Eight biggest takeaways from Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen games
After enduring three brutally long days without college basketball, the NCAA Tournament made its triumphant return Thursday night.
With only one mid-major (Gonzaga) and one double-digit seed (Oregon) advancing to play this weekend, the Sweet Sixteen was poised to be better than usual. With one night in the books, it has lived up to the hype. We saw three great games and a fourth great performance from Texas Tech.
Those four games were crucial to determining what our Final Four and eventual championship will look like next weekend. Here are eight takeaways from Thursday night.
1. Purdue and Tennessee gave us the game of the night
No game provided more excitement and captivated the fans like Purdue’s OT win over Tennessee. After seeing an 18-point lead vanish in the second half, Purdue was able to stabilize, defeating Tennessee in the extra period in Louisville on Thursday night. The Boilermakers bundled turnovers with terrible free throw shooting, allowing Tennessee to sneak back into the game.
Ultimately, down the stretch and into overtime, Purdue was sparked by unreal outside shooting by Ryan Cline. The senior guard made 7 of 10 from long range for a career-high 27 points on the night. Purdue has struggled this year when its offense has been overly focused on Carsen Edwards. Cline’s ability to step up and provided a real scoring pop was enough to move the Boilermakers on to Saturday’s Elite Eight.
2. Gonzaga exacts some revenge and looks as strong as ever
One year after Florida State upset Gonzaga and ended the Bulldogs’ season, the Zags were able to turn the tables. Gonzaga led nearly wire-to-wire Thursday, locking down the Seminoles defensively.
Florida State shot just 39 percent from the field, managing to make just 3 of 20 from beyond the 3-point arc. The Seminoles key big men, Christ Koudmadje and Mfiondu Kabengele, battled foul trouble and failed to get into a rhythm. Both finished the game with four fouls and neither posted double-figure scoring or rebounds.
The Zags were buoyed by five players scoring in double-figures, led by clutch shooting from Zach Norvell. While Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura are All-American level players, Norvell is Gonzaga’s closer on the offensive end.
3. Texas Tech shows just how tough its defense is
In a game between the top two defensive teams in the nation per KenPom, Texas Tech smothered Michigan. The game was slow, ugly, and physical, playing right into the Red Raiders’ hands.
Michigan couldn’t accomplish anything offensively. Even though John Beilein is a top-flight offensive coach and has a group of players who can score or create for each other, the Wolverines spun their wheels against the Texas Tech defense. Every Michigan player looking for a shot was met with fast rotating defenders and constant pressure.
The Wolverines shot just 32 percent from the field and a dismal 1-for-19 from outside the arc. This was not simply a cold shooting night; Texas Tech put the clamps on Michigan and made everything difficult.
4. Virginia survives and advances, barely
Following the overtime game to start the night in Louisville, Virginia and Oregon didn’t tip off their match-up until after 10:30 PM local time. The Ducks took advantage, hanging close throughout an ugly, grinding game. Eventually, Virginia’s defensive talent overwhelmed Oregon. Down the stretch, Virginia was able to convert offensively, while the Ducks were unable to find opportunities to score.
The top-seeded Hoos were certainly tested, with Tony Bennett forced to make some tough decisions down the stretch. He played his starting five nearly the entire second half. Virginia’s bench did not score during the entire game. That’s alarming given the quick turnaround to Saturday’s game and the difficult road ahead for this team. Without an increase in reliable bench contributions, it’s hard to see Virginia advancing further.
5. Jarrett Culver is a star in the making
Michigan’s defense was strong despite their loss, holding Texas Tech to 24 first half points. The Red Raiders broke things open in the second half when Big XII Player of the Year Jarrett Culver perked up offensively. Culver finished the game with 17 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals.
In his sophomore season, Culver has blossomed into a fantastic player on both ends of the court. Defensively, Culver is not the quickest player and does not possess the otherworldly type of wingspan that usually leaves NBA scouts drooling, but he is athletic enough to guard almost any opponent. With help from Chris Beard’s defensive schemes, Culver is always in the right position to make a defensive play.
On the offensive end, Michigan could not keep Culver out of the lane. He used his quick first step to slice into the paint at will, attacking the rim and drawing fouls on the Wolverines. That specific skill is the reason Culver is considered a future lottery pick. If he can transition from a streaky shooter to a strong one, he could be a star at the next level.
6. Carsen Edwards continues to impress
While Ryan Cline was marvelous on Thursday, Carsen Edwards continued his blazing hot trip though the South Region. Edwards was leading the tournament in scoring after two rounds of play and showed no signs of slowing down, adding 29 points Thursday.
With the Vols up two and mere seconds on the clock, Purdue looked to Edwards on its final possession. Edwards drew a foul on a 3-point attempt, sinking two of three from the free throw line to send the game to overtime. ‘
Edwards’ scoring can carry this Purdue team. No player aside from Zion Williamson is as connected to his team’s success as Edwards is to Purdue’s chances to move on.
7. Killian Tillie’s return is coming together
A last-minute, unexpected injury to Killian Tillie was one of the key reasons the Zags lost to Florida State last March. Although Tillie is not an elite scorer or defender like some of his teammates, his ability to do the little things and plug holes in Gonzaga’s gameplan makes him one of Mark Few’s most valuable assets.
This season, injuries have plagued Tillie again. He did not play between February 7 and March 11, with Thursday marking his fifth game back since returning to the lineup.
Mark Few has been careful about where and how to work Tillie back into the rotation. Hachimura and Clarke are both undeniably needed in the front court late in games. Knowing that, Few played Tillie with his All-American big men down the stretch against the Seminoles. For a long stretch with the game on the line, Few played the 6-foot-10 Tillie, 6-foot-11 Hachimura, and 6-foot-8 Clarke together.
All three are versatile, smart, and efficient players who were able to make this lineup work. Tillie’s numbers weren’t eye-popping, but his impact was felt. His contributions will be key down the road for Gonzaga.
8. Tennessee bows out in head-scratching fashion
While the Vols battled back valiantly in their game against Purdue, in many ways, they cost themselves a chance at a win Thursday. Tennessee fell behind by 18, never getting in sync offensively. Admiral Schofield, one of Tennessee’s primary offensive options, failed to score until the final minute of the first half.
Late in the game, following a run to take the lead, the Vols made several crucial mistakes. With a 2-point lead in the last ten seconds of regulation, Tennessee fouled a 3-point shooter, giving Purdue a chance to tie or win the game. It was a questionable call against the hottest shooter in the tournament, but inexcusable regardless.
Then, with less than 2 seconds on the clock, Tennessee attempted to inbound the ball quickly to half-court to call a timeout, setting up their final possession from there. With under 2 seconds, this maneuver is a fool’s errand. The human error of the referees and clock operator make that plan near impossible to pull off. The Vols were left with just 0.1 seconds, essentially ending their chance to win in regulation. This kind of mishap has become expected from Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes.
For two players as great as Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, this loss mark’s a disappointing end to their careers.
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.