March Madness on Sling: Zags Get First Big Test, Xavier Trying on Glass Slippers, Baylor With Lots to Prove, and Wisconsin Eyes Another Goliath
The first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament provided the usual mix of upsets, near-misses, and sound thrashings, and when the dust settled, 16 teams were left standing, and writhing in the rubble were a 1 seed, two 2 seeds, and a 3 seed.
No upset was bigger than Wisconsin’s 65-62 defeat of the defending champs of Villanova. But maybe it shouldn’t’ve come as such a stunner, given that in February the Badgers were 20-3 and ranked 7th in the country before suffering a late-season swoon. And these Badgers are battle-tested, as this senior class, led by Bronson Koenig, is in its fourth straight Sweet 16.
Kentucky barely survived the woefully under-seeded Wichita State Shockers, not securing a 65-62 victory until Bam Adebayo swatted away Landry Shamet’s last-second 3-pointer. And no blowout was more shocking than the Florida Gators’ 65-39 dismantling of the Virginia Cavaliers. The Gators held the Cavs to just 29.6% shooting from the floor, including 1-of-15 from beyond the arch, and not allowing anyone to score in double digits, as they put on a smothering defensive clinic.
And now we head into the Sweet 16, where there’s another underdog ripe for glory, as West Virginia promises to give top-seed Gonzaga their toughest test of the year. Gonzaga has padded its record by playing in a soft conference and with an underwhelming out-of-conference schedule in which the only other really good team they faced, Arizona, who was without Allonzo Trier. WVU, on the other hand, comes out of the ThunderDome known as the Big 12 and plays D better than any team the Zags have faced all year. This game has upset written all over it.
The Xavier Musketeers at #11 are the lowest-seeded team still alive, having taken down Maryland and Florida State, two teams that finished the regular season in the top 25. But the good times will end this week, as the Arizona Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the year, thanks to the return of Allonzo Trier from a 19-game suspension for PED use. Since Trier’s joined the fold, their only two losses have come against UCLA and Oregon, each of whom they subsequently defeated in the Pac-12 tournament. And Xavier will have a hard time defending Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen, the 7-foot Finn who hits 43% from beyond the arc, and still manages to pull down 7 boards per game.
After again convincing the world that they were for real, the Duke Blue Devils got upended by the South Carolina Gamecocks, who outscored Duke 65-51 in the second half, en route to an 88-81 victory. Co-SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell led the way for the Gamecocks with 24-6-5, and 5-10 freshman guard Rakym Felder came up big off the bench with 15 points, while hitting on 7 of 8 from the line in the final 2:03. They’ll face a Baylor team that handled New Mexico State 91-73 before barely holding USC at bay, 82-78. Baylor has gone just 12-7 since being ranked #1 in the country when they were 15-0, with three losses to Kansas State, and two more to Kansas. This one could go either way.
The Wisconsin Badgers are about as tough an 8-seed as you’re likely to run into, they have four senior starters with have a ton of March Madness experience, and they just knocked off the defending champs, Villanova. The Florida Gators haven’t been markedly better than Wisconsin this season, but they do have an edge in that they play at a faster pace and have a much deeper bench, with 7 guys getting 20+ minutes per game. And during crunch time in the tournament is where one of Wisconsin’s big weakness – free throw shooting – can bite you, as the Badgers sank just 64.3% of their freebies this season.
Thursday, Sweet 16
#4 West Virginia vs #1 Gonzaga
7:39pm ET on TBS
#11 Xavier vs #2 Arizona
10:09pm ET on TBS
Friday, Sweet 16
#7 South Carolina vs #3 Baylor
7:29pm ET on TBS
#8 Wisconsin vs #4 Florida
9:59pm ET on TBS
Saturday, Elite 8
6pm ET on TBS
8:30pm ET on TBS
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