Tourney thoughts: Northern Iowa, SMC steal spotlight from KU, 'Nova
UNI's upset of the tournament favorite is the biggest shocker in recent memory
The Gaels looked great against Villanova but will have a hard time against Baylor
Kentucky displayed impressive firepower and should feel very confident now
OPENING SALVO: I'm still in shock. It just goes to show anything can happen -- that's the beauty of the NCAA tournament. That's the greatness of it, and if you're Kansas, that's the cruelty of it -- anything can happen, and it's so final. To be honest, it's a lot to take in, and I'm still in complete shock that it happened.
MOST SHOCKING DEVELOPMENT: Clearly, this is Northern Iowa over Kansas. I won't say it's the greatest tournament upset ever, because maybe that's overstating it, but it certainly is the biggest upset that I can remember. You think about NC State over Houston in 1983 and Villanova over Georgetown in 1985, but those schools had both made it to the championship, and Villanova had played Georgetown twice during the regular season in '85 and played the Hoyas pretty tough. You think about George Mason beating UConn for a spot in the Final Four, but that was the Patriots' fourth game of the tournament. Kentucky losing to UAB in 2004, that's the benchmark, but Kansas was really a very strong favorite in this tournament. But the Jayhawks played really badly. Northern Iowa was great, but to me, the shocking part of it was just how poorly the Jayhawks played. Kansas only held one lead in the game: 2-0. For Northern Iowa to go wire-to-wire like that and win by two was pretty astounding. Kansas came out really not as ready as it should have been.
I picked Saint Mary's over Villanova at the start of the day, so I was less surprised by that result. The only thing that surprised me about it was that I picked it and it still happened; I'm used to it going the other way. But Saint Mary's is a really good team. The Gaels played well down the stretch this season and absolutely obliterated a very good Gonzaga team in that West Coast Conference final. Obviously, Omar Samhan was phenomenal today, but I think it's going to be a much tougher task against Baylor, which has four guys who can defend Samhan almost one-on-one. I think Baylor's a tough matchup for Saint Mary's.
You know what's funny: We had an 11-seed get into the Sweet 16 today in extremely impressive fashion and it was a complete afterthought, like it didn't even happen. Washington came out against New Mexico and really got after them. The Huskies just looked so much faster and were relentlessly attacking. New Mexico was never in the game. They may be an 11 seed, but they're playing at a much higher level. Quincy Pondexter is as good as anyone in this tournament right now. He is really a very high-quality player. He's a senior, he understands his strengths now and makes his teammates better.
CINDERELLA MOST LIKELY TO KEEP GOING: Northern Iowa. I have to stick with the Panthers here -- they're a very good team. It's not like this was a complete fluke -- it was a shock, but it wasn't a fluke. They're now 30-4 -- they've only lost four games all year.
I just love the way the lower seeds are coming out these days and really acting like they belong, acting like they can win. Northern Iowa was not in awe of Kansas at all. The Panthers know they're good and are used to winning.
The thing about Northern Iowa going forward is you have to contend with their half-court, grind-it-out style. I think Maryland would be a better matchup for UNI than Michigan State. Similar to Kansas, Maryland has to get up and down the floor to be comfortable, whereas Michigan State is capable of grinding more. Whichever team, Maryland or MSU, plays Northern Iowa will definitely come into the game with the understanding that they can lose, because if Kansas can lose to Northern Iowa, anyone can.
MEMORABLE MOMENT: Twenty years from now, that's going to be the trivia question: What was the name of that guard from Northern Iowa that hit that crazy three-point shot with 34 seconds left to beat Kansas? I just hope I get it right. Ali Farokhmanesh. That was one of the most memorable moments ever.
PLAYER OF THE DAY: Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's. Samhan just got whatever he wanted in the paint against 'Nova and seemed to be really enjoying himself, finishing with 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting.
A close second was Kansas State's Jacob Pullen, with a career-high 34 points. Shooting 7-for-12 from three-point range and 11-for-11 from the line ... he out-Jimmered Jimmer Fredette. That was the irony in that game: The guy who went Jimmer was Jacob Pullen.
UNSUNG HERO OF THE DAY: Shelvin Mack, Butler. For some reason, people don't talk about Mack when they talk about Butler. He's just a leader, he does a little of everything. He doesn't score a ton of points, but it seems like every point that he scores is significant. He had 11 points, five rebounds -- which is great since he's essentially their point guard -- two assists and two steals in 33 minutes. He's just a solid player.
MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: Kentucky. The Wildcats very physical and have displayed a killer instinct. The game was tight when Al-Farouq Aminu picked up his third foul for Wake Forest, and Kentucky ended the first half with a 25-9 run. Kentucky just came out ready to play. After what happened to Kansas earlier in the day, I have to think that heightened the sense of urgency for Kentucky and Kansas State at the beginning of their games. You have to believe that registered with Kentucky and made them say, "Hey, that's not going to be us tonight. We've got to get after this right from the get-go and stomp on these guys." You have to think that KU's stunning loss had to help them, motivation-wise.
Darius Miller played very well for Kentucky. They're not typically a good shooting team, but he's a pretty good jump shooter. Miller scored 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, and added nine rebounds and two assists -- that's a good day's work. And Eric Bledsoe is playing his best basketball of the season. He's really assertive and confident at the offensive end. There's certainly no lack of firepower on this team.
They have to be feeling very good about themselves after this weekend. Coming into the tournament, if you said a 1-seed was going to lose in the second round, Kentucky would have been your first choice and Kansas would have been your last.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: Kansas. Clearly it's the Jayhawks. Like I said before, they were really bad. Not taking anything away from Northern Iowa, but Kansas was atrocious. They were panicked, they rushed, they took bad shots. Their bigs came to play, the Morris twins and Cole Aldrich played well, but they just couldn't shoot.
It's the nature of the beast that some folks are going to take shots at Bill Self after this, but it's not going to be said by anyone with reasonable intelligence. This is the same guy who led Kansas to a championship, this is the same guy who has led three different schools to the Elite Eight. That being said, this one's going to be painful for Self for a long time. He takes losses very hard, and this was a team that really had a great chance to win a championship. You don't often go into the tournament and say, "We've got a really good chance to win this thing." That opportunity doesn't come around every day.
GOATS OF THE DAY: Kansas' Sherron Collins and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds. Collins, Reynolds and Luke Harangody -- three players whose careers ended this week in really ignominious fashion. They really played about as poorly as they're capable of playing. Harangody had four points. Scottie was 2-for-11. And Sherron 4-for-15 from the field, including 0-for-6 from three-point range, and he committed a game-high five turnovers.
ONE THING I LEARNED: I learned to stop predicting things. (Although I was pretty proud of my Saint Mary's call.) But I learned what I already knew: Anything can happen in this tournament. At the end of the day, sit back, watch and enjoy, because that's what makes the NCAA tournament the NCAA tournament is that crazy things happen and you never know.
SIGN OF A TRUE CONTENDER: The sign of a true contender is somebody who pulls up for a three-pointer with 30 seconds left on the shot clock when you're up by one with 34 seconds left in the ballgame. That's the new definition of onions right there by Ali Farokhmanesh. That was just unbelievable, one of the greatest things I've ever seen in sports. Of course, if Ali had missed it, and Kansas had marched down the court and hit the game-winning shot, then he's the "Goat of the Day." Like I said before, it'll be a lifetime trivia question.
WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO ON SUNDAY: Sunday's more of a marquee day, more brand names.
Syracuse-Gonzaga is a good game right off the bat. How is Syracuse going to play without center Arinze Onuaku? Michigan State-Maryland is going to be tremendous, and Cornell-Wisconsin is going to be exciting. I'm very curious to see how West Virginia handles Missouri's pressure. (Stewart Mandel wrote a good column about that.) Duke-Cal is going to be interesting, as well. Cal looked really good against Louisville. The Golden Bears can really shoot the ball.
I have to say, though, when I looked at the lineup of games entering the weekend, I thought Saturday would be a little light and Sunday would be the bigger day. So watch Sunday somehow turn out to be a snoozer ...
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