By SIMON BRADY
An action packed first weekend of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament concluded last weekend. Games will resume tonight in Kansas City and San Jose as the sweet sixteen kicks off.
The most shocking results of this weekend’s games came from the East Region. Defending national champion, Big East regular season and tournament champions, and the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed Villanova Wildcats fell to the No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers 65-62.
Senior forward Nigel Hayes led the charge in the upset for the Badgers, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds, including the eventual game-winning reverse layup that gave the Badgers a two point lead with 14 seconds remaining.
Wisconsin has reached the final four two of the last three years, and although outside of Hayes and senior point guard Bronson Koenig, the players on those final four teams have graduated. This team looks like a serious threat to get back to this year’s final four following Saturday’s upset victory.
The following day, the Duke Blue Devils, the region’s No. 2 seed, fell in similar shocking fashion to the No. 7 seed South Carolina Gamecocks. Heading into the tournament, Duke was a popular final four and national championship pick. Due to injuries and distractions surrounding the team, they struggled throughout the regular season. However they came into the NCAA tournament red hot, playing their best basketball and winning four games in four days to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.
Sunday night’s game was a tale of two halves, as the Blue Devils held South Carolina to a mere 23 points in the first half. But in the second half, the Gamecocks clicked on cylinders, scoring 65 points and shooting a staggering 71 percent from the field. South Carolina was led by senior guard and South East Conference player of the year Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell did everything for his club, scoring 24 points, dishing out five assists, and grabbing six rebounds.
With heavy favorites and top two seeds Villanova and Duke heading home, the east region has become wide open. Wisconsin will clash with No. 4 seed Florida Gators in the Sweet Sixteen. Florida took care of business in the first two rounds of the tournament, defeating East Tennessee State and Virginia handily.
On the flip side in the east, South Carolina now takes on No. 3 Baylor Bears. After disappointing first round exits in the last two tournaments, Baylor has turned it around, defeating New Mexico State and USC in rounds one and two. Both games in the East Region will take place Friday night from Madison Square Garden in New York.
The West Region did not consist of the shocking upsets that plagued the East Region. In the first two rounds, outside of 11 seed Xavier Musketeers defeating the No. 6 seed Maryland Terrapins Thursday, March 16 in Orlando, and following it up with destroying No. 3 Florida State 91-65, every lower seed won.
In one of the more satisfying moments of the opening round, playing in their first game in NCAA tournament game in program history, No. 8 Northwestern Wildcats held on to defeat No. 9 Vanderbilt Commodores in a dramatic fashion. However, their historic season came to an end Saturday evening as they fell to No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs 79-73.
Tonight from San Jose at the SAP Center, the West Region’s Sweet Sixteen games will take place. The Gonzaga Bulldogs will battle with the region’s No. 4, West Virginia, who impressively knocked off the red hot Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday afternoon, 83-71.
Following that matchup, No. 2 Arizona Wildcats, the Pacific Coast Conference regular season and conference tournament champions, will play No. 11 Xavier, the lone double digit seed remaining in the tournament field.
Moving on to the Midwest region, No.1 Kansas Jayhawks have taken care of business as expected. In a matchup of college basketball blue bloods and two of the nation’s most accomplished coaches in Bill Self and Tom Izzo, led by freshman phenom forward Josh Jackson, who dropped 23 points, the Jayhawks outlasted the Michigan State Spartans 90-70 to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
In the bottom half of the region, the No. 7 seed Michigan Wolverines continue to play outstanding, knocking off the Louisville Cardinals (No. 2) 73-69 in the round of 32, making six straight victories and going back to the Big Ten Tournament, where they won four straight in four days.
The Sprint Center in Kansas City will be the site for the midwest region’s sweet sixteen match ups. The aforementioned Michigan Wolverines will try to continue their stellar win streak as they take on another tough opponent in the No. 3 Oregon Ducks, led by junior guard Dillon Brooks.
The Jayhawks will take the court afterward and face the Purdue Boilermakers (No. 4), who recently have had disappointing first round exits in past tournaments, have played well up to this point beating Vermont and Iowa State in rounds one and two.
Lastly in the South Region, the No. 1 seed and last year’s national runner up and North Carolina Tar Heels, who won this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title, are back in contention as they reached the sweet sixteen, hanging on to defeat No. 8 seed Arkansas Razorbacks 72-65. North Carolina ended the game on an impressive 12-0 run in the final three minutes to fend off the Razorbacks upset bid.
Elsewhere in the South Region, UCLA Bruins freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has played like the top NBA prospect that scouts project he will be. His father LaVar has been in the news lately for making bold and braggadocios comments on his son Lonzo’s ability, such as saying he’s already then the Golden State Warriors point guard and two time NBA MVP, Stephen Curry.
Speculation has followed these comments as to whether or not these claims could be the downfall of Ball’s play entering the tournament. He put all that talk to bed with his outstanding performance in a win over 6 seed Cincinnati Bearcats 79-67, scoring 18 points shooting an efficient 7-10 from the field. He also had 9 assists, all of which came in the second half.
The south region’s sweet sixteen games will commence at the FedEx Forum in Memphis with 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels clashing with the No. 4 seed Butler Bulldogs, who reached the Sweet Sixteen with decisive wins over Winthrop and Middle Tennessee State.
In arguably the most intriguing sweet sixteen matchup of the whole tournament, Lonzo Ball and No.3 seed UCLA Bruins will go head to head with the extremely talented 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats, led by stud freshman guard Malik Monk.
The excitement of March Madness resumes tonight as the tournament’s second weekend begins with fantastic match ups. Sixteen teams remain as they all will compete for the chance to make it to Phoenix, the site of this year’s tournament’s final four.