In Thursday’s Sweet 16 action, Loyola-Chicago, Kansas State, and Florida State continued the theme of the first week of the NCAA Tournament as more surprising upsets happened.
The Sweet 16 got underway Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament for the South (Atlanta) and West regions (Los Angeles) and more chaos happened. By far, the best storyline of the night was the 11 seed in the South, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, continuing their magical tournament run with another upset run over the seven seed, the Nevada Wolfpack (69-68).
There will be more history in Atlanta as on Saturday night, it will be the first time that an 11 seed faces the nine seed after Kansas State shocked Kentucky, 61-58. Kentucky was seen as the big favorite heading into this week, but as this March has shown everybody, nothing is a sure thing.
Meanwhile, out West, another top team was sent home as the four seed, Gonzaga, was ousted in the Staples Center by another nine seed in Florida State, 75-60. The Seminoles will take on Michigan, who blew out Texas A&M, 99-72, in the only blowout of the night from start to finish.
Before the rest of the Sweet 16 matchups happen tonight, let’s look back at my takeaways from each of the four games from Thursday:
A New Hero Emerges for Loyola (Chicago)
There are many great things to like about this Ramblers squad that has now won 31 total games this season. But, my favorite thing about this team is that they find a new hero every night to save the day.
CINDERELLA DANCES ON!!!
Loyola Chicago is headed to the #Elite8#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/8r74B8yWgH
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
On Thursday night, that man was Marques Townes. The junior guard from New Jersey had a team-high 18 points and hit the game-winning three-pointer with 6.4 seconds left to secure the Sweet 16 win:
In the three games prior to the regional semifinal, Townes had scored a combined 19 points, so he was able to shine when the lights were the brightest. He was one of just three players to score in double figures, including the team’s leading scorer this year, Clayton Custer (15).
While the Ramblers got off to a slow start in the first half (down 20-8 with 13:36 left), Loyola stuck to their game plan of getting the ball in the paint and it paid off as they had 46 points in the paint for the game. Meanwhile, their great defense held Nevada to just four points for the remainder of the half.
While Nevada got down 12 in the second half, they did what they have done best in this tournament and that is mounting comebacks. Caleb and Cody Martin combined for 36 points and Jordan Caroline was able to get to the basket early in the game and he finished with 19 points as well.
The problem for Nevada at the end of the game was Loyola-Chicago being able to make the extra pass to set up shots. Plus, the Wolfpack had two fouls to give with 36 seconds left and a one-point deficit, but they elected to let the clock run all the way down. That strategy came back to the Wolfpack and they are now heading home.
With a defense that continues to hold opponents in the 60’s in terms of points, why can’t Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean continue this run all the way to the Final Four? They certainly have the belief and the ability to make clutch shots. Plus, Kansas State isn’t a team that puts up a lot of points, so that might help the Ramblers.
Michigan Shakes Off Rust Against Texas A&M
Michigan’s offense struggled to find any rhythm in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament. Some might contribute that to having to wait two weeks to play a game due to the Big Ten Tournament being so early. Well, it appears the rust is gone and the Wolverines once again look like a title favorite.
On Thursday night, Michigan got off to a 22-8 lead in the first 8:30 of the game and they did not look back. Four of their starters scored in double figures, but two starters finding their form could be a key if Michigan advances to San Antonio.
The Wolverines’ point guard, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had 24 points. That is the most points he has scored in a game since January 25 against Purdue (26). As for their frontcourt, Moritz Wagner was 8-for-12 from the floor and he had 21 points.
The key for Michigan in this game was that they were able to get to the basket at will and kick the ball out to open three-point shooters. In fact, eight different players on the Wolverines hit a trifecta in the blowout win (14-for-24 as a team).
While Texas A&M did get 36 combined points down low from Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, they only made three of their 15 three-pointers. That was not a recipe for a win for Billy Kennedy’s squad since they want to use their size to avoid playing from behind.
While Villanova and Duke should be the favorites to cut down the nets, Michigan is a team that no one wants to play right now, especially when they are clicking on all cylinders like they were Thursday night.
Kansas State Weathers The Storm Against Kentucky
This matchup between the two schools nicknamed Wildcats featured a whole lot of fouls. In total, there were 51 fouls called, including 30 of them on Kansas State. They had two of their big men foul out down the stretch as well as their leading scorer of the night in Xavier Sneed (22 points). But, that didn’t stop Bruce Weber’s squad.
After a great timeout call by Cartier Diarra, Kansas State got the ball in the hands of Barry Brown with the game tied at 58 and he took it right to the basket for what ended up being the game-winning layup:
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!
K-STATE TAKES THE LEAD! #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/ecgUPeMb5p
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
Right out of the gate, Kansas State jumped out to a 13-1 lead. Even though Kentucky continued to fight back and had moments where it looked like where they were going to pull away, Kansas State would always answer and Sneed was a big part of that.
Sneed, who only averaged 10.7 points per game during the regular season, scored over 20 points in a game for just the fourth time this year and the first time January 1 against West Virginia (20). His five three-pointers also tied a season-high (February 3 against West Virginia).
As for Kentucky, their size played a big part in them getting back into the game, but they had 15 turnovers and they will look back at all the missed free throws that they had. In particular, forward PJ Washington had a double-double (18 points, 15 rebounds), but he went 8-for-20 at the free throw line. As a team, they were 23-for-37 from the charity stripe (62.2 percent).
So, while the South region was nicknamed the Kentucky Invitational by many, this is an opportunity that John Calipari and his team let slip away. Meanwhile, for Kansas State, they now will take on their second mid-major team of the tournament with a chance for the Final Four. If Dean Wade‘s foot continues to heal, it will give them another scoring threat heading into the Elite Eight.
Florida State Wears Down Gonzaga With Depth
Before this game even got underway, Gonzaga was already in trouble when they lost one of their key players. Their second leading scorer, sophomore forward Killian Tillie, had to miss the game due to a hip injury:
Gonzaga’s Killien Tillie not playing. Reaggravated hip injury from practice
— Dana Jacobson (@danajacobson) March 23, 2018
Without Tillie, Gonzaga struggled to find a flow on offense and Florida State took advantage of that. In the first half, the Bulldogs only had two assists and they made just one of their ten attempted trifectas.
Meanwhile, Florida State got a lot of production from their bench in this game and that paid huge dividends. Their six players off the bench combined for 30 points and 19 rebounds. Plus, they continued to bring in big man after big man to make driving to the basket difficult for the ‘Zags.
One of those big men was freshman forward Mfiondu Kabengele. Kabengele had four of the team’s nine blocks on the night. Before Thursday night, the best games of his career in terms of blocks were the two times he had three against Miami (January 7) and Oklahoma State (December 16).
Florida State may have had only one player score over double figures, but their ball movement was key in this game. The Seminoles had 19 assists and it helped them shoot 46.6 percent. Terance Mann had 12 of his 18 points in the second half.
So, a Florida State-Michigan matchup is usually something you see in a January bowl game. Now, we get it in March at the STAPLES Center where one team has a chance to punch their ticket to the Final Four. Leonard Hamilton’s team may not have a superstar, but their depth and defense have helped them get to this point.