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2023 NCAA Tournament Saturday Recap: Defense reigned on a day of close, physical basketball

The SEC looked very good too...well, except for Mizzou.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Duke Vs Tennessee Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

For it to just be the second round, we were treated to a lot intense tasty matchups with elite defense taking center stage.


No. 5 San Diego State, one of the longest teams in the tournament, got the hint from UVA’s fall from grace. When you have your boot on an opponent’s neck, then pinch that noggin right off. The Aztecs did. As SDSU did with Charleston, the Aztecs used their length to harass No. 13 Furman’s perimeter shooters, punish the glass, and dominate the interior game with bunnies, blocks, and put-backs. Matchups make the game, and two undersized perimeter teams were no match for SDSU’s punishing physical game. How bad was it? Furman didn’t even get a bucket for the final 12 minutes of the first half. This was an impressive whooping; a contest of men vs. boys, and it showed.

No. 1 Alabama drew the very solid No. 8 Maryland Terrapins: We’ll have that recap after the game

No. 7 Missouri squared up against the upstart No. 15 Princeton Tigers. It was a contrast of styles, and whoever was able to force the other to play out of their comfort zone was going to be the winner. As Princeton did vs. Arizona, the Ivy Tigers were able to slow the tempo down, and dared Missouri to match them in the halfcourt while remaining disciplined. And, just like the Arizona game, the more talented team simply could not keep up with the smart, unselfish play of Princeton. MU was down by 7 at the half, and had scored a season-low 26 points. It wasn’t better out of the locker room, as Princeton opened the final frame with a 9-2 run.
The more troubling part if you’re Dennis Gates is that MU got clobbered on the glass: with 15 minutes remaining, Princeton had more rebounds (29) than Mizzou had points (28).

Missouri’s defense was absolutely gross to behold. Whether it was coming off of balls screens:

or protecting the interior

or rotating on defense...hell, even defending passing lanes.

Overall it was a MU game with really poor shooting, really poor adjustments, really poor effort, and really poor defense.

Princeton was the far better team, and it wasn’t a fluke either: They deserved to run away with it.


No. 5 Duke came into the tourney winners of 10 straight, and claiming the ACCCG. They had been led by a versatile defense, and doing just enough on the offensive end. Then they ran into No. 4 Tennessee, who said, “Oh, you want to play defense, do you?” For perhaps the first time in two months, the Devils found an opponent who relished beating the hell out of opponents, and were caught flat-footed. The Vawls did not let the Devils get entry passes to the post, Duke lost all of the small battles, could not match physicality, and showed no inclination to go toe-to-toe and make those grimy hustle plays that have defined Rick Barnes style of play.
Keyed by a huge 15-2 run to end the half, the Vawls fought back from an early deficit to take the lead and never let up. Every time Duke threatened to close the gap, UT found it all: found a loose ball, found an offensive rebound, found its outside shot, found the extra pass, found another gear defensively. Just a really impressive game by Barnes and UT: This was the most eye-opening game of the first session — and even a slightly scary one, as the Tide could meet these same Vols in a future Final Four.
Look, I’m not happy about having to praise them either.


No. 1 Kansas never gets to whine about Duke getting fouls again. No. 8 Arkansas plays a fast, physical style of defense, but it wasn’t those effort plays getting whistles — it was every time Arkansas threatened to pull ahead that the whistles came out. At one point in the last three minutes, with UA trailing by 1, Kansas was the beneficiary of two handcheck calls, a BS push, a hip check after the KU guard cleared him out with the elbow, and a straight-up block called a foul. It was honestly impressive. With 90 seconds left, three Hogs starters had fouled out — including Devo the Dog — and and another had four fouls.
Big, Dumb Arkansas Basketball trailed by as many as 11, but just as Tennessee did with Duke, the Hogs brought a sawed off shotgun to a rock fight, and made this about effort, ugliness, fighting through a lot of traffic. Tie game with 23 seconds left, the Hogs hit the first of two freebies, and then Council fought through three KU defenders to get the OREB.
Not that Arkansas doesn’t have talent; but yet again, hustle trumped talent.
The Agents of Chaos live to frustrate America for another day.
So good. So dumb. And another SEC team into the Sweet 16.

No. 2 UCLA has been a trendy Final Four pick among many, but they ran into a team very similar to the one Texas would see, that Alabama would see — a Big 10 defensive specialist a bit short on offense, but very long on making life miserable for opposing teams. In fact, the No. 7 Northwestern Wildcats were the highest ranked defense in the Big 10 all season for a reason. But the Bruins’ are comfortable in that game as well. They’re the P12’s best defense and looked every bit of it on a night where offenses struggled.
You could almost write the same synopsis for this one as you could for the Texas/Penn State and Houston/Auburn tilts: all things being equal, you’d rather have the roster with more talent...and the 9:01 without a bucket by the Wildcats not only proved that lesson again, but ultimately doomed them. And by the time their perimeter game got caught up, it was far too late.


No. 1 Houston was coming off a tussle with NKU in a physical, defensive opener. Then, without Sasser, they drew a de facto home team in No. 8 Auburn, who assuredly were going make this one about defense and bodying up the talented-but-thin Cougs. It was nip and tuck throughout most of the first half, before Auburn found a little daylight, and were able to nab a 10-point lead approaching the half. Houston simply could not figure out Jaylin Williams in the halfcourt game; he repeatedly beat his man off the dribble, and when UH tried zone, he was able to beat the backside as he sliced and slashed through the paint, taking the ball to the rack.
Houston allowed 56 PPG over the season; the Tigers had 41 at the break.
No one said Bruce Pearl can’t coach, just that he’s an insufferable, corrupt, loudmouth asshole.
But, in basketball, talent matters a lot more than Xs and Os, and in the second half, the Cougars flexed theirs, and revealed Auburn’s to be unable to compete at a championship level. The Cougs poured in on, and held the Tigers to just 25 second-half points, en route to what would ultimately be a laugher. No Sweet 16 for you, Bruce.
As for Sasser? Rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He was the best player on the floor tonight overall.

No. 2 Texas drew the group that looked to be every bit the dark horse just two night ago, No. 10 Penn State. The Lions defense was always going to be there, and it was again tonight. It was the offense that never materialized. Not that it was much better for Texas either. The final was decided by 5 points, but you can’t have been happy about the two separate six-plus-minute stretches where the Horns didn’t net a single basket. In the end, however, this was like the Auburn/Houston game: the team with more talent simple out-talented a team playing well. The lack of perimeter shooting is going to come back and haunt the Horns one day, though.


Most impressive SEC showing?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Tennessee bludgeoning Duke
    (38 votes)
  • 63%
    Big, Dumb Arkansas Basketball somehow scraping out a 1-point win with three starters fouled out
    (82 votes)
  • 0%
    Auburn giving everyone a blueprint for beating Houston…for a half at least.
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    Missouri showing everyone how not to play defense against a bunch of future forensic accountants, trial lawyers, and assistant ambassadors to the UN
    (8 votes)
129 votes total Vote Now