Takeaways from Friday's NCAA tournament games
theScore runs down the top storylines and developments from Thursday’s NCAA Tournament games and what it all could mean moving forward.
Fairleigh Dickinson scores epic upset
Fairleigh Dickinson became just the second No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 thanks to a stunning upset of Purdue on Friday night. The Knights did not seem flustered one bit with the momumental task at hand, leading by one at half and keeping an advantage throughout most of the second half. Sean Moore led the team with 17 points, but it was the defensive effort – and some inexplicable decision-making from Purdue – that stood out from the contest. Despite the fact Fairleigh Dickinson fields the shortest team in all of Division I, the Boilermakers failed to fully utilize 7-foot-4 star Zach Edey throughout the contest. Edey finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds but only hoisted 11 shots in the game. Purdue instead opted for a long-range attack, connecting on just 5-of-26 triples.
While the Knights followed UMBC’s shocking win over No. 1 Virginia in 2018, there’s no question this result is the bigger surprise. Fairleigh Dickson didn’t even win its conference tournament, qualifying for March Madness simply because Merrimack is ineligible due to a four-year transition period to Division I.
Tshiebwe’s paint dominance fuels Kentucky
The basketball wasn’t pretty between No. 6 Kentucky and No. 11 Providence on Friday with neither team shooting better than 36% from the floor for the game. That put a premium on rebounding – something Kentucky thrives on thanks to star forward Oscar Tshiebwe. The standout senior ripped down an outrageous 25 rebounds in the victory, helping the Wildcats outpace the Friars in that category by a significant 48-32 margin. Kentucky was able to hold Providence star Bryce Hopkins in check, keeping the former Wildcat to seven points in the contest on 2-of-9 shooting. While John Calipari’s outfit will need to improve on the offensive end, the combo of rebounding and defense will make it a tough out.
Kent State has no answer for Jackson-Davis
One highlight really shows just how dominant Trayce Jackson-Davis was for Indiana against Kent State on Friday.
The standout forward was an absolute menace all night for the Golden Flashes, leading the Hoosiers to the Round of 32. Jackson-Davis finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, and five blocks in the competition, making history in the process. He’s the first player ever in the NCAA Tournament to finish a game with 20-plus points, five-plus assists, and five-plus rebounds.
Gonzaga rides star power to comfortable win
Every time Gonzaga takes the court, it arguably has the top two players in the game with Drew Timme and Julian Strawther. That was the case Friday against No. 14 Grand Canyon, with the star duo dominating for the third-ranked Bulldogs in the win. Strawther poured in 28 points and added 10 rebounds, while Timme went for 21 points, six rebounds, and three blocks. KenPom’s top-ranked offense in the country flexed its might, hitting the 80-point plateau for the 22nd time this season. It was a stark reminder that Gonzaga is still a force to be reckoned with in March despite not having the same fanfare entering the tournament as in recent years.
Drake collapses late against Miami
Drake was the last chance for a 12-seed to upset a No. 5 in this year’s tournament, a yearly staple in nearly everyone’s bracket. Leading by eight with under six minutes to play, the Bulldogs looked like they were going to get it done, but the Hurricanes went on a 16-1 run to finish the contest and wipe away Drake’s hopes. The Bulldogs missed their last seven field goals down the stretch.
Miami struggled to score all night, making just 30% of its field goals and going a shocking 11-of-38 from inside the arc. The Hurricanes did what matters most – win the game. However, if they want to win more games in the Big Dance and attempt to match last year’s Elite Eight run, they’ll need a much better offensive performance than they got Friday night.
FAU outlasts Memphis, gets lucky draw in next round
In one of the wildest games of the first round, Florida Atlantic guard Nick Boyd’s layup with under three seconds remaining sunk No. 8 Memphis. The ninth-seeded Owls blew an early 10-point lead and trailed by as much as seven in the second half, but caught fire down the stretch, capped off by the game-winner. FAU was absolutely dominant on the offensive glass throughout the contest, picking up 18 boards on that end, leading to 16 second chance points.
Suddenly though, the path to the Sweet 16 for the Conference USA champions became significantly clearer. With all due respect to Fairleigh Dickinson, the all-time Cinderella waiting for the Owls on Sunday is a much easier matchup than one-seeded Purdue. In what has easily been FAU’s greatest season in program history, it will have a really solid chance to compound a big win against a feisty Tigers squad into a deep NCAA Tournament run.
TCU’s closing flourish secures dramatic win
No. 6 TCU didn’t crumble facing a five-point deficit in the final 2:40 of action on Friday, closing with a remarkable 10-3 run to dispatch No. 11 Arizona State on a JaKobe Coles floater in the dying seconds. A game of runs saw the Horned Frogs race out to 15-4 lead, only to allow the Sun Devils to storm back and hold a 11-point advantage of their own early in the second. It was then that Jamie Dixon leaned on star Mike Miles to bring the Big 12 program back – with the standout guard playing the entire second half. Miles went on a personal 5-0 run in the final three minutes to even the game up, and drew the defense before dishing to Coles for the winning basket. It certainly wasn’t the most impressive performance from TCU, but the veteran-laden squad showed they are never out of it with the electrifying comeback victory.
Nowell shines in tournament debut
Markquis Nowell has been in college basketball since the 2018-19 season but had yet to play in a NCAA Tournament game until Friday evening. The 5-foot-8 senior showed no signs of jitters in playing on the big stage as he led No. 3 Kansas State past No. 14 Montana State with a strong all-around performance. Nowell finished with 17 points, a whopping 14 assists, and six rebounds in the 12-point victory. The prize is for Kansas State is an all-Wildcat matchup against Kentucky on Sunday. The Big 12 program will need another strong performance from Nowell given Kentucky’s massive edge on the glass in that contest.
Xavier saved by defense
It didn’t look pretty midway through the second half for Xavier as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest trailed No. 14 Kennesaw State by 13 points. The Musketeers clawed back into the contest using elite defense, eventually sealing the win with a remarkable block by Jack Nunge in the dying seconds.
Xavier held the Owls for over six minutes without scoring during a 15-0 run and kept the Atlantic Sun champions to just two made field goals in the final 10 minutes. The Owls managed only 24 points total in the second half after putting up a whopping 43 in the opening frame. That defense allowed the comeback victory despite the fact Sean Miller’s program only scored 72 points in the contest. That marks the first time this season that Xavier has won a game in which it scored less than 73 points.
UConn, Sanogo take control in 2nd half
Though UConn fans were sweating at halftime, they could breathe easy after their fourth-seeded Huskies dominated No. 13 Iona in the second frame en route to a 87-63 victory. The Gaels led 39-37 at the break thanks to red-hot shooting, but they cooled off significantly down the stretch and were completely dominated down low by UConn big man Adama Sanogo, who dropped a second half double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds on 10-of-12 shooting.
The Huskies entered the tournament in a weird situation – seeded on the four line but ranked No. 4 overall on KenPom. On Friday, they showed the dominant ability that analytics sites love down the stretch and the talented rotation that saw them ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll back in December. However, they also demonstrated their inconsistency by trailing the overmatched Gaels at half. It’s always a question of which version of the Huskies shows up, but their best is as good as anyone in the field.
Jones’ scoring streak sparks Marquette
Thanks to a remarkable streak of 18 straight points for Marquette guard Kam Jones, the 2-seed Golden Eagles rolled to a 78-61 victory over No. 15 Vermont. Things were a bit dicey with Marquette up by just five in the second half before Jones’ one-man heroics put the game out of reach. The sophomore finished with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Although fellow backcourt member Tyler Kolek was named the Big East Player of the Year, it’s Jones who leads the team in scoring, and he showed it on Friday.
Shockingly, Kolek was the only member of Marquette’s starting lineup who didn’t reach double figures, scoring just eight points with a team-high three turnovers. Given that, coach Shaka Smart and Co. should be pretty happy with such a positive result. Awaiting the Golden Eagles is No. 7 Michigan State, which will be far from a walk in the park, especially considering Marquette is 0-2 against the Big Ten this season.
Iowa State’s historically bad day
It’s safe to say nobody had a worse day at the tournament on Friday than Iowa State. The No. 6 Cyclones immediately fell behind No. 11 Pitt by a whopping 22-2 margin to start the game and finished with 41 total points in an opening-round loss. Iowa State made 14-of-60 shots from the floor over the course of the contest – a 23% clip that is the fifth-worst figure in the history of the modern NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 program is certainly not known to be an offensive juggernaut, but 23% is well below the 45% total they shot on the season.
Pitt didn’t exactly torch the nets on the other end, making just 34% of its shots, but that was more than enough to secure the victory. The Panthers now advance to the next round to face No. 3 Xavier – a tasty matchup against coach Sean Miller, who played at Pitt from 1987-92.
Creighton rides Kalkbrenner’s career-high
On an afternoon when the typically hot Creighton shooters couldn’t buy a bucket from the outside, big man Ryan Kalkbrenner stepped up in a giant way to lift his team to a 72-63 victory over 11-seed NC State. Kalkbrenner scored 31 points, topping his previous career high by seven, and went an ultra-efficient 11-for-14 from the field and 8-of-9 from the free throw line. He even sank a rare 3-pointer, one of only three made by the Bluejays in the contest. Not to be outdone on the other side, Wolfpack star Terquavion Smith scored 32 points of his own, but took 27 shots to get there.
It wasn’t an overly inspiring performance from the Big East squad, but thanks to 15 assists and solid 3-point defense, 6-seed Creighton will play No. 3 Baylor and its dynamic perimeter on Sunday. Kalkbrenner will be primed for another big performance against the Bears’ weak frontline, but its guards will have to be more efficient at scoring the ball if the Bluejays want to keep dancing.
Michigan State’s physicality flusters USC
Michigan State’s physicality keyed its first-round victory over USC. The Spartans generated 16 points off 11 Trojan turnovers and had a 32-10 advantage in points in the paint. Jaden Akins and Tyson Walker stifled Boogie Ellis all afternoon. The backcourt duo tallied a combined four steals and limited the All-Pac-12 first-team selection to just six points on 3-of-12 shooting to go along with three turnovers. The Trojans star came into Friday’s contest averaging 24.3 points and shooting 46.7% from deep over his last seven games, but he couldn’t establish any sort of rhythm against Michigan State.
It was a second straight Round of 64 exit for USC. Outside of the school’s Elite Eight run in 2021, the school has just two wins in the Big Dance during Andy Enfield’s decade at the helm.
Baylor locks down UC Santa Barbara’s upset bid
This year’s Baylor outfit is an elite offensive unit that ranks outside the top 100 in the nation in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ranking. A usual victory plan for the No. 3 Bears rarely sees them rely on a lockdown performance at the defensive end, but that’s exactly what they delivered on Friday against No. 14 UC Santa Barbara. The underdog Gauchos actually led by one at the half, but the Bears held their opponent to just 20 points total in the second half en route to a 18-point victory. UC Santa Barbara made seven total field goals in the second, including two from beyond the arc. With the electric backcourt trio of Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer and Keyonte George, Baylor’s offense is as close to a sure thing as there is in the tournament. If it’s going to repeat Friday’s performance on the defensive end, it could be a very successful tournament for Scott Drew’s program.
Saxen’s all-round play lifts Saint Mary’s past VCU
Mitchell Saxen’s two-way performance made up for Aidan Mahaney’s struggles in the latter’s NCAA Tournament debut. The 6-foot-10 center provided Saint Mary’s with a physical interior presence and some much-needed playmaking. The Gaels continually fed Saxen in the post, where they found great success all game. Saxen was responsible for half of the team’s production in the paint, scoring 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting with all of his field goals coming via a layup or dunk. With Mahaney in constant foul trouble, the Gaels leaned on Saxen’s passing ability was leaned on a bit more than usual, and the junior rose to the occasion with four assists. Saxen was also a force on the defensive end, blocking a season-high four shots and contesting countless other attempts at the rim.