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Sweet 16 starts Thursday; let’s recap the opening weekend

By The Rex Factor

While the joy of seeing games going from morning to night is over for college basketball fans until next March, there will still be 15 more games in the NCAA Tournament (and countless others in the NIT, CIT and CBI tournaments as well, for true degenerates). Action resumes Thursday evening; let’s go over what happened last week.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has one team still alive out of nine that qualified, and that number was precariously close to zero. Arkansas had South Region top seed North Carolina on the ropes and led inside the last two minutes in a game where the Hogs trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half. The UNC fans deserve some credit (or blame?) for sticking around and rooting for South Carolina in the final game of the night and helping propel the Gamecocks to a 65-point second half in an 88-81 upset of East Region second-seed Duke.

The Duke loss capped a tumultuous season that saw more ups and downs than “The Beast” roller coaster at Kings Island amusement part in Ohio. In the end, the Blue Devils bowed out much earlier than expected, and were joined on the sidelines by fellow ACC team and fellow second-seed (Midwest) Louisville. The Cardinals were simply outplayed by No. 7 Michigan in Indianapolis, as the Wolverines rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to prevail 73-69. UM will face Oregon in a Midwest semifinal.

That win was the highlight of an impressive showing from Big 10 teams; that league has three teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin stunned Villanova on Saturday in what was likely the most noteworthy upset of the weekend and the eighth-seed Badgers will next face No. 4 Florida in the East Regional semifinals in New York on Friday night. Purdue is the other Big 10 team that made it through the opening weekend with wins over Vermont and Iowa State; the Boilermakers will battle No. 1 Kansas in what amounts to a virtual home game for the Jayhawks in Kansas City on Thursday.

The Southeastern Conference also acquitted itself well last week, as the league has three of its five teams still playing, with narrow misses by Vanderbilt (intentionally fouling with the lead late against Northwestern, a colossal mental blunder) and Arkansas as the only losses. Florida throttled East Tennessee State and then embarrassed favored Virginia. South Carolina’s win over Marquette in the first round was almost as impressive as the Duke triumph and the Gamecocks eagerly await an East semi against Baylor at Madison Square Garden. Kentucky held off Northern Kentucky and then outlasted Wichita State to advance to a South semifinal against No. 3 UCLA in Memphis on Friday.

The Bruins were impressive in their own rights, motoring past Kent State and Cincinnati to earn the trip to Beale Street. Butler and North Carolina will meet in the other South semi; the Bulldogs made quick work of Winthrop and led a dangerous Middle Tennessee State team throughout.

Out west, seeds held form in three of the four pods, as No. 1 Gonzaga will face dangerous No. 4 West Virginia in a semifinal at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. No. 2 Arizona rallied (with the help of the officials, says this disgruntled bettor on the loser) to advance past Saint Mary’s. They’ll face 11-seed Xavier, which mauled Florida State from start-to-finish.

Action kicks off on CBS Thursday at 7:05 Eastern time with Michigan battling Oregon. TBS will televise the West Regional games Thursday and the East semifinals on Friday.

NCAA Basketball, basketball

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