The March Madness road of a pair of No. 1 seeds ended Thursday night as the Gonzaga Bulldogs and Arizona Wildcats fell short of the Elite Eight in two more NCAA tournament bracket-shaking losses. The Zags, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed and who were pursuing the first national championship in school history, fell 74-68 to a fourth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks team that makes its second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight. The night's other Western power, the Wildcats, could not overcome the fifth-seeded Houston Cougars in a 72-60 loss that puts the Coogs one step from a second consecutive Final Four if they can get past also-triumphant Villanova.
The loss of two No. 1 seeds might have been the headline on any other night, but the Duke Blue Devils extending the last dance of coach Mike Krzyzewski, bouncing the 3-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders 78-73, captured the interest of the college basketball universe and beyond.
ESPN's team of Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on everything they saw Thursday night, and look ahead to what figures to be another night of thrilling Sweet 16 action Friday.
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Friday's March Madness schedule:
No. 15 Saint Peter's vs. No. 3 Purdue, 7:09 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 4 Providence vs. No. 1 Kansas, 7:29 p.m. ET (TBS)
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 4 UCLA, 9:39 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 11 Iowa State vs. No. 10 Miami, 9:59 ET p.m. (TBS)
Thursday's matchup with Texas Tech did not look as if it favored betting underdog and historically West Coast-challenged Duke. What impressed you most about the Blue Devils, and what's your early feeling on Saturday's matchup with Arkansas?
Gasaway: First against Michigan State and then again against Texas Tech, Duke closed the game strong. We didn't see this coming when Virginia Tech defeated the Blue Devils by 15, but now that loss in the ACC title game feels like a long time ago. Jeremy Roach in particular has been outstanding. The sophomore put up 30 points on 21 shots over the past two wins and added five assists against the Red Raiders. We always knew Coach K's rotation was talented, but now this young team is developing before our eyes.
Borzello: Roach has been one of the NCAA tournament's breakout stars, and that's something I never thought I would write a few months ago. This is a player who was moved to the bench on multiple occasions this season, and his last nine games before the NCAA tournament came as a reserve. But Duke has needed one of its perimeter players to step up and create shots off the dribble during the tournament, and Roach has answered the call.
He had 12 points and five assists in the opener against Fullerton, 15 points -- including a couple of huge baskets late -- against Michigan State, and 15 points and five assists against Texas Tech, once again making a couple of clutch shots late to provide the edge. On Saturday, Arkansas is going to try to make the game a bit more chaotic than Texas Tech did, but if Mark Williams can stay out of foul trouble (Chet Holmgren couldn't against the Razorbacks), I think Duke has the edge.
Lunardi: The Blue Devils got tremendous guard play and a level of intensity from Paolo Banchero that elevated the entire team. For the first time since the November wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, Duke again has that Final Four look. With the storybook ending for Coach K now within sight, Arkansas has both Duke and destiny as opponents in the Elite Eight. The combination is probably too much to overcome.
What proved to be Arizona's fatal flaw in its loss to Houston?
Borzello: Arizona's fatal flaw was playing the team ranked No. 2 in the country in nearly every predictive metric. Houston is an incredibly tough team that excels on the offensive glass and at the defensive end, particularly when it comes to forcing turnovers. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they've had issues with defensive rebounding and with taking care of the ball -- and they hadn't faced a team as physically imposing at both ends of the floor as Houston.
The Wildcats were never able to get into their free-flowing, up-tempo system. The Cougars imposed their will on Arizona, and the Wildcats couldn't respond by getting Houston out of its own comfort zone. Bennedict Mathurin struggled, Azuolas Tubelis couldn't get it going and Kerr Kriisa didn't make shots until it was too late. Against a disciplined, well-coached team like Houston, that simply was too much to overcome.
Gasaway: This is a case where Arizona was bracketed with a No. 5 seed that's actually about as strong as the Wildcats. Tommy Lloyd's two mainstays, Mathurin and Christian Koloko, started slowly against Houston's pressure. That's something a team as strong as Arizona can overcome against most opponents, but not against the Cougars. Both teams crashed the offensive glass effectively, but UH held the Wildcats to 34% shooting inside the arc. Houston played with a swagger that is very familiar to anyone who saw this team reach the 2021 Final Four. For its part, Arizona exceeded all expectations, going from unranked in the preseason to a top seed in the tournament.
How did Arkansas beat Gonzaga, and is it repeatable against Duke?
Gasaway: The Razorbacks won with defense, holding Gonzaga to 68 points in a 77-possession contest. In the box score, it looks like a standard Drew Timme 25-point performance. In fact, Arkansas collapsed on Timme with multiple defenders all evening and made him take 19 shots to get those points. Then, when he passed out of double- and even triple-teams, his teammates couldn't hit 3s. The Bulldogs were just 5-of-21 from beyond the arc. The Zags have long made their name with accurate shooting, but two of their worst performances from the floor in the past three years occurred within the past six games (the other being the loss at Saint Mary's). Eric Musselman's team shut down Gonzaga, the Hogs had the best defense in the league in SEC play, and they can absolutely repeat this performance in their next outing against the Blue Devils.
Lunardi: In its past 14 NCAA tournament starts before tonight, Gonzaga averaged 82.9 points per game. The only other time it scored as few as 68, the Bulldogs still won. Credit the Arkansas defensive game plan and even more so its execution. The Zags clearly were never comfortable at the offensive end, and it will be fascinating to see the Razorbacks try for a repeat performance against Duke. Regardless, Arkansas could be 40 minutes from its first Final Four in almost three decades, and we shouldn't put anything past the Muss Bus at this point.
Borzello: Arkansas went into the game thinking it needed to keep Gonzaga from getting easy baskets in transition in order to win the game. And while the Zags were still able to get fast-break points on occasion, Arkansas' transition defense did its job. Andrew Nembhard was rarely able to get a head of steam and get baskets against an unsettled defense (he wasn't able to get baskets, period; he was 2-for-11 on the night). Forcing Gonzaga to create offense against a set half-court defense has been the recipe for slowing the Zags down all season -- they simply don't have the perimeter playmakers and shot-makers they did last season. And that's what Arkansas made them do.
On to Friday night, how surprised would you be to see Saint Peter's win another game?
Gasaway: Well, it's March and this is a Saint Peter's team that already eliminated Kentucky. I expect Purdue to win, but the Peacocks working wonders contrary to my expectations would hardly be a first. Shaheen Holloway's team is shooting much better against NCAA tournament teams than it did all season in the MAAC. In theory, that shooting could cool off at some point, but it's just as likely that a game with the Boilermakers could be a shootout in which both teams put points on the board.
Borzello: I'd be very surprised -- but I was also stunned to see Saint Peter's beat Kentucky and pretty surprised to see the Peacocks beat Murray State. So I'm not counting them out! They're a tremendous defensive team, and I think they'll cause issues for Purdue at that end of the floor -- despite being at a severe disadvantage when it comes to size down low. The concern comes at the other end of the floor, but it's worth noting that Purdue has struggled defensively for most of the second half of the season. If Saint Peter's continues to make shots like it did in the first two rounds, the Peacocks have a shot.
Lunardi: Even more shocked than after the victory over Kentucky. Not because it wasn't a shocking result, but the Wildcats at least had the "we had no idea" excuse. That rationale doesn't apply to Purdue, which should and will be extremely prepared for whatever the Peacocks have left in the tank.
Which other Friday Sweet 16 matchup intrigues you most?
Gasaway: I'm looking forward to seeing blue bloods clash as North Carolina takes on UCLA. The Tar Heels were doubted pretty much all season because they lacked quality wins. Then they won the season finale at Duke convincingly, but it still seems as if this group is being somewhat undervalued. Brady Manek's a volume scorer on both sides of the arc, and the Tar Heels force misses in the paint while limiting you to one shot. A win against the Bruins would certainly make a statement to the doubters, but it's not going to be easy.
Mick Cronin's team is excellent on both sides of the ball. I just hope Jaime Jaquez Jr. has recovered from his sprained ankle and is able to play against UNC. He's the heart and soul of the Bruins. One safe bet in this one is that UCLA will get plenty of first shots. The Bruins take excellent care of the ball, and the Heels don't force many turnovers.
Lunardi: I'll be in Chicago and can't wait for the opener between Kansas and Providence. The Jayhawks were my preseason pick to win the national championship and about the only thing that can still go right in my personal bracket. And the Friars were among my favorite teams to watch all season, in part because of their story and even more because they always found a way to win. Never has the term, "Crushed 'em by three..." been applied so well. No idea who's going to win, just glad I'll be in the house to find out.
Borzello: I'll take Miami and Iowa State -- one double-digit seed is going to be 40 minutes from the Final Four come Friday night. The battle on the perimeter should be fantastic. Miami's guard trio of Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong is among the best in the country, and all three are unafraid to take big shots in late-clock or late-game situations. On the other side, Iowa State is an elite defensive team and imposes its style on its opponent. Generally, that leads to games in the 50s. Will Miami be comfortable with that? Tyrese Hunter and Izaiah Brockington are going to have to make shots for the Cyclones, which Brockington has done all season and Hunter did in the first round against LSU. The game will come down to the backcourts and the turnover battle.