There will be a new champion in college basketball after Kansas fell to Arkansas in the Round of 32.
The Jayhawks weren’t the only 1-seed to bow out, as Purdue was stunned by No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson in arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
Princeton, seeded 15th in the South Region, also pulled off its own opening-round shocker and is through to the Sweet 16.
With a chaotic opening weekend in the books, here are four storylines to watch entering the regional semifinals.
The wild, wild West
The West Region felt like the most stacked section of the bracket when it was revealed on Selection Sunday. The Razorbacks’ comeback victory last Saturday over top-seeded Kansas backs that notion up.
Arkansas is not your typical 8-seed. Eric Musselman has now knocked out a No. 1 seed in each of his last two appearances in the Big Dance. His roster features multiple NBA prospects, including potential lottery picks Nick Smith and Anthony Black. Wichita State transfer Ricky Council IV is capable of taking over any game, and third-year guard Davonte Davis defends the perimeter at a high level.
Davis will need to keep UConn sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins in check. Hawkins has yet to put together a complete game in the tourney but was lights out in the second half of both contests. The Huskies have collectively shot the ball well from deep, allowing ample space for Adama Sanogo to operate in the post. The Malian big man feasted against Iona and Saint Mary’s, racking up a combined 52 points and 21 rebounds.
UCLA and Gonzaga will square off in the other West Regional semifinal. The Bruins’ defense remains solid despite the absence of Jaylen Clark, allowing just 58 points per game on 37.3% shooting through the opening weekend. Jaime Jaquez continues to lead the way at both ends, Tyger Campbell is providing steady play at the point, and freshman Amari Bailey has stepped up.
But Adem Bona might be UCLA’s most important player. The freshman will be tasked with defending Gonzaga star Drew Timme. The Bulldogs’ top-scoring offense features many weapons, but Timme makes it all work. The consensus first-team All-American is a nightmare in the post with his ability to score and pass out of the low block. If Timme is able to establish himself early, that should create scoring opportunities for his teammates on the perimeter.
Can anyone stop Alabama? The Crimson Tide have rolled into the Sweet 16, averaging 84.5 points and beating each of their opponents by at least 21 points. Brandon Miller shook off a scoreless tournament opener with 19 points and seven rebounds in the second round. The top NBA prospect had been battling a groin injury but should be closer to his usual self with another week of rest. Meanwhile, Jahvon Quinerly has rediscovered his mojo late in the season, averaging 15 points, 4.1 assists, and 1.4 steals across his last eight appearances.
Nate Oats’ team has been equally impressive at the defensive end, limiting Texas A&M-Corpus-Christi and Maryland to a combined 34.9% shooting. Sophomore center Charles Bediako has been among the SEC’s top shot-blockers during his time in Tuscaloosa, and he’s already tallied six swats in the tourney.
Of the other remaining teams in the South Region, San Diego State may have the best chance at preventing Alabama from reaching its first Final Four. The Crimson Tide average nearly 30 attempts from distance per game, but that advantage could be neutralized by the Aztecs’ sixth-ranked 3-point defense. Brian Dutcher’s squad prefers playing at a slower tempo and needs to avoid getting into a track meet in order to have a shot at prevailing.
Izzo in his element
Tom Izzo is no stranger to this time of year. The longtime Michigan State bench boss ranks sixth on the Division I all-time list with 15 Sweet 16 appearances. The Spartans are only seeded seventh, but that’s when Izzo shines brightest. His 16 wins as the lower-seeded team are the most by any head coach in NCAA Tournament history.
Michigan State’s defense has fueled its latest regional semifinal run. The Spartans have amassed 35 points off turnovers and 16 steals in their two victories. Jaden Akins and Tyson Walker shut down guards Boogie Ellis and Tyler Kolek, holding the two all-conference first-team members to a combined 13 points on 5-of-20 shooting.
The aforementioned backcourt tandem will need to deliver a similar performance in the next round. Kansas State boasts an outstanding floor general of its own in Markquis Nowell. He has been the engine of the Wildcats’ offense, picking apart opposing defenses with his shotmaking and flashy playmaking skills. The New York native will have the added motivation of playing in front of friends and family at Madison Square Garden.
Should Michigan State get by Kansas State, the school will encounter more solid guard play regardless of the opponent. Johnell Davis has done it all for Florida Atlantic, registering 20.5 points, 8.5 boards, three assists, and 2.5 steals per contest in the Big Dance. Santiago Vescovi, meanwhile, has assumed a larger role in Tennessee’s offense with Zakai Zeigler out for the season, averaging 14 points and 3.6 assists in his last five games.
Houston eyeing home Final Four
Only five schools have had the opportunity to play in a Final Four at home. Butler most recently accomplished the feat 13 years ago, but the last program to win a national championship on its own stomping grounds was UCLA in 1972.
Houston is two wins away from battling it out at NRG Stadium, just under six miles from its campus. While the Cougars have been far from their best so far, they looked a lot more like themselves during a dominant second-half performance versus Auburn in the Round of 32. Kelvin Sampson’s unit held the Tigers to four made field goals and doubled its counterpart in rebounds over the final 20 minutes.
Miami is the next obstacle standing in Houston’s way. The Hurricanes are 11th in KenPom‘s rankings for adjusted offensive efficiency with Isaiah Wong, Jordan Miller, and Nijel Pack leading a potent perimeter attack. They can also match the Cougars’ physicality on the glass; Miami had 20 offensive boards in its win over Indiana with Norchad Omier accounting for eight.
Xavier or Texas awaits in the Elite Eight if Houston advances. The Musketeers lead the nation with 19.3 assists per game and sit 11th with an average of 81.2 points. Their inside-out efficiency and unselfish brand of play were on full display during a strong first-half effort against Pittsburgh in the previous round.
The Longhorns are no pushover either. Rodney Terry’s crew is one of three schools ranked in KenPom’s top 15 for adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Fourth-year forward Dylan Disu is having a breakout NCAA Tournament, and Timmy Allen is capable of locking down an opposition’s top perimeter threat.
Houston certainly has its work cut out for it, but few things would be sweeter than winning a maiden national championship at home.
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