Friday night brought three disappointing games and one wild finish, and with that, the Elite Eight field is set. And what a field it is! Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky are rolling. South Carolina is still alive at this stage for the first time in program history. Florida is back in the Elite Eight for the fifth time in the past seven tournaments. Oregon is in its second straight Elite Eight. Gonzaga or Xavier will make its first trip to the Final Four. And those who were anxious to declare the Big Ten back after the league sent three teams to the Sweet 16 are now suspiciously quiet for some reason.
Here are my thoughts from the final Sweet 16 games.
1. I’m still trying to process the Florida–Wisconsin ending.
I gotta be honest: I initially thought that Chris Chiozza’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Florida’s 84–83 win over Wisconsin was actually just a shot to send the game to double overtime. I knew that Wisconsin was up by two, I saw that Chiozza’s foot was behind the 3-point line as he let the ball go, and Florida’s bench running onto the court to mob Chiozza afterward was a good indication of what had transpired. But my brain couldn’t comprehend what I saw. That’s not what a game-winning 3-pointer is supposed to look like when a team has to travel the entire length of the court in four seconds. If the ending to Thursday’s games taught us anything, it’s that Florida was supposed to run around aimlessly before settling for a 40-foot fadeaway hook shot at the buzzer. Now a guy was matter-of-factly sprinting toward the hoop, floating the ball in the air like he was attempting a runner from seven feet, and then getting rewarded for it? How is that even possible?
By the way, Wisconsin made two fatal mistakes toward the end of this game. The first was Zak Showalter pimping his own running 3 that sent the game into overtime (and appeared to almost send Gators head coach Mike White into a coma) with the Aaron Rodgers belt celebration directed at Rodgers himself. It was a hell of a shot and Showalter had every right to feel himself, but I firmly believe it’s bad juju to pimp a shot that is not a game winner. (Speaking of bad juju: Andy North cheering for Wisconsin over Florida, his alma mater, is incomprehensible and disgusts me to my core.)
The second, more direct mistake was putting Nigel Hayes on Chiozza for the final play, which was about as effective as having Hayes lay down at half court. Chiozza blew past him like he wasn’t even there. To be fair to Badgers head coach Greg Gard, point guard Bronson Koenig — who theoretically could have covered Chiozza — got hurt and was basically playing on one leg at that point. And if you told each coach before the game that Chiozza would decide the outcome by shooting a floater from the 3-point line, I’m guessing that Gard would have been ecstatic and White would have … well … probably just done his usual thing where he stares off into the distance like he’s trying to figure out why dogs never pee and poop at the same time.
Florida had the game locked up — thanks in large part to KeVaughn Allen’s 35-point performance — with about four minutes remaining in regulation, stopped playing, let Wisconsin back into it, and momentarily flirted with disaster. Then Showalter hit the shot to send it to overtime, Wisconsin took control for most of the extra period, and I thought that the outcome seemed settled. I was certain Florida’s final shot would either be a wild layup or a desperation heave, so when the end result was a combination of both and it somehow went in, my brain scattered and I stared at my TV in disbelief. It was such a heartbreaking way for Wisconsin’s seniors to end their careers, but it was also the best ending to any game in this tournament and a reminder of why this is the greatest sporting event in the world.
2. Butler never stood a chance against North Carolina.
That’s not quite true. Butler had a chance to upset the Tar Heels, but only if Friday’s game took on a very specific, ugly-as-the-2011-national-title-game kind of a vibe. The Bulldogs just don’t have the talent to hang with North Carolina, and their only hope of winning was to get back in transition and clog the paint on defense, hit a ton of 3s, hope Carolina was cold from deep, and try not to get obliterated on the boards. Butler failed at every one of those tasks, which explains why UNC’s 92–80 win was never in doubt.
3. I want to inject South Carolina’s defense into my veins.
When I played at Ohio State, we used to do a drill that I assume many programs around the country do as well. It’s basically playing four-on-five in favor of the offense. The offensive team had rules that prevented it from setting certain types of screens and that dictated how its players had to be positioned, and the drill essentially turned into the defense trying to stop one penetrate-and-kick sequence after another. If memory serves, we called it “scramble.” And even if that’s not what the drill was called, that’s how I’ll always remember it, because within two seconds of it starting, the defense would devolve into utter chaos. Picture the ball flying over the gym, from one open guy to the next, and four defenders running around like their nuts are on fire as they attempt to cover an impossible amount of ground.
In what should come as no surprise, the offense would often score on the shorthanded defense rather easily. But when the right combination of talent, athleticism, and chemistry were in those four defensive spots, a strange thing would happen: The defense would be so good that adding a fifth player to even things out somehow made it worse. And that was the point of the drill: Finding a group that could harness the chaos and use it to its benefit so that it didn’t even notice when it was down a man.
It’s a simple drill, but it hints at the kind of thing that separates a good defensive team from a bad one. Every team can stop any offense’s initial movement. The good defensive teams are the ones that can slide over to stop a drive, help the helper when the ball is kicked out, rotate accordingly, and then do that over and over and over during a single possession. In other words, the good defensive teams know how to harness the chaos.
That’s what South Carolina did against Baylor on Friday. The Gamecocks were TERRIFYING with their physicality and aggressiveness, flying all over the court in a 70–50 win. But it wasn’t just their activeness that made their defense suffocating. It’s that they played with reckless abandon … and then also rotated, helped each other, got back in position, closed out to challenge shots while cutting off penetration, disrupting passing lanes, and refraining from biting on shot fakes. Oh, and on top of that, they occasionally switched defenses, making it just as difficult to beat them mentally as it is physically.
It’s easy to make fun of Baylor for seemingly reenacting West Virginia’s final possession against Gonzaga every time it went down the floor. But at the same time, what was it supposed to do? This wasn’t the first time South Carolina made a decent offense look terrible and, at the rate it’s going, it doesn’t feel like it’ll be the last. If there’s such a thing as a defensive heat check, the Gamecocks have one going right now, which is why a national title suddenly feels plausible. So in light of South Carolina humiliating Baylor (but the Bears having a reasonable excuse given that the Gamecocks also gave Duke and Marquette’s offenses fits), a burning question lingers: Is Scott Drew a good coach?
4. De’Aaron Fox ate Lonzo Ball’s lunch.
Ball deserves a ton of credit for UCLA’s resurgence in 2016–17, and the Bruins offense this season was nothing short of extraordinary. But holy hell, did he ever disappoint against Kentucky on Friday. It wasn’t even that Ball played poorly in UCLA’s 86–75 loss, because he didn’t. He put up 10 points, eight assists, and three boards, which is in the range of what he averaged all year. Yet that’s precisely the problem. This game was always going to come down to Fox versus Ball, since they’re the two lottery pick point guards who can rip off a highlight at any given moment. Fox knew this, viewed this matchup as a personal challenge, and was out there to ATTACK from the second the ball was tipped. He could get anywhere he wanted on the court, while Ball, who clearly struggles to stop explosive guards, went with the it-can’t-be-considered-failure-if-I-don’t-actually-try approach.
That’s the most disappointing part of this. Ball is in the running to be the top pick in the NBA draft, and Markelle Fultz, the other front-runner to go no. 1, is watching (and subtweeting) the tourney from home. It would have been awesome to see Ball embrace the opportunity his matchup with Fox provided and attempt to remove all doubt that he’s the best NBA prospect in the 2017 class. I wanted so badly for him to put UCLA on his shoulders and go down swinging as he and Fox traded punches until the final whistle. Instead, Fox gave Ball the business for the second time this season by scoring 39 points (an NCAA tournament freshman record), Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight, and Ball took somewhere in the neighborhood of three seconds to declare for the NBA draft after the buzzer sounded.
5. Bam Adebayo was Kentucky’s unsung hero.
Hero might be a little strong, but you get the idea. Adebayo finished Friday with just four rebounds, and his only points came on a dunk with 3:20 left and the Cats already up by 11. But I’d caution against thinking that Adebayo was worthless when he was on the court, and would instead urge you to note that head coach John Calipari played him 37 minutes for a reason. Fox and Monk handled the scoring against UCLA, while Adebayo was perfect for the role that Kentucky needed him to play. Even if it felt like the Cats stopped feeding the post shortly after the first media timeout, Adebayo was still a workhorse all night, battling for position in the paint as he almost single-handedly fouled out Thomas Welsh. It’s not like Kentucky couldn’t have beaten the Bruins without Adebayo’s contributions (though he did lead the team with five assists), but there’s something to be said about his willingness to take a backseat, even in the Sweet 16, when necessary.
6. We need a “Finding Ashley Judd” podcast.
I’m not going to pretend like I keep tabs on what Kentucky’s most famous superfan is doing every time the Cats take the court, but I swear I haven’t seen Judd in the stands for a Kentucky NCAA tournament game since the 2015 Final Four travesty against Wisconsin. In fact, best I can tell, the only Kentucky games she’s been to since have taken place in Nashville, either at Vanderbilt or in the SEC tournament. Even assuming she’s been to more games than that, there’s no denying that the queen of Big Blue Nation isn’t as prevalent as she once was, and that has me worried. The simplest explanation is that Judd is outspoken and left-leaning with her politics, which doesn’t exactly play well in Kentucky, where almost two-thirds of voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
But does that have to mean trouble in paradise between Judd and the Cats? Kentucky has the most exciting and dynamic backcourt in college basketball and a legitimate shot at a national championship. If there’s ever a time for those gratuitous crowd shots of Judd that I can’t live without, it’s now. Bill Murray is doing his best to fill the void during the Xavier games, but it’s not quite the same. So can’t we figure this out? After all, I seem to remember a certain family telling me in the 1990s that reconciliation is always possible.
7. RIP to the dream of a title game featuring Cocks and Balls.
South Carolina took care of business against Baylor, but UCLA’s loss to Kentucky means Lonzo Ball will not play for a national title, nor will LaVar Ball be in the stands shouting nonsense to anyone within earshot. That means a potential Ball family matchup with the Gamecocks is off the table, and I think I speak for everyone when I say that’s a damn shame.