Five biggest takeaways from Sunday’s Elite Eight games
Next weekend treats us to the biggest stage of college basketball: the Final Four. We now have four teams and two games set in stone, ripe for analysis all week long. There are a pile of storylines to break down. Three of the coaches are among the nation’s elite. Two National Player of the Year candidates will square off. One team is the ultimate Cinderella, ready to dance with the big boys.
Before we can wade too deeply into next weekend’s action, it’s key to look back at the events of Sunday. The Elite Eight games in the Midwest and East regions were full of drama and can help shed light on what we’ll see the rest of the tournament. Here are the five biggest takeaways from those games:
1. Villanova holds off Texas Tech
Villanova’s offense is one of the best in the nation, able to overcome most issues. Texas Tech’s intense defense can cause plenty of problems, as the Wildcats saw on Sunday. Villanova shot just 4 of 24 from outside the arc, yet still cracked the Red Raiders enough to survive and win.
Instead of their usual jump shooting success, Villanova lived at the free throw line. The Wildcats sank 29 of 35 from the free throw line.
Texas Tech’s first trip to the Elite Eight ended with a loss, as the Red Raiders fought to close a second half gap but failed to score enough to reach striking distance. After the game, star senior guard Keenan Evans revealed he has been hobbled by a broken toe for over a month, a tough break for a team with high hopes.
2. Villanova is now a blue-blood program
In the twenty years between 1988 and 2008, Villanova reached the Sweet Sixteen just three times. In the ten most recent NCAA Tournaments, Villanova has reach the Final Four three times.
Jay Wright has turned a small school that usually rested in the middle of the giant Big East into a machine. The Wildcats have won the Big East regular season four of the past five years and the Big East tournament three of the past four years.
This run has now extended beyond one group of players or one recruiting class. Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, and others have gone, but the Wildcats continue to win. It’s a safe bet to assume Villanova’s success won’t stop any time soon.
3. Kansas tops Duke in an all-time classic game
In the Midwest Regional Final in Omaha, college basketball fans were treated to a highly competitive game between two of the sport’s most storied programs. Kansas needed an overtime session to survive a barnburner. Duke was inches from a victory in regulation, as Grayson Allen’s attempted buzzer-beater barley fell off the rim.
Kansas has been driven all year by the 3-point shot, yet when the Jayhawks’ shots were not falling against the Duke zone, they still found ways to score. Kansas benefitted from a series of extra possessions, thanks to dominating the Blue Devils on the glass.
For a program that has been one of the country’s best, Kansas has had relatively floundered in the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Despite being a one or two seed in the last five tournaments, this is the Jayhawks’ first Final Four since 2012.
4. Malik Newman is a revelation
Early in the season, when Kansas had issues, it was largely due to an overreliance on the jump shooting of Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhialiuk. In recent weeks, the aggressive attacking of Malik Newman have opened up new opportunities for Kansas.
Newman was a 13.5 point per game scorer this season, but has stepped his game up in the postseason. In three Big XII Tournament games and four NCAA Tournament games, Newman is averaging 22.7 points per game. On Sunday, he exploded for 32 points and crucially shot 11 off 12 from the free throw line. His teammates only attempted three free throws of their own.
Had Newman not played as well as he did in the Elite Eight, it’s hard to imagine Kansas advancing.
5. Two very different semifinal games
Next weekend will feature a Final Four made up of two largely different semifinal games. The later game features two number one seeds and two of the best five programs in the last five years. The first game features a Cinderella and a team on the rise late in the season.
There are many who will rush to call Villanova’s match-up with Kansas the more important of the two games. With those two giants of the game squaring off, some will hasten to crown the winner of that game as champion before they take the floor on Monday.
That would be unwise, given what we’ve seen from Michigan and Loyola. The Wolverines are sound on both sides of the ball, with one of college basketball’s best coaches. Loyola plays a style of basketball that will keep the Ramblers in any game they play.
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.