March Madness 2014: Analysis of Top Storylines Through 3rd-Round Day 1

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March Madness 2014: Analysis of Top Storylines Through 3rd-Round Day 1
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There wasn't quite as much madness during Friday's opening third-round action of the 2014 NCAA tournament, but plenty of brackets have been busted already thanks to a plethora of upsets. Even some of the underdogs that lost put up valiant fights to stay alive, resulting in a ton of games coming down to the wire.

A number of surprises have happened thus far, but the most notable team to secure a berth in the Sweet 16 is Dayton, a mid-major Atlantic 10 squad who knocked off Ohio State and Syracuse by a total of three points. No stranger to close games, just three of the Flyers' 10 losses this season came by double digits.

All of last year's Final Four remain in the tournament save for the Orange, and those teams have shown their might in the early going. Let's take a look at all the bracket essentials, along with a closer examination of the storylines defining the Big Dance.

 

All Your Bracket Essentials

 

Dayton Flies High to Sweet 16

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Talk about a survival story. Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft nearly put in an epic buzzer-beater to topple the Flyers in Round 2, and Dayton dodged another bullet when Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis' three-pointer went off the back iron as time expired on Friday.

Coach Archie Miller talked about the synergy his squad has afterward and was thankful Ennis didn't abruptly end the Flyers' NCAA tourney dreams.

"That's about as-together a group as you're gonna find," said Miller, per CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander. "If you're going to beat Syracuse in here, you'll need a little bit of luck. Fortunately that last one didn't go in."

It's one thing for bracketologists to push a Cinderella sensation to the round of 32, because just about anything can happen in one game. Bleacher Report noted how few foresaw Dayton dooming the Orange and reaching the Sweet 16:

Dan Wolken of USA Today felt that both the Buckeyes and Syracuse were rather tenuous higher seeds that could be had, and gave credit to the Flyers for capitalizing on the situation in the South region:

Anything Dayton does from here is gravy, but there's reason to believe it could push all the way to the Elite Eight. No matter who wins Saturday's Stanford-Kansas matchup, either will have its hands full with the Flyers.

Winning two tight games against apparently better squads had to have bolstered Dayton's confidence, and its defense has been as good as any team in the tournament. The Jayhawks have been without star big man Joel Embiid, and the Cardinal have been inconsistent all season long.

Don't be surprised if the Flyers' phenomenal run continues regardless of who they face in their next contest.

 

Upset Central and Overtime Bonanza in Round of 64

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The craziest development on the round of 64's second day came when No. 14 seed Mercer knocked off perennial powerhouse Duke 78-71 in Round 2.

With many games needing extra time to decide a victor, such wasn't the case for the Bears, who played mostly just six in their rotation but outscored the Blue Devils by eight in the second half. That shows Mercer isn't likely to run out of gas, and it has a shot at advancing to the Sweet 16 Sunday with a win over 11th-seeded Tennessee.

The Volunteers are a mini-Cinderella story in their own right, needing to knock off Iowa in a First Four game just to earn the opportunity to take on UMass, whom they crushed 86-67 in Round 2.

Although the East's No. 12 Harvard fell short in its rallying bid to Michigan State on Saturday, head coach Tommy Amaker guided the Crimson to a second straight round of 32 berth. Amaker is clearly building a strong foundation at the prestigious academic institution.

Three of four 12th seeds actually advanced, with Stephen F. Austin staging a rousing comeback versus VCU and North Dakota State topping Oklahoma in an overtime thriller.

San Diego State needed overtime to knock off No. 13 New Mexico State, too, but disposed of the Bison 63-44 in Round 3. The Lumberjacks will put a 32-2 record on the line against UCLA.

Saint Louis was the only fifth seed to win, yet it also needed overtime and a bizarre fouling strategy to storm back and sneak past North Carolina State. The fact that Saint Joseph's pushed Connecticut to extra time was impressive, considering the Huskies dominated No. 2 Villanova 77-65 to lock up a Sweet 16 berth.

Talk about a whirlwind. This just goes to show how unpredictable the NCAA tournament can be, and also that there is a lot of parity in college basketball.

 

Reigning Final Four Teams Staying Strong, Seeking to Stop Florida

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Other than Syracuse's stunning loss to Dayton, three of last year's national semifinalists are alive and have bull's-eyes on their backs for various reasons.

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But first, let's turn to the prohibitive tourney favorites. Florida and point guard Scottie Wilbekin are beckoning any challengers to try to topple them as the prohibitive tourney favorites. The Louisville Cardinals are defending national champions and could have a rematch of last year's title game against Michigan in the Elite Eight.

Then there's Wichita State, who backed up last year's Cinderella run with an undefeated record and are in action Sunday against the young but talented Kentucky Wildcats.

The Gators, Cardinals and Wolverines hit the hardwood with fervor on Saturday, winning their games by double digits. It's going to be hard for opponents to deny the Gators, who have four key seniors and have been eliminated in the Elite Eight in each of the past three years.

Head coach Billy Donovan has done a masterful job coaching Florida down the stretch, first to an 18-0 record in the SEC, then winning the conference tournament and turning back Pittsburgh 61-45 in the round of 32.

As dangerous as the Gators are across the board on offense, they also play hard-nosed and physical on the other end of the court, thanks to Donovan's tutelage. ESPN's Dick Vitale praised Florida's defensive effort versus the Panthers:

Louisville drew a tough 13-seed in Manhattan in the round of 64, as Cardinals coach Rick Pitino was facing one of his former assistants in Steve Masiello, whose style and schemes are extremely similar. Saint Louis was on deck, but a suffocating defensive effort held the Billikens to 16 first-half points.

Count on the Cardinals advancing at least once from here, too, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Michigan may not have Trey Burke as the catalyst for its offense anymore, but Nik Stauskas has stepped up and filled the void, boosting the Wolverines through Round 3 as the leader of a balanced bunch of contributors.

The Shockers have their hands full with Kentucky on Sunday. Although there is an experienced nucleus on Wichita State's side, there's also a ton of pressure to preserve its perfect record and to knock off the inconsistent Wildcats, who are composed of a sensational freshman class that hasn't put it all together yet.

Drawing the Midwest region was about the worst the Shockers could have hoped for as a reward for their sensational regular season. A date with Louisville looms in the Sweet 16, and with Pitino's amazing record at that juncture of the tournament, something has to give.

The fact that Wichita State shares a region with the Cardinals and Wolverines will make that cluster of the bracket the most captivating to watch in the days to come. Whoever emerges from this region has a good chance at meeting the Gators in the national championship and will be battle-tested well enough to win the ultimate prize if it comes to that.

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