Four teams are into the Elite Eight following another day of March Madness. Here’s a look at the four biggest takeaways from Thursday’s Sweet 16 action:
1. Virginia silences doubters. The Cavaliers’ redemption tour continues. The No. 1-seeded Cavaliers, using last March’s historic upset to No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County as motivation for this year’s tournament, fended off No. 12 Oregon’s upset bid 53-49 and advanced to the Elite Eight. Virginia guard Ty Jerome (13 points, six assists), who hit the decisive three-pointer with 3:33 remaining, called the “ugly” defensive battle a “dogfight.”
“But it’s survive and advance,” Jerome said after the win.
The Cavs and their nation-leading defense now meet Purdue on Saturday with a chance for the program’s first Final Four since 1984. As good as the Cavs have been under Bennett’s tutelage, they’ve underachieved in the NCAA tournament — only getting to one other Elite Eight (2016) despite acquiring a No. 1 seed in three of the last five years. Not only is UVA rewriting the script on its 2018 heartbreak, it’s doing what past highly regarded Bennett teams couldn’t. If ever a team’s X-Factor were more clear, UVA is proving doubters wrong. It’s been that way all season. In November, Jerome told USA TODAY Sports of the UMBC loss narrative, “we hear everyone ripping us. I’d love to shut ’em up.”
2. Texas Tech can win this whole thing. The Red Raiders entered Thursday’s contest with the best defensive efficiency of all Sweet 16 teams (per KenPom’s adjusted ratings). And, boy, did it show in the first half against Michigan, as Texas Tech stifled the Wolverines offense to an NCAA tournament record low of 16 points. The second half didn’t get much better, with Michigan not making a three-pointer until 24 seconds left and finishing 1-for-19 from beyond the arc. Texas Tech’s 63-44 win might’ve been a bad night for Michigan. But it also made a statement about how good coach Chris Beard’s team is. Not only can Jarrett Culver (22 points) and this group get to the Final Four — by beating the nation-leading offense in Gonzaga — but it proved it’s plenty good enough to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
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3. Purdue is more than Carsen Edwards. The Boilermakers’ 99-94 overtime win over Tennessee can be measured in different phases. In the first half, Purdue’s offense was running fluidly in the half-court and its defense kept Tennessee out of the paint to build a 40-28 halftime cushion. The second half saw Ryan Cline drain a barrage of jumpers and even as the Volunteers stormed back to erase the deficit, it was Cline’s three-point shooting that saved Purdue from collapsing and losing all momentum. By the time he fouled out in OT, his performance — 27 points on 7-for-10 three-point shooting — had positioned the Boilermakers to survive.
Big Ten leading scorer Edwards finished with 29 points, scoring six in overtime, and hit the game-tying free throws to force OT. But the biggest takeaway from the second half was how Purdue has another player than Edwards fit to counter an opponent’s late-game punches.
4. Brandon Clarke is the difference-maker for Gonzaga in Sweet 16 rematch. In the postgame interview on CBS after the ‘Zags’ 72-58 win over Florida State, coach Mark Few said he didn’t consider Thursday’s win from last year’s Sweet 16 loss to the Seminoles revenge (FSU eliminated Gonzaga last year in the same round). But he did acknowledge one key difference in his team’s DNA this year: Brandon Clarke. The catalyst of Gonzaga’s second-round win over Baylor (Clarke had 36 points and five blocks in that win), the 6-8 forward had 15 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks to help the Bulldogs manage against FSU’s size and athleticism and fend off late rally attempts with his momentous plays at the rim — on both ends. While Rui Hachimura is this team’s All-American, Clarke showed he’s the ‘Zags’ much-needed backbone.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.