1. The Big East Conference had a lot of parity but maybe not so much quality.
Only two teams from the league of massive hype made the Sweet 16, and those two teams came from the four-team pods that each had two from the Big East. What does this tell us? Well, for one, a really strong argument could be made that Connecticut was the best team in the Big East this year after the March put together by the Huskies. Also, the league seems to lack athleticism compared to other leagues. The Atlantic Coast Conference might not have had as many talented basketball teams, but it had more athletic teams. And it has three bids in the Sweet 16.
2. Derrick Williams is a man amongst boys, especially in the clutch.
Did you see that and-one? It’s not every day a post player can also prove to be one of the nation’s best crunch-time players, but Williams is so talented he simply makes things happen on the court. Who would you take in a one-on-one game ahead of Williams? Perhaps Nolan Smith is a better overall college player and Harrison Barnes has a brighter future, but Williams’ combination of athleticism and polish cannot be overlooked.
3. Some coaches shouldn’t be trusted in the NCAA Tournament.
We’re looking at you, Mike Brey and Rick Barnes. Brey, in particular, showed off some classic coaching failure. He was incapable of preparing his Fighting Irish in a short turnover for a Florida State team that physically dominated Notre Dame. Barnes is a classic case of good enough to keep his job but not better than others could do with the same resources. Texas should be better than this, but the Longhorns haven’t made a Sweet 16 in three seasons now.
4. Butler never left.
Old Dominion was supposed to be the team to survive a tough 8-9 game and push Pittsburgh to the limit, but Butler has the experience and know-how to win NCAA Tournament games. After all, the Bulldogs won five last year. The beauty is, this March has been redemption time for Matt Howard, who really struggled last season as his teammates picked up the slack. He won Horizon League player of the year as a sophomore, but took the back seat to Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack as a junior. Now, he’s the critical factor if Butler should continue another magical run.
5. Ohio State is really, really, really good.
The most drama the No. 1 Buckeyes have seen so far? Jon Diebler’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that put Ohio State up 52-26 to end the first half against George Mason. Thad Matta’s been able to give Jared Sullinger much-needed rest, which is bad news for the rest of the field. And you’re simply not going to hang with this team if it’s hitting 61.5 percent of its 3-pointers, as it did against George Mason.
6. Kendall Marshall is the best passer in college basketball.
Are you going to disagree? The North Carolina freshman has 24 assists and just 16 points in the first two rounds. With all due respect to UAB’s Aaron Johnson and Michigan’s Darius Morris, Marshall is blessed with extraordinary court vision. He’s similar to Mark Jackson in that he doesn’t do a whole lot but create easy shots for teammates. Harrison Barnes‘ resurgence in the last two months can largely be credited to Marshall taking more and more minutes at point guard.
7. But Kemba Walker can pass, too.
Walker, the nation’s most exciting player, opened his NCAA Tournament with a 12-assist performance that showed he’s so much more than a highlight-reel scorer. Even his 33-point second-round showing against Cincinnati saw more restraint than he’s shown at times this year. Walker is the clear leader for Connecticut, but it’s refreshing to see him gain trust in his teammates. The Huskies need Walker to jack up 15-to-20 shots or so in order to beat elite teams, but he’s been rightly accused of forcing the issue in several losses, and he’s shown great patience so far.
8. Richmond was woefully underseeded.
The Spiders have two losses since Jan. 13 – at Temple and at home against Xavier. They’ve got size, experience and a pair of stars – Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson – playing at an elite level. And they were hot coming into the tournament. The committee apparently wasn’t impressed. Richmond’s No. 12 seed suggests they wouldn’t have made the field had they lost to Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. And what a disservice that would have been to all of us.
9. This Kentucky team is gelling in a way last year’s never did.
We can ooh and ahh over Brandon Knight‘s heroics, but the point of the story is that, even without the ridiculous upside of last year’s construct, these Wildcats are a better unit. Game after game, they find ways to win. They were underseeded as a No. 4 and pose a serious threat to Ohio State, particularly if Terrence Jones can find some of his swagger and Doron Lamb can heal up a bit.
10. Florida is at its best when its forwards get the ball.
This harkens back to a point I made earlier this season: Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are really talented, but they’re wildly inefficient shooters. How did Florida beat UCLA? Well, for one, its guards were responsible for just 18-of-54 field-goal attempts. With Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin and Patric Young inside, there isn’t a team in the country that can rotate 6-foot-8-and-taller athletes in and out like the Gators. If Walker and Boynton can minimize mistakes and get to the line, this team can win it all.
11. John Beilein has his own team in Ann Arbor, Mich., finally.
Most of these entries are about teams that are in the Sweet 16, but here’s one to consider: Michigan proved over the last two months of the season and the last half against Duke that it is finally the type of team John Beilein loves to coach. That means a few playmakers who are willing to distribute (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris) and a bunch of talented shooters who can defend. The season is over for the Wolverines, but next year, this could be a top-10 program again.
12. Duke doesn’t need Kyrie Irving, but he sure is nice to have off the bench.
It would be overstating to suggest Irving is back at full form, but he’s clearly comfortable enough to be the best sixth man in the country. Before his injury, Irving was the star of the show – and a very good star at that. Now, he’s a brilliant weapon for 20 minutes per game, and he’s still getting to the free-throw line at a wonderful pace. Even if he’s not the stud, he’s a great change of pace who gives Nolan Smith a little room for error.
13. Kansas is who we thought it was – the Morris twins.
Even against weaker opponents, the Jayhawks have been carried by Marcus Morrs and Markieff Morris. This should surprise no one – the Kansas backcourt simply isn’t that good. I’m a big proponent of Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson, but neither can carry a team off the bench. And starters Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed are best served feeding the Morris twins in the post. Josh Selby has yet to regain any swagger since a foot injury, though he wasn’t crucial anyway. After all, Kansas is undefeated without him. And the Morris twins remain why.
14. Maybe this “First Four” thing is actually an advantage.
Virginia Commonwealth looks like a team that has hit its stride and never stopped going. And why not? The Rams have now won three games in five days. They didn’t look tired; they looked like they were in the groove, particularly when they capably handled Purdue on Sunday. Is it possible – just maybe – that not having an extended break means the Rams are actually able to keep a hot streak going? Don’t forget Clemson put a scare into West Virginia.
15. There will be no rest for Jimmer Fredette.
The loss of Brandon Davies has left Brigham Young without much margin for error. But that doesn’t mean Fredette has to play all-game, every-game. Still, if he’s playing 39 minutes in a 22-point win against Gonzaga, coach Dave Rose is getting his point across loud and clear: We’re riding Jimmer to the end. It will be very interesting to see how he does against a Florida team gunning for revenge after BYU knocked it out in the first round of last year’s tournament.
16. This tournament is shaping up to be really memorable.
All season long, we heard complaints that the talent level in college basketball had reached a new low. Well, who cares? In 20 years, you’ll be recalling some of the many game-winners, not the lack of talent possessed by the players who made them. Sure, that Pitt-Butler game had a grossly executed finale, but I’m going to remember it for two of the strangest fouls I’ve ever seen. There’s been better basketball played in other years, but this year has provided plenty of shining moments.