As much as I love the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I think that the second weekend — the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds — are actually my favorite part of the dance.
The chaos, coast-to-coast madness, and desire to be able to watch and listed to all four games at once makes that first weekend wild and fun and entertaining, but the second weekend is when every game becomes a heavy weight battle. It only helps when the results are as memorable as they were this past weekend.
Six No. 1 and No. 2 seeds went down over the past four days. A No. 11 seed made the Final Four. A No. 8 seed out of the Horizon League made its second consecutive Final Four. Two of college basketball’s elite advanced to the Final Four despite what most assumed to be a down year.
There were buzzer beaters and there were beatdowns, all exciting and shocking and memorable in their own right. Here’s my attempt at recapping that madness:
Game of the Weekend: Butler 74, Florida 71 OT
This game was Butler basketball at its finest. The Bulldogs were outplayed fairly thoroughly in the first half, but thanks to some tough defense and timely shot-making, Butler was able to cut the deficit to 33-32 at the half. In the second half, Florida continued their terrific play, pounding the ball inside and flustering the Bulldogs with a zone that they switched to man with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
But with the score 51-42 midway through the half, Brad Stevens put in Chrishawn Hopkins, a seldom-used freshman point guard that had played well in practice, and Hopkins delivered. On the first possession he was in the game, he threw a gorgeous, no-look pass for a layup. 30 seconds later, he drilled a three that cut the lead to four. He didn’t do much the rest of the game, but those five points were enough to tip the momentum into Butler’s favor. The game would eventually end up in overtime, where we had one of the most exciting four possessions of the tournament. Butler had opened up a 67-64 lead with Erving Walker found Kenny Boynton for a three with just over two minutes left. After Ronald Nored gave Butler the lead back with two free throws, Walker drilled a three to give the Gators the lead. But at the other end, Shelvin Mack — who had 27 points in the game — answered with a three of his own, and Florida was never able to get the lead back. Walker and Boynton both misfired on threes in the final minute.
Studs of the Weekend: VCU Rams
What the Rams did this weekend cannot be understated. Hell, what they have done in this tournament deserves massive amounts of credit. On Friday, VCU took on a Florida State team that was a terrible matchup for them. They were obliterated in the paint, to the tune of 21 offensive boards and 20 second chance points, but still managed to hit enough from beyond the arc to take the game to overtime. With 7.9 seconds left, Joey Rodriguez found Bradford Burgess for a layup to give the Rams the win.
On Sunday, however, is when the Rams made history. VCU played a nearly perfect game, knocking Kansas off-balance early, to beat Kansas and advance to the Final Four. VCU tied a season high (that they set in the tournament) with 12 threes, got 26 points and 10 boards from Jamie Skeen, and saw Rodriguez make three huge plays down the stretch as they beat the tournament’s most talented remaining team to advance to the Final Four. It was a perfect storm of opportunity and execution.
They showed out too:
- Kentucky Wildcats: Believe it or not, the Wildcats were a bit of a cinderella story in this tournament. Not in the way that Butler and VCU are, but because this team was not supposed to be Final Four good this year, especially with Enes Kanter sitting out. But Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins stepped up to play their best basketball of the season while Coach Cal’s trio of talented freshmen combined to hit some timely shots as the Wildcats played their way to the Final Four.
- Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Kemba was just as good as he has been all season long. He had 36 points in the Sweet 16 win over San Diego State and followed that up with 20 points and seven assists in the win over Arizona. But UConn woudl not be where they are right now without Jeremy Lamb. The freshman averaged 23.0 ppg in the two games, but it was his play down the stretch in both that made the difference.
- Derrick Williams, Arizona: Despite losing in the West Regional Final, Williams may have been the most impressive player of the tournament. He had 25 first half points against Duke, finishing with 32 and 13 boards, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 1 seed Duke. Against UConn, he got into foul trouble early, but his strong second half gave Arizona a chance to win. Unfortunately, his decision to hoist a couple of threes late in the UConn loss will be what he is remembered for in this tournament.
- Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, Butler: Howard was the hero against Wisconsin, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 boards while shutting down Jon Leuer as the Bulldogs dominated the Badgers. Against Florida, it was Mack’s 27 points that carried Butler to the overtime win.
Dud of the Weekend: Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, Kansas
Its tough to place the blame for a loss on any one player, especially when a team combines to go 2-22 from three and 15-28 from the free throw line. But its also difficult to ignore just how poorly Reed and Morningstar played in the loss to VCU. The two senior started combined for just 11 points in the loss to the Rams, shooting a combined 2-16 from the floor and 1-10 from three. There were multiple other factors in the loss, but that shooting performance — many of those misses came late in the game as Kansas was trying to make a comeback — may as well have been the nail in the coffin.
They didn’t show up:
- Nolan Smith, Duke: You can blame it on team chemistry if you want, but there is no denying that Smith struggled mightily in Duke’s Sweet 16 loss to Arizona. He finished just 3-14 from the floor for eight points while turning the ball over six times.
- Chandler Parsons, Florida: In the Gator’s overtime loss to Butler, Parsons disappeared. He finished with just five points on 2-9 shooting with just two assists and not a single free throw. He didn’t score in the final 34 minutes of the game.
- Derwin Kitchen, Florida State: I really don’t want to pile on the kid, but his late game blunders probably cost Florida State a trip to the Elite 8. He dribbled out the clock with a chance to win the game in regulation and overtime, and as also the guy that got beat by Brad Burgess for the game-winning layup.
- Marquette Golden Eagles: Known for being a scrappy team that is never out of a game, the Golden Eagles picked the absolute worst time to have their worst performance of the season. Against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, Marquette allowed the Tar Heels to go on a 38-5 run that turned a 10-8 lead with just under 12 minutes left in the first half to a 46-15 deficit a minute into the second half.
- Jon Leuer, Wisconsin: Leuer was downright awful in Wisconsin’s 61-54 loss to Butler. He finished the game shooting 1-12 from the floor and was a non-factor on either end of the floor.
Biggest Shot: Brandon Knight vs. Ohio State
After Jon Diebler hit a three with 20 seconds left in the game to tie it at 60, Brandon Knight hit a ridiculously tough pull-up over Aaron Craft, who had held him to just seven points on 2-9 shooting prior, for his second game-winner of the tournament.
Biggest Shot Part Deux: Bradford Burgess vs. Florida State
With VCU down 71-70 in overtime and just 7.9 second left on the clock, Burgess managed to lose Derwin Kitchen on an out-of-bounds play under the basket.
Biggest Shot Redux:
- DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky: UNC had just made a run to cut what was once an 11 point lead down to a single point. With the shot clock winding down, Liggins got a pass in the corner and knocked down arguably the biggest shot of his career, a three to give Kentucky a three point lead less than 30 seconds left in the game.
- Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Lamb hit a shot that was almost exactly the same in nature. SDSU had just gone on an 8-0 run to cut the UConn lead to 65-64 when Lamb knocked down a three with less than a minute to go. On the ensuing possession, he stole a pass and finished with a dunk at the other end that all but sealed UConn’s win.
Safe Travels: Jimmer Fredette, BYU
On Thursday night, Florida knocked off the Cougars in overtime, ending the career of one of the most entertaining players in the recent history of college basketball. And as only The Jimmer can do, he went out with a 32 point performance which drew criticism from the experts.
That criticism was probably fair. Fredette was just 11-29 from the floor and 3-15 from beyond the arc, missing a number of shots that he has hit all season long. But that one poor performance should not sully the reputation of the guy that became college basketball’s hero this season. Jimmer lit up scoreboards all season long. He hit jumpers from 30 feet on a consistent basis. He scored 29 points a night and carried a BYU team that was thoroughly mediocre without him all the way to the Sweet 16.
Fredette was going to lose at some point. He simply did not have the supporting cast to make a run at a national title. The shame is that immediately after his career ended, the talk started about what kind of pro he would become. The kid was a hero this season. Before we go discussing what he’ll be at the next level, let’s all sit back and remember just how good he was at this level.
Jimmer, it was a pleasure, my friend. You will be missed.