WHEN THERE are just 60 possessions in a game, every last one is important. Villanova, which had been playing from behind all game Saturday against Wisconsin in Buffalo, had it down, it turned out, to just eight possessions with five minutes left. 'Nova, despite its starting frontcourt shooting just 3-for-15 and its offense never really in rhythm, had somehow managed a 57-50 lead.
Wisconsin was going to have to play near-perfect to win. Villanova was going to have to make fundamental mistakes to lose. Both happened.
The Badgers scored 15 points on their eight possessions, getting the game tied in just 90 seconds, shooting 6-for-9 from the field with one turnover, one free throw and keeping one possession alive with two offensive rebounds (they had 12 in the game on their 23 misses). Twice, Villanova lost Bronson Koenig, one of the great late-game shooters in college basketball, once in its zone when he kept hiding out on the baseline and once on an inbounds baseline screen. Then, the Wildcats left the baseline open on Nigel Hayes' game-winning reverse layup, helping on the wrong side.
The Wildcats scored just five points on their eight possessions, going 1-for-3 from the field, with two turnovers and, despite being the nation's second best free throw shooting team (79.3 percent), shooting just 3-for-6 from the foul line.
Wisconsin probably had the better of the play most of the day, but was in deep foul trouble in the second half and typically a bad foul-shooting team was even worse than usual from the foul line (7-for-16), giving the Wildcats an escape chance against a team that was not only poorly seeded by the selection committee, but placed in the wrong region against the wrong team.
Even with all that went wrong down the stretch, 'Nova was still alive with 3.4 seconds left, behind by what would be the final score of 65-62, with Wisconsin's Vitto Brown about to shoot a second free throw.
The Wildcats inexplicably called their final timeout. That essentially ensured the loss. If Brown makes it, it's over. If he misses, the clock starts to run and you only get a heave. Turned out he did miss and the 'Cats did not even get a shot off.
If 'Nova had that timeout, it could have called it after the miss with three seconds left, set up a play, thrown the ball down the court with the clock stopped and perhaps gotten off a decent shot to tie. Last April, with a little more time, you might remember the 'Cats got off a great shot in a Houston domed stadium that won them a national championship.
The bench numbers
In its two NCAA games, Villanova's "bench" outscored its opponents, 55-8. It was not the bench then, but perhaps the minutes that got them. Wisconsin had the ball for 23 minutes, Villanova just 17. Playing all those minutes on defense could have taken a toll on both ends in those fateful final five minutes. That has been the trap Wisconsin has set for years. Villanova, finishing off a legendary four-year run and playing this season without Phil Booth and Omari Spellman, just happened to get caught in it.
THE OTHER 51 GAMES
Probably a tie between Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91 in the first round and Purdue 80, Iowa State 76 in the second round. (OK State's coach Brad Underwood liked playing Michigan so much he took the Illinois job the next day).
Michigan shot 11-for-15 from three - in the second half. The teams scored all those points on just 67 possessions. Defense was optional.
Purdue led 58-39 with 14 minutes left. Iowa State held the lead for 12 seconds near the finish. The teams combined to shoot 27 of 31 on layups or dunks.
Purdue's "Biggie" Swanigan was ridiculous on offense with a near triple-double (20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists), but was exposed on defense when he had to guard away from the basket. NBA teams will notice the defensive issues.
Xavier's Trevon Bluiett was really good against Maryland and brilliant with 29 points in second-round 91-66 rout of Florida State in Orlando. In the two games, he made eight threes, 12 free throws and scored 50 points.
Best halftime adjustment
Louisville's Rick Pitino had his defense surround the three-point line against Michigan's great shooters and single cover the bigs. The 'Ville led by eight at the break. UM coach John Beilein had his team get the ball in the lane in the second half. The Wolverines shot 14-for-21 on twos in the last 20 minutes while scoring 45 points on just 33 possessions (1.36 points per possession.). Michigan made 15 layups in the game.
The new Big East really struggled its first two years in the tournament, but got major cred last year with 'Nova's national title and, even though Villanova is out, sustained it this year, with two of its seven NCAA teams, Butler and Xavier, through to the Sweet 16.
The Pac-12 was 6-0 through Saturday. On Sunday, Oregon defeated Rhode Island and USC became the first Pac-12 team to fall, losing to Baylor. UCLA closed out Sunday night with a win over Cincinnati. The Big Ten was 8-4, with three in the Sweet 16. The Big 12 was 8-3 after Baylor's win. The SEC was 7-2 after South Carolina upset over ACC power Duke on Sunday night. The mighty ACC was 6-3 in the first round, but lost its next four games. In the end, North Carolina was the only ACC team to advance to the Sweet 16.
The one-bid conferences went 2-19 in the first round, Wichita State and Middle Tennessee the only winners.
Gonzaga led Northwestern 34-12 late in the first half. The Wildcats had pulled within 63-58 at the five-minute mark when Zach Collins reached through the rim to block Dererk Pardon's dunk attempt, an obvious goaltend that was not called. NW coach Chris Collins reacted and got a technical, a four-point turnaround after the two free throws were made.
What would have happened? We will never know. But Northwestern, playing just the second NCAA game in school history, was great in the second half with 53 points on 41 possessions (1.29 ppp) after a dreadful first half where they scored just 20 points on 34 possessions (.588 ppp).
By the numbers
Princeton shot 8-for-13 on layups and 8-for-31 on threes in its 60-58 first-round loss to Notre Dame . . . Notre Dame shot 17-for-17 from the foul line and 5-for-14 on layups in its 83-71 second-round loss to West Virginia. WVU was 8-for-14 on threes, including 5-for-6 in the second half . . . UCLA scored an insane 50 points on just 32 second-half possessions in its first round 97-80 win over Kent State, 1.56 points per possession . . . Virginia shot 16-for-54 overall and 1-for-15 from three in its ugly 65-39 second-round loss to Florida. The 39 points on 61 possessions computed to just .639 ppp.