In each of the last two NCAA Tournaments, the Big East conference had two teams in the Sweet 16. This year, three Big East teams reached the second weekend, tied with the SEC for the most schools remaining that represent one conference.
Before initiating the launch sequence to the Final Four, there is one conference team playing in early April for the second straight year. With that in mind, how did each remaining Big East team fare west of the Mississippi River?
Writer’s Note: So many NFL teams are about to make the Baltimore Ravens an offer they cannot refuse for Lamar Jackson.
Writer’s Note II: The Jalen Gaffney’s (Florida Atlantic Owls) are in the Final Four. Planet Earth turns slowly.
UConn 88, Arkansas 65 (March 23): The Muss Bus gets hog tied
Coming off an upset of the defending national champion Kansas Jayhawks, Eric Musselman and the Arkansas Razorbacks hoped to advance to their third straight Elite Eight. Head coach Dan Hurley and the UConn men’s basketball team ended Arkansas’ hype train in record time behind a 14-0 first-half run. In other news, Richie Springs made a basket in the NCAA Tournament.
Texas 83, Xavier 71 (March 24): Separating zippers with horns
Only once in the postseason heading into the second weekend, the Big East Championship game, did Zach Freemantle’s absence come back to bite the Xavier Musketeers. The Texas Longhorns went through their own injury issues when Dylan Disu went down, but everything they had experienced up to this point would not stop them from a deep postseason run with interim head coach Rodney Terry.
Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen scored 13 of the Longhorns’ first 15 points, but the defense limited Xavier to one field goal in the first seven minutes. The Musketeers’ offense made more shots after Texas took their first timeout, but Sir’Jabari Rice and Christian Bishop kept the team one step ahead in the first half. Allen ended the first half with a buzzer-beating three-pointer, and by the halfway point of the second half, the Longhorns possessed a 24-point advantage they never relinquished as they advanced to their first Elite Eight since 2008.
Given the injury circumstances, the fact that Xavier avoided severely collapsing in February and went as far as they did is a sign of things to come. This may be the end of the road for Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel, but if other seniors return, the Musketeers will be hard to beat next season.
Creighton 86, Princeton 75 (March 24): The 15th seed joy ride stops in Louisville
The Princeton Tigers lit the victory beam twice in Sacramento, becoming the third No. 15-seed in as many years to reach the Sweet 16. The only thing stopping them from being the second No. 15 seed in the Elite Eight ever were the Creighton Blue Jays, who made their second Sweet 16 appearance in three years.
Every time the Blue Jays possessed a sizeable lead throughout the first half, the Tigers cut the deficit with jumpers. With four minutes left in the period, Creighton’s high-powered offense took a four-point halftime advantage as Princeton scored five points in that span. The Blue Jays opened the second half on a 12-4 run with momentum on their side, but despite fighting back multiple times, the Tigers never trimmed the deficit lower than eight. Ryan Langborg made a three with 49 seconds left, but Creighton finished the game with free throws and advanced to their first Elite Eight since the bracket had exactly eight teams in 1941.
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson upset another west coast powerhouse in the first round, making New Jersey proud in the process beyond what the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights did. As their special tournament run ended, the Blue Jays moved one step closer to their first Final Four appearance.
UConn 82, Gonzaga 54 (March 25): Back in Texas; Back to the Final Four
UConn has returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2014. Hurley is going to his first Final Four ever. The Huskies beat the third-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs by more points (28) than the combined margin of victory in their first four NCAA Tournament games nine years ago (27). In addition, Apostolos Roumoglou scored in a March Madness game.
San Diego State 57, Creighton 56 (March 26): Vengeance in motion
In the first round of last year’s tournament, the San Diego State Aztecs could not finish off the Blue Jays in regulation as their season ended in overtime. With significantly greater implications on the line, the Aztecs sought sweet revenge.
Despite allowing 33 first-half points, the Aztecs’ defense stuffed the Blue Jays’ to begin the second, limiting them to two baskets in the first seven minutes. San Diego State thought they had the lead for good when Nathan Mensah made a jumper, but Baylor Scheierman intercepted the inbounds pass three possessions later and made a game-tying layup. The only reason the game did not go to overtime is because Nembhard fouled Darrion Trammell as he tried to make the winning shot. Trammell went 1-2 at the free throw line, and after a lengthy review of the ensuing possession, the Aztecs advanced to their first Final Four.
Scheierman made at least one three in every game he played as a Blue Jay, but his efforts were not enough against a team that had won 14 out of its last 15 contests. Creighton had their deepest March Madness run ever, and with most of their pieces likely coming back, this team will most certainly try to make a Final Four next year.
The Huskies are the only Big East team left, and even though I want to recap the Final Four, that is not my responsibility. Instead of the usual summary of what happened, next week’s edition will reflect how the Big East Baller Update has progressed over the past three years.