Half of the men’s NCAA tournament Elite Eight is set after Saturday’s March Madness offerings, with the Oregon State Beavers continuing their unlikely run while knocking out Loyola Chicago, the Baylor Bears recording a strong second half to eliminate Villanova, the Arkansas Razorbacks outlasting a game Oral Roberts group, and the Houston Cougars figuring out the Syracuse zone to advance to the regional finals in Indianapolis on Monday. Sunday’s roster of games should bring more thrills, as a pair of top seeds including the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs will look to punch their tickets to Elite Eight games scheduled for Tuesday.
With next weekend’s Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium drawing ever closer, ESPN.com’s college basketball panel of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi logged their biggest takeaways from Saturday’s Sweet 16 action, while also detailing the players, teams and matchups they’re most looking forward to from Sunday’s games. Follow this link for Sunday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your March Madness bracket or second-chance March Madness bracket.
It was quite a day for lovers of Southwest Conference nostalgia, as Baylor, Arkansas and Houston all made their way to the Elite Eight. Which team impressed you most of that trio?
Medcalf: Yeah, I’ll go with Baylor. The 3-pointers were not falling, but the Bears just bombarded Villanova off the dribble in the second half, when they made 53% of their shots, despite missing six of their seven 3-point attempts after the break. It just seems like the losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State and the other subpar efforts after the three-week COVID-19 pause in February took the pressure off the Bears and gave them a target: They knew they had to find a way to regain their stride. It’s not surprising that Baylor has reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012. This is the most dominant team in college basketball since 2019. But Saturday’s win demanded a rapid reversal from the first half to the second half, all without a lot of success from the 3-point line. That’s a sign of a resilient team.
Borzello: Baylor looks more like its pre-pause self — and therefore a legitimate national championship threat — with every passing game. The Bears are locked in defensively. They’ve yet to allow an opponent in the NCAA tournament to score one point per possession after allowing eight of their last nine opponents prior to March Madness to hit that mark. When you can shoot 3-for-19 from 3 and get single-digit scoring efforts from Jared Butler and MaCio Teague and still beat a good Villanova team by 11 points, it’s clear that Baylor’s edge on the defensive side of the floor has returned.
MaCio Teague finds Adam Flagler on the fastbreak and he splashes a big 3-pointer as Baylor defeats Villanova 62-51.
Gasaway: Baylor shot 3-of-19 on its 3s and still beat an opponent the caliber of Villanova by 11. That’ll do. It doesn’t matter if Jared Butler is held to nine points on 1-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc; this team will still find a way. (If you had “Adam Flagler will be the leading scorer” on your bingo card, you win.) The margin of victory against the Wildcats represents the closest any opponent has come to the Bears in the tournament, and Scott Drew’s men appear to be growing stronger as their COVID-19 pause recedes further into the past. We might yet get that Baylor vs. Gonzaga national title game everyone was calling for in January.
Lunardi: Maybe now the college basketball world will take Houston seriously. In recent years, all the Cougars seem to do is win 25 or 30 games and collect great NCAA tournament seeds. Now, they are in the Elite Eight for the first time since Phi Slama Jama and will be heavy favorites to reach the sixth Final Four in school history. If and when that happens, with Baylor and Arkansas on the same side of the bracket, we’ll be guaranteed a former Southwest Conference program plays for the national title a week from Monday.
Ethan Thompson and No. 12 seed Oregon State are soaring into the Elite Eight. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesWe’ve been waiting for Oregon State to crash back to earth, and it hasn’t happened. After what you saw against Loyola Chicago on Saturday, how are you feeling about the Beavers’ chances to make history as the first 12-seed to reach the Final Four?
Borzello: I mean, I don’t feel great about them beating Houston. But I didn’t feel great about them beating Loyola Chicago. Or Oklahoma State. Or Tennessee. Or any of their three wins in the Pac-12 tournament. Coach Wayne Tinkle and Ethan Thompson are spearheading one of the more impressive postseason runs we’ve seen since Kemba Walker and UConn in 2011. The Beavers have exceeded expectations in each and every one of their past six games.
All of that said, Oregon State is playing a quirky defensive system, with which the Beavers can go man, zone or a combination of both on any given possession. And that’s really hard to prepare for on such a short turnaround. Houston facing Syracuse’s zone and having some success Saturday night might help in terms of zone offense, but the Orange’s zone and Oregon State’s changing defenses are very different. Given the way they’re playing, I’m not writing the Beavers off, but I’m still going to go with Houston.
Medcalf: Per ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first time in at least 36 years that a team has won three consecutive games as a six-point underdog — or more — in NCAA tournament history. The Beavers have had less than a 30% chance to win each of their past six games, per ESPN’s BPI. Could Oregon State beat a Houston team that struggled to extend its lead against a Syracuse team that had 20 points at halftime on Saturday? Sure. The Beavers are doing things that have either never happened or rarely happened in the NCAA tournament. I do wonder if they can sustain this defensive success. Every Oregon State opponent in the NCAA tournament has been held to 97 points per 100 possessions or less. But I think Oregon State is a dangerous opponent for Houston.
Oregon State’s Warith Alatishe connects with Ethan Thompson who makes an over-the-shoulder catch and races for the rim-rocking slam.
Gasaway: The Beavers are the most successful bid thief in a very long time and possibly ever. (No, UConn in 2011 was not a bid thief. The Huskies were all but assured of a bid even if they had lost that year’s Big East title game.) If Wayne Tinkle’s men had fallen short against Colorado in the Pac-12 title game, these guys would not have received a bid, period. Now, they’re one win away from the Final Four. In short, we are in uncharted waters. There’s not much precedent for a team advancing through six consecutive win-or-go-home games before the Elite Eight. Sure, we can theorize that an offense this average in its shooting and this reliant on Ethan Thompson should indeed fall to earth sooner rather than later. But, again, six in a row. Maybe the hoops gods are telling us something.
Lunardi: I never thought the perceived mismatch in Loyola Chicago’s favor was a fair portrayal of Oregon State’s chances. However, it sure didn’t hurt that the Ramblers laid such an egg offensively. The Beavers’ defense had a lot to do with that, of course, especially in limiting Cameron Krutwig’s touches in the high post. It seems unlikely OSU will benefit from a similar dud in the Elite Eight, which is why I like Houston more than a little to spend another week in Indianapolis. Then again, we could have said the same thing before any of Oregon State’s six straight elimination-game victories.
Sunday doesn’t quite have Saturday’s sumptuous underdog possibilities — ‘Cinderella’ UCLA has the most national titles in college basketball history — but it does have a couple of 1-seeds, three probable lottery picks, an intraconference grudge match and a battle of Jesuit universities. So, what (or who) are you most looking forward to watching on Sunday?
Gasaway: With apologies to three other very good games, Gonzaga is trying to do something we haven’t seen in 45 years. That makes for good spectating. The Bulldogs will put their perfect 28-0 record on the line against their fellow Jesuits from Creighton. No opponent has been able to stand up to a Zags onslaught that includes a rather ridiculous number of Wooden Award finalists (three: Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme). Can the Bluejays possibly succeed where every other team has failed? Possibly! Give Greg McDermott’s men this: They were far and away the most accurate shooting team in Big East play this season. Making Gonzaga start each possession by taking the ball out of the basket is the best bet for slowing down an otherwise lethal transition game. Who knows, if Marcus Zegarowski and Denzel Mahoney hit enough shots, we could — could — see the Bulldogs lose for the first time since Feb. 22, 2020.
Lunardi: Totally agree with John here. Gonzaga is four games from leaving behind a generational legacy in the sport. All four matchups are great, especially Michigan-Florida State and the all Pac-12 nightcap, but an already indelible tournament will live forever if the Zags are first across the finish line. That’s why, with apologies to my good friends in Omaha, I’ll be rooting for the Bulldogs in Sunday’s opener. After that, I’ll go back to work as a mostly impartial observer.
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme discusses how he and his teammates are staying level-headed as they advance through the tournament undefeated.
Borzello: Florida State vs. Michigan. It’s the game of the round. Michigan has been one of the five best teams in college basketball over the past four months, while Florida State is bigger and deeper than pretty much everyone in college basketball and can simply overwhelm opponents. One of the keys for me will be how Hunter Dickinson deals with Florida State throwing size and length at him all game. Leonard Hamilton will look to wear him down or get him in foul trouble. It’s also the best offense in the ACC against the best defense in the Big Ten. The Seminoles shoot the ball from the perimeter better than they have in several years, but they have a tendency to turn it over too often. They need to take care of the ball and make shots to stay in the game.
Medcalf: I’ll go with USC vs. Oregon, the battle for a potential shot at Gonzaga. The Pac-12’s success is a byproduct of the sheer explosiveness available to the remaining teams. Both Oregon and USC have an abundance of it. And both have a chance to enter that matchup coming off an impressive stretch that might convince the oddsmakers in Las Vegas to consider a rare single-digit spread for a Gonzaga game. Oregon’s offense has been its catalyst, and another superb scoring effort against a USC team that finished first in defensive efficiency in league play might make Gonzaga’s Final Four aspirations seem less certain. And if Evan Mobley and Isaiah Mobley run through the Ducks for a second time this season — the Trojans won the first matchup 72-58 — then the idea of USC winning a national championship without Reggie Bush’s help won’t seem far-fetched, either. This game could set up a Tuesday night matchup with historic implications.
They don’t give out Most Outstanding Player awards halfway through the Sweet 16, we’re told, but give us a couple of players at the top of your short list so far.
Gasaway: Baylor’s Davion Mitchell and Oregon State’s Ethan Thompson.
Mitchell was the lead sower of chaos who encouraged Villanova’s offense to melt down completely in the second half of Baylor’s win over the Wildcats. The Bears have been fairly reliant on forcing turnovers to this point in their tournament run. (Wisconsin and Villanova combined to convert 54% of their 2s against this defense.) That makes Mitchell all the more important, although being possibly the best defender in the nation is importance enough.
Thompson has scored 48 points in his past two outings, and that came against two excellent defenses in Oklahoma State and Loyola Chicago. The senior’s whole-season stats don’t look too efficient, but in the NCAA tournament, he is getting to the line, and he is absolutely dominating opponents there. Thompson has drained 23 of 24 freebies over these past two wins.
Borzello: Had Max Abmas’ shot at the buzzer gone in against Arkansas, he would have been the easy answer. And he should probably still be in the conversation given his exploits over Oral Roberts’ first three games of the NCAA tournament. I like Gasaway’s Mitchell and Thompson shouts, but I’ll add a couple of more: Drew Timme and Quentin Grimes.
Timme has only played two games thus far, but one of them was one of the best performances we’ve seen the entire NCAA tournament: 30 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in a win over Oklahoma. Gonzaga will rely on him heavily against Creighton, so I expect him to remain among the favorites entering the Elite Eight.
Grimes has been carrying Houston’s offense for a few weeks now, and that’s continued in the NCAA tournament. He had 18 points in the blowout first-round win over Cleveland State and 22 points and nine boards against Rutgers. Then Grimes hit a number of big shots against Syracuse despite inefficient overall shooting numbers.
Davonte Davis puts Arkansas ahead in the final seconds, and Max Abmas’ potential game winner rims out for Oral Roberts as the Razorbacks move on to the Elite Eight.
Medcalf: I had Quentin Grimes on the list entering Saturday’s game, and I still think he’ll be in the Most Outstanding Player conversation if Houston reaches the Final Four. But Davion Mitchell and Ethan Thompson are great names too.
I’d put Davonte Davis in the mix. Arkansas has clearly been involved in some battles already. But Davis has been reliable. He is 20-for-38 inside the arc through three tournament games as a freshman. If Arkansas can beat Baylor to reach the Final Four and Davis plays a major role again, he’ll deserve serious MOP love.
Also, keep an eye on Eli Brooks at Michigan. He has made 53% of his shots from beyond the arc through two games.
Lunardi: Neither of my top candidates wore uniforms Saturday. Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle’s defensive game plan was masterful against Loyola Chicago, beating the Ramblers at their own game in the half court and generating enough easy baskets to separate two otherwise evenly matched teams. My other vote goes to Jay Wright, who for 35 minutes had short-handed Villanova in position to eliminate the tourney’s second-best team. That the Wildcats eventually succumbed to Baylor’s relentless ball-hawking is no poor reflection on the future Hall of Fame coach.