You can exhale, Houston. There will be no repeat of the 2011 Final Four at then-Reliant Stadium, where a 3-seed UConn ended up cutting down the nets by beating then-Horizon League champion Butler in a largely unwatchable final, 53-41. In that Final Four, there were two mid-majors seeded 8th and 11th in their regions that made it through.
This weekend, we will see two 2-seeds (Oklahoma, Villanova), a 1-seed (North Carolina), and a 10-seed that is largely considered a college basketball blue blood (Syracuse) take to the court on Saturday. It's not the optimal permutation of the Sweet Sixteen teams that remained heading into last weekend, but it's still pretty good.
The best-case final (Oklahoma versus North Carolina) is a battle of the best player in the tournament (Buddy Hield of OU) versus the best team in the tournament. The worst-case final (Villanova versus Syracuse) is actually a matchup from the old-school Big East days that should have some juice.
In other words, it's okay to get excited for Saturday night! During the past 48 hours, we've had some winners and losers. Let's recognize them...
4. Buddy Hield
Hield entered the Elite Eight matchup on Saturday night averaging 26.7 points per tournament game, and shooting 53 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range in the tournament. Amazingly, he improved all those numbers while going against a 1-seed on Saturday night — 37 points on 13-20 shooting, 8-13 from three. He is the single best one-man wrecking crew in college basketball right now.
3. Jay Wright
In the last two seasons before this season with this crew, Wright had coached them to a combined 62-8 record. However, in the Big Dance, Villanova was bounced in the Round of 32 both seasons. Wright got redemption on Saturday night, knocking off favored 1-seed Kansas, 64-59, and somewhat surprisingly, are now favored in their semifinal matchup against the Sooners by 2 points.
2. The selection committee
I can't remember a selection committee that took more heat than this one. A couple of weeks ago, much of the talk about the bracket centered around two things — 1) Michigan State getting a two seed instead of a one seed, and 2) how in the blue hell did Syracuse even make the tournament? Well, Michigan State got knocked out by a 15-seed, and now Syracuse has made a run (out of Michigan State's region, no less!) all the way to the Final Four. Sweet vindication for Joe Castiglione's crew!
1. Brice Johnson
Now, all of that said about Syracuse's run, let's not get too wrapped up in thinking it can hang on this huge stage (the stage the court is on at NRG is literally gigantic...it's a REALLY big stage) with the Tar Heels. At the end of the day, the Orangemen have beaten a downtrodden Dayton team, a 15-seed MTSU and two of the biggest choking dog coaches in recent years (Mark Few, Tony Bennett). The line for Syracuse against UNC opened at Tar Heels -8.5. Stealing.
4. The Pac-12
The Pac-12 sent seven teams to the tournament. Five of them were gone after their first day. A sixth one (Utah) won a game before being knocked out by an 11 seed. Oregon was the last hope for one of the most overrated conferences in the country, and went out in fitting fashion, losing 80-68 to Oklahoma in a game that wasn't even that close. (But at least Oregon has its own network.)
3. Perry Ellis
It's okay that Ellis looks like he's 45 years old when he's knocking down elbow jumpers like Karl Malone. It's not okay when he's shooting 1 for 5 from the field and turning the ball over four times. The best Perry Ellis "old guy" tweet, by the way...
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2. Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett, the past two seasons, has been Jay Wright Lite, leading UVA to a combined 60-11 record, but going out in the Sweet 16 and round of 32, both times to Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Now, this season, Middle Tennessee did the honor of knocking Sparty out of the bracket. So with no MSU in the way, and needing only to knock off a 10-seed to get to the Final Four, Bennett was never going to get a better look. But after taking a 14-point halftime lead, and a 15-point lead in the second half, the Cavaliers allowed Syracuse to close the game on a 29-8 run. This will not be a fun offseason for Bennett.
1. Notre Dame's interior
I was proud (as an alum) of the way Notre Dame hung in for the first half with North Carolina, but you could tell that Carolina was a run away from busting the game open. Yet even after they did that, going up 51-40, the Irish went on a 12-0 run to actually take a lead. However, North Carolina was just too damn big, out-rebounding Notre Dame 32-15 for the game. FIFTEEN rebounds. Can anyone remember a team having only 15 rebounds in an entire game?
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