The NCAA Tournament bracket following the Collegian’s simulation of the first day of the Sweet 16. Graphic by Joshua Doering.
DREW SANDIFER | ASST. SPORTS EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2020 NCAA Tournament’s first weekend is a memory long behind us. Now, we have reached Thursday and Friday of the Sweet 16. This is the stage of the tournament where teams turn a fun Cinderella story into a serious shot of reaching the Final Four in Atlanta. A fluky team has been plucked from this group. Only teams with aspirations of being the last one standing remain. Although there are plenty of high seeds left, they have proven that they can beat anyone on any given floor. This is March.
7:09 p.m.: (12) Richmond vs (9) Florida, New York, NY
Our first matchup of the Sweet 16 essentially summarizes what this tournament has been about: no one really knows what is going to happen. Richmond was playing in a First Four game in Dayton just eight days ago with Butler and Maryland in their pod for the first weekend. Behind Blake Francis and Jacob Gilyard, the Spiders beat Texas, Butler and Maryland to match their program’s farthest trip in the NCAA Tournament.
They’ll look to make history tonight, but it won’t be easy. Florida was the sixth-ranked team heading into the season, but they grossly underachieved. Led by Andrew Nembhard and Kerry Blackshear, the Gators erased all of that frustration by reaching the program’s sixth trip to the second weekend in the last decade with wins over Colorado as well as National Player of the Year Obi Toppin and the Dayton Flyers. Florida’s most recent Sweet 16 trip ended right here in Madison Square Garden but was highlighted by a Chris Chiozza shot at the buzzer to take down Wisconsin in this exact stage of the tournament. They’ll look to recreate that magic tonight.
After Grant Golden won the tip for the Spiders, they proved that they would not shy from the bright lights of New York. A Gilyard and-one put Richmond up 5-0, letting Florida know they would not lie down for them in this game. Later in the half, a Gator 6-0 run was followed by a Spider 7-0 run, proving that these teams were going to need all 40 minutes to decide a winner. Another 10-2 run for Richmond gave the 12-seed a bit of a cushion with which they would ride into the halftime locker room. Spiders lead at the break, 35-27.
While Florida came out of the halftime locker room hot, they paled in comparison to Blake Francis for Richmond. His three 3-pointers before the first media timeout of the half kept the Gators at an arms’ distance, but as the half went on, Florida wasn’t making shots while Francis continued his hot streak to give Richmond more and more breathing room. His sweet-looking scoop layup with ten and a half minutes remaining in the game put Richmond up 60-41. While the Gators played better down the stretch, it was all for pride. The Spiders’ trio of Francis (23 pts), Golden (20) and Gilyard (17) put the game on ice down the stretch. Richmond makes history in New York! The Spiders punch the first ticket to the Elite Eight, which is their first in program history. They’ll square off against either tournament regular Villanova or Cinderella in Northern Kentucky on Saturday for a chance to clinch a spot in the Final Four in Atlanta.
Richmond 75, Florida 63
RICH: Blake Francis 23 pts
FLA: Andrew Nembhard 14 pts, 5 asts
7:29 p.m.: (11) Indiana vs (2) San Diego State, Los Angeles, CA
In a bit of role reversal, this matchup was getting a lot of attention from both analysts and fans in the days before Thursday’s matchup in the Staples Center from L.A. In a stretch from 1977-2010, Indiana had 39 wins in the NCAA Tournament. That’s nearly two full seasons’ worth of wins in March. How many wins did San Diego State have in the tournament in that same timeframe you might ask? Zero. The Aztecs reached just four tournaments in that time and never made it past the round of 32 in their program’s history before. So, yes, it did seem the odds were for the Aztecs to be the 2-seed and overwhelming favorite while mighty Indiana came into the Big Dance just happy they made it as an 11-seed. Luckily for the Hoosiers, though, once we reach this stage of the tournament, seeds can be completely disregarded. We’re in a crapshoot for the title.
While San Diego State had a clear location advantage over the Hoosiers, Indiana’s fans came out in droves in Los Angeles to support their alma mater. In fact, it nearly came to be a 50-50 split between the cream and crimson in the house versus the scarlet and black. The energies in the building were high considering the programs’ chances to reach a point of the tournament in some time. That energy was intensified as the game was started as it was a boat race of an opening half. The teams combined for 21 points in the final four minutes, but it was an Armaan Franklin 3-pointer from the corner that gave Indiana the four-point advantage at half, 41-37.
San Diego State did not let that Franklin shot deflate them, however, as they pulled right back into the game. Ironically, the Aztecs could not tie the game for the first 19 minutes of the half. Indiana’s biggest lead of the half was just six, but SDSU just could not get over the hump… until the final minute. A Malachi Flynn 3-pointer – just his second of the game – tied us up at 65 with under a minute to go. You read that right. After the teams nearly reached 40 in the first half, the intensity of the second half has brought this game to a crawl offensively. In the ensuing possession Indiana’s Al Durham draws a foul. First free throw good. Second free throw rolls around and out! SDSU has a chance to take their first lead since it was 29-28. Jordan Schackel drives kicks to Nathan Mensah in the short corner.. GOOD! SDSU takes the lead, 67-65! Archie Miller will call his last timeout for a play.
As play resumed, it became obvious that Miller told his guys to take the last shot of the game. A gutsy call up one, as it could mean little time to foul if for a miss. It looks like it will be Devonte Green with the ball in his hands. He’ll drive to the cup.. 5.. 4.. 3… blocked by Mensah! The ball goes right to Joey Brunk on the left wing. A short jumper from the wing for the win… YES! IU wins at the buzzer! The Los Angeles crowd goes crazy as the Hoosiers will make their first appearance in the Elite Eight since 2002! Brunk is mobbed at midcourt as pandemonium ensues. What a game! Possibly the game of the tournament thus far. Indiana will advance to face the winner of Yale-Gonzaga on Saturday back here at Staples Center.
Indiana 68, San Diego State 67
IND: Trayce Jackson-Davis 12 pts, 6 rebs
SDSU: Malachi Flynn 14 pts, 7 rebs
9:39 p.m.: (15) Northern Kentucky vs (3) Villanova, New York, NY
We’ve got two David versus Goliath matchups in the Sweet 16, but the first one takes place back at Madison Square Garden between 15-seed Northern Kentucky, one of the darlings in this year’s Big Dance, and 3-seed Villanova, a powerhouse this time of year as they are searching for a championship in the third straight even-numbered year. Northern Kentucky shocked the world in the round of 64 with their upset of Florida State and then their take down of West Virginia in the second round. For Villanova, they defeated Hofstra in the first round before taking down in-state rival Penn State in the second round.
Taking place in Madison Square Garden in New York City, these two vary greatly in their comfort level heading into this game. While playing in the Big East, Villanova has made it a habit of winning tournament games in this building. For Northern Kentucky, this may be many of the players’ first time ever coming to the Big Apple. For the Norse, it’s the game of their lives, but the Wildcats have the experience on their side. Will Cinderella’s slipper still fit after tonight’s game?
And it was that familiarity with the big stage that sparked a big run for the Wildcats in the opening minutes. A quick five points from Collin Gillespie and a bank shot from Justin Moore saw ‘Nova go up 11-4 in the first five minutes. However, NKU under first-year coach Darrin Horn was not going to go without a fight. A stretch where six different Norse scored pulled the underdog to within just two points. They never did get to a tie or lead, though, but they proved that they belonged in this game despite the Cinderella tag. Jermaine Samuels scored Villanova’s last five points of the half to keep them in front, 35-31.
Ironically, the second half of this game played out very similarly to the Indiana-San Diego State game from earlier in the night. Northern Kentucky came out firing in the second half, but could not get the necessary stops to allow them to get in front of Jay Wright’s Wildcats. The game was within two points at multiple points in the half, but Bey and Gillespie came up big again and again to silence the impressive Norse crowd that made the trip from Highland Heights, KY. In the end, the Horizon League champion Northern Kentucky could never string together enough shots to pull ahead. Their special run comes to an end in the Sweet 16, while Villanova heads to its third Elite Eight in five years where they’ll play red-hot Richmond for a shot to return to the Final Four.
Villanova 67, Northern Kentucky 59
NOVA: Saddiq Bey 16 pts, 8 rebs
NKU: Jalen Tate 19 pts
9:57 p.m.: (12) Yale vs (1) Gonzaga, Los Angeles, CA
With the final game of the night, a battle of the Bulldogs descended upon the Staples Center in L.A. as the college basketball world enjoyed yet another matchup between David and Goliath. Yale, the Ivy League champions, upset both Michigan and Oregon to win just their second and third tournament games in program history. This is the farthest they’ve made in the tournament if you don’t include when the field was just eight teams. On the other hand, Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been to six straight Sweet 16s but are still chasing that first championship in school history. If they were to advance in the tournament, they would have to take this Yale team seriously.
Yale ran out to an impressive turnout from their alumni and used that energy to fuel an early run to show Gonzaga that they are not to be taken for granted. The Azar Swain 3-pointer brought it up to a 6-2 lead. The Zags wouldn’t be out for long, though, as the Spokane squad rattled off a 25-10 run to open up a double-digit lead. Yale kept it within striking distance, however, as a pair of August Mahoney free throws brought the Yale deficit to just six at halftime, 36-30.
Led by Killian Tillie and Ryan Woolridge in the second half, Gonzaga kept their lead at around six to nine points for the entirety of the first ten minutes of the second half. A Woolridge jumper brought the Zags’ lead to 56-44 with 11 minutes to go in the game, but that is the largest their lead would get. Over the next four minutes, Yale would enjoy a 14-3 run to bring themselves within a single point.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: 30 seconds to go. Knotted up at 65, Gonzaga’s Filip Petrusev breaks it with a hook in the post. On the ensuing possession, Jalen Gabbidon forces his way into the paint for a tough, contested layup to tie us back up. With nine seconds to go, Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi throws a dangerous pass to Corey Kispert, but Kispert was fouled as a Yale defender went for the steal! Kispert can put the Zags up with little time left. He knocks down the front end of the one-and-one. However, he misses the second! Yale’s leading scorer Paul Atkinson grabs the rebound and it looks like he’s going to take the final shot for the upset-minded Bulldogs. Atkinson, crossover, stepback from the free-throw line for the win…. no good! Gonzaga survives and will advance to its fourth Elite Eight in six years! Another Cinderella falls on this Thursday night as Yale’s best season in program history ends here in L.A. Gonzaga will play Indiana on Saturday looking to cut down some nets! What a string of games!
Gonzaga 68, Yale 67
GONZ: Killian Tillie 14 pts, 5 rebs
YALE: Paul Atkinson 15 pts, 11 rebs
Here’s to hoping Friday’s games are half as good as they are today. Two tournament regulars and two Cinderellas are moving on to fight for a chance to go to Atlanta to compete for a championship. The race for the championship is on!