After the first weekend of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, everyone can finally exhale. The first weekend always keeps fans on the edges of their seats, but this year was one of the more entertaining first weekends in recent memory. Thursday produced four overtime games, the most in a single day in tournament history. Three 12 seeds scored upsets in the second round: Stephen F. Austin over VCU, Harvard over Cincinnati, and North Dakota State over Oklahoma. Mercer scored a shocking upset over Duke. Dayton, Stanford, and Tennessee are still alive despite being double-digit seeds. Freshman sensations Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker bowed out of the tournament with lackluster performances. College basketball said goodbye to Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the fifth-highest scorer in college basketball history. Kentucky’s turnaround became complete when the Wildcats ended Wichita State’s perfect season in a thriller. Florida, Arizona, and Virginia flexed their muscles en route to the Sweet 16. Here is a rundown of the weekend that was.
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. Freshman Julius Randle is playing like a man possessed, recording 32 points and 25 rebounds in their pair of wins over the weekend. After dispatching Kansas State with relative ease, the Wildcats played their most complete game of the season against previously undefeated Wichita State. They shot 8-18 from the three-point line and only committed 11 turnovers, two areas they have struggled mightily in this year. They will have to keep up this level of play to defeat rival Louisville in what should be a classic showdown.
2. Baylor: It’s hard to believe the Bears were once 2-8 in conference play and on the brink of having their NCAA Tournament hopes dashed. They have reeled off 12 wins in their last 14 games, and they looked the part of a Final Four contender in their 30-point destruction of third-seeded Creighton. Their defensive game plan worked to perfection, frustrating Doug McDermott with double teams and forcing Creighton to take shots they normally do not take. Their offense was clicking on all cylinders, connecting on 11 of 18 three-pointers and distributing 19 assists. If the Bears continue the offensive efficiency, they will be a tough out in this tournament.
3. Tennessee: Every year since the First Four was introduced, one of those teams made it beyond what is now the second round of the NCAA Tournament. VCU went all the way to the Final Four in 2011. The Volunteers are the 2014 version, advancing to the Sweet 16 through solid defensive play and superb rebounding. Jarnell Stokes has been a beast down low, averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in three tournament games. The Volunteers have also been to the line at least 25 times in every game, shooting greater than 75% each time. With a trio of Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, and Stokes, this team has what it takes to go to the Final Four.
1. Duke: One year after bowing out of the tournament at the hands of 15th-seeded Lehigh, the Blue Devils lost a stunner to little-known Mercer. How exactly does a team that connects on 15 threes, outrebounds its opponent by a decent margin, and miss all of one free throw manage to lose a game? The answer is simple: the Blue Devils played undisciplined defense. Even when Duke was red-hot from the perimeter, Mercer had quick responses with layups and wide-open threes. The youth and inexperience was exposed on the defensive end of the floor. It would be a shame if this were the last the college game sees of freshman phenom Jabari Parker.
2. Syracuse: After a 25-0 start, the Orange were the consensus pick for most complete team in the country. Since then, the offense has sputtered, and the Orange suffered home losses to cellar dwellers Georgia Tech and Boston College during a 2-5 stretch to close the season. However, the Orange had appeared to turn it around in a romp over Western Michigan in their first game. They followed that performance with an offensive dud against Dayton. They went 0-10 from beyond the arc, mustered all of four assists, and were even outrebounded by four. Add it all up, and the Orange just couldn’t salvage the season in a 55-53 loss to the Flyers.
3. Creighton: The Blue Jays had the unfortunate combination of playing their worst game of the season against one of the hottest teams in the country. After outlasting Louisiana-Lafayette in their first game, Creighton shot bricks from beyond the arc and looked clueless on the defensive end against the Bears. It got so bad that analyst Steve Kerr mentioned that it looked like a varsity team was having its way against a junior varsity squad. It was disappointing to see one of the best collegiate players during the best decade in Doug McDermott lose in his final opportunity to make the Sweet 16, but the Blue Jays had no business in the Sweet 16 after this performance.
1. Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76: There were at least five or six times during the course of the game that either team could have folded in the face of adversity. Each time that happened, the team responded with incredible resiliency. Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early threw down ferocious dunks. Early and Ron Baker traded three-pointers with James Young and Aaron Harrison. In the end, the bigger and more talented team survived a frantic finish. This game goes to show how quickly it all can end. Wichita State had a season many players could only dream of, but the Shockers were clearly disappointed with how it ended.
2. Dayton 60, Ohio State 59: One can’t help but wonder if the selection committee intentionally set up this matchup considering the history between these schools. The outcome of this game could have perhaps revealed why the Buckeyes have avoided scheduling the Flyers in the past. The first game of the second round was a back-and-forth heavyweight bout, with the Flyers scoring the knockout with a Vee Sanford layup in the final seconds. The game saw seven lead changes in the final five minutes of the game alone. Senior point guard Aaron Craft’s floater at the buzzer bounced off the rim, sending the Flyers into a frenzy at midcourt.
3. Iowa State 85, North Carolina 83: This highly anticipated game lived up to the hype, with each team trading buckets and a game-winning shot in the final seconds. Iowa State’s season was on the line facing an eight-point deficit with four minutes remaining, but their stars made championship caliber plays down the stretch to pull out the victory. DeAndre Kane led the way, recording a double double and willing his way to the hoop for his game-winning layup. The game deserved a better ending, as the clock malfunctioned and the officials deemed the game over after the Tar Heels had inbounded the ball and called timeout.
1. Saul Phillips, North Dakota State: The Bison head coach showed what this tournament is all about in his press conference after losing to San Diego State in the third round. He expressed his love for his players and didn’t hide any emotions. It was a truly moving speech from a coach who led the Bison to a spectacular season.
1. Adriean Payne, Michigan State: Payne picked a good time to have a career day in Michigan State’s 93-78 victory over Delaware. He went 10-15 from the floor, 4-5 from three, and 17-17 from the free throw line en route to a career-high 41 points. No player had scored as many points in a tournament game since Gerry McNamara for Syracuse in 2004 (43). The 17 free throws were also the most made without a miss by any player in tournament history.
3. Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes has put together the best resume of any player thus far in the tournament. He has recorded a double double in all three games he has played. He almost outrebounded the entire Mercer team in their third round matchup (18-19). He has made 25-29 free throws and scored a career-high 26 points against UMass in the second round.
1. Bryce Cotton, Providence: The senior guard put on a show for the short time he was on center stage this tournament. Providence’s floor leader was responsible for 69% of their 77 points, scoring a career-high 36 while distributing eight assists. He played every minute and left it all on the floor, but it wasn’t enough in a nail-biting 79-77 loss to the Tar Heels.
3. Craig Bairstow, New Mexico: Bairstow was another individual who nearly willed his team to victory. Outside of Bairstow, the Lobos couldn’t make any shots against a stiff Stanford defense. He was 10 for 18 from the field, scoring 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds. However, the rest of the team combined to shoot 9-34, including 4-21 from beyond the arc. Stanford scored the upset of Bairstow and New Mexico with a 58-53 victory in the second round.
I was fortunate to see all four of my Final Four teams still alive after a hectic first weekend. Even more surprising, all but one of my Elite Eight teams are still standing (thanks New Mexico). The Sweet 16 is loaded with intriguing matchups. Expect another round of close finishes and surprises to fill the storylines this weekend.
The Gators were the top overall seed entering the tournament, and the way they dispatched Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16 validated their position. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin did everything, scoring 21 points and anchoring a rock-solid defense in Florida’s 61-45 victory over the Panthers. Even though the Gators shot 25% from the three-point line, they only committed six turnovers and were in control throughout. Their defense will be tested against UCLA, but they are the favorite to win it all at this point in the tournament.
Don’t Sleep On: Wisconsin
The Badgers were up and down in their victory over Oregon in the third round, so few are expected the Badgers to make some real noise in the tournament. Although Bo Ryan doesn’t have the best track record in the tournament, this team is loaded with talent and matchup nightmares. Center Frank Kaminsky can make three-pointers, forward Sam Dekker can slash and rebound, and Ben Brust has made more three-pointers than any other player in Wisconsin history. This Badgers team isn’t as defensive-oriented as teams of years past, but they can score with efficiency and stay competitive with just about any team. Don’t sleep on these Badgers.
The Volunteers sneaked into the tournament, and now find themselves playing their best basketball at both ends of the floor at the right time of the season. Jarnell Stokes has been playing out of his mind in the paint. Josh Richardson found his stroke against Mercer, scoring 26 points. Wing Jordan McRae has NBA talent and can create his own shot at any time. After an overtime victory against Iowa, the Volunteers destroyed UMass and Mercer on the glass and from the free throw line. The Volunteers could pose a problem for a Michigan team that relies on its guards. If Michigan struggles from the perimeter, the Vols have a great chance to move on.
Best Matchup: #4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky
These teams played in late December, and the host Wildcats came away with a 73-66 victory over the Cardinals. However, both teams have improved since then and are currently playing their best basketball of the season. Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell only had six points and four rebounds in that game. If he doesn’t have more of an impact this time around, the outcome could very well be the same. Also, the Cardinals committed 13 turnovers to Kentucky’s 11. Creating turnovers is the bread and butter of Louisville’s defense, so that department will be one to keep an eye on. The winner of this game will be the favorite to make the Final Four from the Midwest.
Two of the best players in the country will face off at Madison Square Garden Friday night. Kane and Napier lifted their respective teams in their third round battles, and expect more of the same in this one. Their versatility is particularly impressive, as both players averaged more than 17 points, nearly six assists, and five rebounds per game during the season. Napier is one of the most clutch players in the game, hitting several game-winning shots during the regular season (including a buzzer beater against Florida, their last loss). Kane hit the winner against North Carolina in the third round. If this game is close late, these two players could very well decide the outcome.
Believe it or not, come Monday morning the Final Four will be set. This weekend is sure to provide surprises, nail-biters, incredible performances, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. I wish the best of luck to everyone who is still alive in their bracket pools, and enjoy one of the best weekends of the year for college basketball fans.
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