After three long days, the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament finally kicks off tonight. Gonzaga is the last mid-major in action (save your “they’re not a mid-major!” takes for someone else), and they’ll take on a tough West Virginia team tonight.
We gathered some of our wonderful writers for a roundtable to discuss the first weekend, Gonzaga’s chances moving forward, and asked for their hottest takes. Please direct any qualms with their takes to them.
What was your overall takeaway from the first weekend of the tournament for the mid-major teams?
Jordan Burton: The depth of quality mid-major programs continues to grow. Gonzaga, Wichita State, VCU and Saint Mary’s are names people are used to hearing in the last decade. Programs like Middle Tennessee, Rhode Island, Nevada and Vermont don’t get the same respect nationally, but hopefully that will change going forward.
Torrance Jones: The mid-majors continued to open the eyes of the casual fan to high quality basketball. Almost all of them had an opportunity to be victorious, which shows me that these programs are building teams that future recruits will buy into that can lead to future success on the biggest stage.
Ben Goren: Making 7-10 games de facto “mid-major showcases” is awful and it’s robbing teams of making deeper runs than they otherwise would. We can talk about Wichita State getting a 10 seed forever, but Dayton, St. Mary’s, and, to a lesser extent, VCU all could be playing this week if not for an incredibly unlucky draw. That’s a let down. Also some of the best low seeds, like ETSU and Vermont, got unlucky, either through draw or injury. Both of those teams could have won if things bounced the right way.
Andy Evans: It would have been fun to see mid-major regular season champions get a shot. The opening weekend lacked the big upsets that make it so much fun. Getting the regular season champions into the field who failed to win their conference tournaments could fix the issue. Illinois State, UT Arlington, and Monmouth, to name a few, would have gotten a shot with this format.
Ellie Lieberman: Mid-majors in the tournament have provided great platforms for transfers who never got to show themselves for powerhouse programs. Players like Kuran Iverson, JaCorey Williams and Conner Frankamp never got to shine when they made it the tournament for their predecessors, but by taking different routes, they have become heroes of March. I think more bench players from the Power Five schools will start to look at transferring to mid-majors if they don’t get enough playing time.
Gonzaga is the only mid-major team that advanced to the second weekend. How do you think they fared in their first two games, and what is your prediction for them moving forward?
Torrance: Tournament season brings out the best in every team and there will be challenges. Gonzaga is doing what it needs to do, take care of business in the 1-16 matchup and survive against a hot Northwestern team. I have Gonzaga reaching the championship game, as they are talented at each position, play with passion, within their system, and decent team defense with good offensive balance.
Ben: They’ve been not amazing! Gonzaga was never going to lose to South Dakota State, but that game was a game for longer than it should have been. Their second half implosion against Northwestern is cause for concern too. West Virginia is such a weird team that it’s hard to make a prediction before you actually see how they handle the press, but Gonzaga still has an opportunity to make a deeper run. My heart says championship game, thanks to the blood spilled in the East region, but my head says an Elite 8 exit, if not earlier.
Andy: Gonzaga was dominant in stretches and beatable in others during the first weekend. But they did what they needed to do to win, which is all that matters at this point. They haven’t shot well from three so far, but their defense is good enough to beat anybody. I think the perimeter shots will start falling and they will at least make the Final Four.
Jordan: It wasn’t a pretty weekend, but the Bulldogs ability to hold off a gritty and magical Northwestern team was impressive. However, this seems to be yet another Gonzaga team poised to underachieve in March. I don’t see them handling West Virginia’s pressure well. I’ll be shocked if they make it to Saturday.
Ellie: Lots of college basketball fans have been dissing Gonzaga for seeming overrated because they play in a relatively weak conference and to some degree, I think it is true. The Bulldogs have looked like a team falling apart at the seams these first two weekends and they haven’t even faced real competition. Their two leading scorers Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski were held under 10 points against South Dakota State, so I worry about their offense against the tenacious West Virginia defense. I do think the Bulldogs have enough to win the tournament in these two players as well as Zach Collins, Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams but it’s all about stepping up to the plate. Their defensive may be the most efficient in the country, but who’s gonna put some points on the board against the Mountaineers?
Since the mid-majors are all but extinct, whose bandwagon are you jumping on for the rest of the tournament?
Torrance: I’ve always been a fan of the little guy or underdog, also I’m a bit biased strictly for the name, so I’m riding the Xavier wave. Their matchup with Arizona is a tall task, but Xavier has the firepower to score which can make it interesting.
Ben: Man, South Carolina suddenly became dumb fun in the second half against Duke. Hanging 60+ in 20 minutes on the Blue Devils and kicking Coach K and his hair dye out of the tournament rules. Their defense is always going to be good, but if the shots keep falling? Look out. Let’s go Gamecocks.
Andy: The mid-majors aren’t dead yet! Gonzaga is still hanging around and I’ll be rooting for them. On the other side of the bracket, Butler has impressed me. I didn’t think they’d survive past Middle Tennessee, but they look like they could do some damage.
Jordan: I’m rolling with West Virginia. Early this season they were my favorite team to watch because of the way they got after people. It seems like they’re putting it back together at the right time. Plus, how can you not love Bob Huggins’ swag?’’
Ellie: I’m ready to jump around or at least jump on the Wisconsin bandwagon. There is something so lovable about the Badgers team right now from the kid next door aka Ethan Happ, to the experienced Bronson Koenig and enthusiastic Nigel Hayes. Their win against Villanova is telling of the heart this team has, and I’m also a huge fan of Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown. These two guys may not get enough credit behind the top three scorers, but they are so tough and were game changers against Nova.
Who is your favorite player to watch that is still dancing?
Torrance: I’m a sucker for good perimeter defense and Kadeem Allen doesn’t disappoint. He’s physical, understands defensive angles, and has a toughness pedigree that you can’t teach. He plays within the system offensively, but when the Wildcats need it most, he is capable of taking over.
Ben: DJ Wilson. Can it really be anyone else? He’s 6-foot-11 with skills and touch, good hair, and really short shorts. I will now be the millionth person to write that Michigan is a team of destiny. DJ Wilson is a big reason for that.
Andy: May not be a popular pick at the moment due to his father’s antics, but it is Lonzo Ball. It’s fun to see what he does on the offensive end each time out and it will be interesting to see how far he can take UCLA.
Jordan: Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey is a gamer. He’s 18-for-23 from the field in this year’s tournament, averaging 26.5 PPG. He’s gone for 20-plus in each of the Ducks last five games. He struggled in last year’s tournament, he’s clearly on a mission to feed everyone buckets this March. Dillon Brooks gets the headlines, but Dorsey might be the most explosive scorer Oregon has.
Ellie: No doubt, Caleb Swanigan. If this guy doesn’t get you with his personal cinderella story, all you need to do is look at his stats. He’s averaging a double-double with 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, and can shoot it from behind the arc, making 43% of shots from three. He’s also a consistent performer and came up big (or Biggie) against Iowa State with 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. He does it all and I can’t wait to see him light Kansas up.
Who wins the tournament and why?
Torrance: The UNC Tarheels will win the tournament because they have depth in the front court, experience, and Joel Berry and Justin Jackson are tough to defend. The Tarheels ability to get so many second chance points and rapid offensive pace make them dangerous.
Ben: Kansas was my pick at the start of the tournament and I’ll stick with it. The team deserves serious criticism for their handling of off the court issues this season, but Josh Jackson, Frank Mason, and Devonte’ Graham comprise the best Big Three left. That team oozes talent and Josh Jackson is still somehow getting noticeably better every game.
Andy: If you believe the saying “defense wins championships” it will be Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are the most efficient defensive team in the country according to KenPom. That defense will carry them moving forward.
Jordan: Kentucky. Guards win games in March and Cal has the most talented backcourt remaining. We saw Kentucky take its defensive effort and intensity to the next level against Wichita State. If they bring it like that for the next two weeks they’ll be a tough out. Having seniors like Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins - both Kentucky natives - also gives this team more maturity than typical Kentucky teams.
Ellie: The Pac-12 was on fire this year with UCLA, Oregon, Arizona all making the Sweet 16, and in my mind the best of the best is Arizona. I’ve generally thought of Sean Miller’s team as one to choke in the tournament, but I think that they are by far the best Arizona team we’ve seen in awhile. Love him or hate him, Allonzo Trier is a force to be reckoned with and I view Lauri Markkanen as a lottery pick this year. I think that Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright play great defense as well and the list of star players goes on. The Wildcats are ready to bear down till the very end.
What is your hottest take about what will happen the rest of the way?
Torrance: The final four will have no seed higher than a four.
Ben: UCLA is going to get ran out of the gym by Kentucky, because De’Aaron Fox is going to be a better pro than Lonzo Ball, and Steve Alford is a bad coach. Is that hot enough?
Andy: Kid President’s 2013 finals prediction will finally come true as Gonzaga and Michigan square off for the title. His prediction of Gonzaga winning it all will also come true, just four years late.
Jordan: I’m not sure how hot of a take it is at this point, but the Florida/Wisconsin winner will play for a national championship. Two elite defenses. Two teams with senior leadership and NBA talent. I love their odds.
Ellie: Big 10 ballin’ because Wisconsin, Michigan and Purdue will all be in the Elite 8.