The Kentucky Wildcats hoops team arguably carries more weight in college basketball than any other program in the country.
Their fans are completely and utterly narcissistic (and that’s a compliment, I swear I’m not trolling!), their media will chase – literally chase – coaches out of town, and their players are treated like royalty in Lexington. So it doesn’t really seem fitting that the Wildcats take on the name of Cardiac Cats, or something like that, en route to their first Final Four appearance since 1998. [Editor’s note: That term’s been used recently at Kentucky.]
But this go-round the heavyweight isn’t necessarily the favorite, having to down two higher seeded teams and boasting a roster that doesn’t have nearly the star power of the squad that fell one year ago in the Elite Eight.
Sure freshman Brandon Knight was the most important player on the floor for Cal, and fellow freshman Terrence Jones was the second most important, but it was the unheralded bit pieces that were huge and a blast to watch this weekend.
Down an Enes Kanter from the beginning of the season, a frightened Big Blue Nation turned its eyes to a guy who lost tweeting privileges and embraces jean shorts like he’s a true hillbilly. I’m referring to Josh “Jorts” Harrellson if you’re uninformed, a senior who still has a little bit of baby weight to shed, but has made a strong case for being the toughest player in the entire country.
Over the span of just eight days, Harrellson went toe-to-toe with West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, and North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and prevailed in each and every one of those battles.
Of those players, all but maybe Kilicli have an NBA career ahead of them. Harrellson, as much as I’ve grown to love him this season, does not. Consider this “The Best Time of His Life,” and I’m sure he’s totally cool that.
DeAndre Liggins, who could have easily wavered at playing second-fiddle to a handful of highly regarded freshman these past two seasons, was truly a key cog for this team that won the East Region. Liggins came up especially huge for UK this weekend, averaging 13.5 points and weaseling into the deeply rooted Kentucky basketball historical lore. Surely nobody in the Bluegrass State will ever forget that corner three he nailed with just seconds to play; the dagger in the Tar Heels coffin.
I’m not sure that Kentucky will win the national championship, but they certainly have no glaring deficiencies to suggest they can’t cut down the nets in Houston.
At the very least, this is a juggernaut the entire country can root for.
You guys might have missed it — it’s only the single-biggest story in all of sports right now — but No. 16 seed UMBCpulled off the impossible and knocked off No. 1 seed Virginia in the first round on Friday night.
And the star was Jairus Lyles, who was playing through cramps to finish with 23 of his 28 points in the second half. He shot 9-for-11 from the floor. His parents are both UVA grads. It was one of the most unlikely and unbelievable performances that I have ever seen and that I likely ever will see, and I don’t think any of us will ever forget where we were and how we witnessed this go down.
Worth noting here: The Marcus Foster revenge game did not happen, as No. 9 seed Kansas State knocked off No. 8 Creighton. The Wildcats will face UMBC on Sunday.
Before all that happened, America fell in love with Marshall junior guard Jon Elmore on Friday afternoon. After putting up gaudy numbers during the regular season in Dan D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, Elmore put his offensive skills on full display in a Thundering Herd upset win over No. 4 seed Wichita State in the East Region.
Marshall’s second-round game against in-state rival West Virginia is going to be a ton of fun.
The game between No. 7 seed Nevada and No. 10 seed Texas in the South Region was a March instant classic. It had a 14-point comeback, overtime, teams trading huge buckets, lead changes, missed key free throws and a potential buzzer-beater that rimmed out. In the end, the Wolfpack earned the tight win over the Longhorns to advance to the second round. This is the first NCAA tournament win for Nevada in 11 years. Nevada moves on to play No. 2 seed Cincinnati after the Bearcats ran by after No. 15 seed Georgia State.
Miles Bridges went into takeover mode as No. 3 Michigan State … well, they beat No. 14 Bucknell by four points, but this was an 18 point game with four minutes left. Bridges had 29 points, nine boards and four assists. Michigan State will get No. 11 seed Syracuse in the next round.
Defending champion and No. 2 seed North Carolina cruised to an easy win over No. 15 seed Lipscomb as five Tar Heels finished in double-figures. Kenny Williams led North Carolina with 18 points while senior Theo Pinson contributed a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. The Tar Heels advance to the Round of 32 to face No. 7 seed Texas A&Mafter the Aggies beat No. 10 seed Providence.
Pulling away late in the first half, No. 2 Purdue cruised to victory over No. 15 Cal State Fullerton in the East Region. Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards both tallied 15 points each to lead the Boilermakers as Purdue had 10 different players score in the win. But the big news from this one might be the loss of Purdue senior center Isaac Haas for the rest of the season. Haas left the win on Friday after falling to the ground and fracturing his elbow.
No. 10 seed Butler will get a chance at revenge against Purdue in the second round after the Bulldogs raced out to a big, early lead and held off No. 7 seed Arkansas. Senior forward Kelan Martin poured in 27 points and sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin had 24 points to pace the Butler offense. Purdue knocked off Butler during a regular-season game in Indianapolis back in December. The loss of Haas on the interior makes the rematch that much more interesting.
No. 2 seed Cincinnati eventually pulled away from No. 15 seed Georgia State in the South Region. Sophomore Jarron Cumberland had a big afternoon with 27 points and 11 rebounds. In the second round in the South Region, the Bearcats will face No. 7 seed Nevadaafter the Wolfpack rallied from 14 points down to top Texas in overtime.
Meanwhile, Marshall will face an in-state rival in the second round in the East Region after No. 5 seed West Virginia knocked outNo. 12 seed Murray State. The Mountaineers had a great game from All-American senior guard Jevon Carter. Carter put up 21 points, eight assists, six steals and five rebounds while also holding Racers senior guard Jonathan Stark to a 1-for-12 shooting day.
No. 5 Clemsoncruised against No. 12 New Mexico State, and they will advance to take on No. 4 Auburn, who looked terrible in a win over No. 13 Charleston.
Already known for March ineptitude, where does Virginia program go after loss to No. 16 UMBC
He’s sitting in a folding chair in front of his locker, an ACC title shirt over his jersey and a piece of net tied to his ACC title hat with the ACC title trophy that he carried from the court sitting directly across from him. He was answering a question about why a team that has been as consistently good as Virginia has been can so reliably find themselves out of the NCAA tournament before the season’s final weekend.
“Anything can happen.”
I doubt Guy had any inkling how prescient he was.
Because on Friday night, just six days and an eternity after that moment in the locker room, the impossible happened.
For the first time in the history of the planet, a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
And let me be perfectly clear here: UMBC did not just beat Virginia. They ran the Wahoos straight outta Charlotte. The America East champs used 17-3 run to open the second half, taking a 38-24 lead without looking back. Virginia never cut the deficit to single-digits. By the end of the game, I found myself saying, “dang, fellas, you don’t have to run up the score.” The Retrievers not only dribbled out the clock on their final possession of the game, they ate the turnover that came with it.
Because by that point, Virginia had quit.
What’s a shot clock violation when you’re up 74-54 on the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament?
What’s a turnover when you’ve just completed the greatest upset in the history of the sport?
What actually matters when you’ve made history, and done it in such resounding fashion?
Think about this: Not only did UMBC become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, but they also beat Virginia by a larger margin than any No. 14 or No. 15 seed since the bracket expanded to 64 teams. Prior to today, the largest margin of defeat for a top three seed in a first round game was by 14 points. Georgetown managed that as a No. 3 seed in 2010 against Ohio, as did West Virginia, a No. 3 seed, in 2016 against Stephen F. Austin. The most a No. 2 seed had ever lost by was 13 points, when South Carolina fell to Coppin State in 1997.
Virginia lost by 20 points.
And perhaps the least shocking part of this entire night is that it was Virginia that did it, that the one program known for collapsing in March more than anyone else found a way to ensure that their names will never be erased from the record books, that they will forever and always be associated with the Dark Art Of Choking.
“A week ago, we were cutting down the nets at the ACC tournament, how good that felt,” head coach Tony Bennett said with a grace and humility that few would have been able to muster in that moment. “They had a historic season. They really did. In terms of ACC wins, an ACC conference tournament championship and a historic loss, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose. That’s life.”
“But that can’t, in the end, define these guys, our team or us.”
It may, however, be what defines the program, and that could end up being the biggest hurdle that Virginia has to clear moving forward. The mental aspect. How this affects his team between the ears.
The truth is that Virginia has an unbelievable season, one they had absolutely no business having. They entered the season ranked outside of the top 25, and that was totally justified. They lost a number of key seniors and transfers from a team that was a No. 5 seed. The most talented players on their roster were underclassmen. This was supposed to be the rebuilding year, and they instead went out and won the ACC regular season title by four games and followed that up with an ACC tournament title. They were the No. 1 overall seed, and that wasn’t in doubt for weeks.
It was amazing.
Not even the most out of touch UVA fan — and trust me when I say that there are plenty of them that fall into that category — could have seen this kind of a season coming.
“This team maxed out more than any team I’ve had,” Bennett said.
And no one is going to give a damn about any of it.
Not when they are the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, and not when this program is known, above all else, for their inability to get the job done in March.
The kids in that program know the reputation they have. The alumni of the program do, too. Everyone that watches college basketball did before this season, and after what happened on Friday night, the entire world will now. Virginia will be branded as the choke artists. They are the Washington Capitals of college basketball, the Atlanta Falcons of the ACC, the Cubs before last October. English soccer fans will know them as ‘Spursy’, Lindsay Jacobellis on a snowboard.
And it’s not hard to play armchair psychologist and read what happened on Friday as Virginia succumbing to the pressure of the moment. They had yet to give up 70 points in a game this season until UMBC went for 74. They gave up fewer points in 16 of the 34 games they’ve played this season than they did in the second half (53) on Friday night. As the seconds ticked by and they couldn’t shake the Retrievers, panic started to set in. Then they got punched in the mouth at the start of the second half, spent five minutes trying to figure out what the hell happened and by then, it was too late.
The inconceivable became a reality.
To me, the question isn’t whether or not Virginia’s system works in March.
(Because it does. They’ve won two ACC tournaments playing this way. They’ve always won three ACC regular season titles doing it. And if it wasn’t for one ten-minute stretch at the end of an Elite 8 game — a stretch that was so impressive it got Malachi Richardson, who has played 47 NBA games in two years, picked 22nd overall — they would have a Final Four to their name already. There was a time when we all said that Mark Few wasn’t good enough, and Bill Self wasn’t good enough, or Jim Calhoun wasn’t good enough. There are those that now will say that Chris Mack and Sean Miller, like Tony Bennett, can’t coach because they don’t have a Final Four on their résumé. You’re only the best to never do it until you do it. Then you’re just the best.)
My question is whether or not this program can, mentally, handle the rigors of a tournament run knowing what Virginia basketball stands for to the public at-large.
Bennett was asked about that after the game. He was asked how he’ll go about rebuilding what is already a damaged psyche, and he answered it in quintessential Tony Bennett fashion.
“You’ll remember this,” he said. “It’ll sting. Maybe a No. 1 seed will get beat again. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed to ever lose. It’s life. It’ll go on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason, this is what we’ve got to deal with.”
“My job will be ‘how do we bounce back’ with all our players, but a life lesson is sitting there about defining yourself maybe not by what the world says. There’s other things that matter.”
Hot-shooting No. 5 Clemson ousts No. 12 New Mexico State 79-68
SAN DIEGO — Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe led Clemson into the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years.
The Tigers are dancing into the weekend. The No. 12 seeds are all gone.
Mitchell scored a season-high 23 points, DeVoe had 22 and Clemson beat New Mexico State 79-68 on Friday night, closing out a perfect opening round for No. 5 seeds.
The 5-12 line is usually one of the top spots for NCAA upsets, but Clemson (24-9) shot 56 percent from the field while advancing out of the first round for the first time since 1997. It was the Tigers’ first win in the tourney since the First Four in 2011.
“We weren’t surprised at all by what we saw and I wasn’t surprised by how well our players played,” coach Brad Brownell said.
Clemson was nearly flawless at the offensive end against the WAC champions, one of the better defensive teams in the country. Marcquise Reed added 15 points as nearly everyone had a good night shooting for Clemson. Mitchell made 8 of 13 shots, while DeVoe hit 10 of 15 attempts. During one stretch of the first half, the Tigers made 9 of 11 shots.
It was an impressive showing for the Tigers after they stumbled over the final weeks of the regular season adjusting to the loss of Dante Grantham to a season-ending knee injury. They were just 7-6 after Grantham was injured.
With shooting like that, the Tigers are capable of beating anyone.
“The rim wasn’t unkind to them. They shredded us,” New Mexico State coach Chris Jans said.
It was the first time Clemson made more than half of its shots since a 53-percent performance against North Carolina State early in ACC play. The Tigers had failed to shoot at least 40 percent in four games after Grantham was injured — which made the hot shooting against New Mexico State so surprising.
New Mexico State had rolled through the WAC with the best scoring defense in the conference, giving up 63.8 points per game, but its pressure defense backfired against the Tigers. Clemson’s guards were able to beat the Aggies’ defenders off the dribble and finish when they got to the rim.
“We knew we had to be aggressive with the ball and be strong with it,” Mitchell said. “They are a feisty team, so really just playing strong at all times on offense.”
Zach Lofton led New Mexico State (28-6) with 29 points and Jemerrio Jones had 13 points and 14 rebounds, but the Aggies had too many inconsistent stretches while the Tigers were so good at the offensive end.
“Their guards really hurt us,” Jans said. “We knew they were good. It’s well documented how good they are. … They were a load. They were hard to handle.”
New Mexico State had one flurry midway through the second half, creating at least some concern for Clemson. Down 64-49, the Aggies went on a 13-4 run, closing to 68-62 on Jones’ rebound basket with 5:55 left. Mitchell answered with a 3 late in the shot clock and after a pair of empty trips, Mitchell hit a pair of free throws and added another basket to push the lead back to 13.
“We’ve been in that position before. We’ve come back from deficits like that. We couldn’t get that big stop and score that we needed,” Lofton said.
New Mexico State: The Aggies have made the tournament seven of the past nine seasons, but are still looking for their first tournament win since 1993 — a victory over Nebraska that was later vacated. The last tournament victory for New Mexico State that counted came in 1970 when the Aggies reached the Final Four.
Clemson: The Tigers shot just 42.5 percent during ACC play and topped 50 percent just once against conference foes. But during non-conference play, the Tigers had four games of shooting 55 percent or better, including a season-best 61 percent against Texas Southern.
New Mexico State: The Aggies are expected to contend in the WAC again next season with a solid core of players returning and a couple of transfers who sat out this season.
Clemson: The Tigers will face another team still overcoming a key injury when they face No. 4 seed Auburn in the second round on Sunday.