By: Nick Pooler
As an avid college basketball fan, I love everything about this madness. Unlike all other sports, underdogs are given a great chance and that has been proven this year. As for my bracket, that is another story. We have eight teams remaining, 3 of them were projected to lose either their first or second game.
We will start out with the left side of the bracket in the games featured for tonight. #11 Loyola-Chicago will wear the dark colored uniforms for their 4th game of the tournament as they square off against #9 Kansas State for a trip to the final four. I can tell you one thing, Kansas State probably never expected to get to wear their home white uniforms in this tourney. Loyola came in as an 11 seed. Faced off against #6 Miami in the first round who was without their star player Bruce Brown due to injury. This of course ended in Loyola senior Donte Ingram hit a three-pointer to put them up by 2 in the closing seconds to move on. This as the first of the madness. The madness carried on second round when they met #3 Tennessee. Tennessee was led by their big men Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. Schofield dealt with foul trouble the whole game and finished with 14 points. Williams finished with 12. When they limited those two, it was game time. Loyola was led by senior forward Aundre Jackson off the bench with 16 points as they prevailed yet again with a last second shot to win it 63-62. Don’t you worry, the cinderella story keeps rolling. Thursday night, they won yet another one point game against #7 Nevada. Marques Townes had 18, Clayton Custer who hit the big three-pointer at the end finished with 15, and Jackson again off the bench had 15.
Kansas State won their opener against Creighton by ten. The interesting thing about them, they have been without star forward Dean Wade all tournament. Barry Brown led the way that game with 18 points and 6 rebounds. They then went on to face the team coming off one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports, UMBC. UMBC played tough and stuck right with them. But in the end, K State led by Brown (18 points), prevailed 50-43 in a low-scoring matchup to set up a match against #5 Kentucky. Kentucky was favored in every aspect here, the only thing they were not experienced in, was experience. That seemed to pay off as Kentucky players looked clueless at the end of the game and nobody stepped up for them. On the other side, Xavier Sneed (22 points) got hot at the right time and finished off the cake to head to the elite eight 61-58. Which leads to the prediction. #11 Loyola-Chicago vs. #9 Kansas State. I think it could go either way, if I was placing a bet down I would go with Loyola. Here’s why: They have all of America behind them. Their players are all peaking and are showing off all they got. They are representing all non major conferences and are doing it right. Custer, Townes and Jackson are all capable of scoring. Ingram has clutch in his body, and big man freshman Cameron Krutwig is holding every bit of his own with his limited minutes. I think Kansas State runs out of gas and I got the Rambles of Loyola winning this one 64-60 to advance to the final four.
Who they will play is a good question. Michigan or Florida State. Florida State is another team that was never expected to make it. This is a team who lost to Louisville twice, Oklahoma State, Boston College, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and NC State. They just seemed to get hot at the right time. Starting with #8 Missouri who was considered the front runner to win that game with the return of Michael Porter Jr. They convincingly won that game by 13. The Seminoles are an interesting team. They play a 10+ man rotation. That is never even heard of in college basketball anymore. But the fresh legs are catching up to the other teams at the right time. Next up was a chance to knock off #1 Xavier, and they did just that. Braian Angola had 15 points and 6 rebounds and they held a top player in the country, Trevon Bluiett to just 8 points. 75-70 was the final score their which then set them up to knock off yet another powerhouse in Gonzaga. Gonzaga decided not to show up as they got blown out of the water 75-60. Terance Mann had 18 points and the Seminoles had at least 11 players get in the scoring column. They now play Michigan later tonight.
Michigan was a team that everyone projected to make a run. They are coming off a Big-10 title and have been rolling. It started with a 14-point victory over #14 Montana. Next round, was one for the ages. They battled #6 Houston and I mean battled. It came down to a buzzer beater three-pointer from Jordan Poole (8 points). Led by NBA prospect Moritz Wagner, Michigan is doing everything they can to keep it rolling especially as they are now considered the favorite in the left side of the bracket. A quick shout out to Houston guard Rob Gray who had 39 points and 8 rebounds in the first round and 23 points and 10 rebounds in the second game. Michigan then went on and obliterated #7 Texas A&M who was coming off their upset win over North Carolina. They won that game 99-72 led by one of the coolest names in sports; Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman with 24 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds. In this matchup, I expect Michigan to keep rolling. I predict 71-59 Michigan over Florida State to advance to the final four to play Loyola-Chicago. Which will be another preview coming later this week.
To the right side, this one will be short and sweeter. Strictly because these teams did not get upset and were supposed to be where they are. Villanova. A household name the past couple years looks to get back to the championship where they won two years ago. Coach Jay Wright is one of the best in the game. Nova is led by a core group of Jalen Brunson, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges. The scary thing about this group, they can all come back next year. They are definitely the favorite this year as they have won all three games so far by a good margin. They beat Radford 87-61, Alabama 81-58 and West Virginia 90-78. They look to keep rolling as they take on #3 Texas Tech in the Elite 8.
Texas Tech is a team that was picked heavily to get upset in the first round to Stephen F Austin. SFA led the whole game, and I mean the whole game. With 2 minutes remaining, Texas Tech went on a run led by Keenan Evans (23 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists). They never looked back and won that game by ten. Next round, they barely beat #6 Florida. Florida had a chance to tie at the buzzer but missed. 69-66. Evans had 22 points but the story of that game was guard for Texas Tech Zhaire Smith. Who flirted with a triple double. 18 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists. They then faced a beaten up Purdue team. They took full advantage of the big man Isaac Haas’s injury and won 78-65. This should be a better matchup for Villanova. A feisty team that has lots to prove and nothing to lose. I would not be surprised if Texas Tech pulled this one out but I am going high scoring here; 91-84 Villanova.
The last preview is between Kansas and Duke. Not much to say there besides two household names that have been there for years and know what they are doing. Although these are two totally different teams. Kansas is led by a group of veterans that run everything: Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and LaGerald Vick. Duke on the other hand is led by one sole leader and that is Grayson Allen. Like him or not, he is a winner and he gets the job done. With four freshman around him practically the whole game: Marvin Bagley III (projected lottery pick), Wendell Carter Jr, Gary Trent Jr and Trevon Duval. He is a natural born leader. Both teams had rather easier schedules to get here. Kansas played Penn, Seton Hall and Clemson. Duke played Iona, Rhode Island and Syracuse. This should be a great game. There comes a time when great things come to an end and I believe that Duke has done everything great this tournament. I think Allen’s career comes to an abrupt end Sunday night in a somewhat surprising 84-82 victory for the Jayhawks.
Which leads to my final four of #11 Loyola-Chicago, #3 Michigan, and #1 seeds Villanova and Kansas. I could be very wrong, exhibit A just look at my bracket. But this is my best assumption and I am looking forward to watching the madness keep on going.