Happy Friday, everyone! Congrats on making it through another week.
We have a little bit longer of a first section this morning, so let's get right to it.
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Good morning to everyone but especially to...
THE DUKE BLUE DEVILS
The young Duke Blue Devils have grown up in a hurry, and as a result they're heading to the Elite Eight. Last night, Mike Krzyzewski's retirement was delayed yet another game after his team topped Texas Tech, 78-73.
Simply put, this was Duke playing its best basketball at the best possible time:
- They went a perfect 8-8 from the field over the last 8:19 of the game.
- They shot an absurd 71% in the second half (after 37% in the first).
- Paolo Banchero led the way with 22 points. Mark Williams and Jeremy Roach added 16 and 15, respectively.
- Duke's starters scored 76 of the 78 points.
Simply put, this is not the same Duke team as it was a few weeks ago when it got demolished at home against North Carolina to end the regular season and then demolished again by Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament title game. This is now a team that rallied late for the second straight game and, down the stretch, absolutely shredded the nation's best defense.
We've talked a lot about "what if Duke could just put it all together?" this season. Last night, we saw it -- and it was terrific.
Look up the word "versatile" in the dictionary and you'll see this Arkansas team.
In the Razorbacks' first game of the tournament, they won playing slowly but efficiently. In their second game, they won with defense. Last night, they took out the top overall seed playing fast. That's right, Arkansas beat a 1 seed for the first time in program history, topping Gonzaga, 74-68.
- JD Notae scored 21 points, and Trey Wade and Jaylin Williams both chipped in 15.
- Arkansas outscored Gonzaga 36-34 in the paint, an area Gonzaga usually dominates.
- The Razorbacks forced 15 Gonzaga turnovers and committed just eight.
The Razorbacks have now made consecutive Elite Eights for the first time since the mid-1990s.
Mature. Smart. Composed. Call them what you want; the Villanova Wildcats just win. Last night, they toughed out a 63-55 victory over Michigan, led by 22 points from Jermaine Samuels.
Villanova is comfortable in who they are and impossible to rattle, writes our Chip Patterson:
- Patterson: "The Wildcats have not trailed in the second half of their three games in the NCAA Tournament ... It tests the patience and focus of a defense and often leads to good results. The Wildcats don't even need a large lead to be able to control the game, just an advantage that allows them to comfortably control the tempo and out-execute opponents."
THE HOUSTON COUGARS
The Houston Cougars are tough as nails. They'll leave you exhausted and demoralized, and they don't care who's in their way. Last night, it was Arizona which saw its season end at the hands of Kelvin Sampson's squad by a score of 72-60.
- Houston never trailed.
- The Cougars nailed nine 3-pointers, with five from Kyler Edwards.
- They also had 19 second-chance points and 26 points in the paint.
This is a team that lost two of its best players -- Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark -- to injury during the season and hasn't skipped a beat. The Cougars just find ways to beat you. It starts with ever-present energy, hustle, offensive rebounding and attention to detail. When they add in 3-point shooting and terrific guard play, they can beat anyone. Arizona found that out last night.
And not such a good morning for...
THE GONZAGA BULLDOGS
In 2017, Gonzaga made its first NCAA Tournament championship game, narrowly losing to North Carolina. The 'Zags may not have won it all, but they had arrived as a national powerhouse.
In the five seasons since, no team has won more games (in fact, no one has even won more NCAA Tournament games) ... but the wait for that title continues.
This year seemed as good as any for them to end the drought.
- Coming off a title game loss to Baylor, All-American big man Drew Timme returned for a third season in Spokane, and savvy point guard Andrew Nembhard also came back.
- Into the mix came Chet Holmgren, a likely top-three pick in the NBA draft, as well as sharpshooting transfer Rasir Bolton.
Some of the names were familiar. Some were new. Gonzaga was the overwhelming title favorite at sportsbooks, in brackets and by analytics. But the end result was the same disappointment. Perhaps their best chance to win a title may have just passed them by, writes college basketball reporter Matt Norlander.
- Norlander: "You can make the argument that no program plays under more consistent pressure to perform at the highest level, while simultaneously being a target of narrow-minded skeptics, than Gonzaga. ... If this Bulldogs story is ever going to have a storybook ending on a Monday night in April, it might well have to do it the way we long believed it would have to happen: not as the sport's Goliath, but as the team that thrives off its doubters. As the program capable of getting to the top when it's not expected to."
In a single-elimination tournament, one bad night ends your season. Gonzaga found that out the hard way, and that's nothing new.
Previewing today's Sweet 16 action 🏀
The men's Sweet 16 rolls on with four more games tonight:
- 7:09 p.m. (15) Saint Peter's vs. (3) Purdue on CBS
- 7:29 p.m. (4) Providence vs. (1) Kansas on TBS
- 9:39 p.m. (8) North Carolina vs. (4) UCLA on CBS
- 9:59 p.m. (11) Iowa St. vs. (10) Miami on TBS
UCLA and North Carolina have combined for 17 NCAA Tournament titles, with the Bruins accounting for 11 (most) and the Tar Heels for six (third-most). It will be a treat to see these two historic programs face off, writes Patterson:
- Patterson: "They have only met in the tournament twice: UCLA beat North Carolina in the national championship game in 1968 -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, had 34 points and 16 rebounds in the win -- and then the Tar Heels bounced the Bruins from the second round in 1989, a game that featured a five-minute appearance from then-future and now-current Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis."
The women's Sweet 16 begins tonight with four games:
- 7 p.m. (5) North Carolina vs. (1) South Carolina on ESPN
- 7 p.m. (6) Ohio State vs. (2) Texas on ESPN2
- 9:30 p.m. (4) Maryland vs. (1) Stanford on ESPN
- 9:30 p.m. (10) Creighton vs. (3) Iowa State on ESPN2
USMNT earns key point with goalless draw at Mexico ⚽
Despite multiple chances, the United States men's national team settled for a 0-0 draw against Mexico last night. While it's not a particularly exciting result, it's a massive point for the US.
Thanks to Panama drawing against Honduras, the USMNT can all but clinch a World Cup berth with a win Sunday in Orlando against Panama. Here's what the top of the standings look like with two matches to go. Remember, the top three teams qualify.
- 1. Canada (25 points | +13 goal differential)
- 2. United States (22 points | +9 goal differential)
- 3. Mexico (22 points | +6 goal differential)
- 4. Costa Rica (19 points | +2 goal differential)
- 5. Panama (18 points | +1 goal differential)
That +9 goal differential is key, because goal differential is the tiebreaker. Should the US win Sunday, Costa Rica would have to...
- Not only also win Sunday at El Salvador, but...
- ...then make up a massive goal differential (we're talking probably four or five goals at least) when it faces the US on Wednesday, March 30.
I know that the USMNT is no stranger to disasters, but even that scenario seems a little far-fetched. To stay updated on everything USMNT, you can check out our podcast here.
Best and worst signings so far in NFL free agency 🏈
It's been a busy NFL offseason with superstars finding new homes, the quarterback carousel spinning and major free-agent deals being signed.
So, what were the best free-agent moves? The worst? NFL guru Jordan Dajani says the reigning champs occupy the top spot so far.
- Dajani: "Allen Robinson was seen as one of the top wideouts in free agency, and someone who could sign a deal that would put him up into the top five of highest-paid receivers. Instead, he shocked everyone by signing a three-year, $46.5 million deal with the Rams. ... Robinson has virtually never had good quarterback play. He now gets that in Los Angeles with Matthew Stafford. This is a move that showed the NFL world the Rams are set on repeating."
Here's the rest of the top five:
- 2. CB J.C. Jackson (Chargers)
- 3. G James Daniels (Steelers)
- 4. WR Jamison Crowder (Bills)
- 5. T La'el Collins (Bengals)
As for the worst moves, you can check them out here.
What we're watching this weekend 📺
- We're watching the men's NCAA Tournament. Here's the schedule.
- We're also watching the women's NCAA Tournament. Here's the schedule.
As for everything else...
🏀 Warriors at Hawks, 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏀 76ers at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Blackhawks at Golden Knights, 3 p.m. on ABC
🏀 Nets at Heat, 8 p.m. on NBA TV
🏒 Lightning at Rangers, 2 p.m. on TNT
⚽ USMNT vs Panama, 7 p.m. on FS1
🏀 Jazz at Mavericks, 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV