NCAA Tournament 2022: Thursday's Sweet 16 Winners and LosersMarch 25, 2022
NCAA Tournament 2022: Thursday's Sweet 16 Winners and Losers
Thursday night of the men's Sweet 16 was expected to be three great games plus Gonzaga somewhat comfortably beating Arkansas.
However, someone forgot to tell the Razorbacks that they were supposed to lose.
Or, rather, too many people told the Razorbacks, as head coach Eric Musselman thanked all of us for the bulletin board material that motivated the Hogs to pull off the major upset.
And they weren't the only former Southwest Conference team to topple a No. 1 seed on Thursday.
In addition to Arkansas getting back to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, here are the biggest winners and losers from the first night of the Sweet 16.
Winner: Arkansas' First-Half Strategy vs. Gonzaga
Arkansas does not shoot well, especially from three-point range. As such, a game played in the 70s or 80s against Gonzaga was not going to be a winning formula.
So what did Arkansas do in the first half against the favorites to win it all?
It mucked the game up.
That doesn't mean the Hogs turned it into a foul fest. In fact, there were only five free throws attempted in the first 20 minutes. But they walked the ball up the court, they got back in transition, they crowded the paint and dared the Zags to let someone other than Drew Timme (eight points on six field-goal attempts) beat them and they were aggressive on defense, forcing nine turnovers.
JD Notae and Co. also wisely drove the ball straight at Chet Holmgren in the paint, hoping to get Gonzaga's big shot-blocking presence into foul trouble. And it worked to perfection. Holmgren had just one block, no points and two fouls by halftime, forced to sit out the final eight minutes to avoid a third whistle.
It was just about the perfect blueprint for slowing down Gonzaga, and it resulted in a 32-29 Arkansas lead at the intermission.
It also set them up beautifully to survive (and, critically, believe they could survive) a second half in which Timme and Holmgren inevitably got rolling with 28 points.
Loser: A No. 1 Seed Against Arkansas for the First Time Ever
Arkansas entered the night with a 47-33 all-time record in the NCAA tournament, including a national championship in 1994 and five other trips to the Final Four.
Against No. 1 seeds, though, the Razorbacks were 0-10, including an Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion Baylor just one year ago.
That ill-fated history didn't keep them from drawing up the perfect plan for beating Gonzaga.
Drew Timme ended up with 25 points, but he was smothered in the paint all night long, had to work for every bucket and committed five turnovers en route to that point total.
Chet Holmgren managed to finish the night with 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, but he was limited by (debatable) foul trouble and didn't have anywhere near his usual impact in the defensive paint.
Most pivotal, though, was the way Arkansas scrapped and clawed at Gonzaga's backcourt. The Hogs gobbled up lackadaisical passes for pick-twos and never let any of the Zags' guards get comfortable anywhere on the floor. Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther shot a combined 8-of-30 from the field with four assists and six turnovers.
JD Notae (9-of-29, six assists, five turnovers) wasn't much more efficient than Gonzaga's guards, but he did have three steals and two blocks and just seemed to be everywhere on the floor.
"We're not always cosmetically pleasing offensively, but we win." an ecstatic Eric Musselman told Tracy Wolfson after his team's 74-68 victory.
Winner: Villanova Wildcats, in Spite of a Tough Shooting Night
At some point in our litany of Sweet 16 preview content, I noted that Villanova has gone 157-10 since the beginning of the 2013-14 season when shooting at least 35.0 percent from three-point range. The Wildcats do still have a winning record (106-42) when held below that mark, but it's much less of a sure thing.
And in the South regional semifinal against Michigan, it was one of those nights in which the shots weren't falling. Collin Gillespie drained four triples and Justin Moore added three, but the Wildcats went just 9-30 (30.0 percent) overall from three-point range, managing a total of just 63 points.
However, as was the case on an off night against Kansas in the 2016 Elite Eight (4-of-22) and against Texas Tech in the 2018 Elite Eight (4-of-18), Villanova won the game on the defensive end of the floor, holding Michigan to just 55 points.
In many ways, the Wolverines held themselves to 55 points. The Athletic's Brendan Quinn tweeted late in the second half that the Wolverines were 12-of-25 on dunks and layups, which is just unforgivable against an undersized Villanova team. Michigan also settled for quite a few mid-range jumpers, none of which went in until Eli Brooks hit a meaningless one with less than 10 seconds remaining. Michigan also shot 50 percent from the charity stripe.
But despite its lack of size, Villanova held its own on the glass (minus-3) and was just generally the peskier team in a game with limited fouls called.
Loser: The Lone Team That Wasn't "Supposed" to Be Here
The West Region was the only one to hold to form through the first two rounds, pitting No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Arkansas, as well as No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Texas Tech. The Midwest Region was also pretty chalky with No. 1 Arizona facing an under-seeded No. 5 Houston in one matchup with No. 2 Villanova as the favorite in the other.
The lone exception to the rule was No. 11 Michigan.
It definitely wasn't a Cinderella story. You could barely even call the Wolverines a sleeper, considering they opened the year at No. 6 in the AP poll and had beaten each of Purdue, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Rutgers in the final month of the regular season. But if any team playing on Thursday/Saturday was going to be considered a major surprise if it reached the Final Four, it was the double-digit seed.
However, for the third time in the past five tournaments, the Wolverines were sent packing in the Sweet 16 in a disappointing offensive performance.
This year's 63-55 loss to Villanova wasn't anywhere near as embarrassing as the 62-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019, but save for a four-minute spurt late in the first half, the Wolverines—who had averaged 76.9 points in their last seven games—were unable to get into any sort of rhythm against the Wildcats.
Now, it's Purdue or bust for the Big Ten, and it's up to the East and Midwest regions to send a surprise to New Orleans.
Winner: Duke's Shooting Down the Stretch
Over the course of the regular season, we saw plenty of teams simply run out of gas late in the game against an extremely physical Texas Tech defense.
But even with unleaded pushing $6 per gallon in San Francisco, Duke somehow had enough left in the tank to shoot the lights out over the final eight-and-a-half minutes.
It started with a Paolo Banchero triple with the Blue Devils trailing 56-52. Then it was a Wendell Moore Jr. and-1 layup. Banchero put one in the next trip down the floor and then fed Mark Williams for a dunk that nearly broke the internet a minute later. Then in the final four minutes, a massive Banchero three was surrounded by three Jeremy Roach buckets.
All in all, Duke shot 8-of-8 from the field and 8-of-10 from the free-throw line down the stretch, scoring 26 points in the span of 15 possessions (1.73 PPP) for a 78-73 win against a Texas Tech team that entered the night at No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.
In addition to the moment when Duke decided it wasn't going to miss any more shots, switching to the 2-3 zone defense midway through the second half was also a big turning point. The Red Raiders fared surprisingly well against it after looking shocked by it for the first two possessions. But Mike Krzyzewski basically dared Texas Tech to beat him with its unreliable three-point stroke, and it didn't happen.
Get ready to see some more of that zone Saturday, too. Arkansas barely shoots 30 percent from three-point range on the season.
Loser: Arizona Trying to Accomplish Anything Against Houston's Defense
In both of the late games, it was an extremely talented higher-seeded team going up against an aggressive, physical, stingy defense.
Duke figured out how to handle that defense and managed to play a rather free-flowing game with just 26 total fouls and 18 total turnovers.
Arizona was considerably less fortunate in a slop fest against Houston that featured 40 fouls and 26 turnovers.
Playing on a badly sprained ankle, Kerr Kriisa didn't look any better in this game (1-of-7 from three, one assist, two turnovers) than he did the other night against TCU (1-of-10 from three, one assist, two turnovers). And, to put it lightly, you don't want to be facing Houston with a starting point guard who is at less than 100 percent.
In addition to Kriisa's woes, Azuolas Tubelis could not buy a bucket, finishing 0-of-8 from the field with four turnovers. Arizona's power forward scored at least 14 points in each of his nine games played in February, but he struggled against TCU and had by far his worst game of the season in this one.
Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko also struggled with the Cougars' swarming defense as Arizona just looked out of sync all night long.
The Wildcats were 3-of-14 on two-point attempts in the first half (finished 11-of-32) and got out-rebounded for the second game in a row. I didn't expect them to win this tournament, but I certainly didn't expect them to get bounced because of shortcomings in the paint.
Winner: Kelvin Sampson, Houston Cougars
For four months, all the data told us that Houston was really good. And for four months, we questioned the heck out of the data.
Against the two toughest nonconference opponents the Cougars faced, they lost at the last second to both Wisconsin and Alabama. Then, they lost guards Marcus Sasser (leading scorer) and Tramon Mark (key sixth man during last year's Final Four run) for the season in late December, meaning they didn't have any quality nonconference wins and they were (at least in theory) a lesser version of the team we saw in nonconference play.
Then in AAC play, Houston got swept by Memphis (both by double digits) and lost at SMU in basically its only chances to prove itself in a weak conference.
And yet, there the Cougars sat in the top five on KenPom, profiling as a team that could win a national championship, despite entering Selection Sunday with nary a win over a team that made the NCAA tournament, save for a 111-44 over a Bryant team that lost in the First Four.
No one knew what to do with this team when filling out a bracket. The expert that I am, I had the Cougars losing to UAB.
But they beat the Blazers by 14, smoked Illinois by 15 and now defeated Arizona by a dozen, playing outstanding defense and crashing the glass every step of the way.
In our Sweet 16 power rankings, I had Houston at No. 3 behind only Gonzaga and Arizona.
With those No. 1 seeds out of the picture, care to venture a guess at who's going to be No. 1 in the Elite Eight power rankings?