CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Robert Johnson wasn’t the biggest name among guards heading into the NBPA Top 100 Camp, but the Virginia-native played well throughout the camp and will be a player to watch this summer when coaches are out in full force.
Barry Brown has spent all season being underrated.
And Kentucky found that out the hard way on Thursday night.
This bucket with 18 seconds left gave Kansas State a lead they would never relinquish in a win over Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
Terance Mann scored 18 points and No. 9-seed Florida State held fourth-seeded Gonzaga to 35 percent shooting as the Seminoles advanced to their first Elite 8 since 1993 with a 75-60 win on Thursday night.
The Seminoles will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan with a trip to the Final Four on the line. They have not been to a Final Four since 1972.
The Zags entered this game short-handed, as their starting five-man Killian Tillie was unable to go due to a hip injury that he aggravated during warmups, but that would not have made all that much of a difference in the Staples Center.
The issue was guard play.
Florida State’s pressure simply overwhelmed Gonzaga’s guards. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Zach Norvell were a combined 10-for-36 from the floor and had a nightmare-of-a-time trying to get the ball into the lane. The Zags committed 13 turnovers, trailed by 12 within the first ten minutes of the game and never really made a run keeping this thing within striking distance.
Out are Cincinnati and Tennessee. Virginia and Arizona are long gone.
And after Kansas State defeated Kentucky, 61-58, on Thursday, all that remains of the South Region is Bruce Weber’s 9th-seeded Wildcats and No. 11 Loyola.
The South is in shambles. The brackets have gone wild. March has gone mad.
Kansas State – which lost to Tulsa, got beat by West Virginia by 38 points and took a 19-point home L to Texas Tech – is not only just one win away from the Final Four. The only thing that stands between them and San Antonio is a double-digit seed. A double-digit seed with a glass slipper and a 98-year-old nun in its corner, but a double-digit seed nonetheless.
Even for an event known for its unpredictability, hailed for its chaos and beloved for its ridiculousness, this year’s South Region is a little nutty.
It’s see the first-ever one-seed – what’s up, Virginia? – go down to a 16, Arizona’s wild and weird season upended, and both Cincy and Tennessee got got by mid-majors. One region packed a ton of entertainment into just 13 games.
Kansas State’s journey to the Elite Eight hasn’t been a glorious march to the Promised Land. It’s been a testament to survive and advance. They toppled No. 8 Creighton in the opener, ruined UMBC’s story in a nasty 50-43 affair and then proved to have just a little bit more than a critically flawed Kentucky team. And they did most of it without one of their best players, junior forward Dean Wade, who continues to battle a foot injury.
Against Kentucky, Kansas State shot just 35.2 percent from the floor, committed 30 fouls and putted UK on the line 37 times. Three of their players fouled out. Wade didn’t play in the second half. Kentucky shot 52.6 percent in the second half.
Still, Kansas State is in the Elite Eight, and Kentucky isn’t.
It’s a stunning result, powered by 22 points from Xavier Sneed, 15 Kentucky turnovers and a non-existent transition offense from John Calipari’s team. Barry Brown’s 13 points – including two critical ones in the final seconds – did plenty to help, too.
For Kentucky, it’s a disappointing end to a frustrating season. The South Region had unfurled a red carpet to San Antonio for them. A 12, 13, 9 and 11 were all that stood in their way. And the nine got ‘em.
Kentucky teased at being able to come together into a team commensurate with its individual talent in the three weeks as it won the SEC tournament and blasted Buffalo in the second round, but the flaws that forced them into four-straight losses in February never went away. They remained, and they were enough to keep Kentucky from a rock fight against a so-so Kansas State squad.
So now Bruce Weber is back in the Elite Eight for the first time since taking Illinois to the title game in 2005. It’s been a bumpy ride for him in Manhattan since splitting a Big 12 title in his first season in west Kansas in 2013. There were plenty of forceful voices who wanted him out not only after back-to-back NCAA tournament misses, but after last year’s First Four team.
Now, if he can beat Loyola, it’s a second Final Four appearance.
That may seem bananas, but it’s the South Region. Bonkers is business as usual.
As Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Clayton Custer came off the floor after Loyola earned its spot in the Elite Eight after beating Nevada, he had to make a quick apology.
He had to tell the Ramblers’ star fan Sister Jean he was sorry. She, of course, had picked Loyola’s Cinderella run to end in the Sweet 16 in her bracket before the start of the tournament.
The apology was quickly accepted.
“I said I don’t care that you broke my bracket,” Sister Jean said. “I’m ready for the next one.
“For a nice little school like ours, we are just so proud of them.”
Historically known as a team that lived and died with the three-ball, No. 3-seed Michigan had spent the first weekend of the NCAA tournament proving history wrong.
In an ugly game in their opener against Montana, the Wolverines shot 5-for-16 from three while turning the ball over 14 times and managing a measly 61 points. Against Houston in the second round, Michigan shot 8-for-30 from beyond the arc, with one of those threes coming courtesy of Jordan Poole at the buzzer, sending the Wolverines into the Sweet 16 with a 64-63 win.
Put another way, Michigan looked the part of the defensive grinder that they turned into this season.
Against No. 7-seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, however, the Wolverines turned into the Golden State Warriors.
Michigan bested the number of three that they had made in the tournament to date, hitting 14-of-24 bombs while shooting 62 percent from the floor in a 99-72 win over an Aggies team that had finally, for the first time since November, looked the part of the SEC title contender that they have the talent to be.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 24 points, seven assists and five boards for Michigan. Mo Wagner chipped in with 21 points — 14 of which came in the first 15 minutes of the game — while Zavier Simpson added 11 points, five boards, five assists and five steals. Charles Matthews had 18 points. Duncan Robinson busted out of his slump with 10 points, including a couple of threes and a dunk to boot.
Put another way, the Wolverines were firing on all cylinders.
And that should terrify everyone on the left side of the bracket.
Entering this weekend’s games, Michigan was the best defensive team left in the tournament. They ranked third-nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and that’s not a fluke or a flaw within KenPom’s formula. The Wolverines can absolutely grind teams down defensively. They are so much more athletic on the perimeter than they have been in past seasons, and with Simpson playing as the point man for them on that end of the floor, they’ve simply overmatched everyone that has gotten in their path on that end of the floor.
That’s why they were able to win two games in the first weekend of the tournament despite scoring a total of just 125 points.
At some point, you knew they were going to find a way to be better on the offensive end, and the Aggies were the team they needed to see.
Texas A&M’s strength in their front line. Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, D.J. Hogg. They have so much size along that front line that it can overpower just about anyone this side of Duke. But what those big, burly dudes bring in the paint they lack on the perimeter, and Michigan was able to spread them out and beat them down the floor in transition. It didn’t help matters that the Aggies struggled with the idea of passing the ball to the guys in maroon instead of the guys in yellow during the first half, and the end result was a Michigan team that found their confidence.
At one point, they were 9-for-12 from three. They made 10 of their 14 threes in the first half. The score at one point was 52-23. It was a three-point avalanche of Villanovian proportions.
And here’s the kicker: The Aggies actually did manhandle Michigan inside. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams combined for 36 points on 17-for-25 shooting.
It didn’t matter.
Michigan will advance to face the winner of No. 4-seed Gonzaga and No. 9-seed Florida State tonight, and regardless of who they end up getting in the Elite 8, they will be taking on a team that is much, much, much better suited to matching up with Michigan’s spread attack.
But Michigan has their confidence back.
I don’t expect that we’ll be seeing them shoot 28 percent from three on Saturday.
And that defense?
It’s not going anywhere.
And the Wolverines won’t have to face a team seeded higher than them until the national title game.
This run may not be close to over yet.