The first night of Sweet Sixteen basketball belonged to the higher seeds, as Kentucky crushed West Virginia, Wisconsin escaped a tough North Carolina team, Notre Dame ran over Wichita State and Arizona pulled ahead late against Xavier.
#1 Kentucky beat #5 West Virginia 78-39: You don’t get the best team in the nation, undefeated Kentucky, angry. But Daxter Miles Jr. fueled their growing motivation even further before the game. It’s hard to say if the Wildcats were that dominant because of it, because we’ve seen them against Kansas and UCLA in similar performances. Whatever it was, the end result made it seem like two teams from different planets.
Trey Lyles led Kentucky with 14 points as they once again didn’t need just one player to carry them. The biggest thing was the defense, allowing West Virginia to reach 20 points only midway through the first half. The Mountaineers shot just 24.1% from the field and 13.3% from beyond the arc. It’s a new low of points for a Sweet Sixteen team, and 39-point margin is also the largest in Sweet Sixteen history.
A team of destiny? Perhaps. They were what I thought they were. That’s the best defensive team I think that I’ve ever coached against. And when they’re making shots, there’s nobody going to beat them. They did what they had to do. You can’t stop something that’s destined.
#1 Wisconsin beat #4 North Carolina 79-72: The best game of the night seemed to be heading towards an upset (if North Carolina winning can actually be an upset), but Sam Dekker was consistent all game long and finally got Frank Kaminsky to join in for the final 10 minutes, coming back from a 7-point deficit in the second half and make it into the Elite Eight.
Wisconsin did what it takes to beat North Carolina – limit their offensive rebounding and second chance points. The moment that happens, it’s very hard for the Tar Heels to get ahead of teams. Dekker scored 23 points, including 9-of-9 in the paint, Kaminsky scored 19 points and Nigel Hayes, maybe still embarrassed from his cute moment in the press conference, added 12.
Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson each scored 15 points to lead the Tar Heels, lamenting grabbing only 28% of the possible offensive rebounds (40% during the season, fifth in the nation) and scoring just nine second-chance points, 5.2 below their season average. They also shot just 12-of-18 from the line while the Badgers hit 87% of their shots.
#3 Notre Dame beat #7 Wichita State 81-70: Wichita State’s defense focused on stopping Jerian Grant, but Notre Dame have too much talent for the Shockers to contain. The Fighting Irish averaged 1.23 points per possession, the highest Wichita State have allowed this season, including a whopping 1.37 in the second half. Grant scored just 9 points on 3-of-8 from the field, but his 11 assists led to 27 points, showing he’s more than just a scorer.
The main beneficiaries from Grant’s assists were Demetrius Jackson with 20 points, Pat Connaughton with 16 points, Steve Vasturia with 15 points and Zach Auguste scoring 15 as well. So we know Notre Dame have an amazing starting lineup in terms of offense. But will it be enough against Kentucky and their never ending swarm of Blue Chip recruits? If Notre Dame can have another half of 18-of-24 shooting like they did in the second, they might have a shot.
#1 Arizona beat #6 Xavier 68-60: For one half, the Musketeers managed to hang on with a superior team, leading 51-47 with nine minutes remaining in the game, but were outscored 21-9 when it mattered, and at some Arizona figured out the Xavier zone defense which decided the game. T.J. McConnell led the way with 17 points, also adding 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
Arizona scored 1.34 points per possession against the zone in half court offense and outscored Xavier 13-8 on second chance points, 11 of them coming against that failed zone defense. Xavier couldn’t get anything going outside the paint, hitting just 20.8% of their shots, including 3-of-17 from beyond the arc. Without crashing the boards (only 8 offensive rebounds), their chances disappeared once their defense stopped working.