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Checking out the Big Dance heading into the second weekend

Some disappointments, some surprises thus far.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Ohio State vs Villanova Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the rear-view. After all of the round ball that I watched Thursday through Sunday, I admit to feeling some withdrawal pain on Monday. The tourney is as exciting as always, but Buckeye fans are disappointed that the season ended so abruptly.

Surprises? Fewer than usual, I think. Three of the No. 1 seeds are among the Sweet Sixteen, as are two of the No. 2s, two No. 3s, and three of the No. 4 seeds. So, 10 of the top 16 seeds have advanced to the second weekend. In my column last week, I projected tourney winners to the Sweet Sixteen. Eight of my sixteen picks made it. Three of my Final Four selections are still alive. Nothing to brag about.

There were only a few really big upsets, in my opinion, led by St. Peter’s win over No. 2 Kentucky and then their next-round win over a very strong Murray State team. Here’s a Cinderella that we can get behind. Michigan’s unlikely victory over Tennessee certainly counts as a major upset, and so does Miami’s win over Auburn. If you watched the North Carolina Tar Heels ruin Coach K’s final home game, you can’t be too surprised by their beating Baylor. UNC could end up in the Final Four.


Conference supremacy

Every year we witness a competition among the top conferences for basketball supremacy. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge and the SEC-Big 12 Challenge are manifestations of this competition. Tournament success is clearly another measure of conference strength. This year? Despite claims from Big Ten supporters, I thought that the Big 12 was the best basketball conference this season. Baylor was the defending national champion, and both the Bears and the Kansas Jayhawks pulled down No. 1 seeds. Wisconsin and Purdue got the highest seeds from the Big Ten with No. 3s.

And now, among the Sweet Sixteen, the Big 12 has three teams remaining: Kansas, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. Surprisingly (because of Miami), the ACC also has three teams among the 16, with Duke, UNC, and Miami. The Big East, PAC-12, and Big Ten have two teams each. The SEC was the biggest disappointment (overrated, perhaps). Starting with six teams, only Arkansas remains, as the powers – Kentucky, Auburn, and Tennessee – dropped by the wayside.


The B1G

The Big Ten, too, has been disappointing. With nine teams selected to the tourney field, the conference had (momentarily, at least) bragging rights. But two of those teams had to play in the “First Four.” Indiana advanced; Rutgers didn’t. Then the Hoosiers and Iowa (for which we had high hopes) fell in the first round. Six teams, however, advanced to the round of 32, and things were looking pretty good.

Michigan played on Saturday, while the other five teams waited for Sunday. Shock! TTUN pulled a big upset, defeating Tennessee — the SEC tournament champ — 76-68, outscoring the Vols by 13 in the second half. Hunter Dickinson and Eli Brooks were great and played nearly the entire game. Next up for the Wolverines: Villanova.

The Big Ten Sunday games were lined up. Perfect times for viewing them all. Then, one by one, they went down. First was Illinois. The Illini looked bad in their opening game against Chattanooga and looked bad again against Houston. I kept thinking that someone would get hot, that Houston wasn’t that good. The Illini made a little run in the second half, behind freshmen Luke Goode and R.J. Melendez, but then the Cougars regained control, and coach Brad Underwood chose not to insert high-energy players Andre Curbello and Coleman Hawkins. Final score: 68-53.

Then the Buckeyes were up. Playing Villanova. No question that Nova is really good, capable of going all the way — and they looked it on Sunday, grabbing a commanding lead. But the Buckeyes, led by Malaki Branham and E.J. Liddell, came back, almost grabbing the lead. Credit Zed Key, too. When he entered the game in the first half, Key just started pushing people around and collected two quick fouls and a seat back on the bench. In the second half, though, Key played strong underneath, pulling down 11 rebounds, seven on the offensive boards. Nova had dominated the paint, and, in hindsight, maybe Key should have seen more minutes than the 17 that he played. Final score: 71-61.

Next to go down was Michigan State. I had thought that Duke was overrated and that they struggled toward the end of the season. I picked the Spartans. But Duke controlled the game from the outset, as MSU never really looked settled. Statistically, they did OK, but Duke kept getting easy baskets inside, while the Spartans relied on 3-pointers. MSU made half of their 22 long balls, but the Blue Devils shot 57% from the floor with all of those layups and dunks. Final score: 85-76.

I knew that Iowa State was good and had the No. 11 seed as one of my “sleepers.” I expected Wisconsin to handle them, though. Wrong again. It was a close, low-scoring slugfest throughout. The Badgers’ Johnny Davis had his usual strong game, scoring 17 of the Wisconsin 49 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Final score: 54-49.

There were some commonalities among these games: primarily shooting and turnovers. Wisconsin, for instance, shot 30% for the game and only 9% (2-of-22) from beyond the arc. Turning the ball over 16 times, they’re not going to win many games with that combination of shooting and sloppiness. Illinois was nearly as bad. The Illini shot 34% overall and 24% from 3-point range. Their four guards shot a combined 4-for-22 from the floor. Kofi Cockburn couldn’t do it all. Oh – and the Illini also had 15 turnovers for the game.

Ohio State’s shooting wasn’t terrible (42%), and the 3-point shooting (32%) was far better than the 7% the Buckeyes managed in the first round against Loyola-Chicago. But the Bucks shot only 54% from the free-throw line (6-of-11) and turned the ball over 12 times, after having 17 turnovers in the opener.

Only Purdue survived the Sunday massacre, as the Boilermakers beat the Texas Longhorns 81-71. Purdue was led by stars Jaden Ivey (18 points) and Trevion Williams (22 points). 7-foot-4 Zach Edey collected 10 rebounds, five of them offensive. The Boilers looked good, and I see them moving along through the tourney.


On to the second weekend

Here I go again. Still making picks. It should be easier with fewer teams to choose from and more of a track record (including actually watching teams play) to base one’s predictions on.

The West. Gonzaga had trouble with Memphis in the round of 32, but Arkansas didn’t have a cake walk either. The Zags seemed nervous. I think that they’ll settle down, though, and beat the Razorbacks in a tight one. On the other side of the bracket, Duke has made a believer of me. They’ll beat Texas Tech. Gonzaga will make it out of this region and get to the Final Four.

The East. I like UNC over UCLA and Purdue over St. Peter’s (sorry to say!). The regional final should be a good one. I picked Purdue last week to make it to the Final Four, and I’m sticking with them.

The South. Houston looked awfully good against Illinois, and I think that they might squeak by Arizona. Villanova also advances to the regional final and then on to the Final Four.

The Midwest. Last week, I said Kansas all the way, and the upsets to Auburn and Wisconsin just make their path easier. They’ll have trouble with Providence and then will beat Iowa State in the regional final.


Final Four.

Gonzaga vs. Purdue and Villanova vs. Kansas.

The Jayhawks beat the Boilermakers for the national championship.