He needs no introduction, but he should be welcomed with due caution during March. After all March is the season of madness, and no coach embraces it more than Tom Izzo.
Izzo’s senior-laden Spartans became the inexorable warriors of the tournament yet again, a developing tradition of March, and one that Tony Bennett and Virginia wish didn’t exist after seeing consecutive 30-win seasons end at the hands of Michigan State. With the 60-54 victory, Izzo improved his round-of-32 record to an otherworldly 13-1, the best mark of all-time. And of course, like so many of Izzo’s past tourney runs it was his seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson who rose to the occasion scoring 38 of the Spartans’ 60 total points. And of course, it was Izzo who pulled out his specialized March recipe, inspiring his team to play with heart and toughness, viciously attacking the glass, sprawling for loose balls and reaching a level of defensive play that could Bennett blush. He needs no introduction, everyone already knows he’s Mr. March.
The yearlong battle between the top-heavy ACC and the exorbitantly deep Big 12 to obtain the Best-Conference-in-America championship belt reached a definitive conclusion over the weekend with just two Big 12 teams reaching the Sweet 16, while the ACC saw five of its six tournament entries make the second week. In fact, the ACC’s five teams in the Sweet 16 at least matches that of any other two conferences combined.
The Value of Coaching
While John Cal, Coach K, Sean Miller and Bo Ryan expectantly led their respective powerhouses to the second weekend of the tournament, other highly acclaimed basketball minds exhibited their coaching acumen by fulfilling their program’s annual spot in the Sweet 16 despite less-than-ideal circumstances or trying regular seasons.
Rick Pitino led Louisville to through the opening weekend despite the mid-season dismissal of point guard Chad Jones, a lack of depth critical to running his pressure defense and an offense featuring Terry Rozier and then more Terry Rozier followed by Terry Rozier.
In the new pace and space era of basketball, Roy Williams dragged North Carolina to another Sweet 16 appearance despite Marcus Paige being the only consistent outside shooter on a team that was inconsistent and took a fair share of lumps during the regular season.
After losing two key players from last year’s squad via transfers, Bob Huggins concocted Press Virginia utilizing his team’s incredible depth, energy and toughness to force the most turnovers in the nation defensively, while gobbling up second-chance points offensively behind the country’s top-ranked offensive rebounding.
The aforementioned Izzo also delved into his motivational tactics and respected tutelage to uphold Sparty’s reputation as the warriors of March.
The Value of Coaching?
No one would include Mark Few or Mark Gottfried in the same context with the coaches mentioned above, but both coaches embraced the embattled chagrins that lie within their coaching resumes to guide their respective teams to the Sweet 16, and at least for one more week stave off the criticism that may await their tournament exit. Few deserves credit for the talent he has collected at Gonzaga, and the resiliency and grit he has implemented that voided so many of the program’s past teams, but beating Iowa isn’t exactly something to be appraised for.
However, Gottfried’s Wolfpack, led by the backcourt duo of speed demon ball-handler Anthony “Cat” Barber and the well-compact Trevor Lacey rallied from 16 points down to defeat LSU on a buzzer-beater from big fella BeeJay Anya. Just a day later Gottfried’s Wolfpack masterfully put the clamps on top-seeded Villanova’s 3-point assault and refused to yield the paint defeating the Wildcats and thrusting Nova onto the I’m-Never-Believing-In-You-Again-Until-You-Prove-Me-Wrong-In-March list headlined by…you guessed it, Mark Few and the Zags.
The Pac-12 Rises to National Prominence
After months of suppression from the national sports media due to west coast tip times and most of its games being broadcast on the Pac-12 Network, the conference took advantage of the glued eyes and high interest that accompany the tournament to raise the conferences prestige by posting a collective 7-1 record with the only loss coming at the hands of Wisconsin.
Arizona is the second or third best team in the tournament, executing lockdown defense (just ask D’Angelo Russell who went 3-19 FG on Sunday) with an offense guided by perhaps the nation’s top floor general in T.J. McConnell. However, on Sunday with star freshman Stanley Johnson and the Wildcats offense struggling against the Ohio State zone, it was sixth man Gabe York who injected some much-needed outside shooting to the offensive attack and led Arizona to the Sweet 16. Utah was able to dispatch Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown over the weekend after center Jakob Poeltl combined to shoot 586 percent in the two games, or so it seemed. And UCLA upheld the developing tradition of the team who gets in the tournament despite no one thinking they should have only to reel off a few victories in the same vein as VCU in 2011 and La Salle in 2013.
However, the team from the Pac-12 that provided the most high-level entertainment from last weekend is the one that will not be participating in the Sweet 16. Oregon’s Joseph Young electrified Oklahoma State in the Round of 64, tallying off 15 straight points in a first-half ending flurry of stepback and pull-up jumpers, before nearly single handily dragging the Ducks to a shocking upset of the Badgers in the Round of 32. If Mighty Joe Young’s heroics weren’t enough to peak your interest in the Ducks, then consider the coaching job of Pac-12 Coach of the Year Dana Altman who had to deal with a handful of player dismissals before the season, giving scholarship the players the impression of All-Americans.
The New Royal Family
Finally, the weekend tournament happenings offered light on the new Royal Family. Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter and his son R.J. Hunter captured the tournament headlines by shocking Baylor at the hands of R.J.’s cold-blooded, Steph-Curry-ranged triple followed by his father celebrating appropriately. Ron’s stool antics and game-to-game emotional outbursts melted the hearts of many right down to his last press conference where the coach captured the true essence of the tournament as he broke down into tears.
 Iowa received the same seed as Wichita State and Michigan State. I’m still awaiting an explanation from the committee…
 Good thing they are on the same side of the bracket as Kentucky and Wisconsin. The committee hasn’t provided an explanation on Iowa’s seeding so I’m not expecting any sort of reasoning for this in the near future.