College football writer
On paper, the West Region was always the toughest path to the Final Four.
The lower right section of the bracket was packed with NCAA Tournament fans, including three of the top six title favorites, which is fitting for a regional set that will be hosted in Las Vegas.
[View the full NCAA Tournament bracket here]
Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising then that, despite the opening Thursday of March Madness being filled with surprises across the country, the four games in the West were nothing but chalk across the board.
The road to cutting down the nets could have a nice lining as he remains on track to give us a handful of blue bloods on a collision course for the second weekend of the tournament.
While No. 1-seeded Houston struggled to put away Northern Kentucky in Birmingham, a Kansas team that was upset that it won’t be heading to Kansas City next week as the top-seeded of the Midwest, seemed to finish off the poor No. 16. No. 1 seed Howard, strangling the Bison with the most complete game of the day in a 96-68 victory.
“We like to play fast,” acting head coach Norm Roberts said. “They went up and down and we knew if we could rebound the ball, which we didn’t. great the job today, but if we bounced the ball we could come out and have some opportunities. This happened today.”
The Jayhawks pulled down nine more rebounds than their opponent, despite an inferior effort on the boards. Jalen Wilson had a team-high 20 points, while freshman Gradey Dick picked a good time to post his first career double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Who knows, if vice president Kamala Harris hadn’t been in Des Moines to watch her alma mater or if head coach Bill Self had been roaming the sidelines, the final score might have been even more one-sided considering that the Jayhawks cleared the bench in the bottom of the second. half and still outscored the Bison by 15 in the final 20 minutes.
I, who suffered a procedure to treat blocked arteries in the heart before last week’s Big 12 Tournament, he is with the team away from the court and indicated in an interview with a student reporter that he is leaning towards a return for the round of 16. Kansas players, who learned Thursday morning that coach No would be on the sidelines, barely broke a sweat without him, but they’re still likely to get some reminders about how to crash the glass Saturday.
“He’s complying with the doctor’s wishes, and hopefully we’ll come back and hear from him what he liked and what he didn’t like,” Dick added.
In any case, the impressive effort to advance to the second round for the 16th consecutive year shows that the group has as good a chance of repeating as the sport’s national champions as any in the decade and a half since achieved.
A matchup against No. 8 Arkansas will almost certainly be a much tougher test. The Razorbacks have dealt with injuries throughout their campaign, but they have at least three players who are drawing serious interest from NBA scouts, and they showed an impressive amount of determination to outlast No. 9 Illinois 73-63 later in the afternoon.
“This is a team that just keeps growing, and I said before the tournament that I feel like this is a team that just keeps getting better,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “I mean, we talk about improvement daily. We work on things daily to try to improve. There have been other teams that have plateaued. Maybe a couple of our teams in Nevada, we were old veterans and maybe at some point we were just trying to save legs . But this is a team that is continually improving.”
This continued improvement must turn into rapid improvement if the ‘Hogs are to pull off an upset in two days for the program’s third straight Sweet 16 berth. Ricky Council IV posted a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Illini. , but missed a few easy baskets that could have given his team more breathing room. Fellow guard Nick Smith Jr. mustered just six points on 2-for-10 shooting, while the super-talented Anthony Black was only moderately better with 12 points in an equally rough outing from the field.
Still, there’s a reason the Jayhawks’ road is tough, now drawing a team that has the talent to live up to its preseason top-10 ranking, but hasn’t proven it consistent
Elsewhere in the West Region, No. 7 Northwestern reaffirmed why Chris Collins’ veteran-laden crew will be a tough matchup going forward. The Wildcats topped No. 11 seed Boise State, 75-67.
“It’s all about surviving and advancing, right? That’s what they talk about in March Madness,” Collins said after the program’s second opening-round win. “It’s really hard to get here, especially when you’re playing in the Big Ten. What we compete in our conference, the 14 teams, night in and night out, the games you have to win to get here. There’s no relief at all. It’s a joy. I’m so proud of this team. I’ve said that all year.”
Boo Buie led the way with 22 points, while backcourt mate Chase Audige chipped in with 20 more.
The Wildcats, in the Big Dance for the second time in school history, will move on to face a future conference rival in No. 2 UCLA. The Bruins seemed to take more than a few frustrations out of losing in the Pac-12 tournament final against poor UNC-Asheville in an 86-53 blowout in Sacramento. The 33-point victory showed why UCLA was a hot pick to win it all this year, despite the absence of top defender Jaylen Clark.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. looked well-rested in scoring 17 points in just 30 minutes of action, while freshman Amari Bailey chipped in with 17 and four boards as well. The Bruins were stellar from the tip, opening the game with a 14-0 run and making as many field goals as UNC-Asheville attempted in a timeout of less than four in the first party
“We don’t really look at the scoreboard,” Bruins head coach Mick Cronin said on the postgame broadcast. “We try to come out in every game the same way. Our defense has been excellent and we have started very well.”
However, such is life in the West, which reaffirmed that the eventual regional champion will be more battle-tested than any other team this March, with all of the top seeds advancing to Saturday’s second round.
It’s not often you walk away from the first taste of action feeling like two of the bluest of blue bloods are on a collision course, but that’s exactly what it looked like after what took place in an opening round very calcareous for one region and another. region only
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets including NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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