will call the Cavaliers a disappointment or say they under-achieved. There will be lots of chatter and none of it will be true. Matchups are important in the NCAA Tournament, and the Cavaliers are the latest who can attest to that.
Let’s talk about Michigan State, though. This team wasn’t looked at as one of Tom Izzo’s best teams. They lost a great deal from last season – Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne chief among them – and didn’t exactly recoup that talent on the recruiting trail. Most figured this team would be good enough to reach the tournament – barely – and that was about all. The Spartans looked the part for much of the season, too – good team, occasionally looking very good, but in all looking like a run-of-the-mill tournament team. They didn’t look like a team that could make a run.
That they have made it this far and did so by beating a team in Virginia that was widely regarded as a national title contender is one more testament to Izzo as a coach. He is now 11-9 in games with his team being the lower seed, tied with Rollie Massimino for the best such mark in NCAA Tournament history with at least ten games. We already know that prior to last year, every four-year player for Izzo had been to a Final Four.
This year, he has maximized what he has. Travis Trice turned into a go-to player, aided by finally having a healthy summer with which to improve himself. Denzel Valentine grabbed part of the mantle of leadership with Trice and has done a little of everything to help this team. Branden Dawson has been what they needed him to be, for the most part, although he hasn’t quite reached what many feel his ceiling is. Izzo said “this is one of the more together teams we’ve had ever” after Sunday’s win, and talked about this team’s chemistry as a big reason they are in the Sweet 16.
The other No. 2 that didn’t have a good day was Kansas (Midwest), who took on in-state rival Wichita State. Despite being in the same state, the two schools were meeting for the first time in over 22 years. It’s a game that you would figure would happen every year, especially since Kansas is not known for ducking good teams and that includes mid-majors. The Jayhawks are not among the teams that play a soft non-conference schedule; this year alone, they played UC Santa Barbara, Lafayette and Kent State among mid-majors. Last year, they took on Iona and Toledo, and two years ago they played Belmont. You get the idea.
Wichita State was down 24-16, but went on a 25-6 run that went into the second half to turn the game around. Kansas would try to rally, but never could get within striking distance, and Wichita State went on to win 78-65.
Naturally, there were plenty of questions asked about the two teams not playing each other in the post-game. Kansas came in leading the all-time series 12-2 and having won five in a row. Give Shocker head coach Gregg Marshall credit for not putting his program out there as some kind of poor underdog; as he so often does, he maintains respect for his team’s opponent while knowing he has a pretty good team as well, and others should understand that. Asked about the possibility of scheduling the Jayhawks in the future after beating them, Marshall didn’t bite, saying, “I’m fine letting the series lay the way it is right now. The series is good with me at this point.”
The fan base will talk about this more, and who knows if the Jayhawks will change their tune. Whether they do or not, this win was monumental from that standpoint, and it also shows that while the Shockers lost some key pieces from last season’s team that lost only once, they’re still very good, as Marshall said.
NCAA Tournament Round-Up
- It was nearly a big day for the Missouri Valley Conference. With the Shockers’ win to start, No. 5 Northern Iowa (East) tried to make The Valley 2 for 2 this year in the Sweet 16. But Terry Rozier and No. 4 Louisville had other ideas, as Rozier’s 25 points and seven assists led the Cardinals past the Panthers 66-53. It’s the first loss by a Valley team in the entire postseason.
- The No. 1 seeds in action took care of business to advance to the Sweet 16. Duke (South) ran out to an early lead against No. 8 San Diego State, and that was bound to be trouble given that the Aztecs aren’t built to score a lot of points. Duke made that stand up and then added to it, beating them 68-49 in Charlotte. Later, Wisconsin (West) was pursued all night by No. 8 Oregon, but the Badgers broke away late for a 72-65 win to bounce the Ducks for the second straight year. Joseph Young closed out his college career with 30 points in the losing effort for Oregon.
- Lon Kruger has done it again. With No. 3 Oklahoma (East) beating No. 11 Dayton 72-66, Kruger became the first coach to take four different schools to the Sweet 16. It didn’t come easily, though the Sooners did have a double-digit lead in the first half, as Dayton led 56-49 before Oklahoma went on a decisive 23-7 run to take over.
- The next team to have a shot at Kentucky is No. 5 West Virginia (Midwest), who forced 23 turnovers to take No. 4 Maryland out of what they wanted to do en route to a 69-59 win over the Terrapins. The balanced attack was led by Devin Williams for the second straight game, as he had 16 points and ten rebounds.
The coaching carousel continued to move on Sunday as Bradley fired Geno Ford after four seasons at the helm. Ford was 46-86 in his four seasons, including a 9-24 mark this season. (You can keep up with the coaching changes this off-season right here.)
On a related note, Ben Howland has been seeking to get back into coaching of late, and that includes now. ESPN.com reported that Howland may become the next head coach at Mississippi State, after two years of being a TV analyst. The 57-year-old coach, who had a run of three straight Final Fours at UCLA, could try to hold out for a more attractive job, but he doesn’t want to be out of coaching for another year.
Three second round NIT games were on tap, and the home team won each of them. Temple beat George Washington 90-77, getting 21 points and four assists from Will Cummings. Richmond needed overtime to beat Arizona State 76-70, and Stanford got a career-high 35 points from Chasson Randle to hold off Rhode Island 74-65. The last of those three sets up an all-academic quarterfinal on Tuesday as Vanderbilt will visit Stanford, with the winner going to New York next week.
The NCAA Tournament is off until Thursday night, so the other three tournaments keep us going as they all have games on tap.
- The NIT has three second round games on tap, starting with Louisiana Tech at Texas A&M, then Illinois State visits Old Dominion before Murray State at Tulsa wraps it up.
- The CBI has its quarterfinals, with Radford at Vermont and UL-Monroe at Mercer to get it going at 7 p.m., then Oral Roberts goes to Loyola (Ill.) at 8 p.m. and Seattle University hosts Colorado at 10 p.m.
- Three games are on tap in the CIT: Cleveland State visits NJIT (7 p.m.), Evansville heads to Eastern Illinois (8 p.m.) and Kent State travels to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (8 p.m.)