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Can Anyone Beat Kansas?

A new Cinderella rises as Michigan falls, Sean Miller ducks out early again, and the Jayhawks emerge as a true favorite in a thrilling first half of the Sweet 16

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

That had everything. The first half of the Sweet 16 on Thursday was six hours of pure, uncut March Madness. One of the highest remaining seeds (Arizona) went down in shocking fashion after a back-and-forth thriller, while another (Gonzaga) held on by the skin of its teeth in a game that barely resembled basketball, with its opponent emptying an entire clip of bullets into its foot on the final possession. On the other side of the bracket, a blue-blood program (Kansas) reasserted its dominance against a team that didn’t have the horses to keep up. By the time the night was over, it was easy to forget about the opening game, which saw Oregon and Michigan trade body blows for 40 minutes before Wolverines senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. missed a shot — what would have been his One Shining Moment — at the buzzer. The basketball wasn’t always compelling Thursday night, but the drama was unmatched. Let’s break it down.

1. Sean Miller Is the New Ms. Congeniality

There’s no denying the job Sean Miller has done at Arizona. It’s a perennial top-five program that competes for Pac-12 championships every year, and it churns out as many NBA players as any program this side of Duke and Kentucky.

[Stephen A. Smith voice] However …

The team’s 73–71 loss to Xavier on Thursday is now the fifth time Miller has lost in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in eight years at Arizona. This one, to his former school and former protégé Chris Mack, has to hurt the most. Everything was set up for the Wildcats. They had a 7-foot lottery pick (Lauri Markkanen), three future NBA players on the perimeter (Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, and Kobi Simmons), a senior at point guard (Kadeem Allen), and a deep mix of big men who could handle every conceivable style of play. Wisconsin, who had knocked off Arizona in consecutive Elite Eights in 2014 and 2015, was in a different region. All that was standing in the way of Miller’s first trip to the Final Four was an 11-seed (Xavier) and a 1-seed (Gonzaga) with an even more checkered history in March. With 3:45 left in the game, Arizona had an eight-point lead, but then it all fell apart in familiar fashion.

Miller is a defensive-minded coach who recruits NBA-caliber athletes at every position, a philosophy that can wind up leaving points on the floor on offense. The Wildcats were minus-33 from long range in their two losses to Wisconsin, and they attempted just over half as many 3s as the Badgers. Thursday, the Musketeers sat back in a matchup zone for most of the game, daring Arizona to shoot them out of it. The Wildcats tried, going 7-of-27 from long range, firing up brick after brick after brick, many of them after little ball movement. Some of that was bad luck. Markkanen, who shot 43.3 percent from 3 this season, is probably not going to go 1-for-6 from deep in a game often, while Alkins was struggling with a fractured finger on his shooting hand. The more Arizona loses due to stagnant offense, though, the harder it becomes to overlook. Struggling to execute on offense late in games has become a running theme for Miller’s teams on the big stage, and it’s going to dog him until he finally gets over the hump in March. With great talent comes great expectations, and there’s no shortage of talent at Arizona.

The pressure will be ratcheted even higher next season, when DeAndre Ayton, the most gifted 7-footer to play college basketball since Karl-Anthony Towns, comes to Tucson. Miller will have to figure out a way to make it work with Ayton and Dusan Ristic, a more traditional 7-footer who will be entering his senior season and won’t be keen to take a backseat to a freshman. The coach will need guards who can shoot around those guys while not hijacking the offense — otherwise, Arizona could wind up in the same position next season.

2. Xavier Is Your New Cinderella

Arizona’s struggles shouldn’t take away from another fantastic performance from Chris Mack’s squad. The team has now beaten a 6-seed (Maryland), a 3-seed (Florida State), and a 2-seed (Arizona): Add them up and it equals their own seed, 11. Arizona and Florida State were two of the most athletic teams in the country, and there are at least a half-dozen future NBA players on their rosters combined. Xavier may not have one. Its best player, sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner, tore his ACL in the middle of the season, and the team lost six consecutive games in February. The Musketeers were 9–9 in Big East play, and they needed at least one win in their conference tournament just to secure their spot in the Big Dance.

Xavier is a fun team to root for. Its leading scorer, junior wing Trevon Bluiett, is wise beyond his years on the court, with an array of old-man moves that allow him to get his shot despite being a below-the-rim player. He has been lights-out during the tournament, averaging 25 points a game on 52.2 percent shooting through Xavier’s first three games, and he was putting Arizona defenders in a blender all night. The Musketeers also have some great archetypes on their roster. There’s the scrappy white guard (J.P. Macura) who rocks a long-sleeve compression shirt under his jersey. They have a grad transfer from Florida A&M (Malcolm Bernard) who came over specifically to play in March and made huge plays whenever Arizona seemed to be pulling away. And junior center Sean O’Mara, who hit the go-ahead basket in the final minute, is their latest in a line of fundamentally sound but portly big men that goes back to Matt Stainbrook and Kenny Frease. Watching a guy with a gut score against a team like Arizona should be an inspiration to us all.

Xavier is right there with Butler, Gonzaga, and Wichita State for elite mid-majors, if you can even call the team that anymore. The Musketeers are one of the most consistent programs in the country, missing the tournament only twice in the past 17 years, and they have consistently won in March, making three Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s. There’s something in the DNA of their basketball culture, as Mack is their fourth head coach in that span, with the other three (Miller, Thad Matta, and Skip Prosser) all going on to succeed in Power Five conferences. Mack, in his eighth season at Xavier, could be its version of Mark Few or Brad Stevens. All he needs now is a Final Four. The Musketeers won’t be as talented as Gonzaga, which they face Saturday, but they weren’t as talented as Florida State or Arizona either.

3. Gonzaga Won but, Oh Boy, It Was Ugly

Rodger Sherman broke down the final seconds of Gonzaga’s 61–58 victory over West Virginia, which would be hilarious if they weren’t so sad. It’s not even fair to call what Jevon Carter was doing hero ball. He was trying to be Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk at the same time.

Carter’s breathtaking shot selection will go down in tourney lore, but the sequence that summed up this game came with the score tied at 55 with 1:59 left, when a disputed out-of-bounds play forced the referees to go to the monitors for an agonizing six minutes and 47 seconds.

Babies were conceived in the time it took them to figure out the call. The entire country (well, at least the people who hadn’t flipped over to the Purdue and Kansas game on CBS) heard Chris Webber lose whatever was left of his sanity on air as he was waiting for the verdict. Supreme Court justices take less time to decide cases.

The game itself wasn’t much better. West Virginia, under Bob Huggins, plays a style of basketball that Charlie Murphy would call “habitual line-stepping.” Press Virginia isn’t so much a full-court press as it is a direct challenge to the toughness of its opponents, as well as the stubbornness of the refs to call fouls. The refs, bless their hearts, called Huggy Bear’s bluff. Gonzaga and West Virginia combined for 51 fouls, averaging far more than one foul per minute. There was no flow to the game, and almost every important player on both teams was in foul trouble.

The difference came down to the size of Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga’s fifth-year senior center, who bullied West Virginia’s undersized big men (although, to be fair, everyone is undersized compared with Karnowski), and the Mountaineers’ inability to hit 3s. They were 5-of-23 from long range, and Mark Few eventually figured out that all he had to do to stop them was sit back in a zone.

The biggest concern for Gonzaga going forward was the play of junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, and he was undressed by the ferocity of Press Virginia. Williams-Goss had 10 points on 2-of-10 shooting and coughed up the ball five times. Jordan Matthews, his backcourt partner, wasn’t much better, but he hit an absolute dagger of a 3-pointer to give Gonzaga the lead in the final minute. This is the kind of play you need a senior guard to make.

4. Jordan Bell Flipped the Script on Moritz Wagner

There are more than a few similarities between the philosophies of Oregon’s Dana Altman and Michigan’s John Beilein, offensive-minded coaches who recruit speed, shooting, and skill at every position to spread out the other team. The difference is that Beilein collects stretch big men, while Altman prefers combo forwards. The matchup upfront Thursday was a battle of styles, with Oregon sneaking out a 70–69 victory over Michigan thanks in large part to a brilliant performance from junior Jordan Bell.

At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Bell was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, using his combination of size, speed, and reach to average 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 1.3 steals a game. His importance has been magnified by the injury to senior center Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament. Bell has been asked to man the middle almost entirely by himself, and he was more than up to the challenge against Michigan, notching 16 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks, and one steal on 7-of-10 shooting.

The most impressive part of his performance was how he guarded Michigan sophomore Moritz Wagner, who had a coming-out party on the national stage when he dropped 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Louisville in the second round. Wagner, a 40 percent 3-point shooter who can put the ball on the floor and score off the dribble, is death to bigger and slower defenders who can’t stick with him on the perimeter. Bell, though, is smaller and faster than Wagner, and he got right into his dribble and forced him to try to score over the top of him in the post. He beat Wagner at his own game, holding him to seven points on 3-of-10 shooting. Wagner was so ineffective that Beilein benched him for the final 10 minutes, trying to match Oregon’s speed by going small with D.J. Wilson and Duncan Robinson upfront.

Nothing Michigan did worked against Bell, though. Wilson, who could end up being a first-round pick if he declares for the draft, couldn’t score on Bell either, and none of the Wolverines’ frontcourt players could keep Bell off the glass or prevent him from scoring in the paint. Wilson and Wagner have spent a lot of time in the weight room in their time in Ann Arbor, but Bell has fast-twitch muscles and grown-man strength. He scored four of Oregon’s last six points and had two massive offensive rebounds in the final two minutes that changed the course of the game.

If Walton had hit the step-back 3 he attempted with three seconds left, we would still be talking about Michigan’s incredible run. Instead, the ball bounced off the front rim, and fittingly enough, Bell snatched the defensive board as the clock wound down.

5. And, Oh Yeah, Kansas Was Awesome

For all the drama that happened Thursday, maybe the most important development was yet another masterful offensive performance from Kansas, which is starting to look like the favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix. To give you an idea of how dominant Bill Self’s team has been through its first three games, his son, walk-on Tyler Self, had a career-high five points in the Jayhawks’ first-round victory over UC-Davis, and tied his career high in assists against Purdue, with two. Some more stats: Kansas is averaging 96 points a game on 54.7 percent shooting in the tournament, and it is winning by an average of 30 points.

Purdue, the Big Ten regular-season champion, gave a good effort, even pulling out to a 33–27 lead with six minutes left in the first half thanks to the combination of inside scoring from Isaac Haas, a 7-foot-2 Goliath who could have taken Andre the Giant’s role in The Princess Bride, and lights-out 3-point shooting from practically everyone else. But the 4-seed couldn’t keep up with no. 1 Kansas’s pace, falling 98–66 on Thursday. The Jayhawks backcourt of Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham combined for 52 points on 16-of-26 shooting, while freshman star Josh Jackson had a brilliant all-around performance, with 15 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, four steals, and one block.

This isn’t the Bill Self team you are used to seeing in March. Matt Painter’s team was the one pounding the ball inside to two big men, while Self had Josh Jackson playing as a small-ball power forward and four 3-point shooters spread out around one big man. It was like watching the 2015 playoff series between the Grizzlies and the Warriors condensed into 40 minutes: The bigger team got out to an early lead but steadily wore down as the more explosive offensive team relentlessly applied pressure.

It’s almost impossible to beat Kansas with size. Jackson is an elite athlete and a ferocious competitor with a high basketball IQ who can comfortably guard much bigger players, and he has now shut down two of the best post scorers in the country this season, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Baylor’s Johnathan Motley. The best way to beat the Jayhawks is with speed, and there aren’t many players in the country who can keep up with Jackson. Two of them, Jayson Tatum from Duke and Jonathan Isaac from Florida State, were knocked out last weekend. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, will get his chance in the Elite Eight. While Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz have been battling to be the no. 1 overall pick all season, Jackson may have his name in the mix before it’s all said and done.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the Wolverines’ home city; it is Ann Arbor, not Lansing.