Some of the strongest contenders in the field were in action for the early Saturday games, and their performances told us a lot about their championship aspirations. Whether the questions were about Florida’s depth and dominance, Louisville’s struggles to score or Michigan getting bounced from the tournament, Saturday’s first three games revealed some important factors that shook up the championship puzzle.
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Florida Proves Mettle by Beating Pittsburgh, 61-45
Florida didn’t look like the No. 1 overall seed when it escaped with a 12-point win over 16th-seeded Albany. But the Gators eased any concerns about their championship potential with a convincing win over a tough Pittsburgh team.
The stingy Gators defense was on full display, as Pittsburgh struggled to generate any offense while being shackled to 37 percent shooting from the floor and coughing it up 11 times. That’s exactly what head coach Billy Donovan wants to see: his team locked in defensively and playing with intensity.
But the biggest takeaway was the brilliance of Scottie Wilbekin, as noted by CBSSports.com:
But Wilbekin was the story in this one.
He hit a running 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer and drained a back-breaking 3 with 8:24 remaining that gave Florida its largest lead at that point, 45-31. His consecutive floaters inside 5 minutes to play were equally troublesome for Pitt.
The Panthers, who seemed focused on Young inside and Frazier out, had no answer for Wilbekin's dribble penetration. Wilbekin was a force on the press, which helped force 11 turnovers. And when Pitt started getting tired in the second half, Wilbekin really started to dominate.
Wilbekin was unstoppable in this one, scoring 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting. But it was when he scored those points that was so important.
His three-pointer at the half-time buzzer gave the Gators some momentum and put them up five points heading into the break:
Later in the game, Pittsburgh was mounting a comeback and had cut the lead to eight. Then it turned into the Scottie Wilbekin show, as he scored four straight baskets—all late in the shot clock—to put the game out of reach.
Scottie Wilbekin is unbelievable in late-clock, late-game situations. Killer.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 22, 2014
The Gators have enough depth, size, defense and athleticism to pose problems for any team, but there are a few question marks on the offensive end. Florida can have difficulty scoring if it doesn’t get into transition at times, and the lack of perimeter shooting (25 percent from the three-point line in two tournament games) puts a lot of pressure on Wilbekin.
If he can continue to play at this level and create his own offense, the Gators should live up to their own expectations—as Patric Young told Dan Wolken of USA Today:
I enjoy that we're here, that we have an opportunity to continue to play, but I'm not going to be satisfied until we reach our goal. There's so much potential in this team and greatness within us that if we go out and play like we did against Albany and allow a team to just take it from us we're cutting ourselves short.
Unless Florida starts getting hot from outside, it may have trouble against a team like Syracuse with a zone that packs the paint, but stopping Wilbekin will be the key for any team that seeks to beat the Gators and prevent them from reaching their goal.
Louisville Outlasts Saint Louis in Grindhouse Slugfest
Just like it did against Manhattan, Louisville made fans uneasy by keeping the game close midway through the second half but eventually flipped the switch and pulled out the 66-51 victory.
The win showed us two things. First, it was yet another example of the Cardinals’ poise and ability to play their best basketball late in a close game. Second, it showed that Louisville can struggle to put the ball in the hoop—as evidenced by this terrifying statistic:
Louisville just ended a drought of 45 real time minutes (halftime a factor) between field goals.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 22, 2014
Rick Pitino’s team entered the tournament as the hottest team in the country after annihilating the competition in the conference tournament, but that hasn’t carried over to the NCAA tournament.
|Opponent||Field-Goal Percentage||Three-Point Percentage||Turnovers|
To be fair to Louisville, Saint Louis has one of the best defenses in the country, and the entire game was ugly—particularly in the first half:
Louisville and St. Louis now a combined 9-for-33 from the floor with 16 turnovers and 5 missed free throws. Cards lead 16-9.— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) March 22, 2014
But Louisville couldn’t take advantage of the Billikens’ horrific offensive performance, and that might hurt the club against a better all-around team like Wichita State, Arizona or Florida.
The Cardinals deserve plenty of credit for turning it on at the end, but they haven’t looked particularly convincing in either of their tournament games so far—and the level of competition is only going to pick up.
Michigan Has Enough Size to Win It All
There were serious questions facing the Michigan Wolverines after center Mitch McGary went down with a season-ending injury. With two relatively unproven centers now taking on relatively important roles, it was assumed that the Wolverines would struggle against teams with size.
That wasn't the case against Texas, as Jordan Morgan was one of the best players on the court en route to a stat line of 15 points and nine rebounds.
If size isn't a problem, what exactly will trouble the Wolverines on their quest to get back to the national championship game?
They boast one of the most talented starting fives in the country, and that depth was on display in the round of 32, as four players scored 14 or more points in the win.
The other thing working in head coach John Beilein's favor is Michigan's explosive three-point shooting. The Wolverines shot 50 percent from beyond the arc and made 14 threes, setting a school record in the process:
Everything is clicking right now, and if the duo of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford can continue to play so well, Michigan will be a tough out...for anyone.