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ANAHEIM — By late Friday, the NCAA tournament field had dwindled to eight teams in a way that few seemed to expect at the outset. It wasn’t the upsets that were unanticipated, though. It was the lack of them.
This was supposed to be the most wide-open Big Dance in recent memory. Kansas was the top seed but only ranked among the favorites. All the other contenders supposedly had flaws. Oregon didn’t deserve a No. 1 seed, or so the thinking went. This would be the maddest March of all the maddest Marches.
Until it wasn’t. By the time the regional semifinals finished, all four No. 1 seeds had advanced, Oregon included. Kansas had won each of its games by double digits. Oregon had overpowered Duke.
The Ducks and Jayhawks were joined on Friday by Virginia and North Carolina, a pair of top seeds who overwhelmed their foes. The Cavaliers are perhaps the most complete team in this tournament, and they refused to let Iowa State even sniff an upset. North Carolina downed Indiana, 101–86, in a dominant victory of its own.
As the clock neared midnight ET on Friday, the only question left was whether Syracuse, the 10th seed in the Midwest region, could topple Gonzaga, the No. 11 seed. An Orange victory would have given the ACC four wins on the day and half of the slots in the Elite Eight. (The answer, after the final seconds ended, was yes.)
By that point, the takeaways from the first three rounds (and the First Four) were clear:
1. The ACC can claim the title of best conference in college basketball this season, although those who asked Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to compare the ACC now to the Big East in its heyday need to slow their roll.
2. For all the Pac-12’s struggles as a conference, with five of seven teams losing their first game and only one, Oregon, advancing to the second week, the Ducks still proved deserving of the top seed for which most had pegged Michigan State.
And 3. That whole parity thing? This tournament made a parody of that.
So these are the Elite Eight match-ups: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Villanova in the South, No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 2 Oklahoma in the West, No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Notre Dame in the East and No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 10 Syracuse in the Midwest. All four No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds advanced, and the top seeds won so easily, for the most part, that if all four advanced to the national semifinals it wouldn’t be all that surprising. That notion is counterintuitive in this tournament especially because even though the Selection Committee tabbed these four teams as the top four in college hoops this season, few expected all four to survive their first three games.
But here we are, wondering what team might end a top seed’s season. The bet here is Oklahoma, with a backcourt that is arguably the country’s best, against Oregon, which has struggled at times against elite guards. Villanova also provided an intriguing case, simply by how well the Wildcats have played. They blew out Miami and Iowa and UNC Asheville. Their closest game was against the Hawkeyes—and they won by 19 points.
Virginia erased any doubts of losing early in its game, taking a 17–3 lead against the Cyclones and dropping 45 points in the first half, the most for the Cavaliers against a ranked team since 2003 (47 vs. No. 8 Maryland, for those who really need to know).
Iowa State made the score respectable at points early into the second half, but its star forward, Georges Niang, picked up his fourth foul with more than 13 minutes left. The Cyclones kept him on the bench and never again threatened. Meanwhile, Virginia’s bench players flexed for the TV cameras as a wayward basketball knocked an Iowa State cheerleader in the face. Virginia won, 84–71, making the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995. Senior forward Anthony Gill led the Cavaliers with 23 points.
Notre Dame tipped off against Wisconsin as the early game unfolded. The Badgers had won 10 straight NCAA tournament contests in March and made the past two Final Fours, but they were in their first year under head coach Greg Gard after Bo Ryan retired. Notre Dame did what Notre Dame does. The Fighting Irish fell behind, mounted a second-half comeback and won with enough offense and some intense D.
Wisconsin took a 56–53 lead into the final minute, only to watch Notre Dame score the final eight points. That’s when junior guard Demetrius Jackson took control. He scored a quick basket and then stole the balland scored again to give the Fighting Irish the lead. Notre Dame added two free throws after a Wisconsin miss, and Jackson, perhaps the best on-ball defender in this tournament, nabbed another steal in the final seconds. The final tally read 61–56, and the victory sent Notre Dame to the Elite Eight for the second straight year. Jackson scored 16 points after he started the game 1 for 10.
“This team has found ways to win all year,” Notre Dame assistant coach Martin Ingelsby said in a text message. “They are tough, resilient and have a great will to win about them.” If the Fighting Irish make the Final Four, it would be their first appearance since 1978.
The ACC dramatics continued in the nightcap, when Syracuse fell behind Gonzaga 18–8 and mounted a second-half comeback of its own. The Orange took the lead for the first time on the first basket after halftime, going ahead, 30–29. They took the lead again with 21 seconds left when senior forward Michael Gbinije put back his own miss for a 61–60 advantage.
The Orange mustered one final defensive stop. And there was Syracuse, a team many thought shouldn’t be in the tournament at all, back in the Elite Eight, the fourth ACC team to win on Friday. The final score was 63–60.
North Carolina completed the conference sweep late Friday, and there it was, the ACC tournament replacing the NCAA tournament, parody over parity, four No. 1 seeds in the Elite Eight. That might not last, of course. But that was the funny thing about this tournament. When everyone seemed to expected the unexpected, the expected happened. Even if no one had expected it.