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Big Dance Journal, Monday, Mar. 28

   by Larry Ness - 03/28/2016

Big Dance Journal (Monday, Mar 28)

This year's 10 wins by double-digit seeds in the Round of 64 was the most in an NCAA tournament all-time (there were nine in both 2001 and 2012). Throw in the 3-1 record of 9-seeds over 8- seeds and the 13 wins tied the 2001 tournament for the most first round games won by the lower-seeded team. However, there were just two double seeds remaining by the start of the Sweet 16, Gonzaga (11) and Syracuse (10). In the 2013 and 2014 tourneys, underdogs dominated Sweet 16 play going 6-2 ATS both years but that changed in 2015, as favorites went 6-2. Favorites were the “way to go” in this year’s Sweet 16 as well, with the lone favorite not to win (and cover) was Gonzaga, a 4 1/2-point choice over Syracuse, as favorites went 7-1 SU & ATS (note: Gonzaga was the lower seed).

All four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Elite 8 but only ONE (North Carolina) was left standing by Sunday evening. Both of Saturday’s games were No. 1 vs No. 2 matchups, Oregon vs Oklahoma up first, followed by Kansas vs Villanova. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield was brilliant from start to finish, scoring 37 points (12th time TY he’s scored 30-plus points) while knocking down eight three-pointers. The Sooners led by 18 points at the half and never let Oregon back in the game. Oklahoma’s “Core Four” of Hield, Ryan Spangler, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins started their 104th consecutive game together and have produced a 76-28 (.731) record. The Sooners are headed to the Final 4 for the 5th time in school history (Oklahoma has yet to win), while head coach Lon Kruger has now led a second school into the Final 4 (took Florida there in 1994).

In Saturday’s second game, the tourney’s overall No. 1 seed (Kansas) was beaten 64-59 by Villanova. The Jayhawks took a 17-game win streak into the contest, including three NCAA wins in which Kansas had outscored its opponents, 85.7-to-67.7 PPG. However, ‘Nova held the Jayhawks to 59 points. Villanova had averaged 88.3 PPG in its three prior NCAA wins but 64 points were enough to beat Kansas (Wildcats have held their four opponents to an average of 63.0 PPG this tourney). Villanova is back in the Final 4 for the first time since 2009 (also under Jay Wright) and for the 5th time in school history (famously won back in 1985 over Georgetown). As for Kansas, which entered the tourney as the AP’s No. 1-ranked team, the “jinx” continues.

Let me repeat what I noted before the tourney began. The history book shows that teams entering the NCAA tournament No. 1 in the final AP poll have not fared well since the heyday of John Wooden's UCLA Bruins. UCLA won 10 of 12 titles from 1964-75, seven times entering the tournament as the nation's top-ranked team. Bob Knight's 1975-76 team, the last to finish a season unbeaten at 32-0, also entered that year's tourney as No. 1. However, since that season, just SIX schools have finished No. 1 in the AP's final regular poll and gone on to win the title. The most recent school to do so was Kentucky in 2012, with the short list also including Duke (2001), UCLA (1995), Duke (1992), North Carolina (1982) and Kentucky (1978). With Kansas falling on Saturday, that make just SIX teams in 40 years (15.0 percent) to have captured the NCAA title when entering the Big Dance ranked No. 1 in the AP poll!

With No. 1 seeds 0-2 on Saturday, Sunday’s two games would be best described as an “ACC Invitational,” as No. 1 Virginia met No. 10 Syracuse and No. 1 North Carolina met No. 6 Notre Dame. ACC teams were 12-3 SU (but a modest 7-7-1 ATS) heading into Sunday but since all four participants were ACC teams, the league was destined to go 2-2 SU on Easter. Virginia led Syracuse 35-21 at the half and early in the second half, led by as much as 16 points. However, leading 54-39 with about 9 1/2 minutes to go, the Cavs succumbed to an ‘Orange crush’ (couldn’t resist). Syracuse scored 25 of the game’s next 29 points, including a 15-0 run, and when all the dust had settled, Syracuse walked away with a 68-62 victory, having outscored Virginia 29-8 over the game’s final 9 1/2 minutes.

Syracuse was among the last teams to get into the NCAA tournament after a rough closing stretch but slipped in as a 10 seed. Now a 4-0 SU & ATS run (allowing 54.9 PPG) has the school in its sixth Final 4. Coaching his 40th season, Jim Boeheim (who was suspended for nine games as the result of an NCAA investigation), is headed to his 5th Final 4 (won it all back in 2003). Syracuse becomes the first-ever No. 10 seed to make the Final 4, as the previous nine No. 10 seeds to reach the Elite 8 had all lost in the Regional Final. Note that the lowest seed to ever make a Final 4 is an 11-seed, which has happened three times (VCU in 2011, George Mason in 2006 and LSU in 1986). All three lost in the national semifinals.

Syracuse will favored to lose next Saturday as well, as its opponent is the lone No. 1 seed to survive the Elite 8, North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the AP’s preseason No. 1 and put away Notre Dame, 88-74. Brice Johnson had 25 & 12, giving him averages of 21.0 & 9.8 in North Carolina’s four NCAA wins (4-0 ATS as well, outscoring opponents 89.3-to-73.3 PPG). Guards Paige (14.0) and Berry (13.3) plus forward Jackson (13.0) have also all scored in double digits in each game so far. Carolina heads to the school’s 19th Final 4 (Kentucky & UCLA rank 2nd with 17 visits) and Roy Williams makes his eighth Final 4 trip (four with both Kansas and now, Carolina).

Checking the tournament results to-date show favorites at 46-17 SU and 35-27-1 ATS (one pick-em). Both Saturday games stayed under while both Sunday games went over. Amazingly after 64 games, it’s 32 overs and 32 unders. Early numbers show Villanova two-point choice over Oklahoma, while North Carolina is favored by nine points over Syracuse. I’ll have much more this coming Friday, when I post my Final 4 Journal. Tuesday (by 12 noon EDT), I’ll feature my NIT journal. Note that the NIT began one year BEFORE the NCAA tournament and was once considered the more prestigious event.

Good luck...Larry

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