The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was all we could ask for and more, and all we could expect with the way the regular season went. There were surprises, there were fantastic finishes, and there were reminders that the line between winning and losing in the NCAA Tournament is often very, very thin.
Most of all, there are unlikely teams that advance, and this year is no different. The improbable is continuing to happen.
Last year, no one was surprised when both Notre Dame and Wisconsin made a run in the NCAA Tournament. They had veteran teams with great players, as the former had one of the nation’s best backcourts leading the way while the latter had the national Player of the Year leading a veteran cast. This year was different; Notre Dame lost that dynamic duo to graduation, while the Badgers lost their two best players. A Sweet 16 run might have seemed a stretch back in November.
For Wisconsin, that was the case even in January, when they had a relatively non-descript non-conference and then started 1-4 Big Ten play, capped by a loss at upstart Northwestern. New head coach Greg Gard had a tall task in front of him. But after pulling one out on Friday and getting a buzzer-beater by Bronson Koenig on Sunday, the Badgers are in the Sweet 16, knocking off Xavier 66-63 on Sunday.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, faced an upstart in Stephen F. Austin that has lost one conference game the past three seasons and, in fact, hasn’t lost much at all of late. The Lumberjacks were right there to pull off another one in a game that neither team led by more than seven points. Then an unlikely hero emerged, as freshman Rex Pflueger, who had not scored and had not even attempted a field goal in over two weeks, tipped home a miss with 1.5 seconds left to lift Notre Dame into the Sweet 16 with a 76-75 win.
Ironically, these two teams will play each other on Friday in Philadelphia.
At one point yesterday, Texas A&M wasn’t expected to get to the Sweet 16, either, but they were an unexpected team for a very different reason. The Aggies were down by 12 with 44 seconds left against Northern Iowa, and at that point you could be forgiven for thinking the Panthers had it in the bag. While this Panther team isn’t as good as a few recent ones, they have knocked off a couple of very good teams along the way.
Seconds later, Admon Gilder stuck back a missed three-pointer, then turned the ball over after a timeout and Danuel House got a layup to make it 69-51 with 26 seconds left. Another turnover, then a Jalen Jones dunk, then yet another turnover and a House three-pointer, and all of a sudden it was 69-66 with 20 seconds left. When Klint Carlson got a dunk three seconds later, you might have figured, Northern Iowa would take it after all.
Not so fast.
Alex Caruso made a layup and hit the free throw after being fouled, then Wes Washpun got trapped in the corner, tried to throw it off an Aggie but couldn’t, and Gilder laid it in to tie it. Washpun missed a long heave and the Aggies had new life.
Northern Iowa led again in the waning seconds of overtime, but Caruso tied it with a jumper in the final seconds, and a second extra session ensued. There, after the Panthers scored the first point, the Aggies scored the next five and never trailed after that, hanging on for an improbable 92-88 win.
And Northern Iowa, who has broken so many hearts before, had theirs broken this time. March Madness.
The ACC is sending a record six teams to the Sweet 16 after Syracuse also won yesterday, breaking away from Middle Tennessee 75-50. The Big Ten is sending three, with Maryland also advancing by pulling away from Hawaii for a 73-60 win, while the Big 12 also sends three, the latest being Oklahoma after an 85-81 win over VCU.
Villanova carries the flag for the Big East, advancing with an 87-68 win over Iowa, while Oregon is the lone Pac-12 team going after holding off Saint Joseph’s 69-64 in a great game to end the weekend.
UCLA head coach Steve Alford is not a favorite of some of the fan base, and a tenth place finish in the Pac-12 – even as strong as the conference was this year – is not acceptable to them. In fact, two banners calling for his firing flew over campus this past week. Alford isn’t happy with it, either, and wrote a letter to UCLA fans and supporters saying he will return the one-year contract extension he signed two years ago. UCLA was 6-12 in Pac-12 play and was a tease much of the season, at times looking like a solid NCAA Tournament team and at others looking like what they ended up being – not a postseason team at all.
TCU has offered their head coaching job to Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon, a move that seems odd at first glance. There are two things that make this something not to ignore: TCU is his alma mater, and a report says the school is willing to at least match what he is making at Pittsburgh. In addition, he is no longer working for the athletic director and chancellor he had been for a long time, and he just completed his 13th season at the helm. We’ll see if a change of scenery is coming. In the meantime, you can follow all the coaching changes right here.
And in the worst-kept secret in sports, news broke Monday morning that LSU forward Ben Simmons is declaring for the NBA Draft and hiring an agent. Simmons averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game for a disappointing LSU team, though not all of that goes on him. Others underachieved and the Tigers were a poor defensive team all season long, and injuries to Keith Hornsby didn’t help. You can follow all the early entrants to the NBA Draft right here.
The NCAA Tournament takes a break for a few days, but the other three tournaments don’t.
- In the NIT, George Washington travels to Monmouth, Georgia visits South Carolina and Washington travels to San Diego State in second round action.
- The CBI quarterfinals are on tap, with Duquesne at Morehead State, UNC-Greensboro at Ohio, Eastern Washington at Nevada and Vermont at Seattle.
- A second round CIT game is on tap as Boston University visits NJIT.