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March 26, 2014

Early excitement of NCAA tourney packed into a handful of games

The NCAA tournament saw great games last weekend including Kentucky’s captivating victory against Wichita State -- hardly a "Shocker" -- and none stranger than Iowa State’s time-vanishing escape against North Carolina. Those should keep fans analyzing and debating until this Thursday’s tip-offs in the tournament's Sweet 16 round.

As dramatic as the endings were in several games, far more were settled before the last TV timeout.

Of 16 games played last weekend, 10 were decided by 10 points or more, with the average difference being 17.6 points. Of course, three games were determined by two points, and another by three points, helping the tournament live up to its billing as the greatest spectacle in college sports.

For Coach Gregg Marshall's Wichita State team, it will take a while to grasp the significance of its game against Kentucky's collection of McDonald's All-Americans.

Some TV analysts had called the Shockers as a fraud - a hard-to-fathom assessment given last season’s run to the Final Four and a 35-0 record this year. Wichita State answered each of Kentucky’s athletic plays with one of its own. In the end, though, missed free throws ended the Shockers' dreams of becoming the first undefeated national champion since 1976.

If the floor in St. Louis was a sea of conflicting emotions  after the Kentucky-Wichita State game, the scene in San Antonio was one of confusion as officials studied a replay - seemingly for an eternity - of the last 1.6 seconds of the North Carolina-Iowa State battle. The officials then called the coaches together and explained the game was over, time had expired. The Tar Heels would not get a last chance.

The call appeared to be correct, and North Carolina coach Roy Williams was a model of sportsmanship as he extended his hand to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg. Williams’ team may have lost, but he stamped himself as a winner in every other way possible.

The weekend also offered an interesting perspective on the tournament from rival coaches who tend to see things much differently.

Sounding as if they were reading from the same talking points, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Louisville’s Rick Pitino described what it takes to advance from one weekend of the tournament to the next.

“A lack of offense keeps you from winning a championship,” Pitino said at a press conference. "You’ve got to have great offense to win, and you’ve got to really execute and make free throws - do the smart things.”

Calipari assessed it the same way. That’s not to minimize defense, but teams that make the tournament generally play good defense, and scouting is so thorough that there are no surprises. The difference comes down to making shots when given the opportunity.

Two of the country’s most highly touted freshmen – Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker – found that making shots can be easier said than done.

Under the bright lights, with their teams in need of offensive firepower, neither could deliver.

Wiggins, the year’s top prep recruit, hit a dismal 1 of 6 shots (16.7 percent) and finished with four points as Kansas lost to Stanford, 60-57. Parker did a little better (14 points) but made just 4 of 14 (28.6 percent) as Duke lost to Mercer, 78-71.

The two, who are expected to enter the NBA draft and become lottery picks, averaged 17 and 19 points per game, respectively, during the regular season.

The tournament teaches that it takes only one bad game or off-night for a team’s dreams to come crashing down.

Three No.1 seeds -- Florida, Arizona and Virginia -- advanced to the Sweet 16. But only two No. 2 seeds –- Michigan and Wisconsin –- are still in the running.

The pressure now intensifies as the competition stiffens and the rewards grow larger. Look at this way: Four titles - taking the form of four Final Four banners - are at stake. After this weekend there will be four survivors.

Despite predictions and conventional wisdom, someone will step up and make a big play, while someone else will watch a shot rim out. History will be made for some, heartbreak for others.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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