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March 26, 2015

March Madness 2015: Recapping Thursday's Sweet 16 games

Kentucky rolls over West Virginia, while Wisconsin and Notre Dame also advance to the Elite 8

We're starting to get down to the nitty gritty. The complete anarchy of the first couple of days is a spectacle unlike any other in sports, but from a strictly basketball standpoint, the Sweet 16 is where the tourney starts to get really good. Let's dive into the action:

No. 1 Kentucky smokes No. 5 West Virginia

In the words of Omar Little, "You come at the king, you best not miss." West Virginia talked a big game heading into their matchup with college basketball's juggernaut. Here's the bulletin-board material freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr. provided, according to the New York Daily News' Hoops Weiss:

“I give them props,” Miles said Wednesday. “I salute them for being 36-0. But tomorrow they’re going to be 36-1.” He later added, “The Cats don’t play hard. They should be more intimidated. Because they’re the ones who have the high standard, and we’re coming for them.”

It's not like Kentucky even cared. John Calipari always talks about only being worried about his own team, and the Wildcats destroyed the Mountaineers. Curb-stomped. Boat-raced. Cal's bunch sprinted out to an 18-2 lead and enjoyed a 44-18 advantage at halftime. Nerlens Noel was enjoying the action:

It's not even funny how good Kentucky is. Karl-Anthony Towns, who I would select with the number one overall pick in June's NBA Draft, scored one point and they won a Sweet 16 game by a 39-point margin. One block isn't good enough for them, so they give you two:

I mean, that's just ridiculous.  Poor BillyDee Williams (yes, that's actually his name) looks like Manny Pacquiao after getting knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez there. Kentucky is also so good that they inspired maybe the dumbest tweet ever. I'm not an ESPN hater by any means, but dear lord:

No. 3 Notre Dame outscores No. 7 Wichita State

One of my favorite Bill Simmons ideas is the "critically acclaimed team," a designation that he bestowed upon the Seven Seconds or Less Suns in this column. Sure, those Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni-led teams never ultimately won an NBA title, but they were always competing for one, and more importantly, fun as hell to watch. Mike Brey's 2014-15 Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the closest thing we have to a critically acclaimed in the NCAA Tournament this year.

ND plays their starters heavy minutes, but that five-man unit — Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia (St. Joe's Prep), Pat Connaughton, and Zach Auguste — plays offense like an NBA team. The ball moves crisply, players make intelligent cuts off the ball, all four perimeter players can shoot 3s and make plays off the dribble, and either of the two point guards (Grant and Jackson) form a dangerous pick-and-roll combo with Auguste. Watching five guys play as one on the offensive end like Irish do is a beautiful thing to watch. Furthermore, unlike so many college teams, they're actually looking to score early in the shot clock. 

Grant, who has already been named a First Team All-American, only scored nine points but his floor game was excellent. He finished with 11 assists to only two turnovers. Besides the countless bandwagon Irish fans in the Delaware Valley, there was one Philadelphian who was pulling hard for Notre Dame:

Pressure's on, Hinkie. Jerami wants to run the pick-and-roll with his older brother on the Sixers' second unit next season. The 81-70 final margin is a little misleading, as Notre Dame put the game out of hand with a huge run midway through the second half.

The Irish have a lot of interesting individual stories, too. For one, when Connaughton (16 points) is finished dunking off of back cuts, he'll be pitching in the Orioles' farm system. Also, Brey is coaching with a heavy heart, having lost his mother last weekend. The Irish will play Kentucky in the regional final. Even if they don't win that game, I thoroughly enjoyed watching ND play this season. People will remember them more than most teams.

Here's an Auguste alley-oop from Jackson:

No. 2 Arizona dispatches No. 6 Xavier

Tonight, the country met Matt Stainbrook, the goofy looking Xavier center who used an old man game straight out of the rec center to deposit 17 points on Arizona's tough frontline. He's a national hero now. Stainbrook also doubles as an Uber driver, which I felt proud to already know because of Dana O'Neil's great feature from December. Xavier's 1-3-1 zone gave the superior Wildcats far more trouble than it should have, but they figured it out just in time to secure a 68-60 win. Sean Miller eliminated the school he left to bolt to the desert for.

The Arizona win sets up the Chester rematch between Bo Ryan and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson from last year's thrilling West Regional final. Take it away, Bart:

No. 1 Wisconsin rallies to top No. 4 North Carolina

When Wisconsin ends up playing Arizona in what will be the tourney's marquee matchup before the Final Four, they'll enter the rematch of last year's West Regional final very battle-tested. UNC is a pretty good team that sped the Badgers up more than Chester product Bo Ryan probably wanted, but Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky were just too much down the stretch.

The less heralded of Wisconsin's projected first-round picks, Dekker has been on NBA scouts' radars for a couple of years. He was always someone I had trouble getting a handle on. Dekker is big, athletic, and skilled, but too many times he isn't able to effect games they way you would like. Maybe part of the reason for that trend is that Wisconsin religiously runs the "Swing Offense" and are one of the most structured teams in college basketball.

In the Sweet 16, Dekker was the only Badger that attacked UNC's length and athleticism for the entire game. He did enough in the first half (15 points, 6-8 shooting) for Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes' late charge to come in a winning effort. Wisconsin's favorite couple went home happy: