NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Monday's Round 2 Winners and LosersMarch 23, 2021
NCAA Men's Tournament 2021: Monday's Round 2 Winners and Losers
After a Sunday of pure madness that turned the 2021 men's NCAA tournament bracket on its head, the second half of the second round was quite tame.
The day did begin with a significant upset. No. 7 seed Oregon knocked off No. 2 seed Iowa in convincing fashion, eliminating hope of getting an Elite Eight repeat of the Gonzaga-Iowa showdown from mid-December.
With the way this tournament has been going for the Big Ten and Pac-12—and with the way Oregon has been playing since early February—that barely even felt like an upset, though. And our Monday was mostly filled with chalk after that.
"Chalk" doesn't necessarily mean "boring." Michigan-LSU was super entertaining. Gonzaga is always a delight to watch. And how about a day in which both Creighton and Mick Cronin got into the Sweet 16?
These are the biggest winners and losers from the second half of the second round.
Winner: Oregon's Positionless Offensive Assault
Heading into the second-round matchup between Iowa and Oregon, I wondered how the Ducks planned to slow down Luka Garza. That has been a major issue for every Hawkeyes opponent for the past two seasons, but it seemed especially problematic for an Oregon squad that doesn't start anyone taller than 6'6". As expected, Garza had a field day, finishing with 36 points and nine rebounds.
While Garza did his thing, though, so did Oregon's onslaught of 6'5" and 6'6" wings for a 95-80 victory.
Eugene Omoruyi, Chris Duarte, LJ Figueroa and Will Richardson each shot better than 50 percent from the field, each scored at least 17 points and each had at least 11 combined rebounds, assists and steals. (Eric Williams Jr. was unable to join that club on Monday, but he has been a key starter for the Ducks, too.)
We've theorized for years about what an NBA lineup made up of five copies of Steph Curry or LeBron James would be able to do, but now Oregon has become a serious threat to reach the Final Four because it is almost constantly on the positive end of a mismatch with five similarly sized guys capable of doing a little bit of everything.
Iowa had improved drastically on the defensive end in recent weeks, limiting its previous 12 opponents to 67.3 points per game. However, the Hawkeyes were rendered helpless against an Oregon starting five where everyone averages at least 1.4 made triples per game at a clip above 35 percent. Oregon's ability to spread the floor and hurt you from anywhere is at 2018 Villanova levels.
At this point, you're probably wondering, "If the Ducks are so great, how in the world did they end up with a No. 7 seed?"
The simple answer is injuries and COVID-19 pauses/absences. Richardson didn't play his first game until early February. In bad home losses to Oregon State and Washington State, Oregon was fresh off a lengthy COVID-19 pause and wasn't anywhere close to full strength.
With the current starting five intact, though, this felt like a top-10 team late in the year. Of all the Pac-12's incredible stories in the tournament's opening weekend, this is the one most likely to still be a factor in the Final Four.
Loser: Iowa's Starting Backcourt
Iowa had one of the most efficient offenses all season, and it wasn't just Luka Garza. In fact, the Hawkeyes were better along the perimeter than they were in the paint, ranking among the nation's best in assist rate, turnover percentage and three-point percentage.
At the heart of that perimeter attack were Jordan Bohannon (10.9 PPG, 39.4 3P%, 4.4 APG), CJ Fredrick (7.8 PPG, 48.6 3P%, 2.0 APG) and Connor McCaffery (3.4 PPG, 3.7 APG, 4.0 A/TO).
Against a bigger and stronger Oregon backcourt, though, those Hawkeyes were completely shut out. The trio combined for zero points on eight field-goal attempts and had just four assists and three turnovers.
They usually combine for 77.7 minutes per game, but they only played 44 in this one, as Fran McCaffery frantically tried to find anything other than Garza and Joe Wieskamp that would work on either end of the floor.
The funny thing is the offense got along just fine in spite of the goose egg from three of the five starters. Iowa still managed to score 80 points, just 3.8 below its season average.
What Iowa couldn't survive was the backcourt's helplessness on defense. Oregon's slashers got deep into the lane any time they wanted to, and the Ducks shot 44.0 percent from deep when they decided to settle for those open looks.
As far as seeding and AP polls are concerned, this was the best Iowa team since 1987. But despite a Herculean effort from Garza, this will be the 21st consecutive Sweet 16 without the Hawkeyes.
Winner: The Dream National Championship Pairing
This tournament has been complete and utter chaos. As I write this section with six second-round games yet to be played, there's a good chance that the summation of seeds in the Sweet 16 will be the largest in tournament history.
But at least both of the season-long favorites have made it into the second weekend, and without much difficulty, I might add.
Baylor took care of Wisconsin by a 13-point margin yesterday, and now Gonzaga has advanced to the Sweet 16 with a sweet 16-point victory over Oklahoma that wasn't close at any point in the final 24 minutes.
Oklahoma came out blistering hot, scoring 17 points in the first four minutes and some change.
Gonzaga barely blinked. Less than three minutes later, the game was knotted up at 19-19. By halftime, it was basically over.
What else is new? Gonzaga's offense is a battering ram that can't be stopped. The Zags finished with 87 points in this one, and that actually reduced their scoring average from 92.3 to 92.1 points per game.
Big man Drew Timme had 30 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs each went for 16 points. Joel Ayayi added 12 points and eight rebounds.
As long as that quartet stays healthy and out of foul trouble, it feels like Baylor is the only team capable of truly giving Gonzaga a run for its money. And even if we get that national championship matchup we've been desperately waiting for all year, the Zags are probably going to be a significant favorite.
Baby steps, though. This tournament has been a minefield, and Baylor and Gonzaga are only 40 percent of the way to that dream.
Loser: Abilene Christian's Turnover Efforts Against UCLA
Abilene Christian had the best turnover-forcing defense in the country this season. That strength was on full display in the first-round upset of Texas, in which the Longhorns made 18 field goals and committed 23 turnovers.
According to Abilene Christian's game log on Sports Reference, it was the 11th time this season the Wildcats had more forced turnovers than allowed field goals, as well as the 24th time in 28 games that they forced at least 15 turnovers.
Against UCLA, though, that wasn't happening—one of the few things about this tournament that was actually predictable.
The Bruins did a fantastic job of avoiding giveaways all season. They only once committed more than 15 turnovers in a game, and that happened in an overtime affair with Arizona State's loaded backcourt. In their first-round win over BYU, the Bruins allowed just one steal, and point guard Tyger Campbell committed no turnovers.
It was a similar story Monday night against Abilene Christian.
UCLA only committed three turnovers in the first 26 minutes of the game. It ended up giving the ball away eight times in all, but after those first 26 minutes, the score was 47-25 and it didn't really matter anymore. The only turnover Campbell committed was an offensive foul with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
To make matters worse, ACU couldn't buy a bucket on offense. The Wildcats scored 12 points in the first five minutes and then were held to 10 points for the next 20 minutes. This was a solid three-point shooting team during the regular season, but that element of their game never made it to Indiana.
Winner: Mick Cronin, UCLA
With the exception of Sean Miller's apparent inability to reach a Final Four, few coaches have been more maligned for postseason failures than Mick Cronin.
During his 13-year run as the head coach of Cincinnati, the Bearcats went to the NCAA tournament nine times and made it to the Sweet 16 just once, in 2012.
That was the only year that they won a game against a better-seeded team, upsetting Florida State in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 second-round game. Conversely, the Bearcats lost three times to worse-seeded teams. The most disappointing of those came in 2018, when the No. 2-seeded Bearcats blew a 22-point second-half lead in a loss to No. 7 seed Nevada.
Because of that, a lot of people laughed when UCLA brought in Cronin to replace Steve Alford, who was fired in the middle of the 2018-19 season despite leading the Bruins to the Sweet 16 in three of the previous five seasons. It was as if their solution to always losing in the Sweet 16 was to simply not get there in the first place.
But who's laughing now?
After a come-from-behind, overtime win over Michigan State in the First Four, Cronin has coached UCLA to back-to-back victories by double digits over BYU and Abilene Christian.
If the Bruins can get one more win, it would be their first Elite Eight appearance since 2008 and the first of Cronin's career.
Even if they fall short of that, though, what a remarkable job Cronin has done to get this team this far, considering they lost primary big man, Chris Smith, to injury after just eight games and lost another key big man, Jalen Hill, when he left the team in early February.
Loser: Creighton's Sweet 16 Drought
While it would have been a lot of fun to watch Jason Preston and Ohio try to Cinderella their way past mighty Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, it's equally fun to see Creighton making it into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1974.
That drought hasn't been for lack of opportunity. The Bluejays had been in 17 of the past 45 NCAA tournaments, oftentimes as a single-digit seed. They've just had terrible luck in the dance, going 6-17 overall in those appearances.
The one time they actually should have gotten there in terms of seeding, Doug McDermott and Co. lost by 30 to Baylor in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
It was starting to feel like Creighton would never play in a second weekend again.
But after just barely surviving in comeback fashion in the first round against UC Santa Barbara, the Bluejays ran away from the upset-minded Bobcats.
It was a good back-and-forth game for the first 14-plus minutes, but Creighton closed out the first half on a 16-2 run. From there, Ohio was never able to close the gap to fewer than nine points. That plus-14 first-half run proved to be the exact difference in a 72-58 final score.
Preston never got going for Ohio. The Bobcats' triple-double threat shot just 1-of-10 from the field and finished the night with four points and four turnovers. Meanwhile, all five of Creighton's starters finished in double figures, led by 20 points from Marcus Zegarowski.
Now that the Sweet 16 drought is over, could Creighton make it to an Elite Eight for the first time in program history?
I'll certainly be picking Gonzaga, but back in early February, I dug into some data to get a sense of which teams could realistically knock off Gonzaga or Baylor. The three biggest threats to Gonzaga were Michigan, Illinois...and Creighton.
Winner: The Michigan vs. LSU Game
The referees marred the viewing experience a good bit with some terrible calls on both ends of the floor in the final 10 minutes, but No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 8 LSU was one hell of an entertaining ballgame.
LSU set the tone early, scoring eight points in the span of one minute while jumping out to an 8-2 lead. The Tigers then led by a margin of 3-9 points for more than 14 minutes, keeping Michigan at bay, but never pulling away in a defense-optional affair.
By the under-four media timeout, it was 40-38, meaning this game was on pace for something similar to that sensational 92-87 regular-season matchup between Michigan and Ohio State from a few weeks ago.
Then the second half was just one run after another, as two super-efficient offenses exchanged haymakers.
LSU went on an 8-0 run first. Michigan immediately responded with 10 unanswered points. After that, straight into a 12-3 streak in LSU's favor. And then it was a 9-0 Michigan spurt.
All told, it merely turned a 45-43 Michigan lead into a 67-63 Michigan lead, but it was an invigorating 10-minute stretch of great basketball. And after the day started with four consecutive games decided by at least 14 points, this do-si-do felt extra special.
With help from a downright horrendous offensive foul call against LSU's Cameron Thomas that erased what would have been an and-1 bucket to trim the Wolverines lead to three, Michigan somewhat cruised to victory from there, winning by a final score of 86-78.
Thomas finished with 30 points. Javonte Smart added 27 with nine rebounds and six assists. But Michigan's Chaundee Brown Jr. had 21 points off the bench and was the difference in this one.
For the Wolverines, it's a fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. And for the Big Ten, it finally got a team into the 2021 Sweet 16. (Though, best of luck getting the league's other 13 fanbases to root for Michigan for any reason ever.)
Loser: The Pac-12 for the First Time
What a run it has been for the conference that has been at the butt end of all major-conference jokes in both football and men's college basketball for the past few years.
The Pac-12 didn't get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Nor did it receive a No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 seed. That means no team from that league was "supposed" to get into the Sweet 16.
Nevertheless, No. 12 seed Oregon State, No. 7 seed Oregon and No. 11 seed UCLA all advanced to the second weekend during the Pac-12's 8-0 start to the tournament. (9-0 if you want to count Oregon's no-contest "victory" over VCU in the first round.)
But on Monday night—with the Big Ten and Big 12 already down to just four of their original 16 tournament teams—the Pac-12 finally tasted defeat for the first time in this dance.
The final score of Florida State's 71-53 victory over Colorado doesn't come close to telling the full story.
For the first 28 minutes, this was a defensive war with constant substitutions that made it feel like hockey on hardwood. Both coaches went deep into their benches in a game that was 36-35 at the under-12 timeout in the second half.
But then "81-60 Win Over Virginia" Florida State showed up and completely took over.
Excluding the final minute of the game in which no points were scored by either team, Florida State committed two turnovers and Colorado grabbed three defensive rebounds during the next 11 minutes. Aside from that, the Seminoles scored on every possession, turning 36 points into 71 in what felt like a heartbeat. They simply wore out the Buffaloes and then kicked them while they were down.
Great news for the Pac-12, though: USC got the league back on the right track by destroying Kansas in the nightcap. Four of the conference's five teams in the tournament are now into the Sweet 16.
Winner: The Re-Emergence of "January Alabama"
On Jan. 11, Alabama's football team won its umpteenth national championship.
The next day, the men's basketball team turned into a three-point shooting juggernaut.
That was the start of a four-game stretch in which the Crimson Tide shot 66-of-143 from downtown. That's right. Sixty-six three-pointers in four games. That's 16.5 per game. They would later add an 18-of-30 fireworks show in mid-February against Georgia.
It was a classic case of: If that team shows up in March, you might as well start stitching the Final Four banner now. (It will be Alabama's first Final Four appearance ever if it happens.)
Over the past nine games, though, we hadn't seen that Alabama. It was still an extremely good Alabama led by an efficient defense, but the Crimson Tide entered Monday night's matchup with No. 10 seed Maryland having made just 85 of their last 273 (31.1 percent) three-point attempts. In the first round against Iona, Alabama had one of its worst perimeter games of the season, shooting 5-of-16.
But against Maryland, the Crimson Tide delivered some bad news to the other 15 teams still in this tournament: That Alabama is back.
Jaden Shackelford, John Petty Jr., Jahvon Quinerly, Joshua Primo and Alex Reese each made multiple three-pointers as Alabama went 16-of-33 from distance in a 96-77 rout of the Terrapins.
Maryland actually struck first, leading 18-12 seven minutes into the game. But there were several stretches during which Alabama could not miss. The Tide reeled off 13 points in the span of five possessions midway through the first half and then one-upped themselves with 14 points in five possessions early in the second half.
Maryland fans obviously weren't amused, but it was laughable how quickly Alabama turned a deficit into a lead—and then a lead into a blowout. Peak Alabama is a terror and definitely the team best equipped to knock off Gonzaga.
Loser: Kansas Jayhawks
Having watched Kansas' defense get absolutely dump-trucked on multiple occasions this season, I never quite understood how or why KenPom had the Jayhawks' adjusted defensive efficiency just outside the top 10 in the country.
Gonzaga crushed them. Texas crushed them. Pre-COVID-19-layoff Baylor crushed them. West Virginia crushed them. Even Tennessee lit up Kansas for 80 points directly in between 56- and 50-point efforts by that often-atrocious offense.
And now we can add USC to the list of teams that obliterated Bill Self's defense.
It didn't help matters that Kansas only made one bucket in the first seven-and-a-half minutes, but it wasn't going to matter Monday night. This was a rout from start to finish with USC shooting 11-of-18 from three-point range in an 85-51 blowout.
In fairness to the Jayhawks, they picked the wrong team to face with uncertainty in the frontcourt.
Jalen Wilson just flew into Indianapolis on Monday morning after missing KU's first game due to COVID-19 protocol. Fellow big man David McCormack missed the Big 12 tournament game against Oklahoma and played just 25 minutes off the bench against Eastern Washington on Saturday.
In the Feb. 27 win over Baylor, that duo combined for 27 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks. Against USC, they combined for seven points, four rebounds and one block. Clearly, they were not operating at anything close to full capacity.
That was bad news bears against a Trojans team that ranks second in the nation in average height. Brothers Evan and Isaiah Mobley went for 27 points, 21 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks. Throw in Drew Peterson's eight rebounds and Isaiah White's 13 points and even full strength Kansas would've had a tough time slowing down all those 6'7" or taller guys.
The Pac-12 is now guaranteed a spot in the Elite Eight as it'll be USC vs. Oregon on Sunday for the right to face Gonzaga or Creighton.