Explaining Virginia’s stunning loss, and other NCAA thoughts

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 16: Isaiah Wilkins #21 of the Virginia Cavaliers reacts to their 74-54 loss to the UMBC Retrievers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
streeter lecka/Getty
Virginia, the top seed in the South, lost in the first round to UMBC.

Some final thoughts about the first week of the NCAA Tournament:

  The South Region is a disaster area. For the first time, none of the top four seeds made the Sweet 16. That leaves Kentucky, a 5 seed, as an overwhelming favorite to advance to the Final Four.

  There is a school of thought that the strategy of Virginia coach Tony Bennett is so conservative that he’ll never win a national championship. The Cavaliers are not a great offensive team; they play slowly. Talented guard Kyle Guy seems imprisoned in the offense. Because they’re not used to playing fast, comebacks are not their strength. Being down 16, even to Maryland Baltimore County, can be problematic. It just doesn’t happen to them often. Their defense sets the tone, so they’re almost never in that position. I can’t say I’m in the anti-Bennett-strategy club yet.


  One big advantage Villanova has is on the bench with coach Jay Wright. Talk about unflappable — here’s a story that proves it.

A few hours before Villanova was to play Pittsburgh in the 2009 East Regional final at the Garden, I found Wright chatting with Villanova radio analyst Whitey Rigsby after they had just finished recording a pregame interview. I butted into the conversation.

The three of us talked about basketball for a few minutes and it was clear to me that this was just a normal day for him.

“Aren’t you nervous?’’ I asked him. “You’re about to play a game that could get you to the Final Four.’’ He shook his head and smiled, saying, “No, it’s just a game.’’

There will be no nerves on the Villanova bench, just clear-headed thinking that, more often than not, leads to victory.

Villanova coach Jay Wright (with Jalen Brunson) is a cool customer.
keith srakocic/AP
Villanova coach Jay Wright (with Jalen Brunson) is a cool customer.

  The big upset should elevate UMBC coach Ryan Odom, and he should be on the lists of athletic directors looking for coaches. Unless the same ADs watched the Retrievers lose to Kansas State in an awful game.

  Clemson’s obliteration of Auburn plus its fairly easy victory over a really good New Mexico State team shouldn’t be overlooked. It looked like a Final Four team.

  Cincinnati looked like a Final Four team against Nevada for 30 minutes . . . then, disaster. The Bearcats’ offensive struggles hurt them when they needed to stop the bleeding.

  Then came a 1-2 punch to the gut for the city of Cincinnati when Xavier blew a lead against Florida State. Two fan bases who despise each other now have something in common.

  In beating Providence and North Carolina, Texas A&M is finally playing up to its potential. It’s not far-fetched to project the Aggies into the Final Four. They have three outstanding talents in Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, and D.J. Hogg, but they never clicked like this during the regular season.


  Attendance seemed spotty, especially in Dallas and Detroit. Fans didn’t stay for every game. It’s their loss. I think a basic truth is the expensive ticket prices of today are an obstacle for true fans to attend games.

  I’m so old . . . I saw Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni play in college. It was at the 1967 NIT semifinals, when the Thundering Herd lost to Marquette. D’Antoni was the point guard, but the team’s star was forward George Stone, who took shots from so far out the crowd reacted every time he shot. These days, it would be nothing — and it would be worth 3 points.

D’Antoni, who was an assistant to his younger brother Mike in the NBA, has a great casual attitude about things. He wore a t-shirt under his jacket.

Marshall coach Dan D'Antoni made his own fashion statement.
michael ainsworth/AP
Marshall coach Dan D'Antoni made his own fashion statement.

  I remain baffled by Wichita State. The Shockers have great individual players, but their team play never equals the sum of the talent. I was surprised but not shocked by their loss to Marshall.

  I have an idea for a reality show: Kentucky’s John Calipari and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl spend a weekend as used car salesmen. Most cars sold wins.

  There’s no doubt Duke and Kentucky have improved tremendously on defense in the last month; from liability to asset.

  Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not be as good as former Wildcat point guard De’Aaron Fox, but NOBODY has stopped him from getting to the basket in the first two rounds. He seems to glide effortlessly past his defender for a layup. He’s from Hamilton, Ontario, a city that has produced a lot of wingers and defensemen, but I can’t remember it producing a point guard.

  I’d like to nominate Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo for next season’s NBA dunk contest. Big-time springs on that guy.

Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo walked on air vs. Buffalo.
ezra shaw/Getty
Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo walked on air vs. Buffalo.

  The Michigan State team that lost to Syracuse is the one that worried me. The Spartans are capable of playing terribly despite their record, and that’s what they did Sunday. It reminded me of their games against Rutgers and Northwestern, both poorly played victories.

  Syracuse, meanwhile, defies explanation. The Orange don’t belong in the tournament (only the selection committee thought so) but just continue to win. It’s horrible to watch, however. Every game is a tractor pull. Can’t argue with success, I guess.

  Revised Final Four prediction: Villanova, Clemson, Kentucky, Gonzaga.

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Joe Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan