The hidden side of politics

What we learned: Put some respect on the ACC

Reported by ESPN:

The Elite Eight is set.

No. 1 overall seed UConn will face Illinois in the East. Clemson and Alabama will play in the West after the Tigers and the Crimson Tide knocked off higher seeds Arizona and North Carolina, respectively.

In the South, it will be a rematch of the ACC quarterfinals between NC State and Duke. The Wolfpack upset No. 2 seed Marquette. The Blue Devils defeated top seed Houston after the Cougars lost their point guard and leader Jamal Shead to an ankle injury in the first half.

That leaves the Midwest, where top seed Purdue had no trouble taking care of Gonzaga. The Boilermakers will face Tennessee with a spot in the Final Four on the line.

If you’re tracking how the conferences are faring, that’s three teams in the Elite Eight from the ACC, two each from the Big Ten and SEC and one from the Big East.

Will Duke reach the Final Four for the first time under Jon Scheyer? The Blue Devils should. NC State is no longer the wildly inconsistent team it was during the regular season and is playing well. But Duke has the edge in talent and depth. The Blue Devils will knock out their Tobacco Road rival and end NC State’s improbable run one game before the Final Four.

What it means for Duke: Duke is headed to the Elite Eight for the first time under Jon Scheyer. It will face NC State in the Elite Eight, and the teams split two games in March, with Duke winning 79-64 at NC State late in the regular season and the Wolfpack winning 74-69 in the ACC tournament. NC State has been giving opponents trouble with its length but that shouldn’t be a problem for Duke, who has 7-footer Kyle Filipowski on its side.

What it means for Houston: The Cougars won the Big 12 regular season championship in their first season in the conference, erasing any doubts about their ability to compete on a larger stage. But as a No. 1 seed, they were supposed to get to the Final Four. Their season ended two games short of that, so it’s difficult to view their season as a success. — Adam Teicher

Is it time to take NC State seriously now? Since the Wolfpack are one win away from the Final Four, it’s definitely time. The Wolfpack was wildly inconsistent during the regular season, but that was a long time ago now. NC State has won eight straight games. A loss in any of them, and the Wolfpack wouldn’t still be here. They’ve beaten several strong teams along the way in Duke, North Carolina and now Marquette. They entered the tournament as an 11-seed, but by they deserve some respect now.

What it means for NC State: The Wolfpack is on one of those seemingly improbable NCAA tournament runs that it made famous with its title in 1983. NC State proved against Marquette it can win without being perfect. The Wolfpack committed seven early turnovers and cooled off with their shooting after a hot start, but after taking an early lead, they never relinquished it. NC State will face the winner of the Duke-Houston game in Sunday’s Elite Eight game. The Wolfpack beat Duke two weeks ago in the ACC tournament. As for the Cougars, the magic seems to be on NC State’s side when these two teams meet in the NCAA tournament.

What it means for Marquette: The Golden Eagles had some big wins during the regular season and finished 27-10, but it was an ugly ending. As the South’s No. 2 seed, their season wasn’t supposed to end in the Sweet 16. Shaka Smart’s trip to the Final Four with VCU in 2011 seems like a long time ago. — Adam Teicher

Can Tennessee slay Goliath (Purdue)? If Zach Edey wins his second consecutive Wooden Award — which would be the first time a back-to-back victor has been crowned since Virginia legend Ralph Sampson Jr. achieved the feat 40 years ago — Dalton Knecht will probably be the runner-up. He’s one of the most prolific scorers we’ve seen at this level, and he can put up big numbers against any opponent. To beat Purdue, it will demand an extraordinary effort from a team that can do enough defensively to challenge Edey and limit Purdue’s effectiveness from the 3-point line, but also match the Boilermakers’ offensive pace. The Vols understand all too well. At the Maui Invitational in November, Knecht scored 16 points in Tennessee’s 71-67 loss to Purdue. The game was tied 64-64 with 3:10 play after Jordan Gaines’ 3-pointer and then Knecht hit a deep shot to cut Purdue’s lead to three points with 17 seconds to play. But the Vols couldn’t finish. To change the outcome this time around, they’ll need even more from Knecht and a greater defensive effort against the best player in the country.

What this means for Tennessee: Rick Barnes still has a chance to reach the Final Four again after his first run to the national semifinals at Texas in 2003. And if the Vols can beat Purdue, they’ll go to Phoenix with the confidence they can beat any team in America. Knecht (22 points) was a star, per the norm. But they also held Creighton, a top-10 offensive team, to a 43% clip in Friday’s win in the Sweet 16. It will take a Herculean effort to beat the Boilermakers, but if Knecht has another big night, it’s possible.

What it means for Creighton: Greg McDermott just signed a lengthy extension to acknowledge the success he has had with this program. The trio of Trey Alexander, Baylor Scheierman and Ryan Kalkbrenner has been special, but that run is likely over, so McDermott will attempt to mold another strong group and maintain the success he’s achieved in Omaha. — Myron Medcalf

Is this the same Purdue team from last year? Not at all. Sure, this team’s success is still built around Zach Edey, the Wooden Award winner, but Friday’s win showcased all the different ways the Boilermakers can hurt opponents. Matt Painter fed Trey Kaufman-Renn on consecutive possessions to neutralize Gonzaga‘s attempt to double Edey at the start of the second half. Braden Smith finished with 15 assists, one of the highest tallies in Big Ten history, and kept the Zags guessing every time he had the ball. Fletcher Loyer & Co. found space around the court as Purdue made nearly half of its 3-point attempts. Yes, Edey is the engine of this program, that’s obvious. But everything around him is quite different compared to last year. The collective improvement of Purdue’s supporting cast is becoming a top storyline in this tournament.

What it means for Purdue: Whether the Boilermakers face Creighton or Tennessee in the Elite Eight, both the Bluejays and Vols will face the same dilemma: How do you stall a Purdue team that has the best player in America and shoots 3-pointers at the highest clip in the country, too (41% entering the game)? Mark Few had a great plan. He put bodies on Edey. The Zags attacked him in the paint when they had the ball. It seemed to work until it didn’t. There is no great answer to solve this Purdue riddle. The dream of going from last year’s quick exit to a national title this season is real.

What it means for Gonzaga: While it took longer than expected for Gonzaga to hit its stride, the Bulldogs played some of the best offense in the country over the past few months. They just ran into a great Purdue squad on Friday. But Graham Ike, Ryan Nembhard and other key players from this group could return next season. With another addition or two from the portal or its recruiting class, Gonzaga could once again become a second-weekend squad — and more. — Myron Medcalf

Was that the game of the tournament? Let’s all take a deep breath after that one. I guess this is what happens when you pit two of the most explosive offenses in the country against each other. A combined 176 points, one team shooting over 40% from 3, the other holding a 10-point lead only to give it up and a ridiculous pace of play that made it seem more like a track meet than a basketball game. In a game that went down to the wire, every possession felt like it weighed a ton of bricks. Ultimately, senior Grant Nelson not only led all scorers with 24 points, he added 12 rebounds and five crucial blocks to lead Alabama to a result that was an upset in name only.

What the win means for Alabama: The Tide just took out the top seed in the West and are back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004, only the second time in school history. The historic win for Nate Oats’ team comes during a 23-win season in which it finished second in the SEC. Last year may have included more wins (31) and a better shot at going deeper in the tournament, but this year’s team has proved it has the experience and offensive firepower to compete with anyone.

“This guy showed up tonight against one of the best bigs in the country,” Oats said of Nelson’s performance postgame. “I think people question whether [we’re] soft or what not, Grant showed we’re not. We can play with the big boys.”

What the loss means for North Carolina: A year after becoming the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels appeared primed for a deep tournament run, much like the one that led to the championship game two years ago. Yet, despite the surplus of talent and boasting the top seed in the West, Hubert Davis’ team couldn’t hold on to a lead against an Alabama team that matched them shot-for-shot Thursday night. — Paolo Uggetti



Excellent ball movement leads to a Clingan dunk and the foul

UConn moves the ball flawlessly with it ending up in a Donovan Clingan and-1 dunk.

Can UConn’s NCAA tournament potentially be more dominant than last season? UConn was unstoppable in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Huskies won their six games by an average of 20.0 points, the fourth-largest average since the tournament expanded in 1985. So far this year, they’ve been even better. They’ve won their three games by an average of 28.7 points. They’ve trailed for 28 seconds. They’ve led by double digits in the second half for 58:27 of a possible 60 minutes. San Diego State played about as well as it could for the opening stretch of the game and found itself down by 11 within nine minutes. The scariest part for future opponents is it seems like UConn has been able to keep something in the tank, rarely needing to put its foot on the gas down the stretch in games.

What the win means for UConn: A positive sign for the Huskies on Thursday night was the play of Hassan Diarra. The reserve guard came off the bench and provided a real lift in the second half, scoring 10 points and distributing four assists — putting the game out of reach for San Diego State shortly after halftime. Huskies center Donovan Clingan struggled against the Aztecs’ Jaedon LeDee in the first half but became more comfortable as the game went on and still was a nuisance defensively. UConn forward Alex Karaban hit a couple early shots but then struggled to connect the rest of the game. And while those might seem like potential negatives, Dan Hurley must be thrilled that his team beat a good San Diego State team by 30 without playing its best.

What the loss means for San Diego State: For the second season in a row, San Diego State’s season ends against UConn. The Aztecs actually went shot for shot with the Huskies early but simply didn’t have enough firepower offensively. Last season at this point in the tournament, when SDSU beat overall 1-seed Alabama in the Sweet 16, it had one of the most dominant defenses in the country — and was getting consistent scoring production from its perimeter players. The defense wasn’t quite as good this season, the offensive wasn’t nearly as good and LeDee couldn’t do it all himself. But national runners-up followed by a Sweet 16 run? That’s an impressive two-year run for Brian Dutcher and the Aztecs. — Jeff Borzello



Terrence Shannon Jr.’s steal and slam leads Illinois to the Elite Eight

Terrence Shannon Jr. comes up with a clutch steal and slam dunk as Illinois advances past Iowa State to the Elite Eight.

Can Illinois make UConn sweat? The Huskies have barely been pushed so far this tournament, leading by double digits for basically the entire second half in all three games. But Illinois showed a level of toughness, especially defensively, that could go a long way, especially when combined with the Illini’s elite offense. Since UConn became fully healthy in January, the only team to beat it was Creighton, which scored 85 points and made 14 3s. You have to score points to beat the Huskies. Illinois can do that. Brad Underwood has the nation’s No. 2 offense at KenPom and one of the nation’s most talented offensive players in Terrence Shannon Jr. Underwood also has plenty of size on the perimeter, a bona fide No. 2 scorer in Marcus Domask and a big man in Coleman Hawkins who can force Donovan Clingan away from the rim. UConn is still the favorite, but Illinois might be able to push the defending national champs like no one else has in two NCAA tournaments.

What the win means for Illinois: Shannon’s scoring ability was once again on display Thursday, and he’s the type of player who can carry a team to a title. He was averaging 30.5 points in his past six games before facing Iowa State, and despite playing the nation’s No. 1 defense was able to put up 29 points. He had to shoulder the load more than usual, as Domask struggled to make shots, so he’ll need more help from his supporting cast against the Huskies.

What the loss means for Iowa State: What T.J. Otzelberger has done since arriving in Ames is nothing short of remarkable. The Cyclones have won 70 games in his three seasons, gone to three NCAA tournaments, advanced to two Sweet 16s and won a Big 12 conference tournament title. They’ve had a top-10 defense all three seasons, including the nation’s No. 1 unit this campaign. With that sort of system and culture, don’t expect things to change moving forward. There are a few seniors on the team — Tre King, Robert Jones, Hason Ward — but Otzelberger brought in a pair of four-star freshmen and already landed Charlotte transfer Dishon Jackson. If the past couple of seasons are any indication, the Cyclones will once again likely be picked too low in the preseason and exceed expectations. — Jeff Borzello

Is Ian Schiefflin Clemson’s best-kept secret? With his curly hair contained by an old-school headband, the 6-foot-8 junior from Georgia might appear slightly unassuming. But Thursday night against an Arizona team stocked with talent, Schiefflin became one of the Tigers’ most productive players and looked like one of the best players on the floor. Schiefflin, who is averaging 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds this season, scored 14 points and added 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block. Whether or not the Wildcats prepared for Schiefflin playing as big of a role as he did, they couldn’t stop him in key moments. After draining one 3-pointer, the threat of Schiefflin shooting from deep tilted the balance of Arizona’s half-court defense, opening up lanes for its two best players — Chase Hunter (18 points) and PJ Hall (17 points) — to make key plays down the stretch.

Schiefflin, who wore Kobe Bryant shoes to play in the arena Bryant starred in for many years, was asked postgame whether he believed he was channeling a Mamba mentality with his play, which included a key 3 that banked in. Head coach Brad Brownell interjected with a laugh.

“You’re playing well,” he said. “But don’t compare yourself to Kobe Bryant, OK?”



Clemson sinks a pair of and-1 buckets to move on to the Elite Eight

Chase Hunter and Dillon Hunter both make and-1 layups late to seal Clemson’s victory over Arizona.

What the win means for Clemson: The Tigers continue to defy expectations, and this time, they did it against one of the most talented teams in the nation in front of an Arizona-heavy crowd. Brownell’s squad not only raced out to a 13-point lead against the 2-seed, forcing the Wildcats into eight first-half turnovers and an abysmal shooting performance (37.3% from the field, 17.9% from 3), but it also sustained the inevitable Arizona run that tied the game in the second half and still emerged victorious. When Arizona began making shots, Clemson stuck to its game plan, and soon enough, the Wildcats reverted to taking tough shots they couldn’t make. On offense, the Tigers weren’t scorching hot by any means, but when the game got close late, they did what Arizona could not: attack the basket instead of settling for jumpers. The strategy paid off, and now the Tigers are headed to their first Elite Eight since 1980.

“Today was our day,” Brownell said. “We made enough plays to win.”

What the loss means for Arizona: One of the best offenses in the nation failed to show up in L.A. on Thursday, Since 2015, the Wildcats have not been ranked lower than a 6-seed and have been a 2-seed three times. And yet 2015 is the last time they made it to the Elite Eight. Since Tommy Lloyd’s hire in 2021, Arizona has now lost to a 5-seed in the Sweet 16, a 15-seed in the opening round and now a 6-seed in the Sweet 16. Given the talent the Wildcats have accrued over the past few years, the results have not been there, and this latest tournament exit won’t help their résumé. — Paolo Uggetti