College Basketball Nation: 2014 Sweet 16


NEW YORK -- Wow, that was fun.

The NCAA tournament returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years on Friday night. The atmosphere was electric, and the teams did not disappoint. Michigan State staved off Virginia 61-59 in the nightcap. Here are five quick observations:

Crowd control: So much talk leading up to Friday night's doubleheader concerned the strong showing expected from Connecticut fans, and the Huskies had a definite home-court advantage in Game 1, but Virginia might have had an even bigger advantage in Game 2. The amount of orange in the building was Syracuse-esque here at MSG.

And the Virginia fans were loud, too! Can't blame them for being worked up, considering this was the team's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. Well done, Wahoos.

Old school: Around these parts, we used to be treated to some mighty good defensive battles during the heyday of the Big East. This game brought that era to mind.

Just like Wichita State-Kentucky featured shot-making worthy of the Final Four, as opposed to the round of 32, Michigan-State-Virginia belonged another round or two down the road.

Experience counts: Despite all that good defense, we saw some great shot-making down the stretch from both sides.

How about Virginia's Justin Anderson -- scoreless for 38 minutes -- draining a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining to tie the game at 51?

But the biggest shot of the game was Adreian Payne's trey 22 seconds later which broke the tie and gave the Spartans the lead for good. Don't forget Payne's two clutch free throws with 32.9 seconds left -- in a 1-and-1 situation, no less -- pushing a 56-54 lead to 58-54.

Payne is a senior, Michigan State's been to the Sweet 16 six times in the past seven seasons and the Spartans made more plays at the end when it counts. That's no coincidence.

MVP? All this talk about Michigan State's senior class potentially being the first under Tom Izzo to not reach a Final Four, and it's a junior trying to lead them there.

Branden Dawson scored 20 points just once in the first 35 games of the season, but Dawson had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Spartans' third-round win over Harvard and followed that up with a team-high 24 points and 10 boards against Virginia.

Can't wait: The lower seeds won each of the two games here Friday night, yet it felt like the favorite won both games.

Forget the Spartans' No. 4 seed and the Huskies' No. 7: Michigan State versus UConn? That's a battle of college basketball heavyweights.

In Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the Final Four at stake? It doesn't get much better than that.


NEW YORK -- Less than a month ago, Connecticut lost by 33 points against Louisville in a game that exposed every sort of liability and shortcoming the Huskies had.

And now, here we are.

If you don’t believe in the power of believing, well, then you don’t know March.

The Huskies are exactly what the NCAA tournament is about -- a good team that finds itself at just the right time, feeding off a newfound confidence to surprising results. No way anyone outside of the state of Connecticut saw this coming.

Yet here we are.

Seventh-seeded UConn survived a late rally from Iowa State to win 81-76 and advance to the Elite Eight.

Here are five observations from the game:

If DeAndre Daniels plays like this, watch out, Virginia or Michigan State. The Huskies have been waiting 37 games for someone not named Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to offer up some steady offense. In this NCAA tournament, Daniels has raised his hand.

Daniels scored a team-high 27 points against Iowa State, 19 of which came in the second half. Add that to the 18 he had against Saint Joseph's in the second round and 11 against Villanova, and you’ve got a guy who’s becoming a viable threat at just the right time.

Long and lean, Daniels is tough to guard. He can spot up and hit a 3 -- he hit two against the Cyclones -- but he can also work on the inside. He’s exactly what UConn has needed -- and been missing -- all season.

Not that you can forget Napier. Look, this will be Napier’s team until the season ends, whenever it ends. He’s still the engine and the motor. If not scoring the points, then he's setting up his teammates for them.

Even though he got a lot more help in this game -- along with Daniels, Napier’s wingmate, Boatright, continued his impressive tourney with 16 points -- Napier is still the engine and the motor. And while the Kemba Walker analogies might be growing tiresome, they aren’t going anywhere.

No Georges Niang hurt Iowa State on both sides. Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Thursday that he essentially goes into each game with two cards -- one filled with plays that start with DeAndre Kane, the other that run through Niang. So Iowa State essentially played this game with half of its offense sitting on the bench in a warm-up suit.

The Cyclones got by against North Carolina -- a better matchup -- but with no Niang inside, the Huskies were able to attack everything inside. UConn was cited for only four blocked shots in the official box score, but it altered plenty more. Kane and Melvin Ejim tried more circus shots than smart shots, which totally took Iowa State out of its offensive rhythm.

The two finished a combined 9-of-31.

On the other end of the floor, Niang's absence meant the Huskies were able to get in the lane with ease, either to score on pull-ups or kick out to easy 3-pointers.

It was almost an unfair fight.

This is now, and officially, Kevin Ollie’s team. It’s not easy to coach under the shadow of a legend, especially when said legend keeps lurking around behind the bench. Ollie has handled his inheritance of the UConn program with grace and dignity, never complaining about Jim Calhoun’s presence, never failing to compliment Calhoun’s legacy and welcome his insight.

But the page is turned once and for all now. The Huskies, caught in a dangerous season as they try to reassert themselves under Ollie and in a less-established league, have not missed a beat. Ollie has remade the team in his image, clapping and defensive crouching them from the sidelines into a team with more of an NBA style, but with equal success.

The Garden ought to be an NCAA tournament host every season. Feel free to call it East Coast bias, but when you’ve got an arena with as much hoops tradition as Madison Square Garden, a city that loves basketball and a place worth visiting, multiple return visits aren’t a bad thing.

The ticket gouging might have been criminal -- and the wheeling and dealing outside the building before tipoff would make Wall Streeters blush -- but the atmosphere in the building was electric.

There aren’t a whole lot of places left that mean anything to people from the ages of 65 to 25 to 15, but the Garden is one of them. Good choice, NCAA. Now come back.


INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee made a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 after beginning its journey beginning in the First Four. The Volunteers topped Iowa, UMass and Mercer to reach the Sweet 16, but Michigan was just too much in a 73-71 victory on Friday night.

Here are five observations from that Sweet 16 game:

What a comeback: The Vols didn’t give up. With 4:10 to play, they were down 67-60 after being down by as many as 15 points. They were down just 70-64 with 2:21 to go. Tennessee continued to attack the floor and get to the rim. With less than two minutes to play, Tennessee and Michigan were separated by only five points. The Vols continued to whittle away, drawing within three with 23 seconds left and moving to within one when Jordan McRae scored with 10.8 seconds left. Caris LeVert then stepped out of bounds with 9.6 seconds to play, making things real at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tennessee, despite struggling from 3-point range, was in position to win. But Jarnell Stokes drew a late charge against Jordan Morgan with six seconds left that essentially ended the game for the Vols despite a great comeback effort.

Michigan nearly flawless in first half: In some of the great upsets in past NCAA tournaments, the underdogs succeeded because they got off to fast starts. That didn’t happen with Tennessee. The Vols needed an impressive 11-3 run after going down 15-7 early. But the first half from there was all Michigan. The Wolverines dissected the Vols from that point forward. Cuonzo Martin’s squad couldn’t handle John Beilein’s collection of 6-foot-6-ish wings -- is there a factory in Ann Arbor, Mich., that we don’t know about? -- who just kept punishing Tennessee inside and outside. Michigan went 7-for-9 from the 3-point line, a 78 percent clip. This isn’t some Tennessee team that got lucky on its way to the Sweet 16. The Vols had defeated its three previous opponents in the NCAA tournament by nearly 20 points per game. But the Wolverines were just too much. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-for-30 from the 3-point line in the first halves of its NCAA tourney games. The Wolverines don't wait. They just go.

LeVert … the future: Nik Stauskas (14 points) has no reason to stay in school beyond this season. That much was clear in Friday’s game. He’s a big guard with range and solid ballhandling ability. Glenn Robinson III (13 points) could leave, too, but the program will still be in good hands if LeVert (10 points) returns. The 6-6 sophomore has made dramatic improvements this season. He’s been a 41 percent shooter from the 3-point line, but the most impressive element of his game on Friday, something I didn’t see until I watched him live, was his quick first step and ability to create his own shot. He is thin, and a summer in the weight room would really enhance his game, but he’s a special talent who might be the next Michigan superstar. His late error doesn't define his season or his potential.

Size doesn’t always help: When Tennessee walked to the podium for its pregame media session on Thursday, it looked like a college football team. Jeronne Maymon and Stokes are large individuals, with size that Michigan lacks, and, on paper, that appeared to be a potential issue for the Wolverines. How would they deal with a team that had big wings and strong post players such as Stokes and Maymon? Well, that wasn’t the real question. The real question became, "How can Tennessee stay in front of the Wolverines?" It couldn’t in the first half. Martin had Maymon on Robinson early, which didn’t last long, as Robinson kept beating Maymon off the dribble. He had to insert Derek Reese, a 6-8 wing, to guard him. Early in the game, Tennessee wasn’t even using Stokes and Maymon together. Maymon’s early foul trouble might have contributed to that, but the Vols were better with the one-big system. That’s how you know Michigan is a really good team, as Tennessee had to adjust its entire scheme in the first five minutes to deal with it. But the one-big system also helped the Vols climb back into the game.

Beilein deserves credit for developing players: Yes, Beilein doesn’t exactly draw kids from the prep market’s scrap heap, but he’s also not signing a bunch of one-and-dones, either. Look at Stauskas, Robinson and LeVert, along with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Check out the game that Morgan (15 points, seven rebounds) had. They’ve all developed at a respectable pace. Stauskas will be a millionaire lottery pick if he decides to turn pro. Robinson could be a first-round pick, too. LeVert could be a top-15 selection in 2015 if he doesn’t leave this year. Walton looks comfortable. Irvin is next. And we haven't even mentioned Mitch McGary, who was the team's top pro prospect entering the season before a back injury ended his year. He was just a solid freshman, but by the end of last year's tourney, he was a lottery pick. Sure, the Wolverines can shoot, but the perennial progression of Beilein’s rosters is worth noting. His players have made some tremendous strides.

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