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March Madness: NCAA tournament’s 'Sweet 16' now set (+video)

This past weekend's third round action set the matchups for this year's regional semifinals in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Games will begin this Thursday night, March 26.

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After an exciting weekend of games that whittled the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 32 teams to the “Sweet 16,” the field now largely consists of power conference teams and those who annually seem to survive through the first few rounds. Gone are second-round bracket busters Georgia State and Alabama-Birmingham as well as upstarts from years past, including Virginia Commonwealth University, Butler, and Davidson.

Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Louisville, Gonzaga, North Carolina and other perennial powerhouses rolled to weekend victories; but there were also some surprises – Virginia (a No. 2 seed) and Villanova (a No. 1 seed) each bowed out in the third round and played uncharacteristically poorly. And in Omaha, the No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks lost to the seventh-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the Midwest region – where Kansas trailed for most of the second half by double digits.

In the East region, Virginia fell to the Michigan State Spartans, 60-54. UVA shot a woeful 26.7% from the field in the first half – and in the second half, they went over ten minutes without a basket. For the game, Virginia hit only 2 of 17 shots from three-point range. But as poorly as the Cavaliers were shooting, Michigan State guard Travis Trice was on fire. The senior, who was also on the squad that ended Virginia’s tournament hopes last year, scored 23 points, and made a bushel of free throws toward the end of the game, to go along with a mammoth 3-pointer. In fact, the Spartans collectively made 12 of their last 15 free throws, and that effectively crushed any comeback attempt the Cavaliers attempted to mount in the final minutes. Michigan State, under coach Tom Izzo, who always seems to save his team’s best play for the tournament, has now reached the Sweet 16 for the 13th time  in his 20 years as the Spartans’ head coach. MSU will now play the Oklahoma Sooners later this week in Syracuse.

Villanova, as the East region’s top seed, was playing well. In their second round game against Patriot League champion Lafayette, the Wildcats defeated the Leopards by nearly forty points. But they hit the wall against the North Carolina State Wolfpack on Saturday, losing 71-68. Villanova hit only 19 of 61 field goals (31.1%) against North Carolina State’s 45.3% from the floor. The gutty Wolfpack have now won their opening two games by a collective four points. NC State’s defensive pressure – they grabbed 28 defensive rebounds on the night, in addition to blocking nine Villanova shots – was a main reason why the Wildcats, who have had a tendency in previous years to exit the tournament early, couldn’t get anything started offensively. North Carolina State now meets No. 4 seed Louisville, 66-53 winners on Sunday night over the University of Northern Iowa.

The Kansas Jayhawks have been one of the great powers of college basketball for decades. From the days of legendary head coach Phog Allen (the so-called “father of basketball coaching”) through the highly successful tenure of Roy Williams to current coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks have been one of the elite presences in Division 1 basketball. But by Sunday evening in Omaha, they had been soundly defeated, 78-65, in what many analysts thought was an inevitable third round pairing – against the Wichita State Shockers, their in-state neighbor residing approximately 170 miles from KU’s Lawrence campus. Despite numerous attempts by Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall to get on Kansas’ schedule, this was the first meeting between the two teams since 1993.

Wichita State shot 49% from the field to Kansas’ 35%, and hit 10 of 20 threes compared to the Jayhawks' 6-21 three-point shooting (29%). The Shockers’ defense generally was tenacious, not allowing KU to get into any kind of scoring rhythm. Though Wichita State was out-rebounded 36-29, 24 of those 29 boards were defensive. They also forced an uncharacteristic 14 Kansas turnovers, and added three blocked shots. Traveling this week to Cleveland, Wichita State now faces third seed Notre Dame in their second Sweet 16 under coach Marshall.

The rest of the Sweet 16 matchups look like this: On Thursday evening, overall top seed Kentucky will play West Virginia, West top seed Wisconsin takes on North Carolina, and No. 2 seed Arizona meets Xavier. Friday in the South region, top seed Duke plays Utah and second seed Gonzaga meets UCLA.

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