By: Cole Nowak
PHILADELPHIA- March is always mayhem for college basketball, and this year is no different as we head into the second weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Wells Fargo Center will be the home of the East Region and will play host to four teams that have had different journeys to get to this point in the City of Brotherly Love.
The highest seed entering the weekend is the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers, who are led by head coach Matt Painter. Painter has been at the helm for 18 seasons and has brought nothing but stability to this Boilermaker program. This is Painter’s sixth Sweet 16 appearance and has made it to one Elite 8. This weekend, he looks to achieve a new feat and punch his ticket to the Final Four for the first time in his career.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) enters the weekend as the No. 4 seed but has experience on its side. Just 12 months ago, the Bruins dropped a heartbreaker to the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 93-90, in overtime of the National semifinals. Even though UCLA was unable to finish the job last season, the team is locked-in and eager to have another opportunity to reach the top of the college basketball mountain.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) who enters the weekend as the No. 8 seed is not playing like a typical No. 8 seed. This UNC team has been tested throughout the season and those tough tests have primed them to make a run at the perfect time. Those tests allowed them to persevere 93-86 in last Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 seed Baylor. UNC bent, but never broke. This weekend the Tar Heels look to put themselves where they believe they belong, at a chance to hoist the National Championship in New Orleans.
Saving the best for last is the No. 15 seed St. Peter’s Peacocks who stunned the Wildcats of Kentucky in the NCAA tournament first round. So far, the Peacocks have been on an unbelievable ride.
UCLA Men's Basketball Team at the NCAA Sweet 16 Media Day in Philadelphia - PSD Photo by Cole Nowak
Some may say that St. Peter’s has already accomplished enough, coming from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a mid-major in NCAA basketball, but this team’s culture wants more. St. Peter’s is led by coach Shaheen Holloway who radiates a sense of toughness through his players, encouraging them to never back down from a challenge and to continue to conquer and focus on what is ahead.
Can the Peacocks keep the magic going?
Purdue is a mature club and will give St. Peter’s a new challenge. The first factor that jumps off the table is the size that Purdue brings. Toronto native and IMG Academy product, Zach Edey stands at an intimidating 7 foot 4 inches and will put the Peacocks physicality to the test. The tallest starter the Peacocks have used stands at 6 foot 8 inches, while their tallest player who has seen minutes thus far only stands two inches taller.
The question that looms, even if St. Peter’s can get an initial stop on Purdue’s first possession, how will they limit or take away second choice opportunities that Edey will look to expose?
St. Peter’s Holloway isn’t worried about toughness. He believes New Jersey brings their own brand of hard-nosed basketball that won’t back down from anyone.
“Jersey basketball is grit,” mentioned Holloway after the round of 32 win against Murray State. “You think we're scared of anything? You think we're worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That's who we are.”
Buckle up college basketball fans, this is going to be a 40-minute slugfest with the style of play that both of these clubs showcase. Purdue enters as the clear 12.5-point favorite, entering Friday night’s contest.
To be frank, St. Peter’s does not care in the least about “favorites.” The Peacocks are ready to continue their journey.
Anything can happen in March, right?
Two words… blue bloods.
These are the matchups you live for.
There are not many matchups that would be ranked above this one regarding history and what these teams have meant to the college basketball world for decades.
Each side will downplay the significance of the matchup and say it is just another game, that it would be no different if another institution was lined up across them.
When UCLA’s head coach Mick Cronin took the UCLA job three years ago, it is hard to envision him not dreaming about a marquee matchup of this caliber. Prior to Cronin taking over as the head man for the Bruins, UCLA had not seen the final four since 2008. He changed that rather quickly, by leading the Bruins to a Final Four appearance in only his second season.
Cronin looks to get back there again and continue to put his stamp on this program.
Hubert Davis and the UNC Tar Heels currently stand in his way. Many wrote off this Tar Heel team, but UNC has continued to battle and chip away all season long. To end their regular season campaign, UNC rattled off five straight ACC wins - the last two being the biggest.
The first of the two was an 88-79 overtime win against Syracuse to keep the momentum moving in a positive direction. However, the season finale could not have gone better for UNC. The stage was set for Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski, to close out his final home game at Cameron Indoor. The Tar Heels ruined the party and stunned Duke on their home floor to win 94-81, leaving a sour note in the mouths of the Duke faithful.
This prepared UNC heading in the tournament and they needed those tough lessons in order to weather the storm against Baylor last Saturday, where the Bears erased a 25-point deficit in the second half. But the Tar Heels hung tough and did not fold. Instead, they regrouped before overtime and came out setting the tone by hitting the first three-pointer. This settled the Tar Heel’s nerves and enabled them to hold onto the 93-86 victory against last year’s National Champions.
UCLA head coach Mick Cronin takes the podium at Sweet 16 media day - PSD Photo by Cole Nowak
The UNC Tar Heels making the most of Sweet 16 media day in Philly - PSD Photo by Cole Nowak
“When things got tight against Baylor, we reminded ourselves of our experience prior this season and that is what we held onto. We understood that we have been successful in these situations. That gave us two things in that Baylor game…It gave us confidence and it gave us peace. So even when we entered OT without two of our starters, we were still in a place of confidence and peace,” said Davis.
UNC will be tested once more on Friday night and will have to rely on Davis’s word in order to prevail.
Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center should be a good one.