Unanticipated upsets are an essential part of what makes the NCAA tournament so entertaining. Year after year, heavyweight programs who are potential title contenders fall in the opening weekend to the surprise of many. While there are no mid-major Cinderella-esque runs to speak of, this year was no different: blue blood programs and number two seeds Duke and Louisville, as well as number one overall seed and reigning national champion Villanova, all bowed out. The Wildcats and the Blue Devils were the second and third most common national championship picks in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, making No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 7 South Carolina’s respective upsets quite impressive. Was one more impressive than the other? The Daily Campus sports staff debates.
Matt Barresi, Staff Writer: When the bracket came out, I truly did believe both Wisconsin and Carolina would be tough second round match-ups. However, I didn’t expect either of them, especially not both of them, to dethrone the top teams in the East this weekend. In my opinion, the Gamecocks win was slightly more impressive. It is undeniable Duke has the most talented roster in college basketball this season. Just look at some NBA mock drafts and look at who doesn’t play for them. They have the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach at the helm and were rolling, having just won the ACC tournament, the same ACC that put nine teams in the NCAA field. Those are quite some foes to go up against.
But it wasn’t just that they won, it was how they won. South Carolina has been a tremendous defensive team all season, allowing just 64.7 points-per-game, and holding the fourth best adjusted defense on Kenpom. But in this game they let the Blue Devils, who average 78.3 points per game, get theirs, which has been uncharacteristic of this Gamecocks’ team all season long. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s offense has been underwhelming this season. Frankly, they have been below NCAA tournament caliber, as they average 72.7 points-per-game and rank No. 124 on Kenpom. This puts them 98 spots behind the next worst remaining team, Florida at No. 26. They erupted for 88 points somehow this game. They shot 31.8 percent from three, which is below their season average. If you had asked me how South Carolina could of won this game beforehand, I would have said they’ll need to make it a low scoring rock fight, and shoot lights out to have a chance. Neither of those things happened, yet they still won.
Josh Buser, Staff Writer: I was all in on No. 1 overall seed Villanova this year, confidently picking them to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Florida Gators 10 years ago. The Wildcats lost three games all year – twice to No. 4 seed Butler and a two-point upset on the road at Marquette. Villanova went 7-2 against AP Top 25 opponents, and the current team knows how to translate this success to win in March (see: 2016 NCAA tournament). For the Wildcats to not make it out of the first weekend was shocking.
Wisconsin was hot to start the year, but the Badgers came into the NCAA tournament limping – losing six of their final 10 games, including a loss to Michigan in the B1G title game. Wisconsin is known for its defense, ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. The Badgers played to their strength on Saturday, impressively holding Villanova to just 62 points. The Wildcats failed to reach 62 points just three times all season, a number well below their season average of 77.2 points per game.
Barresi: All good points. But Duke is Duke. Especially this year. They have four potential 2017 first rounder’s on their roster. Meanwhile, Sindarius Thornwell is South Carolina’s only prospect and a fringe second rounder at best. The talent discrepancy in this game was huge. The Gamecocks did a tremendous job on Duke’s weapons. Luke Kennard was averaging over 20 points per game, and he finished with 11. Jayson Tatum was held below his season average as well. In the Wisconsin-Villanova game, that talent difference wasn’t as evident. Wisconsin is a very good team that was under-seeded after underperforming during the regular season. They have a great amount of experience; Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are veterans who were key cogs in their back to back Final Four runs. Ethan Happ is a tremendous young player as well. This Villanova wasn’t very deep and was anemic in the post. Daryl Reynolds is solid but with Happ and Hayes the Badgers matched up very well down low against the Wildcats. I think if Wisconsin and Villanova play 10 times, based on Saturday, it is evident Wisconsin wins several and is competitive in nearly all of them. Replay South Carolina and Duke 10 times and I simply don’t believe you’re getting the same evenness. This Duke team was preseason No. 1 for a reason, and the impressive manner in which South Carolina fought and took care of them was something that no one really predicted.
Buser: The argument of Wisconsin winning several games in a 10-game series proves just how impressive their Saturday performance was. Before the game, everybody would have picked Villanova to defeat the Badgers eight or nine times out of 10. But with the way the Wisconsin defense shut down the Wildcats, the college basketball world realized that the Badgers can compete with anyone this year.
On the other hand, South Carolina benefitted from an extraordinary offensive performance. The Gamecocks scored 88 points, a number they only reached four times throughout the season against competition much lesser than Duke. South Carolina went 27-32 from the free throw line, an 84.4 percent rate well above their season average of 69.6 percent on 16.4 made free throws per game. Not to say South Carolina’s performance wasn’t great, but Wisconsin’s victory over the defending National Champions was on another level.
Matt Barresi is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Buser is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.