In our TSL Big Dance Bracket Busters East Region Preview, I told you to watch out for big name squads with two-headed monsters at guard such as UConn with Napier and Boatright. I told you that experts were treating the teams in The East like "pink cookies in a plastic bag, getting crushed by a building." That building was supposed to be the South region with No. 1 seed Florida "and a gang of body collectors like UCLA, Pittsburgh, Ohio State and tournament plague VCU and an unpredictable Kansas squad, featuring two future lottery picks."
The other regions were lauded too, but most cats dissed the East. When I spoke with basketball analyst and two-time NBA champ Kenny Smith, before the tourney, he wasn't buying into the hype. Like TSL, he saw a tournament handmade for a pair of sensational upperclass guards.
“UConn is a team I look forward to seeing and to me the NCAA tournament is always about guard play,” analyst Kenny Smith said. “Those two guys are tough point guards together on one team so they can make plays for you when you’re not able to make plays for yourself. Add in versatile DeAndre Daniels and all of a sudden you have a tough team and tough out.”
After a wild round of 64, the round of 32 offered a few typical March Madness mishaps like Dayton and Stanford upsetting their way into a Sweet 16 matchup, but overall, the vaunted Cinderella teams like Mercer, North Dakota State, Stephen F. Austin and Harvard didn’t fit the Prada slippers this season.
The last day of the first weekend brought an earlier exit for prolific NCAA scorer Douggy McBuckets, whose Creighton squad, a fashionable pick for many experts, got blanked by Baylor’s zone D. A lot of cats were high on the “next Larry Bird,” as some were calling the sport’s fifth all-time leading scorer with 3,150 starts.
The icing on the cake and the greatest game of the tourney to that point was the battle between undefeated Wichita State and Kentucky. It was probably the worst possible matchup for Wichita State and brought into question Kentucky’s low 8-seed. The Harrison brothers combined for 39 points in the 78-76 win.
It even prompted Kentucky coach John Calipari to express sympathy for Wichita State, who at 35-0 entering that game, deserved a better fate. In what should have been a glorious moment for Calipari and his maturing young guns, the coach said afterwards, "You all understand – this was an Elite Eight game,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said afterward. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That’s what this was.”
In the Sweet 16, Kentucky’s "Fab Five" freshman began making a serious move on history. They followed the upset of Wichita State with a 74-69 upset of No. 4 Louisville. Aaron Harrison’s go ahead trey with 40 seconds left in a battle of the last two National Champions lifted Kentucky to the Elite Eight in the Midwest regional. Predictions that this talented, all-frosh squad would become the first of its kind to win it all were commonplace on the talk radio circuit.
No. 4 Michigan State upset lowly-touted No. 1 Virginia by a score of 61-59. The Cavs showed a ton of heart and fought like a one-seed, as they came back from a 10-point deficit to take a four-point second-half lead, but Branden Dawson put his NBA skills on display with 24 points. He was simply too much too handle.
No. 2 Michigan hung on to best Tennessee 73-71. It was a typical March Madness contest as the Vols cut a 10-point Michigan lead to one within the final seconds, but a last effort heave from half court wasn’t even close. Michigan’s hopes of avenging last season’s NCAA C’hip loss are still alive.
UConn showed they were serious business and had the home crowd support as they blasted off on No. 3 seed Iowa State 81-76 to advance to the Elite Eight. The NCAA Tournament officially became about Shabazz Napier’s Kemba Walker-like title run and Kevin Ollie’s chance to become just the fourth black coach to win an Division I NCAA Championship (John Thompson ’84, Nolan Richardson ’94, Tubby Smith '98).
No. 1 Arizona dusted off feisty No. 4. San Diego State 70-64. Nick Johnson scored 15 points over the final 2 ½ minutes to carry the Wildcats to a win.
No. 1 Florida looked strong and ready for a real c’hip run by beating No. 4-seed UCLA 79-68, setting up a meeting with overmatched No. 11 Dayton, who upset No. 10-seed Stanford 82-72. The Flyers moved on to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1984.
No. 2 Wisconsin held No. 6 Baylor to 30 percent shooting and Bo Ryan and his system of suffocation washed the Bears 69-52.
In true gangster-glory fashion Shabazz Napier scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half, and UConn beat Michigan State 60-54 to return to the Final Four a year after the Huskies were barred from the NCAA tournament.
Napier, the East Regional's most outstanding player, hit three clutch foul shots with 37.6 seconds left at MSG, to carry UConn to the Final Four just as Kemba Walker did in Napier's freshman year. He just followed the UConn blue print; from Tate George to Ben Gordon and Ray Allen and Kemba Walker to Napier. The Huskies rebounded from a nine-point second-half hole to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The battle of the defenses was won by Wisconsin over Arizona, 64-63 in OT. Both teams were extra stingy and it took Frank Kaminsky’s 28 points to lift the No. 2 Badgers over the top-seeded Wildcats.
After failing to score for most of the game, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison hit four 3-pointers in the final minutes, including one with 2.6 seconds left to seal a dramatic win for Fab Five 2.0, sending them to the Final Four. Calipari’s Kids eked out a 75-72 win over No. 2 Michigan and kept rolling.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 23 points and No. 1 Florida advanced to the Final Four with a 62-52 win over the 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers in the South Region final. Nobody expected Dayton’s ride to last and the Gators – who reached their fifth Final Four after losing at this point in each of the past three NCAA Tournaments – were that brick wall. Florida won its 30th straight game and improved to 36-2, topping the 35 wins by the 2007 national championship squad.
UConn shut down Wilbekin and Florida played an ugly 40 minutes of basketball. UConn's "Big Three" (Napier, Ryan Boatright and versatile Deandre Daniels) helped the Huskies win 63-53 and advanced to the title game.
Kentucky’s freshmen continue their quest towards history by edging a tough Wisconsin squad 64-63, actually beating the Badgers at their own game and holding Elite Eight star Kaminsky to eight points.
Kevin Ollie does the improbable and UConn gets back to the promise land sooner than anyone could have imagined. Lost in the UConn craze and the athletic heroics of Napier and all of this talk about paying players to get an education, is the underlying beauty of Napier’s accomplishment.
UConn was placed on probation by the NCAA because of poor player graduation rates. Napier is a four-year player who will be graduating in the Spring with his degree and entering the NBA. He is proof that it can be done and players are missing out on some wonderful moments in life; moments that help boys truly become men, before entering the NBA and having to deal with not only the athletic challenges but the social challenges.
Napier didn’t become a star overnight. He had to mature, break out of his shell and learn to trust people, humble himself and work with his teammates. The fact that he’s now considered a consummate floor general and top NBA prospect – all that happened at UConn. Not just on the court but in the classroom. He strikes me as the type of player that will be sitting on Ollie’s bench as an assistant after his own 13-year NBA career is finished, and maybe even cutting the nets down as a coach one day. Napier is the total package and proof that education still counts – even for supposed new age, money-first phenom “jocks.”