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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Eight biggest takeaways from Friday’s NCAA Tournament games

Tony Bennett

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but more than half of the games of the NCAA Tournament are now behind us. With 32 games in the books and just 31 remaining, we are beyond the halfway point but far from crowning a champion.

Friday’s action helped shed some light on many of the teams with a chance to make a run deep into tournament play. Some teams impressed, other surprised, and others exited earlier than expected.

Although the first two days of tournament play came without a buzzer-beater or all-time memory, there was plenty to dissect. Here are the eight biggest things that occurred during Friday’s sixteen games.

1. Virginia avoids a disastrous repeat

After last year’s tournament disappointment, much has been made of Virginia’s ability to overcome those demons and advance in this year’s Big Dance. Early on in Friday’s game, those demons emerged and looked poised to haunt the Hoos.

Virginia trailed Gardner-Webb by as many as 14 points in the first half, piling up early turnovers offensively. Unlike last year’s defeat to UMBC, Virginia was able to turn things around. The Cavaliers made a run to cut the Runnin’ Bulldogs lead to just six at the half. Virginia cleaned up its offensive mistakes and cranked up its defensive intensity. Gardner-Webb was held to just 20 second half points, as the Hoos coasted to an easy win.

2. Bad day to be a 12 seed

The 12/5 matchup is often a popular upset pick in the NCAA Tournament, and it lived up to its billing on Friday as Oregon and Liberty pulled off wins, both in San Jose.

After ending the season on an eight-game winning streak, culminating in a Pac-12 Tournament championship, Oregon picked up where it left off, handily defeating Wisconsin. The Ducks traveled across the country to play the game and proved too much for the Badgers.

Oregon’s defense impressed all day, bottling up All-American Ethan Happ. The Ducks forced Happ and his teammates into difficult shots for the entire game, frustrating the usually patient Wisconsin offense. Oregon outscored Wisconsin 47 to 29 in the second half, opening up an insurmountable lead.

Later on in San Jose, Liberty rallied from down 10 points with seven minutes to go against Mississippi State and came back to win 80-76. The Flames went 6/6 on free throws over the final 15 seconds to ensure their first NCAA Tournament win in school history.

3. UC Irvine pulls off biggest upset of tournament (by seed)

Without injured star forward Dean Wade, Kansas State’s chances of a run this month seemed unlikely. Even without Wade, the Wildcats were co-champs of the Big XII regular season and have a strong team.

Without Wade’s scoring, Kansas State could not afford to shoot poorly in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats did just that, managing only 8 for 27 from long range and scoring only 64 points on Friday.

UC Irvine, a strong defensive team, took advantage. The Anteaters forced Kansas State into many of its bad shots and turned those misses into chances to score on the other end.

The Anteaters became the highest seed to win its first round matchup, the only team seeded higher than 12th to earn a victory. They were also the first of three lower seeds to pull an upset in San Jose as Liberty and Oregon also were lower-seeded teams to win in that venue throughout the day.

4. Tennessee tested early

Of the top eight teams, the Vols were in the most peril, barely sneaking away from Colgate late in the game. Tennessee caught a break when Rapolas Ivanauskas, Colgate’s leading scorer, was unable to continue playing due to an eye issue.

Even without their top scorer, the Raiders refused to fade away. It took two clutch 3-pointers from Admiral Schofield for the Vols to seal the win.

Early in the tournament, a test like this can sometimes light a fire under a top team like Tennessee.

5. Buffalo proves it’s for real in convincing win

Buffalo entered the first round of tournament play as hot as any team in college basketball. The Bulls were 30-3 on the season, winning 11 straight and 19 of their last 21 games.

Facing an Arizona State team that played Wednesday in the First Four, Buffalo showed no signs of slowing down. The Bulls looked every bit the part of their six seed, if not more. Buffalo showed itself to not just be a small school with a good story, but proved itself able to really be dangerous this March.

Regardless of the conference they come from, these Bulls can reach the Final Four, and they played like it on Friday.

6. Zion Williamson’s athleticism remains a major problem for opponents

Duke took a while to pull away from its first round opponent, mainly due to hot early shooting from the North Dakota State Bison. Eventually, Duke’s athleticism was too much for the Bison to handle. RJ Barrett coasted to 26 points and 14 rebounds, while Williamson had 25 points on 12/16 shooting.

Duke’s physical advantages were apparent any time the ball was near Williamson, on either end of the floor. He was too much for any defender on North Dakota State to handle. Any team with a prayer of beating Duke will need to have the athleticism to deter Williamson, at least slowing his path to the basket.

7. Oklahoma shockingly dominant in win

In one of the day’s most surprising results, Oklahoma pounded Mississippi 95-72 in a game that was never close. After playing strong defense in the SEC this season, Ole Miss could barely slow the Sooners down. Oklahoma exploded on offense, with four starters eclipsing the 18-point mark.

It was a remarkable outcome for a Sooner team that had lost twice in a row and won just four times in its last twelve outings. If Lon Kruger has his team perform on Sunday like they did on Friday, Oklahoma will challenge Virginia far more than anyone would have expected.

8. Dangerous Iowa State squad sent home early

Ohio State entered the tournament in a similar fashion as Oklahoma. The Buckeyes had won just three times in their last ten games, including an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament. In their first round match-up, the Bucks returned to the basics that made them successful early in the season. Kaleb Wesson was heavily featured on the block, posting a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds. The Buckeyes defended exceptionally, cutting off passing lanes and forcing Iowa State into tough isolation looks.

Ohio State ended Iowa State’s tumultuous season with the win Friday. The Cyclones pin-balled between their high ceiling and low floor all year long. At times they looked like the best team in the Big XII and a Final Four-level team. At other times, Iowa State struggled with team chemistry, failed to share the ball, and stalled offensively. It took just one tournament game for the Cyclones’ flaws to get them best of them and send them home.

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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