March Madness filled with surprises
The National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament continued this past weekend with the Sweet 16. While the tournament has been both entertaining and surprising, this stage featured some of the best moments of March Madness thus far.
Xavier University continued its miracle run as a Cinderella story, upsetting the 2nd-seeded University of Arizona on Thursday. Xavier had entered the NCAAs on a sour note, losing five of their last eight games and star point guard Edmund Summers to injury. All of that was put behind them, though, as the squad pulled off victories against the University of Maryland, Florida State University and now the Wildcats of Arizona.
Thursday also featured one of the best-played games of the tournament in a bout between the University of Michigan and the University of Oregon. Michigan, which came into the game as the hottest team in the country, caught fire during critical moments of the contest, but ultimately came up short. The Wolverines had become the tournament’s darlings after their surprising run was preceded by a scary plane accident involving the entire team, which was thankfully unhurt. The saga came to an end at the heels of Oregon’s guards Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, clutch performers who have learned from their shortcomings a year ago.
Another team riding a hot run to overcome their low seed was the 7th-seeded University of South Carolina. Even though the Gamecocks entered the tourney with the South Eastern Conference Player of the Year in guard Sindarius Thornwell, the team was an underdog in almost every game they played. The squad silenced the doubters in the second round with a stunning upset over Duke University, a team many picked to win the entire tournament. South Carolina kept the momentum going with a 20-point victory over three-seeded Baylor University. Head coach Frank Martin has completely resurrected a program that was a perennial SEC bottom-dweller, and led it to what has already been its best season ever.
Besides for the upsets from South Carolina and Xavier, most of the heavy hitters took care of business in the Sweet 16. The three remaining one seeds, the University of North Carolina, Gonzaga University and the University of Kansas all advanced to the Elite Eight with victories. Kansas and UNC were able to relinquish their opponents, Purdue University and Butler University, respectively, with relatively little opposition.
Gonzaga, however, was up for quite the test against West Virginia University and its infamous Full-Court Press. WVU’s stringy and intense defense gave Gonzaga all kinds of fits as it struggled to put together a commanding lead. Timely outside shooting busted Gonzaga’s tough zone defense from time to time and led to the game coming down to the closing minutes. The Zags led on their experience and veteran players and stayed composed enough to put away West Virginia by three points.
While the West Virginia-Gonzaga matchup was an enjoyable spectacle, the most anticipated matchup of the tournament came in the Sweet 16 as the University of Kentucky faced off with the University of California, Los Angeles. The two storied programs have a combined 19 national championships between them. They are the two programs with the most titles and the winner of the matchup looked to be in prime position to capture another crown. The battle was expected to be fought by the guards from both squads, a sentiment that was validated come game time. For UCLA, in addition to sharp-shooter Bryce Alford, the backcourt was dominated by superstar freshman Lonzo Ball. Besides putting up stats unseen in college basketball since Jason Kidd, Ball, his brothers and primarily his outspoken father have dominated basketball headlines for months. The brash family is unafraid to claim its right to basketball glory, and the country was excited to watch Ball attempt to live up to the hype. Unfortunately for the Ball Brand, Kentucky possesses some impressive guards of its own who were up to the task. Led by the duo of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky bested UCLA 86-75. Ball struggled, shooting only 4-10 for 10 points, while Fox demonstrated his case for the best guard in the country with a career-high 39 points. Ball and Fox were the top rated point guards in their class, and with the impressive stat line and victory, Fox has made his claim to be mentioned in the same league as Ball when the NBA draft rolls around.
The best game of the round undoubtedly belonged to the University of Florida and the University of Wisconsin. Wisconsin had just knocked off the top team in the country with Villanova University and looked to be poised to advance to the Elite Eight. However, the team found itself down by three with only seconds remaining in the game. Senior Zak Showalter managed to throw up the only shot he could, a running three-pointer that somehow managed to fall in and tie up the game. A stunned Florida squad was forced to bear down and prepare for the overtime period. The Gators struggled in overtime and were trailing by two points as the game ticked down in its final moments. Guard Chris Chiozza tossed up a floater from beyond the three-point arc, in an attempt similar to the one Showalter had just made. As the Madison Square Garden buzzer blared, Chiozza’s shot went through the net, sending Florida to an Elite Eight appearance.
This round was one of the best Sweet 16s in recent memory.