Loyola-Chicago and its game-planning nun are headed to the Elite Eight. So too are Kansas State, Florida State and Michigan in this maddest of Marches.
Day 2 of the Sweet 16 has Villanova’s Jalen Brunson vs. West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, Duke’s athletes trying to solve Syracuse’s zone and the arm brace saga of Purdue’s Isaac Haas. Oh, and all those athletes between Kansas and Clemson.
No wonder sports fans love this time of the year so much.
The marquee matchup comes in the East Region Friday in Boston, where Villanova, one of two No. 1 seeds remaining, faces Press Virginia.
The Wildcats have been on a tear while everyone has been tearing up their brackets, making 31 combined 3-pointers in lopsided opening NCAA Tournament wins over Radford and Alabama. Villanova (32-4) has been even better on defense, holding its first two opponents to 37 percent shooting and less than 60 points per game.
West Virginia (26-10) is known for its defense, but rode its hot-shooting offense into the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years. The Mountaineers shot at least 50 percent in their NCAA opening wins over Murray State and Marshall, averaging 84 points per game. They also play that relentless, pressure-all-time defense that gives teams fits, especially this time of year.
“The matchup with West Virginia, it’s what you get at this point in the tournament,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Sweet 16, you’re going to play a great team that’s playing on all cylinders. You can’t get this far unless you’re really clicking right now.”
The game also will have two of the nation’s top players at the top of their games: Brunson and Carter.
Brunson is a front-runner for national player of the year. Carter is one of the nation’s top one-on-one defenders. Could be the best individual match-up of the bracket right there.
“What makes him tough? He’s smart. He’s very smart,” Carter said of Brunson. “He’s crafty. He knows how to use his body well. He knows about angles and stuff.”
BLUE DEVILS VS. ORANGE ZONE: Syracuse was not exactly an offensive juggernaut in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 60 points once in three games. The Orange (23-13) reached the Sweet 16 behind coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, which has limited teams to 54 points per game and limited No. 3 Michigan State to 26 percent shooting to reach the Sweet 16.
Syracuse faces its toughest test yet against the Blue Devils (28-7) in Omaha. Duke has a superb inside-out game with super frosh Marvin Bagley III in the middle and is averaging 85 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Something has to give.
HAAS AND THE BRACE: Purdue suffered a huge blow when Hass, the Boilermakers’ 7-foot-2 match-up nightmare, broke his right elbow in its opener against Cal State-Fullerton. Haas has not given up on the season just yet, though.
The senior big man tried to wear a brace in Purdue’s round of 32 game against Butler, but the NCAA nixed it because the brace had metal in it.
In steps Purdue’s engineering students. Given NCAA guidelines by the Purdue staff, the engineering whizzes worked through the night Monday to create a one-of-a-kind brace to hold Haas’ elbow in place.
Even with his new elbow accessory, Boilermakers coach Matt Painter all but ruled Haas out for Friday’s game against Texas Tech. Haas is still holding out hope.
“If I did play, it would just be really short minutes, I’m sure,” Haas said. “But I’ll play as many as I’m asked of.”
TIGERS AND JAYHAWKS: Kansas (29-7), the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, won its record 14th straight Big 12 title and opened the NCAA Tournament by beating Penn and Seton Hall behind a stingy defense. The Jayhawks have one of the biggest stars left in the bracket in Devonte Graham, but fifth-seeded Clemson (25-9) is on a roll, coming off a 31-pont thrashing of No. 4 seed Auburn, the third-largest win by a lower seed since 1979.
“I think we have moments where we don’t play very tough, but I also think we have some moments where our experience and our toughness definitely shows,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
SEC OUT: The SEC had the second-most teams in the NCAA Tournament with eight. Now there are none.
With Kentucky’s 61-58 loss to Kansas State Thursday night, the SEC does not have a team left in the bracket through the first half of the Sweet 16. The Wildcats were the conference’s last team standing after Texas A&M was blown out by Michigan earlier Thursday.
NEW FINAL FOUR: With Gonzaga’s loss to Florida State, this year’s Final four is guaranteed to have four different teams than last season.
Defending national champion North Carolina, which beat the Zags in the title game a year ago, lost its second-round game against Texas A&M. South Carolina and Oregon did not make this year’s NCAA Tournament.
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