Only UCLA is left from the West after Sweet 16 upsets of top seeds Gonzaga and Arizona
Thursday night’s Sweet 16 games left us all gasping for air — and grasping for any sense that we can accurately predict anything that’s going to happen in this year’s NCAA tournament.
If Thursday was any indication of what’s to come Friday, maybe Saint Peter’s can become the first No. 15 seed to make the Elite Eight. Maybe North Carolina will get past UCLA and set up a potential Final Four battle against Duke, which would be the first meeting between the bitter rivals in March Madness (and of course it would happen in Coach K’s final season).
The point is, it’s all on the table after Thursday’s assault on the West Coast’s No. 1 seeds, Arizona and Gonzaga, the unquestioned favorites to win it all entering the tournament.
Here are four takeaways from one of the more shocking Sweet 16 quartet of games in history:
UCLA, it’s all on you now
The Bruins are once again carrying the banner for the West after Arkansas upset Gonzaga in San Francisco and Houston bloodied Arizona in San Antonio.
As of now, UCLA’s theoretical path to the national championship game would be through No. 8 seed North Carolina, No. 3 seed Purdue (if it ends the Peacocks’ Cinderella strut) and the winner of No. 2 seed Duke and No. 4 seed Arkansas on Saturday.
The Bruins could not have hoped for much more help.
But now Mick Cronin’s team has to play with the consistency and poise that it should with veteran guards Tyger Campbell and Johnny Juzang pulling the strings. UCLA isn’t flashy, but it doesn’t need to be to win this time of year.
This special UCLA team, who made a run to the Final Four last year, hopes to give it another deep run before the separation.
Arizona’s high-wire act collapsed
When the Wildcats were on, they were the most fun team to watch in college basketball. They became a trendy pick to win the championship in coach Tommy Lloyd’s first season mostly because people just loved the idea of getting to watch them play six more times.
But ultimately they ran into two tougher teams in Texas Christian and Houston, who love to grind out wins. Arizona was fortunate to escape TCU in the second round, surviving because of electric performances from Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko.
The Horned Frogs’ adept handling of them put a lot on tape for Houston coach Kelvin Sampson this week, and Sampson, one of the best coaches in the country that everyone somehow forgets about, took advantage.
Arizona was certainly capable of making a deep run and winning it all. But this tournament is all about matchups, and the bracket did the Pac-12 champions no favors, as it turned out.
Plaschke: UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell responds to offensive hair taunts with clutch play
UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell’s iconic mane has triggered taunts, but he responds with poised play that vaulted the Bruins into the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga’s two-year window as favorite closed
Gonzaga could make it back to the national championship game in the next few years, but it likely won’t be as a No. 1 seed or odds-on favorite to win its first title.
Last year, the Zags had a team full of future pros and came up just short against a Baylor team that was more cohesive and better on the defensive end. They lost a ton of talent, including point guard Jalen Suggs and sharp-shooter Corey Kispert, but put themselves right back at the top by convincing Drew Timme to return and bringing in star recruit Chet Holmgren.
The Bulldogs blew a golden opportunity against an Arkansas team that lost eight games this season and was a 10-point underdog.
Next year, Holmgren will be in the NBA, and, while Timme could come back for one more year, he will feel pressure to go pro.
It might be a relief to coach Mark Few after the last two years for Gonzaga to enter the tournament with less of a bull’s-eye on its back and feel a little more of that underdog mojo.
March Madness is officially here. Here’s everything you need to know about the 2022 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Coach K’s kids are maturing fast
I was fortunate enough to see Duke’s season-ending loss to North Carolina in Coach K’s Cameron finale from press row, and it truly felt like the weight of his retirement tour had sunk the young Blue Devils. They just looked tired.
Then, when they couldn’t beat Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament championship a week later, it really spelled doom.
Well, after pushing past Michigan State in the final minutes of a tight game and making key plays late once again against Texas Tech, the Blue Devils are now a true threat to send their legendary coach out on top with a sixth national championship. They won’t see another No. 1 or No. 2 seed until the championship game.
The average age of Duke’s starters is 19. The average age of Texas Tech’s is 22. That experience gap didn’t matter because Duke point guard Jeremy Roach has figured out how to close games, giving confidence to freshman stars Paolo Banchero, A.J. Griffin and Trevor Keels.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.