A West Region final rematch is what many have been looking forward to this year, even if they didn’t know it. And a West Region final rematch is what they are getting, and it’s one that will be a historical rarity.
It’s an isolated occurrence for teams to meet in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row at all, and it is flat-out scarce that they square off in the same regional in the same round two years straight. It hasn’t happened since UCLA and San Francisco played in the 1973 and 1974 West regional finals, when the tourney was just 25 teams and placing teams in their home region was a priority and also easy to accommodate with so few teams. It took 41 years, but it will finally happen again on Saturday in the West Region (again) as Wisconsin and Arizona will meet again with a trip to the Final Four on the line after the Badgers defeated North Carolina 79-72 and the Wildcats held off Xavier 68-60 on Thursday.
Wisconsin and Arizona were both engaged in similar games on Thursday. Both received perhaps tougher battles than many expected, and it’s fair to say both were on the ropes midway through the second half before coming through late.
The Badgers, in particular, trailed by seven with just over 10 minutes remaining, and it could’ve been worse. Frank Kaminsky had just taken an elbow to the head a minute earlier, and the Tar Heels had just rebounded a Badger miss and had a fast break opportunity but turned it over.
Such a tiny play seemed to be a turning point, as from there Wisconsin scored six straight points to get right back in the game, keeping UNC in its sights. It paid off paid off down the stretch, and a spark plug was-believe it or not-reserve guard Zak Showalter, who scored six points during an 11-3 run that turned the game around in the Badgers’ favor.
In the second game, Xavier provided a far stiffer challenge to Arizona than predicted. Matt Stainbrook was able to dictate from the post and the Wildcats certainly looked off balance much of the game, displayed no better than by some uncharacteristic turnovers by T.J. McConnell in the first half.
This one kind of felt like we were watching a replay of past Arizona games, though. Last year against San Diego State in the regional semifinals, the Wildcats trailed much of the game but maintained contact and then emerged in the final 10 minutes. Much the same happened here.
Xavier gave a spirited effort, hanging right with Arizona the entire way and leading a good share of the second half. The Musketeers could not hit from deep, though, shooting just 3 of 17 from three-point range.
This is the game both of these teams have been gearing for all season long. For Wisconsin especially, the regular season at times looked like a season-long exhibition for the NCAA Tournament, and while that undoubtedly oversimplifies the hard work a team puts into getting this far, it is a fact that the Badgers were a favorite to get here. Arizona was, too. They are now set up for what should be a memorable final, but will definitely be historic.
- It’s a good thing the West regional games were good, because the second game in the Midwest especially was a stinker. Who knows what role the comments of West Virginia guard Daxter Miles in advance of the game had, for the Mountaineers’ matchup with Kentucky was already going to be a bad one. It showed in a 78-39 blowout that will likely go down as the ugliest game in this entire tournament. It’s awful hard to press if you’re not scoring points, and the Mountaineers’ defining characteristic was made almost useless by 24.1% shooting. This game will undoubtedly spur more talk of the Wildcats’ invincibility, but would suggest one doesn’t overreact too much to this one. Kentucky is really good; we already knew that. They’ve also been significantly challenged at times this year, and we knew that, too.
- Notre Dame defeated Wichita State 81-70 in the first Midwest regional semi on Thursday. For about a 20-minute span of the game including the game’s opening few minutes and then the final 18 minutes, the Fighting Irish could not miss, and there’s only a slight bit of hyperbole in that. Notre Dame started the game making 6 of its first 7 shots; then, late in the game it was shooting 81% in the second half. If Notre Dame shoots 81% against Kentucky, it will beat the Wildcats going away. It will be intriguing to see how the Irish offense works against Kentucky, since Notre Dame is not a team looking to pound it inside. For the Shockers, it was a case of spending too much time playing from behind, and it’s almost as if WSU relaxed after coming back from 13 down early in the game to take the lead early in the second half. Not a vintage defensive effort by any means against an excellent offensive team-the Shockers were constantly a step late guarding cutters and getting out on shooters-but another outstanding season.
- Evansville is the second team to move into the CIT semifinals. The Purple Aces won at Louisiana-Lafayette 89-82. D.J. Balentine scored 35 points and the Aces shot 56.6%.
- Virginia Tech junior guard Adam Smith has announced his intention to transfer and take advantage of the graduate transfer exemption next year. Smith was the Hokies’ leading scorer this year, averaging 13.4 points on a team that finished 11-22, and he’ll be on his third team after starting his career at UNC-Wilmington. New Mexico junior Arthur Edwards is planning to transfer as well for his senior year after averaging 3.9 points per game, and lightly used USC sophomore guard Kahlil Dukes also is transferring.
- Florida junior guard Michael Frazier is choosing to leave the school and will declare for the NBA Draft. Frazier averaged 12.4 points and 4.1 rebounds this past season on a Gators team that struggled to a 16-17 record.
- News from early Friday morning is Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall is out after one year due to his role in an ongoing NCAA investigation. One can just imagine the Volunteers’ buyer’s remorse almost immediately after hiring Tyndall when word got out about the NCAA’s inquiry into Southern Mississippi, his previous school, and this is hardly a surprising result.
- Finally, to take a step away from college basketball’s version of the NASCAR silly season for a second, the wonderful story from yesterday about the late North Carolina coach Dean Smith willing each of his letter winners at the school $200 to take their family out to dinner. A wonderful gesture from the former coach, and if only we had more stories of such selflessness in the world today.
- The NCAA Tournament East and South regionals are in action. If we’re going to have any kind of upset in the regional semis it seems our only real chance remaining is when Duke faces Utah tonight. This Utes team is new to this big stage late in the season, and sometimes those are the most dangerous teams for high seeds. The other game in the East ironically features two western teams in Gonzaga and UCLA. The Bruins are capable of winning this game, but there’s very little to suggest it’s likely. The Zags won comfortably at UCLA earlier this season and are simply the better team.
- The South has a pair of grab bag matchups in which it would be no surprise at all if the lower seeds won. No. 8 seed North Carolina State already won at Louisville earlier this year, while Michigan State seems to always play about 3-4 seed lines higher than its actual seed in March, which puts them right on par with Oklahoma.
- The CIT is plugging along with a quarterfinal a day. The third quarter has Kent State at Northern Arizona on Friday.
Have a terrific start to the weekend.