Let's begin with a cliché:
Survive and advance.
If your first reaction was a groan, you're not alone. "Survive and advance" is the kind of thing you hear so often this time of year, it almost immediately falls flat. What does that even mean? Survive and advance? Duh. That's not a strategy. That's not insight. That's just what the tournament is.
But as the late, great David Foster Wallace once wrote: "This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth."
For as much as we love to see aesthetically pleasing, up-tempo basketball -- for as much as we enjoy offensive explosions such as the one Kentucky unleashed in a dominant second-half stretch against Iowa State -- the NCAA tournament is no place for beautiful basketball.
Games constrict. Reliable shots prove themselves otherwise. Best-laid plans falter under the pressure of desperation. Teams must find the great, terrible truth behind their often-dire situations.
The NCAA tournament doesn't require style. It doesn't care for margin of victory. It merely requires that you win.
Now that we're past the wide-open promise of the Round of 64, this maxim comes into stark focus -- and Saturday was that sort of day. There weren't really any all-out routs -- Kentucky, Syracuse and Baylor didn't pull away until well into the second half -- and the rest of the victors had to either rally late or hold off a second-half run or close out one-possession affairs in the final stretches. Sometimes all three.
Few games emphasized the importance of the "just win" theorem better than Indiana's 63-61 win over Virginia Commonwealth. VCU executed its game plan -- dubbed "HAVOC" by Rams coach Shaka Smart -- to near-perfection. It pressed and harried the Hoosiers from start to finish. The Rams decided early in the game that IU point guard Jordan Hulls (the Hoosiers' one reliable ball handler after a season-ending injury to guard Verdell Jones) couldn't see over or around midcourt double-teams, and it preyed on Indiana's unwillingness to switch its offense and discard its usual ball screens.
By the game's end, the Rams had hurried the Hoosiers into a season-high 22 turnovers. VCU controlled the tempo. It controlled the terms of the engagement. It did everything it needed to do but one: Make shots.
That was true throughout, as the Rams shot 9-of-30 from beyond the arc. It was crucial on the final possession, when the Rams, down two, found a wide-open 3 for Rob Brandenberg, who promptly clanged it off the rim. The Hoosiers won the game thanks to that stop, thanks to six consecutive long-range misses from the Rams down the stretch and thanks to the powers of adaptation -- less Hulls, more Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller; fewer jumpers, more penetration and attack.
In the end, it even took a little luck. When coach Tom Crean (wisely) decided to forgo a timeout with 20 seconds remaining and Oladipo slashed at the rim, the Rams' block landed squarely in the hands of Will Sheehey, who calmly dropped an 8-foot jumper for the win.
Did the Hoosiers deserve to win? With 22 turnovers, probably not. But they got the stops they needed down the stretch. They made the key plays. They survived.
Same goes for Wisconsin. The Badgers slowly and methodically built a 53-44 lead over Vanderbilt with six minutes left in the second half, but Vandy's trio of skilled seniors -- Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor -- were determined to punch back. And they did. What resulted was a back-and-forth final four minutes that featured fewer buckets than big defensive plays, fewer finishes than key offensive rebounds.
The final game-sealing play -- a Ryan Evans defensive rebound on which Evans blatantly pushed Ezeli from behind -- probably should have been called a foul. But sometimes survival requires a little help from the officials, too. Wisconsin got it.
Ohio State, Marquette and Louisville all followed similar paths. Gonzaga counterpunched Ohio State's second-half lead, but the Buckeyes found important shots down the stretch to get the 73-66 win. Marquette won one of the more physical, hard-fought games of the tournament against a Murray State team that refused to bow to the power of Golden Eagles talents such as Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Louisville, which led New Mexico by as much as 10 with 7:44 remaining, had to fend off a late Lobos push that brought the score to 55-53 with 68 seconds to play. The Cardinals held on -- thanks in large part to a gorgeous Peyton Siva-to-Gorgui Dieng dish and dunk with 32 seconds left -- and survived, in typical Ville fashion, with a homely but effective 59-56 win.
The end result, despite all this intrigue, was one of the chalkier Round of 32 days in tournament memory: Every top seed in Saturday's eight games advanced.
A few did so easily, at least in the second half. Syracuse pulled away, as did Baylor. And man, does Kentucky look good. The Wildcats unleashed an absolute flurry on an above-average Big 12 defense in the Cyclones. If the Big Blue score like this -- and they have more often than you think this season; this offense is still somehow underrated -- their status as this tournament's overwhelming favorite will hardly be challenged next week.
For all the pluckiness of said lower-seeded teams, one other theme emerged: the importance of 3-point shooting. Simply put, Saturday's losers had one thing in common -- missed 3s. Gonzaga went 8-of-23 from beyond the arc. Murray State shot 4-of-21. Vanderbilt went 4-of-19. VCU shot 9-of-30. Kansas State went 4-of-17. Colorado was 5-of-15. New Mexico made just five of its 24 attempts, and Iowa State finished a dreadful 3-of-22.
Do the math: Combined, Saturday's seed-underdogs shot 42-of-171 (!) from the field, good for a whopping 24.5 percent. For roughly 12 hours of basketball, that's a lot of missed shots.
It's hard to win in November shooting that poorly. In March? Forget about it.
And so it was that we ended up with eight higher-rated seeds advancing to next week's Sweet 16. A couple of No. 1 seeds (plus Baylor) made a statement, but more often, the theme was simple: You don't have to play perfect basketball to survive in the NCAA tournament. You don't have to look good. You merely have to keep things close (like Indiana), punch and counterpunch (like Wisconsin), hold off opponents down the stretch when the momentum begins to swing (like Louisville), and finish close games with savvy and poise (like Marquette and Ohio State).
In short, you don't have to impress. You don't have to wow. You just need to survive and advance.
It's a cliché, but oh well.
In the NCAA tournament, this cliché wins.