Eight biggest takeaways from Saturday’s NCAA Tournament games
With three days now in the books, March has not exactly gone mad just yet. Only three of the 40 games played were decided by three-or-fewer points. Only one of those three featured a game-winning score in the final seconds.
Instead, we’ve seen a host of blowouts and wire-to-wire victories. While that hasn’t made for the most riveting game action, it has shed a lot of light on how a champion will be decided in the next several weeks. The teams that are dominating their competition are on a collision course with one another, setting up a host of juicy meetings next weekend and beyond.
Here are eight takeaways from Saturday’s action.
1. Carsen Edwards could be the star of the tournament
Since the 3-point line was introduced in 1987, there have been only ten players to score 42 or more points in an NCAA Tournament game. Carsen Edwards joined that group Saturday, scoring from all over the court. He was the first to drop 42 or more since Gerry MacNamara in 2004.
Edwards sank 9 of 16 from beyond the arc, made all 9 of his free throw attempts, and looked downright unguardable. Even against an accomplished defensive veteran like Phil Booth, Edwards was able to get wherever he wanted and sank just about every kind of shot.
So far, through one and a half rounds of play, Edwards has scored 23 more points than any other player in the tournament. Sunday’s games could close that gap, but don’t count on anyone catching his lead in that category any time soon. If Edwards keeps playing like he has, he could be the face of this tournament in the same way we’ve seen players like Steph Curry and Buddy Hield take center stage in prior years.
2. Big East had a terrible showing in the Big Dance
As we inched through March, the Big East started to look worse and worse compared to its counterparts on the college basketball landscape. The middle chunk of Big East teams all sat on the bubble, with Xavier, Creighton, and Georgetown playing their way out of the tournament. St. John’s followed suit, playing its way from a safe at-large spot to the First Four.
Once the tournament began, the conference’s representatives underwhelmed. St. John’s was handled by Arizona State in Dayton. Seton Hall lost to Wofford. Marquette was not just upset by Murray State, but got routed by the Racers. Only Villanova won in the first round, among Big East teams, sneaking past Saint Mary’s.
The defending champs will join their conference rivals in watching the second weekend from home after being demolished by Purdue. The Wildcats never held a lead and trailed by as many as 35 points. Villanova could not develop anything offensively and uncharacteristically displayed little effort or cohesion on defense.
Villanova deserves acclaim for surviving the loss of four players to the NBA Draft to navigate its way to both Big East regular season and conference tournament titles. In hindsight, maybe the path wasn’t as difficult as we once believed.
3. Big Ten has been impressive
While the Big East has floundered, the Big Ten has been dominant. Through three days, the conference is a combined 9-1 in tournament play against other conferences (with Michigan State also beating fellow Big Ten team, Minnesota).
The top three teams in the Big Ten have already punched their tickets to next week, each winning in impressive fashion. Michigan State handled Minnesota, with the Spartans only allowing 19 first half points. Michigan’s defense was just as sharp, holding Florida to just 49 points on Saturday.
Purdue’s blowout of Villanova was perhaps the Big Ten’s most impressive moment yet. For the first time in a few weeks, the Boilermakers looked like a true championship contender. If Purdue shoots the way they did on Saturday, the Boilers can beat anyone.
4. Kansas’ hellish season comes to an end
Kansas’ season, which felt like a roller coaster at times, was always going to end abruptly. The Jayhawks have been among the class of college basketball in recent years but faced a series of hurdles this season. Kansas lost players from its lineup for a variety of reasons throughout the year. Udoka Azubuike was lost to injury. Lagerald Vick left the team for personal reasons. Silvio De Sousa was suspended by the NCAA.
Bill Self faced an uphill battle. The roster he was left with relied on freshman and transfers, forced to gel as the season progressed. The team never developed into one that looked poised to win games deep into March.
Auburn made sure of that, punishing the Jayhawks with a barrage of fast breaks and 3-pointers in an 89-75 win. The Tigers imposed their will upon Kansas, dictating the pace of the game and outworking the Jayhawks at every turn. It was an encouraging performance from an Auburn team that struggled when given chances to beat elite competition.
For this Kansas team, it was the inevitable end of a rocky season, a year that Jayhawk fans will hope to forget.
5. Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke submitted the best all-around performance of the tournament
Despite the way Edwards scored against Villanova, through three days of the Big Dance, no player has played a better 40 minutes than Brandon Clarke did for Gonzaga in the second round on Saturday. The San Jose State transfer was magnificent on both ends of the floor, posting a final stat line of 36 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 5 blocks.
Clarke did all of that while also playing incredibly efficiently. He made 15 of 18 from the field, took 8 free throws, and only posted one turnover. Against Baylor’s zone defense, Clarke excelled as the decision maker flashing to the high post or as a finisher along the baseline. His defense was remarkable, guarding all over the floor.
Clarke offers a challenge for any opponent. With the Zags facing Florida State next, the showdown between Mfiondu Kabengele and Clarke should be considered a must-watch match-up.
6. Ja Morant was not enough for Murray State
Murray State totally outclassed Marquette as the Racers dominated their first round match-up. Surprisingly, Murray State was more athletic than Marquette, a rarity for a mid-major highly seeded team. That began with superstar point guard Ja Morant, but even the rest of the Racers outperformed Marquette at the rim, in transition, and on the margins.
Against a team with the length, size, and springiness of Florida State, that was not the case for Murray State. Morant was able to hold his own, scoring 26 points, but his teammates were overmatched. The Seminoles blocked six shots and nabbed eleven steals, flummoxing Murray State offensively.
Kabengele had his second straight 20-plus point game, grabbed seven rebounds, and swatted away three shots. He’s been one of the tournament’s best players to date
7. LSU wins in the best game of the day
Saturday’s first game was also its best, and arguably the best game we’ve seen all week. LSU’s Tremont Waters dropped in a sliding scoop layup in the game’s final seconds, the first end of game shot to decide a tournament game so far.
LSU lost a second half lead by struggling against Maryland’s zone defense. Once the Terps went to a 3-2 zone, the Tigers struggled to get in sync offensively. It wasn’t until Waters and his teammates began to slice into the paint with dribble penetration that LSU started to find success against the zone.
Without suspended head coach Will Wade on the sideline, LSU’s tournament outlook appeared to be murky. The Tigers have now won two close games against strong competition and look every bit of the Final Four contender they were believed to be before Wade’s issues arose.
8. Wofford fell short on Fletcher Magee’s cold day
In the first round against Seton Hall, Wofford senior Fletcher Magee broke the all-time NCAA Division I record for 3-point baskets made in a career. In the Terriers’ next game, Magee had the worst shooting game of his entire career.
In 133 career college basketball games, Magee had failed to make a three just four times. In those four contests, he had never attempted more than nine long balls. On Saturday, he missed all 12 of his attempts from outside the arc.
Magee never resorted to forcing tough shots or passing up open shots. He simply never got into a groove and kept missing shot after shot.
The rest of the Terriers battled all afternoon, keeping Kentucky within striking distance. Ultimately, Wofford couldn’t score when needed. As Magee’s shots continued to glance off the rim, Wofford’s chances at pulling the upset dissipated.
The sport’s all-time leading shooter had the worst shooting game of his career during the biggest game of his career. Basketball can be cruel.
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.