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The Morning Dish – Friday, March 10, 2017

March 10, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

The subject hasn’t seemed to come up much at all this season, so it’s time to ask: are we on track for a repeat national title game matchup?

Villanova and North Carolina played one of what will go down as the all-time championship games in college basketball history last year, and it’s very possible-perhaps even likely-that they are the two best teams again this year. If one needed any convincing of that, Thursday’s conference tournament results should’ve left little doubt.

While presumed NCAA No. 1 seed contenders the likes of Baylor, Kansas and UCLA sputtered or barely pulled off wins in their league tourney games Thursday, the Wildcats and Tar Heels were superb in their respective postseason debuts. Playing essentially a road game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, Villanova pummeled the Red Storm 108-67 in the Big East quarterfinals, while North Carolina dismissed Miami (Fla.) 78-53 in an ACC quarterfinal matchup.

The defending champion Wildcats in particular have every look of a team primed for a strong defense of their crown. Villanova left no doubt in building a 26-point halftime lead against the Johnnies and improved to 29-3 this season.

More than just one game against a team at the bottom of the Big East barrel, though, is the toughness this team has shown all year. Simply put, this team rarely has an off night, and to have just three losses against the schedule Villanova has played indicates as much. When it comes to memorable teams, the Wildcats may be the closest thing to greatness in our midst that we have seen in some time. That will be assured if they can somehow win a second straight title.

North Carolina, meanwhile, continues to be maybe the most overall talented team in the country, and the win over Miami was a statement, coming after a 15-point loss to the Hurricanes in late January.

More than Villanova has, the Tar Heels have had occasional hiccups this year, including just last week against Virginia. But when they’re on, there’s been no more devastating team in the country.

Carolina’s occasional clunker performances shooting and Villanova’s lack of depth illustrated how neither is a shoo-in to get to the Final Four. Both, though, are as good a bet as any right now, and just might be on a collision course to meet again.

Side Dishes:

  • The night was marked by mild surprise winners in leagues like the Big East, Big 12 and Mountain West. The second seed is gone in the Big East after 7 seed Xavier rallied to top Butler 62-57. The Musketeers likely were plenty safe to make the NCAAs before this, but the extra win doesn’t hurt. Also: 6 seed Creighton topped No. 3 Providence 70-58 and fifth-seeded Seton Hall also defeated No. 4 Marquette 82-76 to set up a semifinal rematch of last year’s tourney final with Villanova.
  • The Big 12 continued to show its teams are going to be hard to trust in the NCAA Tournament. Top-seeded Kansas, playing without Josh Jackson, was dumped by 8 seed TCU 85-82 in a quarterfinal, while No. 3 Baylor looked not-so-good for the second time this year against Kansas State, losing 70-64.
  • The Mountain West semifinals are set with top seed Nevada (83-69 over No. 8 Utah State) set to face scary 4 seed Fresno State (which edged New Mexico 65-60) and 2 seed Colorado State (an 81-55 winner over No. 10 Air Force) against San Diego State, which was the sixth seed but blew past No. 3 Boise State in the second half to win 87-68.
  • The Big Ten seems to typically only enhance its NCAA Tournament bids with its tournament, but that may not be the case this year. Seventh-seeded Iowa was routed by No. 10 Indiana 95-73 on Thursday, and coupled with Illinois being hammered by weary 8 seed Michigan 75-55, it would seem this league should be solid at seven bids, no more, though we still wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the Hawkeyes make the field.
  • Should the NCAA selection committee really feel the need for a fifth Pac-12 team in the field, California is still alive in the conference tourney after edging Utah 78-75. The Golden Bears now get a shot at top seed Oregon (80-57 over Arizona State). The second semifinal is a classic matchup with No. 2 Arizona (92-78 over Colorado) against 3 seed UCLA, which had to hold on to edge city rival USC 76-74.
  • One host team is still alive in its conference tourney, while another has been eliminated. Connecticut defeated South Florida 77-66 in the first round of the AAC tourney. Next up for the Huskies: 3 seed Houston. Meanwhile in Conference USA, No. 7 UAB was knocked out of the tourney in Birmingham by 2 seed Louisiana Tech 69-57. The Bulldogs now face No. 6 Marshall, which nipped third-seeded Old Dominion 64-63. Top seed Middle Tennessee State should have all but locked up an NCAA bid with a comfortable 86-70 win over 9 seed Texas-San Antonio, while the other quarterfinal had No. 4 Texas-El Paso over 5 seed Rice 86-76. The Blue Raiders have a tricky semifinal against the Miners, who have been an entirely different team in league play after a bad start to the year.
  • The MAC quarterfinals were marked by three games that went down to the wire. Sixth-seeded Kent State provided the lone upset by seed, eliminating two-time defending champion Buffalo 68-65. No. 2 Ohio University survived 7 seed Toledo 67-66 and fourth-seeded Ball State edged 5 seed Western Michigan 66-63, while top seed Akron was the only team to win comfortably, handling Eastern Michigan 79-62.
  • The Big West quarterfinals saw the top four seeds win, led by top-seeded UC Irvine’s 76-67 defeat of No. 8 UC Riverside. The Anteaters now have an appealing semifinal and another installment of the Black & Blue Rivalry after No. 4 Long Beach State took out Hawaii 73-62. Also, third-seeded Cal State Fullerton defeated Cal State Northridge 81-68, continuing the Titans’ resurgent season. Fullerton now takes on 2 seed UC Davis, which defeated 7 seed Cal Poly 66-55.
  • The Big Sky semifinals also are set with the top four seeds moving on. No. 1 North Dakota (which defeated 8 seed Portland State 95-72) will face fourth-seeded Idaho, which topped old conference rival Montana 81-77 in a good 4/5 game. The other semi is a dandy with 2 seed Eastern Washington (89-70 over Sacramento State last night) facing third-seeded Weber State, a 90-70 winner over 11 seed Southern Utah.
  • A big surprise in the MEAC quarterfinals, as No. 11 Howard-the conference’s preseason favorite trying to make a last push-stung 3 seed Morgan State 68-65. The Bison now face No. 2 Norfolk State in the semifinals today. Also, fifth-seeded Maryland-Eastern Shore knocked out defending tourney champion and 4 seed Hampton 68-66, moving the Hawks to matchup with top seed North Carolina Central. UMES has now won two games in the MEAC tourney for the first time since 1974. Wow.
  • The Southland semifinals will have top-seeded New Orleans, coming in with its double bye, facing a tough foe in its first game with perennial league challenger Sam Houston State. The 5 seed Bearkats edged No. 4 Houston Baptist 63-59 on Thursday, snapping the Huskies’ nine-game winning streak. Also, Stephen F. Austin is still alive, and the 3 seed Lumberjacks-who eliminated No. 6 Lamar 75-59-now meet second-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
  • The list of coaches being let go grew longer yesterday. Alumnus Derek Kellogg was informed he would not be returning as coach at Massachusetts not long after the 12th-seeded Minutemen fell 73-60 to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals. UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams also was let go after 19 years leading the Gauchos, a tenure that included three NCAA Tournament appearances and several players going on to the NBA. UCSB had a miserable season this year, finishing 6-22-easily the worst record under Williams-and missing the Big West Tournament.
  • The Vegas 16 was only the Vegas 8 last year because it couldn’t find enough teams. This year it will be the Vegas 0, after the tourney was put off for this year over concerns again about finding enough teams to compete in it. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the event hasn’t been folded completely and plans were a go even a couple weeks ago, but for now Old Dominion will remain the only school to have won this tourney.
  • More Hoopville good stuff for your reading and listening pleasure: with all the action now, Phil Kasiecki and Ted Sarandis recorded a two-part podcast for the occasion, which you can listen to here and here. Also, hard-working Ray Floriani has been busy between the ACC and Big East tourneys this week, with his trek on Wednesday here and some Big East quarterfinal thoughts here.

Today’s Menu:

  • It’s semifinal Friday in many leagues, including (take a deep breath) the ACC, Big East, Big Sky, Big 12, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southland, SWAC and WAC.
  • Quarterfinal games also take place in the American, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, SEC and Sun Belt.

Have an outstanding Friday.

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