Each week of the NCAA Tournament has a different vibe. The second week isn’t quite the “business end” of the competition like the Final Four, but it doesn’t have the chaotic, so-much-happening-at-once feel of the first week. During the Sweet 16 there are still multiple games going on at once, but there are usually only one or two—if any—big underdogs remaining. I feel like it’s the most underrated portion of the tournament, the forgotten middle part. But I love it because there’s still the anticipation of Final Four ahead, you can go very long stretches without having to watch any commercials, and the overall quality of all of the games is pretty high.
That last point is really the most important of all. The Sweet 16 gave us some high-quality hoops … well, excluding West Virginia. So before the Final Four gets set in stone, let’s look at the best moments from the eight games that got us there.
Ron Baker’s a Poet and He Didn’t Even Know It
I already went over this game yesterday, but I want to focus on Ron Baker. It was easy to see why he was upset after Wichita State’s game on Thursday: he played poorly (nine points on 2-for-10 shooting) and his team lost. So I don’t blame him for this post-game response to a reporter:
"I'm not an English major" – Ron Baker when asked to describe the season in a single word.
— Rush the Court (@rushthecourt) March 27, 2015
It’s not easy to boil down a 35-game season into one word, and even if Baker did, it probably wouldn’t have given us much insight. And yet, I have to wonder about his claim about not being an English major. I mean, check this out from the Associated Press’ recap:
“Baker admitted toppling Kansas was like reaching Cloud Nine but added it doesn’t sound so good when Cloud 10 is two steps away.”
If only that other reporter had asked to describe the season in a sentence instead of a word.
LeBron Academy Sam Dekker
Everything leading up to this season suggested that Sam Dekker was due for a breakout season. Well, not everything, really just the same thing over and over again: Dekker’s performance at the LeBron James Skill Academy. He had everyone talking about him after the camp.
It’s hard to say for sure that Dekker has lived up to that hype, though. Sure his numbers—13.5 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game, 52 percent shooting—are good, but he still hasn’t escaped his tendency to fade in and out of games. Although who could really blame him; he’s had to share a frontcourt with national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky and an emerging star Nigel Hayes. But against North Carolina, Dekker stole the show. Check out this slow-motion Shammgod crossover followed by a drive down the middle of the defense and a finish through contact:
Plays like that one prevented North Carolina from building an early lead. Dekker scored 15 of the Badgers’ 31 first-half points, keeping them within two of the Tar Heels. His teammates (particularly Kaminsky) came to life in the second half, but Dekker finished strong with 23 points and 10 rebounds on the night. After stretches of the season where we were left wondering what the hype was all about, we got to see the Sam Dekker from the LeBron Academy take over on one of the biggest stages.
Kentucky Posterizes Itself
Seriously, it got so bad that the Wildcats were creating highlights by dunking on themselves:
The only person the Mountaineers could slow down on the court was the referee:
That’s all you need to know about this game: Kentucky’s offensive highlights didn’t even involve West Virginia, and West Virginia’s best stop didn’t even involve Kentucky. That’s game over right there.
Arizona Avoids Getting Stainbrooked
You just know every headline writer across the country was going to use that line if Xavier was able to beat Arizona. Xavier’s big man did his best, posting 17 and 10, but Matt Stainbrook and the Musketeers couldn’t score enough down the stretch to hang with Arizona. Of course, it didn’t help that their defense allowed some easy buckets earlier in the game:
Dee Davis played a pretty good game for the most part and even hit one of his patented moon-shot threes, but that was some pretty poor defense. Things weren’t that easy all the time for T.J. McConnell, who overcame some early shooting struggles and four turnovers to finish with 17 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. But overall he did a good job of switching between scorer and facilitator. Now Sean Miller just needs him to keep it up and have someone (Brandon Ashley?) to slow down Frank Kaminsky, and he’ll finally get to the Final Four.
Przemek Karnowski, Passing Wizard
You’d be right in saying Przemek Karnowski was the MVP in Gonzaga’s win over UCLA last night. You’d be wrong in saying it was because of his 18-point, nine-rebound outing. The reason Karnowski was the MVP of this game is because of these two assists that you didn’t know you needed in your life until you saw them:
Karnowski would tell you how nice those passes were himself, but he didn’t see them. (See what I did there? Well, Karnowski didn’t. Look, you can make an endless loop of jokes with this!) It’s crazy how similar these plays are. Domantas Sabonis’ finish is nicer on the first, but the celebration by Gonzaga’s bench on the second one pushes it over the top. When Karnowski’s passing out of double teams like that, he’s basically impossible to defend.
Montrezl Harrell did not have a great game against North Carolina State the first time around, back in February. He hit only one shot from the field, scoring seven points. Cat Barber was the start for the Wolfpack, leading all scorers with 21 points. Worst of all, he put a booger in Harrell’s hair:
It’s all right, though; Harrell got his payback, and on a much bigger stage. The Louisville big man had 21 points, seven rebounds, and four assists in the Cardinals’ win last night, while Barber shot 3-for-14 from the field, finishing with eight points. But the most important number for Harrell was zero: the number of boogers in his hair.
Duke’s Stopper Forgets to Play Defense
It’s unfair to call Justise Winslow a stopper because he’s a legitimate two-way star, but on a team known more for its offense than defense, he is Duke’s de facto stopper. However Winslow seemed have bigger concerns than playing defense last night against Utah, like celebrating this three-pointer:
To Winslow’s credit he did still play his usual stellar defense, including slowing down Delon Wright, and he led all scorers with 21 points. In fact, Winslow’s play has some wondering if he should enter the NBA draft No. 1 pick discussion. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but he’s developing a case for a top-three pick.
Branden Dawson Sends TaShawn Thomas, Oklahoma Packing
Michigan State recorded only one block against Oklahoma but it was a big one. Midway through the second half, TaShawn Thomas went up for a potential game-tying dunk, but Branden Dawson went right in between Thomas’ extended arms and slapped the ball free:
Dawson only scored six points last night, but he did his best work when attacking the ball, not attacking with the ball. That block and his game-high 11 rebounds were indicative of his physical, dirty work mentality, a mindset that has this team one win away from the Final Four.