MARCH MADNESS: UConn, Purdue continue dominating runs into Elite Eight


After an extremely chalky opening weekend to the 2024 NCAA Tournament in which all of the top eight seeds won their first two games, a little chaos at the top was inserted during the Sweet 16.

No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Houston and No. 2 seeds Arizona, Iowa State and Marquette all were bounced. Several schools have the opportunity to either make their first Final Four or end lengthy Final Four droughts. 

Despite all this, it was hard for the biggest takeaway from the Sweet Sixteen to be anything but the dominance of UConn and Purdue. Obviously, anything can happen in any given round, but it feels like we're on a crash course for a UConn-Purdue matchup on the final Monday of the season.

(6) Clemson Tigers 77, (2) Arizona Wildcats 72 (West Region)

One of the joys of March Madness is the emergence of unexpected heroes. Perhaps no one in this year's tournament fits the bill quite as aptly as Clemson senior guard Chase Hunter, who is averaging 19.7 points per game in the Tigers' three tourney wins.

Hunter scored 20 points in a game just once during the regular season and was coming off a disastrous performance in Clemson's ACC Tournament loss to Boston College in which he scored only two points and missed all 10 of his shots from the field.

Prior to the NCAA Tournament, Hunter had three games this season where he was the leading scorer for the Tigers. He's now been the leading scorer in all three of Clemson's wins over the past week and change, putting up 21 points against New Mexico, 20 against Baylor and 18 against Arizona.

Thanks in large part to Hunter's hot streak, Clemson is headed back to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history and first time since 1980. The Tigers continue to be stifling on defense during this tournament, holding all three of their opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field.

The 3-point shooting by their past three opponents: New Mexico at 13 percent (3 for 23), Baylor at 25 percent (6 for 24) and Arizona at 17.9 percent (5 for 28).

As for the Wildcats, this is the third straight disappointing NCAA Tournament exit in what has been an otherwise phenomenal start to head coach Tommy Lloyd's tenure in Tucson. They lost to No. 5-seeded Houston in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2022, were upset by No. 15 seed Princeton in the first round a year ago and now this.

Arizona only led for a grand total of 21 seconds the entire night on Thursday. The Wildcats were able to claw back from an early 27-14 deficit and make a game of it in the second half, but Clemson head coach Brad Brownell threw a zone look at them in the stretch run that Arizona seemed to have no answer for other than to brick even more threes.

Caleb Love was particularly disastrous for the Wildcats, scoring only 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting while missing all three of his looks from downtown.

Arizona is undeniably one of the better programs in the country, but the quest for their first Final Four since 2001 trudges on as the Wildcats join the Big 12 for the 2024-25 season.

(1) UConn Huskies 82, (5) San Diego State Aztecs 52 (East Region)

A rematch of the previous year's national championship game? That's naturally intriguing. Unfortunately for San Diego State, the sequel was even more lopsided than the original.

UConn became the first defending champion to make it past the Sweet 16 since the Florida Gators went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. They did it the same way they've won all their tournament games over the past two years: in dominant fashion.

After leading 40-31 following a competitive first half, the Huskies doubled up the Aztecs 42-21 in the second half to turn things into a blowout.

UConn didn't have an electric shooting game, but the dominance on the glass told the story. The Huskies outrebounded the Aztecs 50-28 and corralled offensive rebounds on 21 of their 35 missed shots. Standout freshman guard Stephon Castle turned in a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

UConn won by an average margin of victory of 21.7 points during last year's national championship run. The Huskies have won their three games so far this tournament by a combined 86 points.

Despite an unceremonious end to this season, San Diego State completes perhaps the most memorable two-year stretch in program history. Before last season, the Aztecs were 6-14 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. They went 7-2 over the past two tournaments to turn themselves from just another one of the Mountain West teams who struggled to win in March into something a whole lot more.

Steven Fisher got the ball rolling by resurrecting San Diego State's program. Brian Dutcher has taken the baton beautifully to solidify their status as one of the premier mid-major programs in the country.

(4) Alabama Crimson Tide 89, (1) North Carolina Tar Heels 87 (West Region)

Alabama has enjoyed a ton of success in its five seasons under Nate Oats, but the Crimson Tide's success on defense varies wildly by year. Just take a look at their rankings per KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric by season: 114th in 2019-20, 3rd in 2020-21, 92nd in 2021-22, 3rd in 2022-23 and 102nd in 2023-24.

The two times the Tide fielded one of the top defenses in the country under Oats, they won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles and made the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2023 and a No. 2 seed in 2021.

But it's this group that's moving on to the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history and first time since 2004. This particular Alabama team has struggled plenty on defense at times throughout the season, and that continued to be the case in the first half of their Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina.

The Tar Heels led by eight at halftime after dropping 54 points in the first half on Thursday night. But the Tide buckled down on defense and were able to hold North Carolina to only 33 second-half points to escape with a three-point win.

The Bama defense put ACC Player of the Year RJ Davis in a torture chamber, holding him to only 16 points on a ghastly 4-of-20 shooting performance that included him missing all of his 3-point attempts.

After falling behind, the Tar Heels worked their way back with an 8-0 run to take an 85-82 lead with a minute and a half left. From that point forward, they were outscored 7-2 during a lackluster final stretch that will haunt both the team and their fans.

Armando Bacot will go down as a UNC legend. Cormac Ryan was a standout this year after transferring from Notre Dame. Both are out of eligibility, and Davis is uncertain to return. The Tar Heels enjoyed a tremendous season where they went from the biggest disappointments in college basketball a year ago to the ACC regular season champions and a No. 1 seed, but there will surely be the feeling that more was out there for this team to accomplish.

(3) Illinois Fighting Illini 72, (2) Iowa State Cyclones 69 (East Region)

Sometimes, a game in March can come down to the simple fact of one team having star power that the other doesn't. That sure felt like the case in the Illini's win over Iowa State.

Illinois star Terrence Shannon Jr. — who faces a rape charge in an upcoming case in Kansas but is being allowed to play due to a court injunction — scored 20 of his 29 points in the first half and came away with a steal and breakaway dagger dunk in the final seconds to put a bow on the Illini's first Elite Eight appearance since 2005.

Throughout this season, Illinois hasn't always played stellar defense (to say the least) but they've often been able to make timely stops and did so again against Iowa State. They were also able to advance despite shooting a cataclysmic 15 of 29 from the free-throw line.

The Illini were up by as much as 13 with about six minutes left in the first half and never once trailed the entire game, but the Cyclones kept hanging around and made a second-half charge to nearly pull off the comeback win.

Though Iowa State wasn't able to reach its first Elite Eight since 2000, this was still a season that should be considered a rousing success by any measure. The Cyclones didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll (plus didn't crack the rankings until mid-January) and were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 standings in the conference's preseason coaches' poll.

Instead, Iowa State finished solo second in the final Big 12 standings, won the conference tournament and matched the best NCAA Tournament seed in program history. This was a group that was better than the sum of its parts. As long as T.J. Otzelberger keeps pulling off coaching performances like this, he can keep wearing all the smedium polo shirts that he wants.

2024 NCAA Tournament, March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, UConn Huskies, Purdue Boilermakers, Zach Edey


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