If the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament was one of blowouts, the first day of the second was one of bludgeonings. There is no need to sugarcoat it. Frankly, there is no way to.
Saturday brought hope of drama. And in the afternoon, it delivered on its promise. But throughout the evening, it devolved into another snoozefest. The average margin of victory of the day’s final six games? 19.2. The number of upsets? A big, fat zero.
But eight wins by favorites, many of them convincing, gives us eight Final Four contenders to gauge. Eight impressive teams to assess. So that’s exactly what we’ll do.
First, though, a brief farewell …
1. Ja was a one-man team after all
Ja Morant and Murray State were not a one-man team in the Ohio Valley Conference. Perhaps they weren’t against fellow one-man team Marquette, either. But by power-conference standards – with an emphasis on the “power”? Specifically, by Florida State standards?
Morant was the best player on the floor Saturday evening in Hartford. Florida State, though, had Nos. 2 through 10. If the ball wasn’t in Ja’s hands – and the ‘Noles did everything they could to force it elsewhere – the Racers couldn’t conjure anything remotely resembling a quality shot. They were run out of the gym like a JV team by the varsity. They were a mess.
In hindsight, a bullying like this seemed inevitable. Ja aside, and all the Ja-adjacent hype aside, Murray State never had the athletes nor the talent to compete with what it was blindsided by Saturday. At this level, it was a one-man team.
Then again, “this level” – Florida State’s level – is a 99th-percentile level. And it’s time we start talking about it as a potential national championship level. Very few have matched it. Very few can.
2. Florida State was Saturday’s biggest winner
Must we belabor a point we already made pre-tourney? Florida State is a national title contender. Ignore the silly little “4” next to its name. It was a contender before it put together the most impressive performance of the tournament to date, and is even more of one now.
The Seminoles won’t always shoot 11 of 27 from 3; won’t always outweigh and outmuscle and outsprint opponents like they could the Racers; won’t always run roughshod like they did Saturday. But they’re deep, versatile, long, athletic, well-coached and hot. Half the roster, including Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele, is playing the best basketball of their careers. FSU won in Round 1 despite a 39-point deficit behind the 3-point arc. When it flipped that deficit, it looked like a No. 1 seed – as it has for much of the past month. And the actual top seed that awaits in Anaheim on Thursday should be worried.
3. Appreciating Gonzaga
But before we preview Thursday, let’s appreciate Gonzaga. It’s something we don’t do nearly enough. The Zags are off to their fifth consecutive Sweet 16, Division I’s longest active streak of its kind. In other words, the most consistent postseason team in college basketball over the past half-decade is a Catholic school in Spokane, Washington, with around 5,200 undergrads, of which, for much of the 20th century, nobody had ever heard. It’s ridiculously impressive.
As for this Gonzaga team, it wasn’t really tested on the tournament’s opening weekend. A 12-point win over Baylor fell roughly in line with expectation. Its showdown with Florida State – which eliminated Gonzaga in last year’s Sweet 16 – will be the most anticipated game of the round. We’d peg the Zags as early 2.5-point favorites.
3. Why Michigan’s win over Florida was more impressive than it sounds
On paper, Michigan’s 64-49 triumph over Florida looks like a routine ousting of a No. 10 seed by a No. 2. In reality, it was much more than that.
Because for at least a half, it was a battle. But it was a battle because Florida was raining threes at a throw-your-hands-up, tip-your-cap rate. The Gators, a darn good team but a 33-percent outside-shooting one, made six of 12 first-half attempts. Many of them were tightly contested, as they almost always are by Michigan. The Wolverines have the best 3-point defense in the country. Opponents take only 30 percent of their field goals from deep, and make just 29 percent of them. Florida was both taking and making … yet Michigan still led by four at half. It pulled away in the second when Florida, as expected, cooled off.
Now, it didn’t pull away as quickly or definitively as it should have. And that’s the hesitation with Michigan. It has very few players who can create their own shots. Against a grinding, defensive-minded, slightly-less-rich man’s version of itself, Michigan’s offense was at times stagnant, just as it was against Michigan State in the latter two of three late-season losses.
But my goodness these Wolverines can defend. They don’t foul. They don’t block many shots but challenge almost everything. They sit 0.001 points per possession below the top of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. They’re moving on to the Sweet 16, where they’ll likely face the team that holds the No. 1 spot, Texas Tech. And they remain the defending national champs of locker-room water fights:
4. Was Purdue’s pounding of Villanova a statement?
Purdue blasted Villanova, 87-61, the second-largest margin of defeat for a defending champion in NCAA tournament history. (Loyola Marymount over Michigan by 34 in 1990 remains No. 1.)
Was it a statement win for the Boilermakers? Yes and no. It was definitely a reminder that Carsen Edwards, who went for a tourney-high 42 points, can singlehandedly shoot his team to victory.
But he can just as easily shoot Purdue out of a game – or, in this case, out of the tournament, back to West Lafayette. Saturday’s blowout wasn’t even Purdue’s biggest this month. And yet since the last, it lost twice to Minnesota. The Boilermakers remain moody. There’s no way to know whether Saturday will translate to next Thursday.
This, instead, was more so a statement about Villanova and the Big East, which is now out of the tourney altogether. Marquette laid an egg. Seton Hall and St. John’s looked like they didn’t belong. In five games, including Nova’s win over St. Mary’s, the conference’s aggregate scoring margin was minus-64. A fitting end to its worst season since … the conference’s inception?
5. Why defending champs have struggled
Villanova’s egg extends the streak to 12: Every defending champion since Florida’s repeat in 2007 has been eliminated before the Elite Eight. Which is remarkable – but also explainable.
Defending champs struggle because college basketball is cyclical. And most national champions, roughly, fit into two categories: Either they are senior-driven squads who, naturally, lose the seniors and must rebuild; or, they are chock-full of young talent that capitalizes on the exposure of a title run and goes pro. There are exceptions, and the streak is undoubtedly fortified by randomness. But it’s not as remarkable as it initially sounds.
6. Saturday’s most absurd stat
Michigan State cruised past conference foe Minnesota, 70-50 … despite a minus-16 turnover margin. On one hand, that’s impressive. On the other, when you consider the great equalizer was Minnesota’s long-range incompetence – 2 for 22 from deep – the Spartans have a lot of work to do despite their 20-point win.
7. Stop complaining about a Tremont Waters travel
If, hours later, you’re still whining that Tremont Waters traveled as he sent LSU to the Sweet 16, you’re the Grinch. You might have a technical case … but you’re the Grinch. How about, instead, we appreciate the best moment of March so far?
8. Kentucky escapes thanks to Magee’s misses
Fletcher Magee made 509 3-pointers in his college career. He had his Thursday night in the spotlight. Yet it’s the dozen misses that ended that career that he’s likely replaying in his mind as you read this. Those dozen will haunt him.
“I just feel like I let everyone down,” he said postgame.
Kentucky escaped Magee’s Wofford, 62-56, largely because it held the uber-efficient Terriers to 0.93 points per possession and a sub-30 percent mark from beyond the arc. And those numbers were largely a product of the worst 3-point performance of Magee’s career. He went 0 for 12. He missed tough shots, but shots he very often makes. It was just the third game since December of Magee’s freshman season in which he failed to make a three.
So credit Kentucky. Its defense was excellent. But if three of those 12 go in … if Magee shoots half as well as he typically does … Big Blue Nation is burning right now.
“I’ve shot the shots I got tonight against every team in the [Southern Conference], every other team I’ve played,” Magee said. “They were no harder. I just didn’t shoot it well.”
The Wildcats lacked offensive punch with P.J. Washington sidelined by a foot injury. Washington’s health will be one of the biggest stories entering the tournament’s second weekend. Because Kentucky didn’t quite look like a true title contender without him.
9. Ranking Saturday’s winners as contenders
While Kentucky scraped by, other contenders soared. The one not mentioned above, Auburn, led Kansas wire to wire. The final score, 89-75, flattered Kansas. The Tigers will be a Sweet 16 test for North Carolina – if the Tar Heels take care of Washington on Sunday.
So how do Saturday’s eight winners stack up as national championship contenders?
Florida State made the biggest move in a positive direction, while Kentucky falls due to the uncertainty surrounding Washington’s health. But the top dog remains the top dog:
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