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The Morning Dish – Friday, March 24, 2017

March 24, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

It can be argued rather easily that no two programs in college basketball have been so consistently good for the last 30 years while still being kept from making a Final Four appearance as Gonzaga and Xavier. One of those two will still have heartache after Saturday, but the far better news is that one will not.

It’s only fitting that the Bulldogs and Musketeers will square off on Saturday, with one guaranteed to make its first-ever national semifinals appearance. The two Catholic schools moving on in the West Regional was the highlight of an eventful first night of the 2017 NCAA Tournament regional semifinals.

The two basketball-first schools both move to the brink of their first trip to the Final Four as Gonzaga edged West Virginia 61-58 and Xavier tripped up Arizona 73-71. It was also a night where Kansas established itself as the national title frontrunner-at least for now-while the team in the highlighter yellow uniforms-Oregon-lurked quietly but still advanced to its second straight Elite Eight.

Three games were decided by a combined six points on Thursday, with the final one of the night the true earth shaker. Xavier and Arizona staged a terrific back-and-forth tussle in Sacramento that looked all but decided after the Wildcats finally surged ahead, taking a seven-point lead in the final minutes. Arizona led 71-64 but then would never score again.

The Musketeers finished the game on a 9-0 run, including surviving a pair of tying attempts in the final minute, and continued an improbable roll as an 11 seed and for a squad that looked nothing like an NCAA Tournament team late in the season as it coped with a season-ending injury to Edmond Sumner and a midseason injury to star Trevon Bluiett. Xavier will appear in its third regional final in school history and its first since 2008, while Arizona came up just short again, another wrenching defeat for Sean Miller in the postseason.

Gonzaga also will play in its third-ever regional final after playing a game with West Virginia that won’t be appreciated by some, maybe many. It was ragged. It was ugly. The shooting was poor. The scoring was low.

It also was top-notch for defense and intensity. In short, it’s exactly why college basketball is such a superior version of hoops-because defense can beat offense. As much as the fouls made it difficult to watch, the drama down the stretch and every-possession-matters nature of the game were fascinating.

The Zags undoubtedly took a physical toll after spending 40 minutes fighting off WVU’s press. On the other hand, Xavier has every reason to be emotionally drained after such a thrilling comeback win over Arizona. Which team handles it better just might decide Saturday’s contest, which should be of the must-watch variety. Both are programs that have earned their way to this stage, moving from modest status to become consistent national programs.

In the Midwest Regional, Kansas powered forward, while Oregon tiptoed onward. The Jayhawks ran away from Purdue 98-66, outscoring the Boilermakers 73-33 after trailing by eight late in the first half. Kansas is looking like the best team left in the tourney, pure and simple, even as it’s a team that barely goes eight deep. Though it seems a team that won the national title a year ago only played about that many people, too.

The Jayhawks were superb in outrunning Purdue and became the latest team to bomb away successfully from long range with 15 three-pointers. Add in what is a flat-out home court advantage playing in Kansas City, and KU is going to be tough to supplant Sunday in its regional final against Oregon.

Yes, the Ducks. They’re still around this tourney, too, and it’s hard to fathom them getting this far so quietly. Yet it took considerable grit for Oregon to get through on Thursday, finally holding off Michigan 69-68 after a final Derrick Walton shot was just off.

The Ducks also were down late, trailing 68-65 with less than two minutes left and appearing to be one possession from serious trouble. Rebounding and defense would win it for Oregon, though, as Jordan Bell soared in for a huge offensive rebound and putback to get within one, and Tyler Dorsey scored on a drive with just over a minute left for the go-ahead bucket.

Oregon also finally cooled off Walton, the Michigan guard who was splendid in the final games of his career and with 20 points and eight rebounds nearly pushed the Wolverines on to another game. Walton missed a jumper in the final seconds, and the Ducks now have a chance to fully erase the memory of their regional final loss to Oklahoma last year.

Side Dishes:

  • It’s an unfortunate sign of college basketball these days that the news off the court almost upstages the NCAA Tournament this time of year. There were all kinds of stories on Thursday, perhaps none bigger than at Georgetown where John Thompson III is out as coach. The Hoyas slumped badly the last two years, but it was reported by insiders and pretty obvious to outsiders as well that it was never going to be as easy as just letting him go, not with the presence of his legendary father looming large and with Big John still at every home game. This wasn’t an easy decision for the school to make.
  • As surprising as that news was, it wasn’t even the wildest of the day. That would be the news of Pat Kelsey changing his mind about the Massachusetts job, something the public found out about shortly after an introductory press conference for its new coach Thursday afternoon was cancelled by UMass. The reports are that Kelsey intends to stay at Winthrop.
    The pairing of Kelsey and Massachusetts seemed like a slightly curious one when announced the other day, for there were some reports just before that saying Kelsey wanted to get back closer to his Ohio home if he did take a new position. In that regard, this isn’t completely stunning. It’s also not stunning in that such a thing has happened at Winthrop before, when Gregg Marshall took the College of Charleston job in 2006 but then returned a few days later
    As bizarre as it all is…like any adult, coaches have the right to change their minds about jobs (even if it did look bad with the number of starstruck tweets and photo ops Kelsey and UMass did in the two days since he was hired). These are big life decisions and not nearly as easy as many portray them to be. If he honestly wasn’t comfortable and goes back to Winthrop and stays a couple years…then chalk this up to life. If Kelsey backed out and is soon on the next train out of town again for another job, though…not good.
  • The early entry list for the NBA Draft continues to grow. Among those added yesterday were La Salle’s B.J. Johnson and Rutgers guard Corey Sanders. Both are among those testing the waters and will not hire an agent.

Tonight’s Menu:

  • The NCAA Tournament is back at Madison Square Garden for just the second time since 1961, and the East Regional in New York City also is the location of the tourney’s most jumbled bracket left. No. 7 seed South Carolina faces 3 seed Baylor in the first regional semifinal (7:29 p.m. Eastern, TBS), while No. 8 Wisconsin takes on No. 4 Florida in the second game (9:59 p.m., TBS).
  • The South Regional in Memphis, meanwhile, is essentially the tourney’s Group of Death, the only one with the top four seeds all advancing. Butler takes on North Carolina in the first game (7:09 p.m., CBS), and if you don’t think the Bulldogs can pull this off, just review their win over tourney favorite Syracuse in 2010, wins over regional 1 and 2 seeds in 2011, or more recently, their two wins over Villanova and victory against Arizona this year. The second game will match offense against defense with UCLA facing Kentucky (9:39 p.m., CBS). The Bruins have more firepower, though the Wildcats still have the most explosive scorer in the tourney with Malik Monk.

Have a wonderful Friday and a terrific weekend.

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