The NCAA tournament returned on Thursday night. And it returned just as it left us – without missing a beat.
The Sweet 16 tipped off just as the second round had ended, with upsets, chaos and all involved trying but failing to process it. Favorites? They’re still losing. National title contenders? Still falling by the wayside. Unlikely underdogs? Alive and kicking. Chaos? Ongoing.
The first four days of the Dance gutted the left side of the bracket. The initial thought was that they paved roads to the Final Four for the likes of Kentucky and Gonzaga. That narrative, though, went up in flames Thursday night.
Because Kentucky’s season went up in flames. So did Gonzaga’s. And the remnants?
A 9-vs.-11 matchup for the first time in NCAA tournament history. A potential path to the title game for Michigan that includes no top-five seed. And, of course, more busted brackets all around.
So where to begin? That one is easy. In Catlanta, of course, which lived up to its name. But by the end of the night, Philips Arena wasn’t blue. Somehow, it was purple.
The purple Wildcats ended the night with five players 6-foot-4 or shorter on the court in a tie game against the blueblood of all bluebloods. They spread those five players around the court, only one inside the 3-point arc, and let Barry Brown go to work. Go to work is exactly what Brown did:
With his team’s best player hampered and ultimately sidelined by a foot injury, and his team’s leading scorer on the night disqualified with five fouls, Brown won a grinder of a game with a smooth, gutsy drive to the cup that stunned Big Blue Nation.
It sent Kansas State, having scored just 0.92 points per offensive possession over its three games, to the Elite Eight. It put a team completely ignored by experts before the tournament, and even leading into Thursday, one step away from the Final Four.
That Final Four spot seemed to belong to Kentucky. But 14 missed free throws and a stagnant offense – slowed further by Kansas State’s intense, alert defense – stood in the Wildcats’ way. And now only an 11-seed stands in between the other Wildcats and San Antonio.
That 11-seed, though, isn’t just any old 11-seed.
Loyola Chicago tops Nevada in thriller
That 11-seed is Loyola Chicago, which was actually a sexy pre-tournament pick for an upset or two. But to be a mere one-point underdog in an Elite Eight game?
The thing about Loyola’s run, though, is that it hasn’t required miracles. It required a third consecutive clutch shot at the end of a game on Thursday, but on all three occasions, the Ramblers have measured up just fine to the higher-seeded team.
One Loyola possession summed up its ability to do so, and summed up the big-picture difference between the Ramblers and seventh-seeded Nevada in what turned out to be a nerve-wracking, exhilarating game:
Best possession I’ve seen in the tournament. Triple threat is dead, folks. Attack off the catch! pic.twitter.com/1G3gnM64hl
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 22, 2018
The Ramblers ran clinical offense, and got layup after layup once they got into their rhythm. At one point, they had made more layups than Nevada had made total field goals. They took just one 2-point shot outside of the paint, and it certainly wasn’t because they had a size advantage. They just spaced the floor and moved without the ball expertly.
Nevada, on the other hand, showed just why it was so streaky throughout its three games. It racked up only eight assists while playing a lot of one-on-one basketball and chucking several ill-advised shots. It began the game on fire, then went ice-cold to close the first half. It went on a trademark run to erase a 12-point deficit in the second, but couldn’t quite make enough shots down the stretch.
Loyola, in the end, made just enough. Marques Townes’ 3-pointer with six seconds left sealed the deal. And Loyola, too, is one win – over its weakest opponent yet – away from the Final Four after its 69-68 triumph.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
The 9-vs.-11 matchup in the upper left quadrant would seem to open things up for top seeds in the bottom left quadrant. The only problem? Most of them have fallen as well.
Gonzaga was the latest crumble, just as Xavier had done four days earlier, at the hands of ninth-seeded Florida State.
The Zags had an excuse: Killian Tillie, one of their longest and most skilled big men, aggravated a hip injury and was unable to go. That left Gonzaga thin up front against a Seminoles team with size and depth in droves. Tillie’s replacements in the rotation struggled, and Florida State just kept on rolling.
Ah, but there is one favorite left. And that favorite is now in the driver’s seat for a berth in the national championship game on April 2.
In its first two tournament games, Michigan’s surge appeared to have abated. The Wolverines labored through a first-round win over Montana, then needed a buzzer-beater to escape a physical battle with Houston. They shot 13 of 46 from beyond the arc in the two games combined.
On Thursday, they made 10 triples in the first half. By the end of the night, eight different players had found the bottom of the net from deep, an NCAA tournament record. Walk-on C.J. Baird was the eighth, and he capped off Michigan’s offense explosion. The final score was 99-72. The margin could have been even wider. That’s how good Michigan was.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, put in a performance that was the polar opposite of the one that took down the defending national champs. But this was mostly about the Wolverines. They looked like a strong candidate to cut down nets in San Antonio. And more chaos around them only propped up their case.
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More Sweet 16 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Loyola’s Cinderella run continues with dramatic win over Nevada
• Did Loyola get away with a travel on crucial play?
• Michigan looks unbeatable as it advances to Elite 8
• Sister Jean: ‘I don’t care that you broke my bracket’