We have our first two Final Four teams heading to New Orleans. And they’re both blue-bloods.
In the first Elite Eight matchup Saturday, veteran-laden Villanova leaned on his experience to fend off surging Houston. Coach Jay Wright has a chance for another national title after winning championships in 2016 and 2018. Collin Gillespie was a part of that ’18 team and he’s still suiting up for the Wildcats thanks to a fifth year of eligibility due to the NCAA’s extra COVID year .
In the second game, Duke continued its surging success in these NCAAs with an emphatic rout of Arkansas. The fact that the Blue Devils put on an offensive clinic against arguably the best defensive team remaining is a statement that says this team could be a favorite to win the national title in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.
“There’s nothing like being a Regional champion,” Coach K said on CBS.
“It’s a dream come true,” Duke star Paolo Banchero added.
A look at the biggest winners and losers from Saturday’s Elite Eight games:
The Blue Devils (32-6) looked dominant in a 78-69 drubbing of an Arkansas team that had just knocked out the top overall seed, Gonzaga. As good as the Razorbacks’ defense is with its lateral quickness, Duke rose to the occasion with better offense from its more gifted 1-on-1 players. Duke got scoring from just about everybody Saturday night, with nearly six players in double figures led by marksman AJ Griffin’s 18 points. The X-Factor was undoubtedly big man Mark Williams, who had 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
It took a second-half wake-up call after the lead was cut at five points five minutes in. “They outplayed us at the start of the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “After the timeout, we were a different team.”
The Wildcats (30-7) responded in the final five minutes once Houston sliced the deficit to 42-40 off an 11-2 run, and that came with a jumper by fifth-year senior Gillespie, as Villanova escaped with a 50-44 victory by making key plays in crunch time. ‘Nova showed one of its key strengths in this NCAA Tournament: Playing with poise down the stretch when another team is rallying. Making big shots wasn’t easy against a smothering Houston defense but the Wildcats’ blend of clutch players in the frontcourt and backcourt were able to get the job done. An underrated stat: Villanova leading the nation in free-throw percentage, on display Saturday with a 15-for-15 clip from the charity stripe.
American Athletic Conference
The AAC really didn’t get a ton of love from the NCAA committee on Selection Sunday, namely leaving SMU out of the projected field when the Mustangs were clearly a worthy team, having beat Houston. Memphis also beat Houston and was leading Gonzaga by double digits in the second round before failing. Factoring all that with Houston’s impressive Elite Eight finish speaks volumes for how good this league was. Even though the committee says it pays no attention to conference records for team profiles, it’s telling how underrated Houston and the conference’s best teams were. The Cougars weren’t a team that just hit their stride at the right time. They had favorable matchups in these NCAAs because their defense earned them those advantages.
The Razorbacks (28-9) came up just short once again in their second consecutive Elite Eight finish. They met arguably the hottest team in this NCAA Tournament and just didn’t have any answers for a potent and well-balanced Duke offensive attack. Coach Eric Musselman got this team to play elite defense all season. That wasn’t absent in this contest, but there was little opportunity for Arkansas to use its defense for momentum with how well the Blue Devils were playing. Sophomore big man Jaylin Williams (19 points) played one of his most complete games.
The Cougars (32-6) gave Villanova all it could handle in the Elite Eight, finishing just short of a trip to the Final Four. Houston’s defense was the team’s calling card and it kept the Cougars in this one, but it was the offense that doomed this group. The Cougars shot just 1-for-19 (5%) from three-point range and elite scorer Kyler Edwards was just 1-for-11 from the floor. That’s not a recipe for advancing, especially against a seasoned team like Villanova. Taze Moore carried this team with 15 points, but his missed lay-up with 30 seconds left was indicative of the shots just not falling.
Villanova’s Justin Moore
The junior guard was in tears and on crutches after injuring his lower right leg at the end of Villanova’s win over Houston. Something in his leg appeared to pop on a play with 35 seconds left. He’s averaged 15 points for the Wildcats and assuming he misses the Final Four, that’ll be a huge loss for Villanova.
Two other No. 2 seeds
While Villanova and Duke were able to play great basketball and take advantage of favorable matchups in this tournament to get all the way to New Orleans, the other No. 2 seeds – Kentucky and Auburn – weren’t so fortunate. Instead, the SEC kingpins became the victims of two of the best stories in March Madness – No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s and No. 10 seed Miami (Fla.). All it takes is one poor game in this single-elimination tournament to exit early. But Villanova and Duke are good examples of No. 2 seeds that delivered, illuminating how the SEC’s two No. 2s flopped.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.