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Thursday night of the men’s Sweet 16 was expected to be three great games plus Gonzaga somewhat comfortably beating Arkansas.
However, someone forgot to tell the Razorbacks that they were supposed to lose.
Or, rather, too many people told the Razorbacks, as head coach Eric Musselman thanked all of us for the bulletin board material that motivated the Hogs to pull off the major upset.
In addition to Arkansas getting back to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, here are the biggest winners and losers from the first night of the Sweet 16, which will be updated throughout the night.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Arkansas does not shoot well, especially from three-point range. As such, a game played in the 70s or 80s against Gonzaga was not going to be a winning formula.
So what did Arkansas do in the first half against the favorites to win it all?
It mucked the game up.
That doesn’t mean the Hogs turned it into a foul fest. In fact, there were only five free throws attempted in the first 20 minutes. But they walked the ball up the court, they got back in transition, they crowded the paint and dared the Zags to let someone other than Drew Timme (eight points on six field-goal attempts) beat them and they were aggressive on defense, forcing nine turnovers.
JD Notae and Co. also wisely drove the ball straight at Chet Holmgren in the paint, hoping to get Gonzaga’s big shot-blocking presence into foul trouble. And it worked to perfection. Holmgren had just one block, no points and two fouls by halftime, forced to sit out the final eight minutes to avoid a third whistle.
It was just about the perfect blueprint for slowing down Gonzaga, and it resulted in a 32-29 Arkansas lead at the intermission.
It also set them up beautifully to survive (and, critically, believe they could survive) a second half in which Timme and Holmgren inevitably got rolling with 28 points.
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Arkansas entered the night with a 47-33 all-time record in the NCAA tournament, including a national championship in 1994 and five other trips to the Final Four.
Against No. 1 seeds, though, the Razorbacks were 0-10, including an Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion Baylor just one year ago.
That ill-fated history didn’t keep them from drawing up the perfect plan for beating Gonzaga.
Drew Timme ended up with 25 points, but he was smothered in the paint all night long, had to work for every bucket and committed five turnovers en route to that point total.
Chet Holmgren managed to finish the night with 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, but he was limited by (debatable) foul trouble and didn’t have anywhere near his usual impact in the defensive paint.
Most pivotal, though, was the way Arkansas scrapped and clawed at Gonzaga’s backcourt. The Hogs gobbled up lackadaisical passes for pick-twos and never let any of the Zags’ guards get comfortable anywhere on the floor. Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther shot a combined 8-of-30 from the field with four assists and six turnovers.
JD Notae (9-of-29, six assists, five turnovers) wasn’t much more efficient than Gonzaga’s guards, but he did have three steals and two blocks and just seemed to be everywhere on the floor.
“We’re not always cosmetically pleasing offensively, but we win.” an ecstatic Eric Musselman told Tracy Wolfson after his team’s 74-68 victory.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
At some point in our litany of Sweet 16 preview content, I noted that Villanova has gone 157-10 since the beginning of the 2013-14 season when shooting at least 35.0 percent from three-point range. The Wildcats do still have a winning record (106-42) when held below that mark, but it’s much less of a sure thing.
And in the South regional semifinal against Michigan, it was one of those nights in which the shots weren’t falling. Collin Gillespie drained four triples and Justin Moore added three, but the Wildcats went just 9-30 (30.0 percent) overall from three-point range, managing a total of just 63 points.
However, as was the case on an off night against Kansas in the 2016 Elite Eight (4-of-22) and against Texas Tech in the 2018 Elite Eight (4-of-18), Villanova won the game on the defensive end of the floor, holding Michigan to just 55 points.
In many ways, the Wolverines held themselves to 55 points. The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn tweeted late in the second half that the Wolverines were 12-of-25 on dunks and layups, which is just unforgivable against an undersized Villanova team. Michigan also settled for quite a few mid-range jumpers, none of which went in until Eli Brooks hit a meaningless one with less than 10 seconds remaining. Michigan also shot 50 percent from the charity stripe.
But despite its lack of size, Villanova held its own on the glass (minus-3) and was just generally the peskier team in a game with limited fouls called.
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The West Region was the only one to hold to form through the first two rounds, pitting No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Arkansas, as well as No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 Texas Tech. The Midwest Region was also pretty chalky with No. 1 Arizona facing an under-seeded No. 5 Houston in one matchup with No. 2 Villanova as the favorite in the other.
The lone exception to the rule was No. 11 Michigan.
It definitely wasn’t a Cinderella story. You could barely even call the Wolverines a sleeper, considering they opened the year at No. 6 in the AP poll and had beaten each of Purdue, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Rutgers in the final month of the regular season. But if any team playing on Thursday/Saturday was going to be considered a major surprise if it reached the Final Four, it was the double-digit seed.
However, for the third time in the past five tournaments, the Wolverines were sent packing in the Sweet 16 in a disappointing offensive performance.
This year’s 63-55 loss to Villanova wasn’t anywhere near as embarrassing as the 62-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019, but save for a four-minute spurt late in the first half, the Wolverines—who had averaged 76.9 points in their last seven games—were unable to get into any sort of rhythm against the Wildcats.
Now, it’s Purdue or bust for the Big Ten, and it’s up to the East and Midwest regions to send a surprise to New Orleans.