We interrupt this March for underdogs with a reality check from some of college basketball’s blue bloods.
Kansas, Villanova and Duke are still alive in the NCAA Tournament, ready to tilt the bracket back toward the favorites.
Call Friday the exception to what has been an extraordinarily-maddening, upset-laden March. One that showcased three powerhouse teams, each good enough to be deemed the favorite if they reach the national title game.
In the East, top-seeded Villanova held up to fifth-seeded West Virginia’s pressure. In the Midwest, top-seeded Kansas staved off fifth-seeded Clemson’s late comeback attempt.
No. 2 seed Duke solved 11th-seeded Syracuse’s zone to advance, too, and set up a star-powered regional final on Sunday against the Jayhawks.
Order restored in the tourney — at least for one night.
“But they say this time of year is survive and advance, and we were able to do that,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after his team held on for a four-point win in the Midwest Region.
Villanova will face Texas Tech in the East final after the third-seeded Red Raiders beat a second-seeded Purdue team without injured starting center Isaac Haas.
The East and Midwest are on the right half of the NCAA tourney bracket, the half that hasn’t had as many upsets. That foursome of teams alone would have made for an intriguing Final Four. Even Syracuse doesn’t really count as a Cinderella team given its title-winning history.
Underdogs rule the left side.
No. 3 Michigan is the highest seed remaining in that half of the bracket and will face No. 9 seed Florida State in the West Region final on Saturday. In the South final, ninth-seeded Kansas State will face 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago and its 98-year-old scouting chaplain and social media star, Sister Jean. It’s the type of foursome that might meet in some early-season nonconference tournament held in Hawaii.
No favorite feels safe anymore in the NCAAs after 16th-seeded UMBC’s history-making win over No. 1 overall seed Virginia last week in the first round.
“I’m not surprised there’s low seeds in here. I mean, things happen,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser said about the Elite Eight. “They’re finding ways to win, and things happen this time of year, especially when you get a group that just believes and has made some really clutch shots down the stretch.”
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham said all the upsets have helped his team to avoid overlooking opponents.
“But also we just know we’ve got to be focused,” Graham added. “If we slip up and don’t come prepared, it’s going to be the end of the season.”
Under pressure, Kansas passed its test, just like Villanova.
The Wildcats followed a familiar formula, shooting over Press Virginia from the 3-point arc to overcome 16 turnovers.
Villanova didn’t wilt in the face of the pressure. Coach Jay Wright decided to attack it head-on.
“So when I started watching film, I just thought, man, this is a tough matchup,” Wright said, “and if we survive this, we’re a pretty mentally tough team, and this is going to be like an old-school, grind-out game.”
Duke also did what is expected of a tourney favorite, outlasting Syracuse thanks in part to its decided talent advantage. No easy feat, by the way, after the Orange’s 2-3 zone took down Michigan State in Detroit in the second round.
Perhaps feeling the heat, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski tore off his jacket and threw it to the floor in frustration after calling a timeout early in the second half to slow a Syracuse run. In time, the best player on the court, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, took over on the floor. He had 13 of his 22 points and eight of his nine rebounds in the second half.
“That was a tough game to be a part of. It came down the wire,” Bagley said.
But for at least one more game, the higher seed prevailed, sanity ruling on a relatively ho-hum Friday.