The madness of the NCAA men’s tournament has returned and by the end of this weekend, we’ll know who’s headed to the Final Four.
Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? (Or at least, it comes at you at roughly the same speed as Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell, who flew all over the court carving up Michigan State’s defense Thursday.)
The first couple Sweet 16 games were a mix of terrific and boring, but we’ll mostly remember the day as the one where Nowell became the latest hero of the tournament, turning in a record-breaking, career performance on the biggest stage of his life. Even Patrick Mahomes is a fan.
But Nowell wasn’t the only standout from Thursday’s early games. Here are the other winners and losers.
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There’s nothing like playing great in front of your hometown crowd. And when home is Madison Square Garden, one of the most lauded basketball venues in the world, it’s that much sweeter.
Nowell, the 5-foot-8 Kansas State point guard whose heart is about as big as his whole body, is a Harlem native who played terrific against Michigan State in K-State’s 98-93 overtime win that sends the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.
Despite rolling his right ankle early in the second half and playing with a visible hobble for a stretch, Nowell finished with 20 points and 19 assists, a new NCAA men’s tournament record (it was also a career high for Nowell).
He was terrific in the pick-and-roll, dishing to teammates and hitting pull-up jumpers. He also grabbed five steals, the last of which was on Michigan State’s final possession when the Spartans had a chance to tie the game with a 3 in the final seconds.
Nowell’s 18th assist, which tied the tournament record, was jaw-dropping. Nowell rocketed a no-look lob pass from about half court to Keyontae Johnson, who finished it with a behind-the-head dunk. The assist record he broke had stood since 1987.
Never mind that the 6-foot-7 junior guard had a forgettable shooting night most of the game against UCLA. No one is going to remember that part. They’re only going to remember the end — which, once again against the Bruins, was epic.
With Gonzaga suddenly trailing by one after a furious comeback from UCLA, Strawther took a dribble handoff and drilled a 3 from the logo, putting the Zags up two with 7 seconds to go.
No one described it better than play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan who screamed, “He took it from Reno and cashed in!”
Strawther finished with 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-8 from 3. His 10 rebounds were huge for the Zags, who nearly doubled up UCLA on the boards (50-26). Drew Timme’s 36 points and 13 rebounds kept GU within striking distance, but Strawther’s heroics will be in the One Shining Moment highlights.
Praise be, a team finally shot over 50%! And in fact, there were three of them (almost four).
Granted, this doesn’t say much about Arkansas’ defense. But after an opening weekend where we saw a lot of (badly) missed shots from pretty much everyone, you have to be impressed by fourth-seeded Connecticut’s absolutely blistering 57% accuracy from the field. The Huskies shot 61% in the first half, which is how they built a 49-26 lead going into the locker room.
In the East Regional, Michigan State and Kansas State combined for 24 made 3s, both shooting over 45% from long-distance. The third-seeded Wildcats shot 56% from the field overall, while Michigan State finished at 49%.
In the Gonzaga-UCLA nightcap, the Zags shot 50% on the dot to come from 13 down before hanging on in a nail-biter that closely resembled their 2021 matchup, with a crazy, game-winning shot from Jalen Suggs.
For these teams’ efforts Thursday in the first half of Sweet 16 games, our eyes thank them all.
The Kansas State-Michigan State overtime thriller is what March Madness dreams are made of.
After 12 lead changes and 11 ties in regulation, we had to go to overtime. Correction, we were privileged enough to go to overtime.
There’s nothing quite like a game on the biggest stage being played at a high level. It was a terrific and entertaining back-and-forth contest — in the end there were 16 lead changes and 14 ties — that will be talked about for a long time. And the thrilling finish fittingly involved the game’s best player, Nowell, who grabbed a steal with three seconds to play that sealed K-State’s win.
Viewers got quite a show. And for everyone who only tunes in to college hoops during March (and early April), it was a tantalizing taste of what they could spend months enjoying.
The tremendous careers of Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. ended in disappointment, unfortunately, with another difficult loss to Gonzaga. The two did plenty of good during their run with the Bruins, including leading the program’s resurgence under Mick Cronin with a trip to the Final Four, two other Sweet 16 appearances and a Pac-12 regular-season title this year. Unfortunately, it was the Bulldogs that ended two of their last three seasons. UCLA was bit badly by the injury bug and was short-handed Thursday against the Zags. Though for long stretches, those two, particularly Pac-12 player of the year Jaquez (29 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) was one of the main reasons for UCLA nearly pulling off a dramatic comeback. Campbell finished with 14 points and nine assists and also grabbed three steals.
After playing so well in the second round and knocking off No. 1 Kansas, the Razorbacks got blown off the court in the regional semifinal, falling 88-65. And it was absolutely as ugly as the final score indicates.
Arkansas was outplayed in every facet of the game, getting beat on rebounds (43-31), points in the paint (42-24) and bench points (22-14).
Because of his performance, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman had to keep his shirt on all night. Some people might actually consider that a win.
Yet again, the Tennessee coach underachieves in March. In eight years at the helm in Knoxville, the 69-year-old Barnes has taken the Volunteers to the Sweet 16 just twice — and they have never gone further. This parallels his tenure at Texas, where he made one run to the Final Four in 2003 and two other trips to the Elite Eight before several disappointing finishes. His last seven teams never got past the second round.
Talent has never been the issue. Barnes’ teams have long been full of NBA guys, but under him, they don’t perform in March.
At Tennessee he’s now been upset in three successive seasons – as a No. 5 seed (by a 12), No. 3 seed (by an 11), and now, as a No. 4 seed (by a 9).
Follow sports enterprise reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell.