The Round of 64 was one of the best opening rounds in recent memory, so the round of 32 had some pressure on it to match the previous round. Although there weren’t many upsets this round, the finishes this round were still memorable, with a couple of buzzer beaters and close finishes. And all these games further made me want to burn by bracket in cold blood. Ultimately, more hearts were broken and more dreams were crushed, but the Sweet Sixteen is where the fun begins.
Cinderella Story’s Crash and Burn
Following the round of 64, 10 double-digit seeds made it to the round of 32. However, all but two of those teams will be advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. #11 seed Gonzaga and #10 seed Syracuse, who many thought shouldn’t be in the tournament, will face off against each other in the round of 32.
Gonzaga and Syracuse dominated their opponents from start to finish, winning by 42 points combined. Fellow Cinderella Middle Tennessee couldn’t crack the code to Syracuse’s zone defense, and looked uncomfortable all game. The big man combo of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer for Gonzaga shut down likely lottery pick Jakob Poeltl, limiting him to just five shots and only five points in 24 minutes of action.
As for their fellow Cinderella’s, they didn’t show up in the round of 32. Hawaii and Arkansas Little-Rock were dominated throughout their match ups against Maryland and Iowa State, respectively.
Teams like Wichita State, VCU and Yale found themselves in early holes to Miami and Duke, respectively, but clawed their way back in the second half to make their games a bit more fun to watch.
Then, there were the heartbreakers. Northern Iowa blew a 10 point lead in the final 30 seconds to #3 seed Texas A&M, who forced the game to go into overtime, then two. Northern Iowa eventually fell to the Aggies in that second overtime, 92-88. 14 seed Stephen F Austin was looking to upset #6 seeded Notre Dame, and the two went back and forth the entire game. Notre Dame won on a tip in with 1.5 seconds left to avoid the upset. The unlikely hero was freshman Rex Pflueger, who hadn’t scored all game. In fact, Pflueger hadn’t even made a field goal since March 5th.
ACC Continues to Dominate…
The ACC is arguably the top conference in America, and this year, it sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament. Those teams were #1 North Carolina, #1 Virginia, #3 Miami, #4 Duke, #6 Notre Dame and #10 Syracuse. Each of those squads is still alive and is in the Sweet Sixteen. It marks the first time that six teams from the same conference are in the Sweet Sixteen in the history of the NCAA Tournament. And if it wasn’t for NCAA recruiting violations, Louisville would likely be a #5 seed at worst in this year’s field.
North Carolina and Virginia have looked strong as #1 seeds. #3 Miami has won by fewer than double-digits in both of their games, but those games weren’t as close as they looked. Duke overcame a scare against #13 UNC Wilmington and were mildly tested by #12 seed Yale. Notre Dame has been challenged twice, and avoided a colossal upset against Stephen F. Austin.
Syracuse is proving that they belong in this tournament, after much debate as to whether they should be out, or whether they should be in. They upset #7 seed Dayton by 19, and then dominated #15 Middle Tennessee, winning by 25.
As Do The Seniors
The seniors have been the story of college basketball this year, and that hasn’t stopped in March. The round of 64 featured some great performances by the upperclassmen, and that hot streak carried into the weekend.
North Carolina’s Brice Johnson posted yet another double-double in a win over Providence, with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Yogi Ferrell was the difference for the Indiana Hoosiers in a win over #4 Kentucky, in what was a highly anticipated matchup. Ferrell had 18 points, five rebounds and four assists in the 73-67 win over the Wildcats.
Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste had a double-double against Stephen F. Austin, scoring 18 and hauling in 15 rebounds. ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill led the Virginia Cavaliers to a win over Butler. The two seniors combined for 41 points. Georges Niang from Iowa State led his Cyclones to the Sweet Sixteen by scoring 28 against Arkansas- Little Rock.
Big 12 Player of the Year and potential Naismith and Wooden Award winner Buddy Hield overcame a poor first half, in which he only scored seven points, only to finish with 36 points on 11/20 shooting and 6/14 from three.
Miami’s senior backcourt of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan out dueled another senior backcourt of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Miami’s duo scored 46 of Miami’s 65, while limiting the Shockers’ duo to just 23. Rodriguez had a great all around game, scoring 28 points, on a proficient 9/11 shooting, dishing out five assists, and recording four steals in 35 minutes of action.
Number One Seeds Get Good Challenges
In the first round, the number one seeds walked through their competition, winning by an average of 29 points. But in the round of 32, the top seeds each got solid match ups and compete level from the upset minded underdogs. Kansas jumped out to a 20 point lead at halftime, but Connecticut came back in the second half to dwindle the lead to nine. But Kansas closed strong and won by 12, 73-61.
For the second straight round, North Carolina overcame a tough first half to step up their game in the final 20 minutes and pull away. This time, their victim was Providence, led by Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. The Tarheels only led by four at half, but were tied at 41 in the second half before an 8-0 run and a 10-0 run that put the game away.
The Midwest Region’s top seed in Virginia actually found themselves down by 2 at halftime to Butler. Even when Virginia came out firing in the second half, hitting 14 of their first 16 shots, the Bulldogs were still only down three with under a minute left. Eventually, Butler had to foul Virginia if they had any hope to stay alive, but Virginia was cool and collected at the line to win by eight, 77-69.
The final number one seed Oregon faced a tough Saint Joseph’s team led by DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles. The Ducks found themselves up by 10 in the second half, and then in the blink of an eye they were down seven with five minutes left, But Dillon Brooks took over down the stretch and finished with 25 points. The Ducks are the final team left in the Pac-12, after the conference sent seven teams to the tournament. The Ducks have the added pressure of being a disrespected one seed, and being the last of an embarrassed Pac-12 to cope with as they march into the Sweet Sixteen.
Top Programs Finally Breaking Through When It Counts
In the last couple years, teams like North Carolina, Villanova and Iowa State have been called failures for their performances in March Madness. An annual contender to win a national championship, North Carolina hasn’t made it past the Sweet Sixteen since 2012, and have been knocked out in the second round in 2013 and 2014. The Tarheels looked shaky in each of their first halves this season, but have come out strong in both second halves. With a roster that is both deep and talented, UNC looks extremely capable of making a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa State has been a program on the rise since the start of the decade, but haven’t found much success in March. The Cyclones have yet to make it past the Sweet Sixteen in their recent stretch of success, and were upset last year in their first game last year by UAB. The key players for this year’s team is made up primarily of seniors and juniors, led by Georges Niang. So far in this tournament, they haven’t been challenged much, beating Iona by 13 and then whooping Arkansas-Little Rock by 17. The sting of last year’s loss is still very much real, and Iowa State is out to put that feeling to bed this March.
The Villanova Wildcats have been the biggest disappointment in March since 2010. That year, the Wildcats were upset by Saint Mary’s in the second round. In 2011 and 2013, Villanova was eliminated in their first games. Sandwiched in between those one-and-dones, the Wildcats didn’t make the tournament in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, Nova made it to the made it to the round of 32. Now in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2009 (a year they made it to the Final Four), the pressure is on Nova to break the curse. The Wildcats have looked good in each of their first two games, beating UNC Asheville by 30 and Iowa by 19. Tougher tests remain however, and it will be interesting to see if they can come through in the clutch.
Cover photo via Washington Post