This isn’t a ‘fluky’ title game, but both Kentucky and UConn are ‘lucky’ to be here

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Amida Brimah has no idea that he’s the reason UConn is playing in the national title game.

A 7-foot center from Ghana by way of Florida, Brimah doesn’t even start for the Huskies. He’s an excellent shot-blocker and has a softer touch around the basket than most folks are willing to admit, but his frame is closer to supermodel than superhuman and, frankly, at this point in his development his impact on a game isn’t much more than being tall and having a soft touch.

And despite that, despite the fact that Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels are all playing the best basketball of their careers in this tournament, Brimah is why Napier is drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker and Daniels is now considered a first round pick.

Because Saint Joseph’s had UConn beaten.

They shredded the Husky defense and forced Napier into his worst game of the postseason. With 45 seconds left of UConn’s opening round win, the Hawks held a three point lead. Napier turned down a ball-screen from Brimah, driving right past DeAndre Bembry and getting all the way to the rim … where he missed.

It wasn’t the first time in his career that Napier missed a critical shot and it certainly won’t be the last, but it was one of the only times this season where Napier couldn’t find a way to make a play when the Huskies really needed one. All the Hawks had to do was get one rebound, and they would have been a string of excitement-sapping free throws from a date with Villanova in the Round of 32.

Instead, all-league senior forward Halil Kanicevic found himself out of position, and as the rebound rolled off the rim, Brimah was able to gather the loose ball, collecting himself before drawing a foul as he hit a little turn around jumper while getting fouled. The three-point play tied up the game. The foul was Kanicevic’s fourth, and when he fouled out with 3:48 left in overtime, the Hawks were all but dead.

So while Boatright’s defense and Daniels’ offensive explosion and Napier’s Kemba-ing will be what gets credited for UConn’s run to their fourth national title game in the last 15 years, if it wasn’t for one play from a freshman center that comes off the bench and has scored eight points in the last four games, UConn would have been spending their spring break back in Storrs.

“People tell me about it, but I don’t think like that,” Brimah said.

FINAL FOUR: National title game primer | All of our Final Four coverage

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Aaron Harrison is well aware that he’s the reason Kentucky is now 40 minutes away from winning title No. 9.

He knows it, his team knows it, the entirety of Big Blue Nation knows it. Unless you’ve spent the last week and a half under a rock, you know it, too.

With 40 seconds left against Louisville, Harrison hit a three to give the Wildcats the lead for good. Two days later, he hit a three against Michigan to put Kentucky into the Final Four. Saturday night? You already know.

John Calipari called him Aaron the Assassin. Alex Poythress said, “He’s got some hangers. He’s got the biggest balls I’ve seen.” Andrew Harrison added, “They’re growing. We’re just glad he has those.” It doesn’t matter what happens on Monday night, Aaron Harrison will go down as a legend in the city of Lexington and Commonwealth of Kentucky. Nine months from now, there will be more Aarons born in Fayette County than ever before. Every kid in the state will spend the entire summer counting down the time in their hand, squaring up an imaginary Josh Gasser, rising, from 25 feet on the left wing and burying a three over the outstretched arms of an invisible Caris LeVert.

“My daughter [Erin] tweeted out she just became my second favorite ‘Aaron,'” Calipari said.

He’s had his One Shining Moment.

Three times.

And to think, the best clutch three-pointer shooter in NCAA tournament history entered the Big Dance shooting a whopping 32.6% from beyond the arc.

“I’m not this genius up here,” Calipari said. “He could have missed that shot or they could have made their shot and then Bo’s sitting up here.”

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It happens like this every year.

Every team that makes a run in the NCAA tournament does so because, at one point or another during the six games they have to win to bring home a trophy, a shot at the end of a game happens to go in or a loose ball just happens to bounce their way.

And that is what makes March Madness great.

That’s why every close game becomes so intense. One play could end a season or send a team off into immortality.

How far could Kansas have made it in 2010 if Ali Farokhmanesh hadn’t hit that three? The comparisons between Napier and Kemba Walker would me much more difficult to make if Arizona’s Jamelle Horne hit an open look from three at the end of their Elite 8 matchup in 2011. Florida doesn’t win a title in 2006 without Corey Brewer’s falling down three-point play against Georgetown in the Sweet 16. I could go on and on and on, but you get my point.

You have to be really, really good to win a national title. Great, even.

But you can’t bring home a ring with a lot of luck, too.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Saturday, March 25

6:09 p.m., TBS, San Jose
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 Xavier (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lewis Johnson)

8:49 p.m., TBS, Kansas City
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Oregon (Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson)

Sweet 16 Preview: Friday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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Thursday brought us a thrilling night of college basketball. Oregon won a thriller. Gonzaga did, too. Kansas put on a show, toying with the Big Ten champs. 

And that was just the appetizer for what’s on tap Friday night.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-7.5) vs. No. 4 BUTLER, 7:09 p.m. (CBS): As weird as it sounds for a team that finished second in the Big East, that swept Villanova and that has a combined three wins over Arizona and Xavier, Butler is basically back to being a mid-major in the South Region. That’s what happens when you get stuck in a region with three of the biggest brands in the sport.

And don’t think, for a second, that Butler is going to be overmatched here. They’ve proven, time and again this season, that they are good enough to play with the best of the best even if their roster, on paper, doesn’t look that way.

But here’s the thing about North Carolina: If they play their best basketball game, they should be able to run through the Bulldogs. That’s a big ‘if’, however, especially if Joel Berry II plays the way that he has played in the first two games of the tournament. North Carolina goes as Berry goes, and he’s 3-for-21 from the floor in those two games.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-7.5)

No. 3 BAYLOR (-3.5) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 7:29 p.m., (TBS): Baylor’s front line is massive. Johnathan Motley is an all-american in the middle, Jo Lual-Acuil was one of the nation’s most improved players this season there’s an argument to be made that Terry Maston has been the most important player for the Bears in this tournament. That’s where Baylor’s strength lies, and they play to it. The Bears want to play slow and they want to pound the ball into the paint.

Where Baylor struggles, however, is with their guard play. Manu Lecomte and Jake Lindsey are not exactly Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, and if we’ve learned anything about South Carolina this season, it’s that their defense can be a nightmare for opponents to try and run offense against. They don’t pressure in the full court, but their half court defense is just as tough and as physical and as frustrating as West Virginia’s. I think the first one to 60 wins this game, and I think South Carolina gets it done.

PREDICTION: South Carolina (+3.5)

No. 2 KENTUCKY (even) vs. No. 3 UCLA, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): Does it get any better than this?

Do you really need me to tell you that a matchup between two of the four best teams in college basketball, two teams that can legitimately win a national title, playing in the Sweet 16 is must-see TV?

You shouldn’t.

You probably know all the storylines by now, too, so I’m going to say this: I think this game comes down to how UCLA decides to matchup with Kentucky’s guards. My best guess at what happens is that Aaron Holiday chases Malik Monk around all those screens while Lonzo Ball draws De’Aaron Fox, mostly to save his legs but in part because he has the length to challenge a jump shot while playing far enough off to keep his from getting into the lane.

PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins, but I love the over (165.5)

No. 4 FLORIDA (-1.5) vs. No. 8 WISCONSIN, 9:59 p.m. (TBS): Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have length and athletes everywhere on the floor, and head coach Mike White knows it. They pressure, they overplay passing lanes and they make life miserable for opposing playmakers. Wisconsin, like Baylor, is a team that plays through their bigs, but unlike Baylor, a post-up for Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ is like their point guard getting an isolation. Both guys are just such great passers out of the post that Greg Gard doesn’t have to worry as much about the lack of playmakers in his back court.

I think that is a huge advantage for Wisconsin in what could otherwise be thought of as a bad matchup.

But more than anything, I trust Wisconsin’s vets more in NCAA tournament games than just about anyone else. This is going to be the 17th NCAA tournament game for Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the most of anyone in the tournament. They’ve both played in two Final Fours and two more Sweet 16s. Hayes and Koenig are the two career leaders in NCAA tournament scoring, and Koenig may be the single-most clutch shooter left in the tournament. I’ll bet on that.

PREDICTION: Wisconsin (+1.5)

No. 11 Xavier advances to the Elite 8 with upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Trevon Bluiett scored 25 points, Malcolm Bernard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and No. 11 seed Xavier, despite being down eight points with less than four minutes left in the game, rallied to beat No. 2 seed Arizona, 73-71, to advance to the Elite 8.

Arizona is going to regret that loss. As good as Allonzo Trier was in building that eight-point lead — he finished with 19 points, including a run where he scored 15 straight points — he went into full hero-ball mode in the final minutes, a stretch where Arizona’s point guard issues came into plain view. I’m sure that there are going to be Arizona fans that are upset with Sean Miller about the way that the final four minutes played out, but remember: this Arizona team lost Ray Smith, Terrence Ferguson and were without Allonzo Trier for the first 19 games of the season, and Miller still led them to a share of the Pac-12 regular season title and the Pac-12 tournament title.

He’s an incredible coach.

Arizona is lucky to have him.

He’ll breakthrough eventually.

But the story of this game isn’t Arizona or Sean Miller, it’s Chris Mack. It’s Xavier.

The Musketeers have now won three games in the NCAA tournament. As of March 9th, the Musketeers had won three games in the previous five weeks — all three of which came against DePaul — and were heading into a game against Butler in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament with, quite literally, their NCAA tournament bid on the line. They were very much on the bubble, evidence being the No. 11 seed they earned after adding a top 15 win to their résumé.

The Musketeers have been without Edmond Sumner (torn ACL) since the end of January and without Myles Davis (left the team) since the beginning of January. They were two of the three most important players on the Xavier roster heading into the season, and as of today, head coach Chris Mack is fielding a name whose only point guard is a four-star freshman named Quentin Goodin.

They shouldn’t be here.

They shouldn’t be one game away from the Final Four, but this is what Mack does. He’s been a head coach for eight seasons, all of which have come at Baylor. This was his fourth Sweet 16, and the only time he actually entered the tournameht seeded higher than a No. 6 was last year, when the Musketeers were beaten in the second round by a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater.

One thing that I’ve never really understood about coaching searches is why Mack’s name never gets mentioned with the likes of Dayton’s Archie Miller and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Those are the two coaches outside the Power 5 leagues that get mentioned with every single quality opening. “Take a shot at Marshall and Miller, see if they’ll say yes, then move on.” Mack always ends up next on those lists, and I’ve never really understood why.

Part of it is probably because he’s already at a program that is in a high-major league. Part of it is because he’s a Xavier guy — he played there, spent eight seasons there during two stints as an assistant and is an Ohio native. Part of it is because Xavier is already a really good job.

But it does seem like Mack gets overlooked in all of these searches.

Take Indiana, for example.

Steve Alford is the first name everyone mentions with that job. Then it’s Miller and Marshall. If I’m Indiana’s AD, however, Mack is the guy that I go after, and not just because he’s proven that he can go into Indiana and recruit.

He’s just a flat-out terrific coach.

And if this run on top of his other three runs to the second weekend didn’t prove it to you, then the play that resulted in the eventual game-winning points should. It was simple, really, but it certainly was not something you see done in the college ranks all that often. With 50 seconds left and the game tied, Mack had his guys roll the ball up the floor and then used Bluiett, who is scorching the nets in this tournament, as a decoy, running him off of a screen to set up a duck-in for Sean O’Mara:

Not only was the play that Mack drew up beautiful, it took all of six seconds, which meant that Xavier had the lead and was guaranteed to have a shot to get the ball back to win the game regardless of what Arizona did at the other end of the floor.

That is great coaching.

And it’s past time for us to recognize that Mack belongs in the conversation among the best in the business.

No. 1 Kansas dominates No. 4 Purdue in style

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Kansas, the top-seeded team in Midwest region, didn’t just beat No. 4 Purdue, it did so in style. Fast break after fast break, 3-pointer after 3-pointer, dunk after dunk, the Jayhawks ran the Boilermakers off the floor, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 win on Thursday night in Kansas City.

It followed a familiar script as KU’s 90-70 win over No. 9 seed Michigan State in the second round. Only this time, the climax occurred sooner. Kansas was up 61-54 when Caleb Swaingan checked back into the game, playing alongside fellow Monstar Isaac Haas. Instead of Purdue’s size — the big advantage it had over Kansas — taking control, the only thing that grew was the deficit for the Boilermakers. Kansas went on an 11-0 run beginning at the 14:30 mark. By the time Haas was subbed out, the Jayhawks led 69-56. It never got closer.

Lagerald Vick threw down a 360 dunk … and the Jayhawks hadn’t even begun to pour it on yet. Now, that’s a team that’s playing with confidence.

Kansas shot 66 percent from the field in the second half and connected on 7-of-15 made 3-pointers on the evening. Purdue’s last lead was 35-33 with 4:54 remaining in the second half. That means the Jayhawks outscored the Boilermakers 65-31 for the remainder of the game.

For all that was made of Kansas matchup issues with Purdue, the Boilermakers never solved the matchup problems the Jayhawks presented. While Laden Lucas and the rest of the defense found ways to frustrate Caleb Swanigan (18 points, seven rebounds and five turnovers) and somehow, outrebounded the Boilermakers, Purdue never found a solution for penetration or 3-point shooting from KU’s stable of guards.

“Those guys, especially Caleb on the glass it’s hard to keep ’em off,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “If you look at Landen’s stats he only got four rebounds, but the story is Caleb only got seven. And if you had told this before the game that would be the give and take I would have sold out for that because he does a really good job of making sure neither one of them got it for the most part.”

Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham each had 26 points. Mason added seven rebounds and seven assists. Josh Jackson had a double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds. Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk each recorded double figures too. Lucas’ play has improved as the season’s progressed. They aren’t just putting teams away in this tournament, they’re doing it in style. And it couldn’t be happening at the right time.

They know how win close games, but through three NCAA Tournament games so far, the Jayhawks aren’t willing to take any chances. They’ve elected to not just put teams away, they’ve decided to do so in style.

Kansas advances to play No. 3 seed Oregon on Saturday in the Elite Eight.

WATCH: LaGerald Vick’s 360 dunk

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It takes a lot of confidence to throw down a dunk better suited for pre-game lay-up lines than the middle of a NCAA Tournament game.

But Kansas sophomore guard LaGerald Vick thought this breakaway opportunity in the second half of a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Purdue was the perfect time to throw down a 360 dunk.