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NCAA Pick-Six: Big Ten Comes to Play While the ACC Lays Several Eggs

After a dull opening day but a wild weekend, here are six thoughts on the NCAA Tournament.

101ESPN’s Anthony Stalter

1. I was wrong about the Big Ten, and we were all wrong about…
…the ACC. Heading into this year’s tournament, the ACC was supposed to dominate while the Big Ten continued to put basketball fans to sleep. Instead, it was the ACC that had a horrific weekend while the Big Ten prospered. The biggest fall from grace for the ACC didn’t occur until Sunday night, when Duke succumbed to South Carolina’s relentless defense in a shocking 88-81 loss. Granted, the Blue Devils were at a disadvantage playing in Greenville, S.C. and in front of plenty of Gamecock and Tar Heels fans following North Carolina’s slim victory over Arkansas. Still, Duke entered the tournament as hot as any team in the field, not to mention one of the most talented to squads in the nation, and went out with nothing but a whimper. Earlier in the day, Louisville also blew an 8-point lead at halftime against red-hot Michigan, with only UNC advancing to the Sweet 16 out of the ACC. (Virginia and Florida State also got their asses handed to them by Florida and Xavier, respectively.)

Conversely, only one Big Ten team that played this weekend failed to reach the Sweet 16. That was Michigan State, an 8-point underdog versus one-seed Kansas, which pulled away for a 90-70 victory on Sunday. Wisconsin, a team that I gave zero shot of advancing past Villanova after its dreadful second-half performance versus Michigan in the Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship, did exactly that in beating the Wildcats on Saturday. Purdue, which held on to a tight victory after a battle with Iowa State on Saturday night, also advanced to the Sweet 16, as did the aforementioned Wolverines. While the Badgers and Boilermakers still play a style that will frustrate fans, if you don’t get excited watching Derrick Walton Jr. and UM then I don’t know what to tell you.

2. While I was wrong about the Big Ten as a whole, I couldn’t have…
…been more off on Michigan specifically. Following their thrilling run in the Big Ten tournament, I mentioned repeatedly on air last week about how the Wolverines’ adrenaline was sure to wear off in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament. With Oklahoma State a small underdog on Friday, I called for the upset, but Michigan hung on for a one-point victory. By Sunday morning I was fully on board with the Wolverines, finally realizing that I spit in the face of momentum too many times. If you watched the Wolverines at all in November and December, chances are you were underwhelmed.

It wasn’t until late January when Walton Jr., Muhammad Abdur-Rahkman, D.J. Wilson, Zak Irvin and Moritz Wagner, who was outstanding in the win over Louisville on Sunday, came together. Bottom line: The Wolverines peaked at the right time and now they’re riding that wave of momentum into the Sweet 16. And to prove that I’m fully on board after making the egregious mistake of doubting a red-hot UM team, I’m picking the Wolverines to beat three-seed Oregon on Thursday night.

3. Defense matters at this time of year because it travels, but so do…
…top point guards. You cannot discount how much a quality point guard and a suffocating defense means at this time of year. Why was Duke done in by South Carolina? For one, the Gamecocks’ defense was so intense it forced the Blue Devils to get out of rhythm shooting in the second half. The other big issue for Duke? Grayson Allen started to embrace his new role as point guard over the past week but struggled to get the ball up court on Sunday night.

Elsewhere, Lonzo Ball scored 18 points, grabbed seven boards and finished with nine assists as UCLA beat Cincinnati. Monte Morris brought Iowa State back from the dead against Purdue before the Cyclones eventually fell by four points in the waning minutes. Manu Lecomte was incredible for stretches during Baylor’s victory over USC. Frank Mason (Kansas), De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Nigel Williams-Goss and Joel Berry (North Carolina) will also play pivotal roles for their respective teams from here on out. Guard play remains as crucial as ever in March.

4. The committee did a bad job seeding, but teams like…
…Villanova have nobody to blame but themselves now that the tournament has started. Was Wisconsin a bad draw in the second round? Sure, but you know what else was bad? Kris Jenkins’ continued shooting woes. Wisconsin didn’t have a great season and its second half versus Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game was unsightly. Had that Badgers team showed up Saturday, the Wildcats probably cruise to the Sweet 16 and all-of-a-sudden the narrative of Wisconsin being a bad draw changes entirely. Instead, a veteran team, led by back-to-back Final Four holdovers Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, played suffocating defense against Villanova and wound up producing one of the biggest wins of the weekend. So be it. It’s March, those things happen. Sorry, Nova. As Brad Thompson would say, ‘Don’t like it, play better.’

5. The bad beats at the end of some of these games…
…were unbelievable. For those unaware, a “bad beat” in sports betting is when a cover is essentially in the bag but a bettor loses on a meaningless last-second play. For example, on Friday afternoon Michigan was a 2.5-point favorite versus Oklahoma State. With 23 seconds remaining in the game, the Wolverines led 88-81 after Duncan Robinson made consecutive free throws. The game was essentially over and Michigan backers should have been making their way to the betting window to collect their winnings.

Instead, the Cowboys get within four points with just two seconds remaining. That’s when Jawun Edwards became a hero for bettors that took the points, and a nightmare for those that laid the 2.5 on Michigan. Edwards raced up the court, stopped, then took a 3-pointer from Stillwater and sunk it. Final score: Michigan 92-91, OK State covers the 2.5. Fast-forward to Sunday night when Baylor takes on USC. At tip-off, the Bears were a 5.5-point favorite. Up six with just three seconds left in the game, Baylor had punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 and was on the verge of covering the 5.5-point number. Instead, USC’s De’Anthony Melton took a long-distance 3-pointer, which missed off the front of the rim and caromed to teammate Chimezie Metu, who one-handed the ball and threw it back at the hoop. The ball bounced once off the rip and swooshed through the net as the final buzzard sounded. Final score: Baylor 82-78, USC covers the 5.5. I’m sure there were other close calls and bad beats over the weekend, but those two stood out the most. Unreal.

6. After a slow start to the tournament, the weekend…
…was fantastic. Last Thursday lacked the usual energy that the NCAA tournament often provides fans. Some of the games were close, but the two best finishes were essentially meltdowns (one by Vanderbilt against Northwestern, and the other was Princeton versus Notre Dame). On Friday, however, that all changed. Michigan and Oklahoma State put on a shooting clinic to start the day. USC upset SMU that day, Arkansas and Seton Hall offered a controversial finish, and Wichita State had to hang on for dear life against Dayton. The action was only ratcheted up over the weekend and while we have yet to see any buzzer-beaters, I wouldn’t be shocked if the best is yet to come.

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