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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

6 biggest takeaways from Day 3 of the NCAA Tournament

Nigel Hayes

A predictable first round has one direct result: better teams and more juice in the second round. College basketball fans would be treated to match-ups that they dreamed about when the brackets were revealed. Top seeds, previously unscathed, would be faced with tough tests in order to reach the Sweet Sixteen next weekend. Even if Cinderella didn’t show up to the ball, March would bring us Madness.

Day three of tournament play did not disappoint, with surprises and upsets across the slate, highlighted by the defending champs going down.

1.) Wisconsin confirms they were under-seeded, beats defending champs

Villanova entered this tournament as the top overall seed and the reigning national champions. The Wildcats had the swagger of a successful team, and the leadership and determination to steady themselves in tough moments. Yet, somehow, it did not come as an overwhelming shock when Villanova was beaten by Wisconsin in the second round of tournament play.

First off, Wisconsin was among the most under-seeded teams in the tournament. The committee’s placement of Minnesota and Maryland as a 5 and 6 seed, respectively, but the Badgers as an 8, was confounding (and led to loud complaints). Wisconsin started the season 21-3, then stumbled and lost 5 of 6 late in the season. Aside from that stretch, the Badgers always looked like a top-25 team. Even in the Big Ten Tournament, Wisconsin made a run to the title game. Serving this Badgers team to the No. 1 overall seed in just the second round was never a fair shake.

On top of that, Wisconsin proved to be a match-up nightmare for Villanova.

With a front court of Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, the Badgers’ ability to pound inside and stretch the Villanova defense was a key factor in the upset. Villanova’s rotation features only seven players, only one of whom is a legitimate big man, Darryl Reynolds. Other Villanova forwards, Mikal Bridges, Kris Jenkins, and Eric Pascall are versatile athletes, but not suited to stop Happ or Hayes.

The Badgers move forward with a major notch on their belt, added to a team that already has Final Four experience. No one in the East Region should be excited to see this Wisconsin team advance to New York.

2.) Gonzaga ends Northwestern’s dream run, with some controversy

After earning the school’s first ever tournament win, Northwestern was tasked with an upset bid of top-seeded Gonzaga. The Wildcats were outplayed and outworked for most of the game, appearing to be headed home. Northwestern got hot late, however, and mounted one last charge at the win.

In the midst of this push, Gonzaga center Zach Collins blocked a layup attempt late in the second half. As the Zags turned the ball back down the court, Northwestern coach Chris Collins went berserk on the sideline, storming on to the court, and was whistled for a technical foul. Video replays showed conclusively that the Gonzaga player’s hand was inserted in and through the rim when he made the block – an obvious goaltending call (video here).

The refs absolutely missed the call and cost Northwestern two points, without question. On the other hand, Coach Collins has to keep his composure in that spot, at least enough to not elicit the technical foul. No matter how wrong the call was, Collins went ahead and cost his team two more points (and possession) by entering the court.

Regardless of that play, Gonzaga was the better team all day. College basketball fans deserved to see if they could have held off the Wildcats’ run without the benefit of a wild official’s mistake.

3. Salt Lake City had a second referee controversy

Both West Region games played in Salt Lake City on Saturday featured controversial calls late in the game. First was the missed goaltending call in the Northwestern-Gonzaga we already covered, and then there was a call that affected the Arizona-St. Mary’s game late.

St. Mary’s was down 65-60 with 1:55 left and was trying to come back when they missed a 3-pointer and got called for a foul during the scrum for the rebound.

Jordan Hunter was called for a foul even though a replay showed he was pushed by Lauri Markkanen. That sent Arizona’s Allonzo Trier to the line, who made two free throws to make it 67-60 in favor of Arizona.

Instead of St. Mary’s retaining possession and making it potentially a one-possession game, Arizona extended their lead.

Just like what happened earlier in Salt Lake City, a bad call robbed fans of what could have been a better finish.

4.) Xavier smokes FSU, shows it’s dangerous

When a double-digit seed finds their way into the second round, they often find themselves in a blowout, facing a more difficult match-up. The opposite was the case in Orlando, where 11th seeded Xavier charged into the second round, dismantled 3rd seeded Florida State, and pulled off a second upset to reach the Sweet Sixteen.

The Musketeers were unfazed by the Seminoles athleticism, carving up Florida State’s zone defense for tons of points.

Xavier has blossomed into a dangerous team on both ends of the floor, despite struggles this season. After losing point guard Edmond Sumner to injury, the Muskies couldn’t beat anyone except Big East doormat DePaul for a stretch late in the season.

The players replacing Sumner have learned their roles and stepped up, like freshman Quentin Goodin.

5.) West Virginia’s press defense remains a force

Notre Dame’s offense is as good as any in America. Mike Brey has built a machine in South Bend, driven by open threes and Bonzie Colson dominating in the paint.

West Virginia turned that machine on its head, pressuring the Irish up and down the court for 40 straight minutes.

Notre Dame looked like a mess, with only two days to prep for the vaunted West Virginia press. The Irish struggled at times to even inbound the ball or cross half court. Numerous Notre Dame players found themselves trapped in corners throughout the day, stifling any chance to find a scoring chance.

West Virginia kept the Irish at bay with effective offense, including 5 of 6 shooting from outside the arc in the second half. Anytime Notre Dame looked to make and run and cut into the lead, the Mountaineers answered with a dagger.

The next team to face West Virginia will have to deal with its press, but at least will have more time to prepare for the match-up.

6.) Four seeds complete the sweep of five seeds

In the East and Midwest Regions, the fourth seeded teams faced interesting match-ups from fifth seeded teams, but we saw very different results. In the East, Florida routed Virginia in a game that was never close. The Gators shared the ball and attacked relentlessly, while swarming the Cavaliers offense. Virginia managed only 39 points — a disappointing showing in the final game for senior London Perrantes. Florida moves on to Madison Square Garden, with top seeded Villanova removed from their path to the Final Four.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, it appeared Purdue was poised to match Florida’s blowout, as the Boilermakers jumped out to a 22-point lead after halftime. Deonte Burton led a second half charge from the Cyclones, erasing the entire deficit with a series of dunks and dribble drives, forcing Caleb Swanigan to defend on the perimeter.

Swanigan proved to be too much for Iowa State in the end. The monstrous sophomore finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists. Most notably, when teammate Dakota Mathias missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity, Swanigan held off four Cyclones in the paint to grab the board and give Purdue another chance to seal the game. The Boilermaker big man is one of the toughest players to match-up with in this tournament and can affect the game in a litany of ways.

In addition to Florida, Purdue, and the aforementioned West Virginia, Butler was the other four seed to win. They got out to an early lead against Middle Tennessee State and never looked back, as they did not trail at all during the game.

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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