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8 biggest takeaways from Saturday’s NCAA Tournament action

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 3/18/2018 Shane McNichol
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The first round of the NCAA Tournament collects tons of attention and praise as one of the premier events in sports. The second round is relatively underappreciated by comparison, though based on what happened Saturday, that may change.

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Between the finishes in the Michigan-Houston game and Loyola Chicago-Tennessee, it was hard to top the action from Saturday. We saw half the second round on Saturday, providing half of our Sweet Sixteen teams. No matter if those teams were expected or total surprises, we learned a ton about them. Here’s out ten biggest takeaways from the third day of tournament action.

1. Michigan survives and advances … barely

The second round ended with a bang: the day’s first and only true buzzer-beater. Michigan’s Jordan Poole hit a deep three to beat Houston as the final horn sounded.

Houston missed free throws down the stretch, including two freebies that could have sealed the game. Michigan took advantage on a day when the Wolverines struggled offensively. In a low-scoring, late-night slug fest, Michigan shot just 35 percent from the field and only 27 percent from beyond the arc.

Teams that make runs deep into March are able to survive poor shooting nights. The Wolverines did so by playing solid defense and only turning the ball over seven times in the game. Houston star guard Rob Gray was held to just 8 of 22 shooting, unable to get into a rhythm to lead the Cougars to an upset win.

2. Loyola continues to roll

Double-digit seeds find their way into the Sweet Sixteen every year, though Loyola Chicago did so in the most heart-wrenching fashion. After the Ramblers needed a near buzzer-beater to beat Miami in the first round, Loyola needed late game heroics again in the second round.

Trailing third seeded Tennessee with less than ten seconds left, the Ramblers desperately needed a bucket. Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer drove into the lane, rose above tight defense, and rattled in a 2-point jumper. The shot bounced off the backboard once and rim seemingly dozens of times before sinking in.

With Custer and Donte Ingram playing as well as they have this week, the Ramblers could very well keep winning next weekend.

3. Kentucky is peaking at the right time

At one point this season, Kentucky was 17-9 overall and under.500 in SEC play. Since that point on February 15, Big Blue is 9-1, with the Wildcats’ most recent win coming in the second round of the NCAA Tournament versus Buffalo. Kentucky’s only loss in the last month came at Florida, with seven of its nine wins in that period against NCAA Tournament teams.

John Calipari’s teams are always built to succeed in March. The young teams at Kentucky grow together over the course of the year, learning how to attack offensively and finding the right gear on the defensive end of the floor. This year’s team, a bit underseeded after winning the SEC Tournament, has a similar feeling to the 2014 Kentucky team that made run to the Final Four.

The Wildcats have made just 7 threes in two tournament games, but are attacking the paint relentlessly. With Virginia and Arizona, the other powers in the South Region, eliminated already, a path to the Final Four exists for Kentucky.

4. Kansas can shoot its way out of trouble

Guard play is so crucial in postseason basketball, as proven again by Kansas on Saturday. The Jayhawks’ three starting guards all played more than 36 minutes and were crucial in Kansas’ victory. Big XII Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham shot only 1 for 7 from the field, and missed all 4 of this 3-point attempts, but added 9 assists for Kansas.

Graham’s bad shooting night was offset by his backcourt mates, Svi Mykhialiuk and Malik Newman, who shot a combined 6 for 14 from outside the arc. Newman was also 8 of 8 from the free throw line, en route to 28 points.

Kansas went 12-of-12 on free throws over the final few minutes of the game and continues to shoot itself out of trouble. Despite a shallow bench and lack of size, the Jayhawks are headed to the Sweet Sixteen.

5. Gonzaga keeps handling business

It’s hard to fathom sometimes just how far the Gonzaga men’s basketball program has come in the last two decades. The Zags had made the tournament just once in school history since 1999. Since then, the Bulldogs have made the Big Dance 20 straight times. In the last ten NCAA Tournaments, Gonzaga has won at least one game. This will be Gonzaga’s seventh Sweet Sixteen in the last 20 years.

The Zags earned their way with a win over Ohio State. Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop proved to be a tough test for Gonzaga. The senior scored 28 points in 38 minutes on the floor, troubling every Gonzaga defender who matched up with him.

Gonzaga prevailed on the backs of two of its younger players. Redshirt freshman Zach Norvell broke out for 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists, in what might be the first great game of a future star. Sophomore Rui Hachimura added 25 points, 4 blocked shots, and a ton of energy, pushing the Zags over the top on Saturday.

6. Villanova can play at a championship level

Alabama stayed with Villanova for the entire first half of their first round match-up Saturday afternoon. Once the second half started, however, Villanova played like a different team. The Wildcats couldn’t miss from outside the arc, finishing the game 17 of 41 from 3-point land.

Villanova’s hot shooting put the Wildcats ahead in the second half, outscoring Alabama by 18 after halftime. In addition to making shots, Villanova’s defense ratcheted up to another level in the second half. Only one Alabama player scored in double-figures in the game, with Collin Sexton managing just 17 points on 14 field goal attempts.

The Villanova team that played in the first half looked beatable. If not for 5 threes from Donte DiVencenzo, the Wildcats would have been in early trouble. The Villanova we saw in the second half is the kind of team that can win the national championship.

7. Duke’s size is a problem for opponents

Rhode Island’s guards were capable of sticking with Duke’s backcourt, but even entering the game, Duke’s size was going to be too much for the Rams.

The Blue Devils starting big men were able to control the game, earning Duke an easy victory. Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter combined for 35 points and 15 rebounds, missing just two field goals between the two of them.

The Duke frontcourt also anchored the Devils’ zone defense. Rhode Island was held to just 36 percent shooting from the floor and shot only 13 free throws on the day.

8. Texas Tech benefits from home atmosphere

Playing as a 3 seed, Texas Tech had the good fortune of playing in its home state. With first and second round games in Dallas, the Red Raiders were surrounded by fans that turned a neutral site into a comfortable atmosphere.

In front of that nearly-home crowd, Texas Tech battled to the final whistle to earn a win over Florida on Saturday. The Gators fire multiple three-point attempts to tie the game on the game’s final possession, yet failed to connect. All game long, Florida was bottled up by Tech’s high-level defense. With aggressive closeouts on shooters, the Raiders held Florida to just 6 of 22 shooting outside the 3-point line.

Keenan Evans paced Texas Tech offensively, as usual, pouring in 23 points. After Texas Tech swooned while Evans dealt with turf toe, it’s becoming clear that his pain has subsided and he is no longer hindered by the injury.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

Related slideshow: 2018 NCAA Tournament (Provided by photo services)

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 02:  Head coach Jay Wright of the Villanova Wildcats raises the trophy with his team after defeating the Michigan Wolverines during the 2018 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at the Alamodome on April 2, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas.  Villanova defeated Michigan 79-62. 2018 NCAA Tournament
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