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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

5 biggest takeaways from Thursday’s Sweet 16 games

Xavier

Thursday night provided the benefit of a hotly contested first weekend of play -– eight worthy and talented teams squared off in search of spot in the Elite Eight. The first half of this round’s games provided chances for upsets, statements, and history in each of the four match-ups.

Thursday night resulted in four games that will have ripple effects throughout this weekend and beyond. The biggest arguably came in the late game.

1.) Xavier has officially risen from the dead

The first three games of Thursday night’s action were won by the favorites, setting up the chance for great battles in the Elite Eight. An Arizona win would have done the same, offering a rematch between the Wildcats and Gonzaga in the West Region final.

Xavier had other ideas, stealing a win in San Jose in the closing seconds.

Trevon Bluiett continued his stellar tournament, scoring 25 points on 9-for-17 shooting. Arizona could not find an answer for the scoring guard. The lack of shots for Lauri Markkanen down the stretch will be something Sean Miller will have to answer for after the game, as well as the way the team’s final possession was handled.

The upset means that Xavier’s rise from the dead is officially complete.

The Musketeers went 3-6 between Feb. 8-March 8, with all three wins coming over lowly DePaul. Now Xavier is one win from the Final Four and seemingly has all of the momentum and mojo needed to snag another win this Saturday.

2.) Kansas has reached another level

After Purdue led for chunks of the first half of Thursday’s game and stayed close with a flurry of scoring from Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, Kansas eventually became too much for the Boilermakers and won in a blowout. The Jayhawks finished with 98 points, with 52 coming from matching 26 point performances by Kansas backcourt mates Frank Mason and Devonte Graham.

The Kansas offense was simply incredible, scoring 1.40 points per possession, an absolutely off-the-charts showing by the Jayhawks.

When this Jayhawks team is making shots from the perimeter, they are tough to beat. When they are feeding off the energy of a nearly home crowd in Kansas City, the sky is the limit.

Even if Oregon jumps to a lead like Purdue did, Kansas has the energy and the pop to close any deficit. The teams will square off on Saturday with a berth to the Final Four on the line.

3.) Gonzaga can win ugly, thanks to its defense

Gonzaga collected one of its wildest and weirdest wins of the season.

In the Bulldogs’ showdown with West Virginia, officials called both teams for a combined 51 fouls. Neither team could find an offensive rhythm with a whistle always ready to interrupt. The second half was marred by players fighting foul trouble and an official’s review that took nearly ten minutes of real time.

Despite all of that, Gonzaga showed what makes this Bulldog team different from the tournament teams in the program’s history.

This Zags team is as skilled offensively as Mark Few’s previous squads, but they are also lethal on the defensive end of the floor. Gonzaga sits first in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing the lowest effective field goal percentage in all of Division I.

Thursday, the Zags held West Virginia to just 27 percent shooting from the field and a dismal 5-for-23 from outside the 3-point arc. Their stellar defense was on display for West Virginia’s heavily-mocked final possession of the game.

Moving into the Elite Eight, and potentially beyond, Gonzaga will win behind the defense of Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, and the rest of the athletes on the Bulldogs’ roster.

4.) Oregon is adjusting without Chris Boucher

When Oregon shot blocker and secondary scorer Chris Boucher tore his ACL, most of the basketball world tempered expectations for the Ducks in the Big Dance. He was a crucial member of a seven-man rotation and would be sorely missed. Most expected to see more of Kavell Bigby-Williams and Keith Smith, filling Boucher’s role.

In Oregon’s game Thursday, coach Dana Altman all but abandoned the idea of replacing Boucher in the lineup. Smith and Bigby-Williams played only 10 combined minutes and scored just 1 point between them.

Instead, Oregon stuck with their other six reliable contributors, and it paid off.

Four Oregon starters scored in double figures, combining for 58 of the Ducks’ 69 points. Freshman guard Payton Pritchard added 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, with senior Casey Benson carrying the brunt of the defensive effort.

In March, with a glut of TV timeouts, long halftimes, and lengthy official’s reviews, Oregon may be able to survive without their top six players getting fatigued. Then again, the Ducks had the luxury of four nights of rest between the Round of 32 and the Sweet 16. With a quick turnaround before the Elite Eight, a shorter bench could hurt Oregon on Saturday.

5.) The Big Ten is what we thought they were

After the Midwest’s favorite conference finished an ugly regular season and the seeding committee recklessly tossed Big Ten teams into the bracket, the conference responded by placing three teams into the Sweet 16. People wondered if the Big Ten had been overlooked due to its slow, and often ugly, play this season.

Beyond the fact that collective NCAA Tournament success is not a direct indicator of conference quality, the Big Ten teams we saw on Thursday looked more like what we expected.

Michigan’s offense was effective as always, but the Wolverines were outworked on the glass and could not answer Oregon’s offensive attack. The karma still lingering from Michigan’s plane mishap ran dry and they’ll return to Ann Arbor having only grabbed two offensive rebounds against the Ducks.

Meanwhile, Purdue’s flaws that have bubbled up all season reared their ugly head. Matt Painter’s roster isn’t perfectly built, with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas both worthy of tons of playing time, but with the two big men unable to share the floor effectively together. Even when Purdue made its runs against Kansas playing smaller, Painter couldn’t resist betting on the bigger lineup and the mismatches it might create. In the slower slog of the Big Ten, he can succeed playing two giants in the paint.

Against Kansas, with Josh Jackson at power forward, in a raucous atmosphere in Kansas City, that approach didn’t stand a chance.

Wisconsin plays Friday with a chance to save face for the conference to an extent, though any notion that the Big Ten was underestimated is likely dead now.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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