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Big Dance Journal, Monday, March 21

   by Larry Ness - 03/21/2016

Big Dance Journal (Monday, Mar 21)

And then there were 16... Saturday and Sunday’s games have cut the NCAA field to a Sweet 16, when this year’s NCAA tourney resumes on Thursday. 351 schools play Division I basketball in 32 conferences or leagues but the ACC will have a record SIX teams in this year’s Sweet 16 (Big 12 and Big Ten have three each). A record-tying 10 double digits seeds advanced to the round of 32 but just two remain, 11th-seeded Gonzaga and 10th-seeded Syracuse. I’ll begin Monday’s journal with those two schools.

Gonzaga has hardly looked like an 11-seed, beating Seton Hall 68-52 on Thursday and then Utah on Saturday, by the score of 82-59. The 23-point margin of victory is tied for the third-largest by a team seeded 11th or lower since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. 10th-seeded Syracuse advanced on Sunday, with an impressive 74-50 win over MTSU, the 15-seed which KO’d Michigan St from this year’s tourney. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim spent nine games on the shelf early on as penance for an NCAA investigation into academic misconduct and improper benefits and then a one-and-done loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament left many surprised that the selection committee chose the Orange. However, the Orange crushed (pardon the pun) Dayton 70-51 on Friday and then put away MTSU in the second half on Sunday, pulling away for 24-point victory. The Blue Raiders actually led early in the second half and still trailed just 40-39 with 16:02 to go but then proceeded to make just ONE of their next 16 FG attempts. Syracuse had never played Middle Tennessee State in more than 100 years of basketball and my guess is, MTSU will be happy to avoid another meeting with Syracuse for another 100 years.

MTSU was the lowest seed to make the Round of 32 plus 14-seed SF Austin and 13-seed Hawaii also lost their second round games on Sunday, as well. The Lumberjacks lost in a heart-breaker 76-75, as Notre Dame tipped in a rebound with 1.5 seconds left. Notre Dame’s win snapped a 21-game winning streak for SF Austin, one which was the longest in the country. No mid-major has been as dominant in its conference lately as the Southland Conference champions, as the Lumberjacks have gone 53-1 in regular season conference games the last three years, plus winning three straight conference tourneys, while making three straight NCAA appearances. They’ve won a first-round games in TWO of three trips. As for Notre Dame, this is the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that the Fighting Irish have reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years.

Hawaii led No. 5 Maryland 41-39 midway through the second half but the Terps put the game away with a 14-0 run. Maryland, which at one point was ranked No. 2 in the nation, had entered the Big Dance having lost FIVE of its previous eight games. Maryland has advanced to the Sweet 16 for the EIGHTH time in the past 22 years. In saying goodbye to Hawaii we should note that this season was an unqualified success. The NCAA slapped Hawaii with sanctions for infractions committed under former coach Gib Arnold this past December. The penalties include a 2016-17 postseason ban, scholarship reductions and players being allowed to transfer without having to sit out a year. However, instead of crumbling, the Rainbow Warriors (under first-year coach Eran Ganot) won the Big West Conference, setting a school record for victories in a season (28) by beating California 77-66 in the first round of the tournament, which was also the school’s first-ever NCAA tourney win after four losses.

The Pac-12 has had a rough tourney run and this year’s final No. 1 seed (Oregon), followed suit. The Ducks were severely challenged by the St Joe’s Hawks, needing to rally from down 58-51 in the final five minutes to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. However, Oregon’s non-covering 69-64 win allowed this year’s team to match a school record with its 30th victory. Oregon is the lone Pac-12 team (of seven) remaining in this year’s tourney (other six Pac-12 schools went 1-6!) and joins Gonzaga as the only schools from the West Coast to reach the Sweet 16.

Two of Sunday’s No. 2 seeds advanced (Villanova and Oklahoma), while Xavier lost 66-63 to Wisconsin, as Bronson Koenig hit two three-pointers in the closing seconds, the last of them as the buzzer sounded. Wisconsin improved to 15-5 in the NCAA Tournament over the past six seasons. Villanova’s seniors had never made it to the Sweet 16, losing in the Round of 32 as a No. 1 seed last season and as a No. 2 seed in 2014. However, there was little doubt about Sunday’s outcome against Iowa. The Wildcats led 54-29 at halftime and by as many as 34 points in the second half. Iowa was once 19-4 (through games played Feb 4) but ends the season having lost SEVEN of its final 10 games. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is the nation's No. 2 scorer (25.4 PPG) and he led the Sooners to an 85-81 win over VCU, scoring 19 of his 36 points in the final eight minutes. It marks his 11th game of 30-plus points this season, while tying Michael Beasley with 13, 30-point games in his Big-12 career.

Speaking of the Big-12, there are no words in the English language to describe Texas A&M’s 92-88 double-OT win over Northern Iowa. In particular, how does a team rally from 12 points down with 44 seconds remaining in regulation (10 down with less than 30 seconds) to send the game into OT? I don’t need to elaborate, as ANYONE reading this, already knows.

Favorites went 7-1 SU (3-5 ATS) on Sunday, with over/unders splitting (4-4). Updating the tournament to-date, favorites are 38-13 SU and 27-24 ATS (one pick-em contest), while it’s 27 overs and 25 unders.

My Sweet 16 journal will be available by 12 noon ET on Thursday.

Good luck...Larry

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