This year’s NCAA tournament featured epic individual performances, huge upsets, and a third national title for the Louisville Cardinals. Although history will likely remember the Cards as one of the better champions in recent memory, it’s really the Cinderella teams and unlikely heroes that steal our hearts. The Mac Weekly takes you through the high points of this year’s tournament.
Mitch McGary – C/ Michigan: No player potentially raised his NBA draft stock higher in this tournament than Mitch McGary. The breakout star of this year’s tournament, McGary was coming off the bench for most of the regular season, starting only seven games. His first breakthrough came in the third round of the tournament versus a scrappy VCU team that many pundits picked to upset the Wolverines. However, McGary manned the interior with a 21 point – 14 rebound performance and followed that up with a 25 point – 14 rebound performance in the Sweet 16 against potential future first round pick Jeff Withey and the Kansas Jayhawks. His performance in the Final Four match-up versus Syracuse had CBS announcer Clark Kellogg raving and comparing the redshirt freshman to Magic Johnson after a stellar no-look pass down low to Glenn Robinson III. Look for McGary to be selected in the lottery during June’s NBA Draft.
Russ Smith – G/ Louisville: Smith was a scoring machine in the tournament, averaging 22.3 points per game and leading Louisville all the way to the National Championship. Smith was known for his erratic style of play as a sophomore last season, but really came into his own this year especially during postseason play. He scored 31 points in the Sweet 16 game against Oregon, but his best game may have been in the regional final match-up versus Duke. Smith fought back tears after watching teammate Kevin Ware go down with a compound fracture in his leg in the first half of that contest. His three-point-play in the second half with the game knotted at 42 broke the game open and allowed Louisville to never look back.
Trey Burke – G / Michigan: Burke was named the Naismith National Player of the Year, which goes to college basketball’s top player. However, his tournament did not get off to a great start after scoring only six points and suffering a back injury in the second round game against South Dakota State. His play became dominant after that, most notably after one of the most epic second half performances in NCAA Tournament history versus Kansas. He led the Wolverines on a 14-4 run, scoring eight of those points himself. That included a long, tying three pointer in the final seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime. Burke scored all 23 of his points in the second half and overtime and dished out ten assists to become only the fifth player in NCAA Tournament history to dish out at least 20 points and 10 assists in a Sweet 16 contest. Burke should be among the top ten picks in this year’s NBA Draft and has drawn comparisons to Nets guard Deron Williams and Bobcats guard Kemba Walker.
Michael Carter-Williams – G / Syracuse: Carter-Williams has been considered a first round lock all year by many NBA Draft gurus, but his performance in the NCAA Tournament may have put him into top ten consideration. Carter-Williams’ breakthrough performance was in the Orange’s upset win versus the number one seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the Sweet 16, where Carter-Williams scored 24 points and grabbed five boards in dominating fashion. This performance came only days after finding out that his Massachusetts home burned down. After being overshadowed last season as a freshman by future first round pick Dion Waiters, Carter-Williams helped lead the Orange to their first Final Four since the year 2003 when Carmelo Anthony led the program to the National Championship.
4 Michigan – 1 Kansas / Sweet 16 South Regional: The only overtime game of the NCAA Tournament was a thriller, but the way the game reached overtime was unbelievable. Kansas led most of the contest, most notably when the Jayhawks were up 14 points with only 6:50 remaining. However, Trey Burke went into T-Mac vs. the San Antonio Spurs mode and began to hit every shot he took in the final two minutes, including a three-pointer from five feet behind the line to put the game into overtime. In overtime, the lead changed hands five times. Down two points, the Jayhawks had a chance to win or tie, but Kansas guard Elijah Johnson bypassed what looked like an easy layup and kicked out a pass back to the top of the key. Naadir Thorpe was forced to fire up a desperation running three-pointer as time expired, only to watch it clank off the backboard and end the Jayhawks season.
3 Marquette – 14 Davidson / 2nd Round East Regional: Many college basketball pundits predicted an upset here since Marquette was probably over-seeded as a three seed, while the Wildcats of Davidson were likely under-seeded as a 14. That appeared the case as the Golden Eagles struggled with the Wildcats for most of the contest, especially down low with Davidson bigs De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen. Things looked pretty bleak for Marquette down 53-46 with only 1:37 to play, especially considering that Davidson was the best free throw shooting team in the tournament while Marquette was the worst three point shooting team in the pool. However, after shooting 1-12 on threes up to that point, the Golden Eagles improbably made three consecutive three pointers to cut the deficit to one. Before Marquette could foul, Brooks threw the ball away with only six seconds left, giving Marquette a chance to win the game. Marquette guard Vander Blue got a high ball screen at the top of the key and drove down for the game-winning layup to somehow escape and advance the Golden Eagles to the next round.
1 Gonzaga – 9 Wichita State / 3rd Round West Regional: Not many people had Wichita State coming out of the West Regional as the number 9 seed. First, however, the Shockers had to go through perhaps the most vulnerable number one seed – the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Wichita State entered the NCAA Tournament not known for their three-point shooting, registering only 34% on the season as a team. However, down seven with only 6:05 left, Wichita State guard Takele Cotton began a rally where the Shockers rattled off five consecutive three pointers in as many possessions. The final three-pointer occurred at the 1:28 mark when freshman guard Fred Van Vleet lost the ball dribbling between his legs and was forced to put up a prayer with only one second left on the shot clock. The ball went in to give the Shockers a 70-65 lead, and they were able to close out the Zags on free throws for a 76-70 victory. Overall, the Shockers made 14 threes after shooting only 2 for 20 from distance in their 18 point victory in the previous round against Pittsburgh.
2 Ohio State – 10 Iowa State / 3rd Round West Regional: It was a game of many ups and downs for Ohio State Junior point guard Aaron Craft. Ohio State looked as if they were going to run away with the ballgame up 69-56 with only six minutes left to go. However, Iowa State came storming back with a 13-0 run capped off by a Korie Lucious three-point play to tie the game at 69 apiece. In that Iowa State run, Craft missed an open layup and the front end of two one-and-one free throws to help the Cyclones get right back into the game. After Craft missed a jumper with 30 seconds left and the game tied up 75-75, controversy ensued as the ball appeared to go out of bounds off an Ohio State player.
However, Ohio State retained possession and Craft took matters into his own hands by calmly drilling a three-pointer over Iowa State 6’7” defender Georges Niang to send the Buckeyes to a school record fourth-straight Sweet 16.
15 Florida Gulf Coast over 2 Georgetown, 15 Florida Gulf Coast over 7 San Diego State / South Regional: The story of Florida Gulf Coast and the trending Lob City was perhaps the underdog story of the year, not only in college basketball, but in all of sports. Imagine this: Florida Gulf Coast, a school that was eligible for the NCAA Tournament only last season, won not one, but two games in the tournament to become the first number 15 seed in NCAA history to make it to the Sweet 16. Even more ironic: the team that they played in the Sweet 16, the Florida Gators, denied a preseason scrimmage with Florida Gulf Coast. The Cinderella ride ended in that Sweet 16 contest against the Gators, but not after defeating the two-seeded Georgetown Hoyas and the seven-seeded San Diego State Aztecs in what was one of the wildest rides by an underdog that fans may ever see.
9 Wichita State over 2 Ohio State / West Regional Final: It appeared that the Buckeyes had a cakewalk to the Final Four after four of the region’s top five seeds suffered defeat before the Buckeyes even played their third round game versus Iowa State. However, the Shockers had other ideas, especially after knocking off the top seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs only one week earlier. The Shockers were up by as many as 20 on the Buckeyes in the second half until Ohio State came surging back to cut the deficit to as little as three with 2:49 left to play. However, the Shockers played poised and disciplined basketball down the stretch, never allowing the Buckeyes within three the rest of the contest. The Shockers held on for a 70-66 victory and returned to the Final Four for the first time since 1965. They also became the tenth team seeded eight or lower to reach the National Semifinals.
14 Harvard over 3 New Mexico / West 2nd Round: New Mexico was a Final Four sleeper pick by many due to the play of Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams. However, the Crimson held Williams to only eight points on 1-6 shooting. Harvard guard Laurent Rivers scored 17 points on 5-9 from behind the arc and was called “the best three point shooter in Boston since Ray Allen left town” by head coach Tommy Amaker after the game. The upset may be more surprising considering the Crimson lost its two co-captains before the season due to an academic cheating scandal that involved about 100 Harvard students.
13 La Salle over 4 Kansas State / West 2nd Round: It was no surprise that three of the top four upsets in the tournament came out of what was known as the Wild West Regional. In the past, we have seen a team play in the first round (play-in-game) and build on a little momentum after that first game. VCU was able to ride that streak in 2011 en route to the Final Four, while South Florida upset Temple last year in the second round. However, many fans expected St. Mary’s to be that team in this year’s tourney. Yet after defeating Boise State in the opening round, La Salle came storming out of the gates against fourth seeded Kansas State. They opened the game on a 20-5 run and led by as many as 19 in the first half. Despite only scoring 19 points in the second half, the Explorers held off a late Kansas State rally for a 63-61 win. The run would not end there, as the Explorers defeated Ole Miss in their following game to head to their first Sweet 16 in school history.