Stanford is the most beguiling team in the NCAA tournament field. It is impossible to figure out Johnny Dawkins’ squad. An underwhelming Pac-12 regular season was followed by two quick wins in the league tournament until UCLA defeated the Cardinal by nearly 30 points. Paired against No. 7 New Mexico, though, and Stanford was able to score one of the tournament’s most underrated upsets, winning 58 to 53.
The game was a tutorial in cold shooting and zone defenses. Both teams were plagued by foul trouble — New Mexico’s Alex Kirk picked up two quick fouls, and Stanford’s Stefan Nastic and Josh Huestis each had four fouls (Dwight Powell fouled out) — and the two squads had to use 2-3 zones to cut down on the hacking. Stanford’s zone had a deleterious effect on the Lobos’ interior scoring; the team spent much of 2014 repairing the damage done to its two-point shooting rep last year (the team made 51.8 percent of its twos, as compared to 46 percent in ’13), but Stanford’s zone rendered both Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk ineffective. The junior Kirk scored just 3 points, and while Bairstow dropped 24 points, he failed to make a basket for about ten minutes in the second half.
New Mexico should be commended for rebounding after starting the game down 20-4, but for the second straight season, UNM lost to the higher seed in the first round (No. 14 Harvard last season). Kirk and guard Kendall Williams managed to score just six points combined (on one for twelve shooting), and for those who picked New Mexico to defeat Kansas in the second round, and then rampage through the field until the Elite Eight, this game was certainly a disappointment. Williams, in particular, struggles when UNM leaves the confines of the Mountain West and ventures into the tourney field: against Harvard and Stanford, Williams shot made only two of his fifteen field goals, a poor shooting display that includes missing all nine of his threes.
The offensive star of the game was Stanford sophomore Chasson Randle. The guard scored 23 points and has been on a roll from within the arc; over the last five games, including against UNM, Randle is making more than 58 percent of his twos.
Stanford will next face the winner of No. 2 Kansas versus No. 15 Eastern Kentucky, and the Jayhawks’ coaching staff — should they get past the Colonials — have a much clearer path to next weekend. The Lobos’ interior posed significant problems for Kansas, and since Joel Embiid will miss the first weekend of the tournament, the thought was that Bairstow and Kirk would take advantage of Kansas’ weakened interior.
No. 25 Texas A&M made a statement on Turkey Day, as they knocked off No. 10 Gonzaga 62-61 in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Danuel House led the way with 19 points for the Aggies while Tony Trocha-Morales finished with 14 points as Texas A&M picked up the win despite the fact that they did not score for the final eight minutes of the game.
Billy Kennedy’s club looked the part of an SEC contender, playing tough defense and keeping Gonzaga’s massive and talented front line in check. Perhaps most impressive was that they were able to hang on despite blowing a lead late in the second half, and that they did it with their defense. Gonzaga can score. They have big bodies inside and shooters to surround them, but Domantas Sabonis struggled with foul struggle throughout the game while Kyle Wiltjer did not score in the final 12 minutes.
Kentucky, at this point, is the clear-cut favorite in the SEC, and while Vanderbilt looked really good in Maui this week, A&M looks like they’re going to end up giving the Commodores a run for their money for second-best in the league.
On the other hand, this loss wasn’t a total disaster for the Zags. They had the final possession with a chance to be a good team on a day when Domantas Sabonis was rendered completely ineffective. And, more importantly, point guard Josh Perkins was terrific. He did have a late turnover, but he scored all 15 of his points in the second half as he helped keep the Zags within striking distance.
Texas A&M will play the winner of Syracuse and No. 18 UConn for the title.
GAME OF THE NIGHT: Syracuse vs. No. 18 UConn, 3:30 p.m.
For the first time since the Orange departed the Big East, the two former rivals will square off. Today’s battle will take place at the Battle 4 Atlantis, as the Orange knocked off Charlotte yesterday and the Huskies dispatched Michigan. To get ready for this battle, I’d suggest ready through the conversation @NoEscalators had with himself last night.
THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 25 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Gonzaga, 1:00 p.m.
The other semifinal in the Battle 4 Atlantis could end up being just as good, as the Aggies — who might be the second best team in the SEC — square off with a Gonzaga team that has one of the best front lines in the country. This will be a good test to figure out just how good both of these teams are.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. No. 20 Wichita State vs. USC, 2:00 p.m.: The Shockers will be without Fred VanVleet for this event. It will also be a chance for us to gauge just how good this 4-0 USC team is.
2. No. 23 Xavier vs. Alabama, 12:00 p.m: The Musketeers should have no problems dispatching Alabama.
3. No. 8 Villanova vs. Stanford, 4:30 p.m.: The Wildcats are, once again, as good as any team in the country. Josh Hart might be the nation’s most underrated star.
4. No. 14 Cal vs. San Diego State, 12:00 a.m.: Tyrone Wallace and company have been awesome this season. They get their first real test of the season tonight.
5. Providence vs. Evansville, 7:00 p.m.: Evansville is one of the nation’s best mid-majors, good enough to give the likes of Wichita State and Northern Iowa a fight in the Missouri Valley. And Providence? They got a kid named Kris Dunn. Heard of him?
THE REST OF THE TOP 25
- No. 3 Michigan State vs. Boston College, 6:30 p.m.
- No. 11 Arizona vs. Santa Clara, 11:30 p.m.
- No. 17 Notre Dame vs. Monmouth, 6:30 p.m.