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#pounditThursday, July 18, 2024

9 biggest takeaways from Sunday’s NCAA Tournament action

Xavier loss

As a college basketball diehard, I’m inclined to call this past weekend the best of any four-day stretch in all of sports. Scripting even half of what happened in the 40 games we’ve just send would prove impossible. We saw history made (in more ways than one), buzzer-beaters, and absolutely unforgettable games.

We now sit with one-quarter of the teams that were alive Thursday morning. The mayhem has claimed many victims, which makes for an intriguing next few rounds. Michigan, Gonzaga, and Kentucky never would have dreamed they’d be the three highest seeds left on the entire left side of the bracket, yet they are at this moment. Kansas joins an impromptu ACC Tournament in Omaha, with Clemson, Duke, and Syracuse all looking to knock off the Jayhawks. Loyola Chicago and Nevada will square off, guaranteeing a mid-major in the Elite Eight.

And even though UMBC’s run came to an end, there were plenty of upsets. Let’s take a look at the nine biggest takeaways from Sunday.

1. Nevada pulls off improbable comeback

Cincinnati held a 22-point lead with 11:17 left to play on Sunday. According to some win probability metrics, like that of ESPN.com, the Bearcats had a 99.9 percent chance to win the game at that point.

Without warning, Nevada came roaring back. The Wolf Pack went on a 16-0 run to cut the lead to only 6 points. Cincinnati’s offense plummeted into chaos, unable to find a basket in any way, shape, or form. Meanwhile, the Martin twins led the Wolf Pack on the charge back into the game. The North Carolina State transfers combined for 35 points.

Nevada forward Josh Hall completed the comeback with a rebound and mid-range floater that would prove to be the game-winner. Winning in overtime in the first round and in a wild comeback in the second round, the Wolf Pack have been the most exciting team in the Big Dance.

2. Yet another one seed sent home

Xavier, and anyone rooting for the Musketeers to advance, had to have felt safe with a 9-point lead and 6:12 remaining in the game. After that point, Florida State turned up the intensity and made Xavier crumble down the stretch. The Seminoles finished the game on a 19-5 run to earn a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, while Xavier joins Virginia as one seeds sent home.

Xavier’s offense went cold in the game’s final minutes due to the struggles of its two best players. JP Macura had 17 points on the night, but fouled out on an offensive foul with 2:06 to play. Trevon Bluiett will leave campus as one of the best players in Xavier history, though he seemingly disappeared Sunday night. Bluiett scored only 8 points on 2 of 8 shooting from the field. Bluiett didn’t score in the game’s final five minutes and committed three turnovers in that same time period.

For a team that finally won the Big East and looked to have a real chance at a Final Four, losing this weekend is a crushing result.

3. Midnight strikes for Cinderella

UMBC’s win over Virginia was one of the most shocking final results in recent sports history. The Retrievers advanced by attacking relentlessly and turning Virginia’s typically orchestrated gameplan on its head.

UMBC then attempted to do the same in the second round and found a Kansas State team fully prepared to win a rough game. The Retrievers’ run ended after just one victory, but will be remembered forever.

Meanwhile, Kansas State is headed to the Sweet Sixteen after a quietly effective season. The Wildcats finished in fourth place in the nation’s best conference and just won two tournament games with their leading scorer sidelined due to injury. Unlike UMBC, maybe Kansas State is more “sleeping giant” than “Cinderella story.”

4. South Region makes history with top seeds eliminated

When the brackets were first released, John Calipari grumbled about Kentucky’s difficult draw.

“From what everybody’s saying, could you imagine a couple brackets tougher than ours? This is my eighth year. It’s not been close. They call it murderer’s row, insane row,” Calipari said.

But after an incredible weekend of upsets, Calipari’s Wildcats may have the clearest path to the Final Four.

The South Region saw its top four seeded teams eliminated within the first two rounds. 1 seed Virginia lost to UMBC on Friday; 2 seed Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead to Nevada and lost on Sunday; 3 seed Tennessee was taken out by Loyola Chicago on Saturday; and 4 seed Arizona got demolished by Buffalo in the first round on Thursday.

This is the first time in history that the top four seeds in a region were eliminated prior to the Sweet 16, according to the NCAA. Calipari’s 5th-seeded Wildcats are the highest seed remaining in a region that also includes Kansas State, Loyola Chicago, and Nevada.

5. Michigan State’s title dreams crushed

Tom Izzo’s Spartans have been one of the best teams all season long; Michigan State would be found on any list of national championship contenders worth reading. Seeing them as a three seed had to scare the top two seeds in their region. But Kansas and Duke lucked out, as Sparty was bounced by Syracuse Sunday afternoon.

After being pegged as the last team to make the tournament field, Syracuse won in Dayton on Wednesday, then upset TCU in the round of 64. Jim Boeheim is one of America’s most revered coaches and his zone defense is worth the respect of every opponent.

With only one day to prepare for that zone, Michigan State looked all out of sorts on Sunday. The Spartans shot just 25 percent from the field, and no player in green looked comfortable against the Syracuse zone. Michigan State forced shots over the top of the zone and made just 8 of 37 attempts from the 3-point line. With big men unable to convert inside the zone either, the Spartans were doomed.

Now Syracuse moves on to play Duke in a game in which both teams will play zone defense. If the Orange can out-shoot the Blue Devils, they can pull two upsets in a row.

6. Purdue survives without Isaac Haas

Purdue fans were given a glimmer of hope when they learned their injured center Isaac Haas would test his broken elbow in warm-ups to see if he could play. The senior big man suffered a fracture in the Boilermakers’ first-round game, but was determined to try to play on in the tournament.

After the NCAA ruled his padded brace ineligible, Haas decided he was unable to risk further pain or more serious injury. He was replaced by 7-foot-3 freshman center Matt Haarms, who is less offensively skilled than Haas but is a gamechanger on defense.

Haarms was more than serviceable in relief, giving Purdue 7 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks to go with his excellent work anchoring the Boiler defense.

In the end, Purdue’s other senior starters picked up the scoring slack, punctuated by a Dakota Mathias three to take a late lead that the Boilermakers would never relinquish.

7. North Carolina upset in blowout fashion

No one doubts that North Carolina lost a step from the team last year that won the national championship. Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks were big losses without clear and obvious replacements.

That being said, the Heels got hot late in the season and earned a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Carolina looked to have a favorable draw in a weak bracket. Texas A&M could not be taken lightly though, as the Aggies destroyed the Heels Sunday like a buzzsaw.

Texas A&M led by as many as 24 points in the second half, thanks to lackluster offense from Carolina. The Heels shot 6 for 31 from outside, led by Joel Berry’s 2 for 10 in his final collegiate game. The Aggies also dominated the glass, grabbing 14 more rebounds than Carolina.

8. Clemson demolishes Auburn

Sunday’s 4 seed versus 5 seed match-up in the Midwest Region looked like a perfect situation. Two teams with Tiger mascots who have both been good all season, but seemingly ignored by the college basketball media, would have a chance to shine. The winner would finally receive some publicity as it earned a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.

Only one of the two teams took advantage of the opportunity, as Clemson absolutely routed Auburn. Clemson led by as many as 41 points late in the second half, simply destroying Auburn offensively and defensively. Clemson whipped the ball around for easy baskets, posting 19 assists on the day, to just 9 for Auburn.

Clemson won by so much that the Tigers likely won’t receive the credit they deserve for the win, with many viewers choosing to watch a closer game instead. That won’t be the case next week when the Tigers face Kansas in Omaha.

9. West Virginia smacks in-state rival Marshall

Because the NCAA Tournament uses geographical location to dictate exactly which teams travel to which venue, we often see surprisingly fun match-ups of local rivals. This year’s tournament included several examples of that, such as Purdue versus Butler and West Virginia versus Marshall on Sunday.

Unlike the Butler-Purdue game, West Virginia wasted no time proving who the best team in their home state is. Marshall succumbed to the intensity of the Mountaineers press, with the high-paced Herd offense stumbling into mistakes. When Marshall wasn’t turning the ball over, the Herd was forcing quick low-percentage shots. West Virginia gobbled the ball up every chance it got, turning defense into offense.

The West Virginia press is the kind of disruption that can spark a run through this tournament and give Villanova all it can handle on Friday.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball 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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