Sometimes you need a few hours before the upsets arrive in the NCAA tournament. Sometimes, the action doesn’t even really begin on the first Thursday.
Not this year.
We’d barely finished lunch when a late 4-seed Virginia turnover became an improbable, game-winning 3-pointer by JP Pegues to help 13-seed Furman advance. And that wasn’t even the most memorable moment.
But now we have questions. Because the South region of the 2023 men’s March Madness bracket, and Alabama‘s sheer control of it, has changed.
ESPN’s expert panel of Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Myron Medcalf analyze what just happened and what the South region looks like with two big upsets on the books.
1. What sunk Arizona in the loss to Princeton? What about Virginia in the game against Furman?
Myron Medcalf: I hate to sound like a high school coach, but where was the effort in the last 10 minutes of the game? Arizona played with arrogance. And that’s always dangerous. They led by double digits at the 11-minute mark, but as Tosan Evbuomwan and Co. rallied, the Wildcats seemed shocked and never properly responded. And, give Tigers coach Mitch Henderson credit. This was Arizona’s third loss in a game with 67 or fewer possessions. They slowed the game down, and it worked.
Furman was determined to the last minute. It started with this group’s response to playing without top scorer Mike Bothwell, who fouled out in the second half. Jalen Slawson became a real nightmare for Virginia as a 6-foot-7 ball handler. Then, late in the game, they played over the top of that Virginia defense, which opened up the floor. What followed: Furman was in a position to make a late play to win the game.
Jeff Borzello: Arizona’s guards were as bad as they’ve been all season. The Wildcats got their typical production from their bigs, with Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo combining for 35 points and 17 boards — but Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey, Pelle Larsson and Cedric Henderson Jr. combined to shoot 1-for-12 from 3, totaling just 15 points. And for one of the best teams in the country at sharing the ball, the Wildcats had just 10 assists to 13 turnovers.
Virginia jumped out to an early lead, but its deliberately slow tempo isn’t suited to burying opponents under a barrage of points. Furman was able to get a few baskets before the Hoos had a chance to set their defense, which gave the Paladins some momentum and let them back in the game. And, as has been the case for much of the season, Virginia really struggled shooting the ball. The Cavaliers haven’t made 40% of their 3s in a game since January, and went just 2-for-12 from behind the arc on Thursday.
John Gasaway: The Wildcats were a woeful 3-of-16 on their 3s, and Kriisa personally was 1-of-7. Teams have off shooting nights all the time, of course, but the fact that the Ivy League tournament’s No. 2 seed was able to keep an NCAA No. 2 seed from getting second chances was even more surprising. Give full credit to Tosan Evbuomwan and Caden Pierce. They did excellent work on the defensive glass. Arizona pulled down less than one in five of its misses.
As for Virginia, it ran into a similar March dead end. The Cavaliers converted two 3s in 40 minutes. Furman hit 10.
How far can Princeton and Furman both go in the tournament?
Gasaway: The Tigers will draw their inspiration from another New Jersey team. No one gave Saint Peter’s much of a chance as a No. 15 seed last year, and the Peacocks made it all the way to the Elite Eight. Princeton will now play the 7-seed Tigers of Missouri, and Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge will be a handful.
Then again, Mitch Henderson’s group may actually have a better chance than oddsmakers will give Furman against 5-seed San Diego State. To this point in the season, the Aztecs have been even better than Virginia on defense.
Borzello: Entering the NCAA tournament, I had Furman in the Sweet 16, so I’m riding with the Paladins again in the second round against San Diego State. Mike Bothwell will have to avoid foul trouble in that one, though, since the Paladins are not the same team with him on the bench. San Diego State is elite defensively and really imposes its style of play on opponents, much as it did against Charleston after the opening minutes.
I’ll have Princeton losing to Missouri — but hey, I had the Tigers losing to Arizona, too. Tosan Evbuomwan vs. Kobe Brown should be a fantastic matchup up front.
Medcalf: I think a San Diego State squad that just had its hands full with Charleston should be concerned. Paladins coach Bob Richey pulled off the school’s greatest NCAA tournament feat without his top scorer in the game late, and without being able to score more than 7 points until the 10-minute mark of the first half. Slawson will be a problem for the Aztecs, too. He’s a unique matchup at that size. We probably didn’t see Furman’s best. And that means something.
But I’m not picking Princeton to beat Missouri. I trust Dennis Gates and Kobe Brown. Sincerely, an ESPN reporter who picked Arizona to reach the Final Four.
Which team stands to benefit most from two epic upsets in the South?
Borzello: It’s undoubtedly Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s toughest test in the region would have likely come from Arizona, one of the few teams that had the offense to keep up with it. While I had Virginia getting bounced by Furman, a potential Sweet 16 tilt against the slow-it-down Cavaliers would have been a huge contrast in styles. The bottom half of the region is wide open now, though, which could benefit Baylor or Creighton. The Bears have had trouble defensively, but they have elite guards, while Creighton has been one of the best teams in the country with a healthy Ryan Kalkbrenner. One of the two could find themselves in the Elite Eight now.
Gasaway: Alabama. None of this will come into play for the Crimson Tide until next weekend, of course, but removing the No. 2 and 4 seeds from your bracket helps the team on the top line. Even when the brackets were announced, the South was viewed as relatively hospitable to ‘Bama. Now, the region has become even more accommodating.
Medcalf: Yep, definitely Alabama. Arizona’s size and speed figured to be its greatest test in the region. With Arizona gone, there’s a chance Alabama puts together a fairly dominant run to the Final Four. And Tony Bennett’s defensive adjustments for Virginia were problematic for most teams. Alabama’s path is much easier now.