CBT Roundtable: The NCAA Tournament’s biggest surprise heading into the Sweet 16

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The Sweet 16 kicks off tomorrow night with the South and West Region action beginning. Before we begin clipping the field down to the Final Four, we asked our stable of writers what they find most surprising heading into the tournament’s second weekend:

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Raphielle Johnson: Full disclosure, I picked Baylor to reach the Sweet 16. I thought they matched up well with the Bluejays due to their length ans athleticism in the front court, but to win by 30? Even in prior losses this season when they didn’t hit threes, Creighton at least had a fighting chance. That wasn’t the case Sunday, with Baylor doing a very good job of identifying scorers and making sure those players were out of their comfort zones. The Bears have been hot, but the way in which they won stood out to me.

Rob Dauster: Kentucky finally put it all together. We’ve been waiting four months for the Wildcats to have the kind of performance they did when they handed No. 1 Wichita State their first loss since last season’s Final Four. The Harrison twins played like NBA-caliber guards, James Young hit a handful of big shots and Julius Randle went all-Julius Randle, finishing with 15 points, 10 boards and six assists. If this continues, if Kentucky can bring that kind of an effort for two more weeks, they can win a national title.

Three weeks ago, Kentucky lost to South Carolina. That’s wild to think about.

SWEET 16 PREVIEWS: Dayton-Stanford | Wisconsin-Baylor |Florida-UCLA

Matt Giles: Tennessee’s offense has looked unstoppable these past three games. Weeks after chatter emerged regarding the possibility of a coaching change in Knoxville, coach Cuonzo Martin has revitalized this already proficient offense. The Vols have never been a team to rely on three-point shooting, and true to form, the team is only taking one-third of their field goals from deep (and making just 22 percent), but UT’s scoring within the arc has completely overwhelmed their tourney opponents. The squad is converting a whopping 63 percent of their two-point field goals (posting an offensive efficiency rating of 1.26 points per possession), and when UT doesn’t connect from the field, they’re getting fouled: the team’s free throw rate is 53 percent, which means that UT has been wildly successful putting pressure on opponents and getting to the stripe (where the Vols are making 83 percent of their free throws). Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, both nationally known, have played well, but the Vol to watch, should the team beat Michigan and then either Louisville or Kentucky, is Josh Richardson — the wing has taken 19 twos and made 90 percent of those attempts.

Terrence Payne: The bottom half of the South Region is the biggest surprise of the NCAA tournament so far, as its Elite 8 matchup is between No. 11 seed Dayton and No. 10 seed Stanford. The Flyers earned one of the final at-large bids, and made it to Memphis with an upset win over in-state opponent Ohio State, followed by another narrow victory over Syracuse. Stanford has had an equally surprising run to the Sweet 16. The Cardinal began the tournament against New Mexico, pegged as the dark horse to come out of the South. After sending the Lobos home early, the Cardinal sent Kansas (without Joel Embiid) back to Lawrence with a great defensive effort. Johnny Dawkins began the season on the hot seat. Fast forward five months later, and he’s got his Cardinal one win away from a berth in the Elite 8.

Scott Phillips: I fully believed that Kansas was susceptible to a Round of 32 loss without Joel Embiid — why can’t I quit you, New Mexico? — but I never expected Stanford to be the team to do it. I was in St. Louis on Sunday for the upset and the Cardinal were incredibly impressive, especially on the defensive end. To beat No. 2 seed Kansas without knocking down a three-pointer just shows how good of a game plan Johnny Dawkins had for his team and how well the entire team executed that plan despite going cold from the outside. If Stanford continues to defend like that, their shooting will only improve and their length and physicality could make them a dangerous potential Final Four team.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

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“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.