An NCAA tournament rife with stunning upsets may yet produce a surprisingly predictable Final Four.
Four of Las Vegas oddsmakers’ eight pre-tournament title favorites will be among the teams playing in the Elite Eight this weekend.
Villanova and Duke remained on track for a national semifinal showdown with Sweet 16 victories over opponents with very good but very different defenses.
The top-seeded Wildcats took fifth-seeded West Virginia’s best shot for 30 minutes Friday night and then responded with a late haymaker of their own. Jalen Brunson’s stabilizing presence against the Mountaineers’ pressure defense and a barrage of Villanova 3-pointers fueled a 22-6 surge that erased a six-point deficit and enabled the Wildcats to emerge with a 90-78 victory.
In a zone-versus-zone matchup between two ACC foes, Duke ended 11th-seeded Syracuse’s unexpected run from the First Four to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Marvin Bagley III scored 22 points and Gary Trent Jr. knocked down a pair of game-clinching free throws in the final seconds as the second-seeded Blue Devils held off the Orange 69-65 despite shooting under 40 percent from the field.
Standing in the way of Mike Krzyzewski’s 13th Final Four of his career is a fellow blue blood that is winning without typical performances from its best player. Devonte Graham shot only 4 of 12 from the field in 35 foul-plagued minutes in Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinals, yet Kansas rode the outside shooting of Malik Newman and the interior dominance of Udoka Azubuike to an 80-76 victory over fifth-seeded Clemson.
Villanova is assured another physical dogfight on Sunday after third-seeded Texas Tech ousted Isaac Haas-less Purdue 78-65 in Friday’s other East Regional semifinal. Four Texas Tech players scored in double figures and the Red Raiders forced 17 turnovers, securing the program’s first-ever Elite Eight bid in Chris Beard’s second season in Lubbock.
Those outcomes somewhat restore order in the NCAA tournament after an unfathomably wild first day of the Sweet 16. Third-seeded Michigan was the only favorite to win on Thursday night as 11th-seeded Loyola Chicago, ninth-seeded Kansas State and ninth-seeded Florida State all advanced to the Elite Eight.
The South Region is guaranteed to send a team to the Final Four that nobody saw coming — either Sister Jean’s clutch-shooting Loyola squad or a Kansas State team without its best player. The Midwest Region is guaranteed to send a team to the Final Four with pedigree and tradition — either talent-laden Duke or Big 12 champion Kansas.
What will determine whether the Final Four has an air of normalcy or peculiarity is the result of the weekend’s other two Elite Eight games. Wins by Villanova and Michigan would produce a Final Four featuring three teams who have played for the national title in the past six years. Wins by Florida State and Texas Tech would produce a Final Four featuring three teams who haven’t advanced this far in at least 46 years.
PLAY OF THE DAY
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 24, 2018
West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate isn’t just college basketball’s best rim protector. He’s also the most fearless. When Villanova’s Mikal Bridges attempted to throw down a transition tomahawk jam midway through Friday’s second half, Konate met the future first-round pick at the rim with one of his trademark two-handed blocks. The Wildcats got revenge on Konate when forward Eric Paschall flushed a two-handed dunk over him later in the second half.
HEARTFELT MOMENT OF THE DAY
More good stuff from West Virginia. The relationship between Bob Huggins and senior guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles is what college sports are supposed to be about.
CONTROVERSY OF THE DAY
Can you floor slap while playing zone?
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 24, 2018
Duke says yes.
FYI from G: “You can definitely slap the floor playing zone. Slapping the floor is all about intensity and getting a stop… It more symbolizes getting a stop than it does man-to-man defense.”
— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) March 23, 2018
The Internet says no.
duke just had the nerve to slap the floor playing a damn zone. you gotta be kidding me.
— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) March 24, 2018
Look I’m as big of a Duke fan as it gets, but a quintuple floor slap out of a zone defense is a little too lame even for me.
— mtruwit (@mtruwit) March 24, 2018
The entire Duke team did a floor slap while playing zone defense and now I AM MAD ONLINE!!
— Sean Melmer (@seanmelmer) March 24, 2018
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