John Fanta’s 2023 March Madness instant reaction: Wild weekend sets up a Sweet 16

The first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was marked by massive upsets, and the madness continued right on through the Round of 32 over the weekend.

We were here to cover the action from start to finish, which we did below. But before you check that out, make sure you check out a few key items: our NCAA Tournament bracket, NCAA Tournament schedule, 50 reasons to be excited for March Madness and top plays of the first round.

Sunday’s action set up some amazing Sweet 16 matchups, which I break down for you right here:

Scroll below for exclusive interviews, running analysis and more from Day 4.

No. 4 UConn 70, No. 5 Saint Mary’s 55

UConn shows championship makeup, rolling into Sweet 16 

This was the team that started the season at 14-0 and reached as high as the No. 2 ranking in the country. 

The breakthrough moment for UConn basketball in the Dan Hurley era happened on Sunday. The Huskies wore down Saint Mary’s, outscoring the Gaels 39-25 in the second half en route to victory. With the win, Connecticut books a ticket to Las Vegas, where it will meet Eric Musselman and Arkansas on Thursday night.

Saint Mary’s did go the majority of the game without forward Alex Ducas, who exited in the first half with a back injury, but even with him in, it would have been hard for the Gaels to win with the way the Huskies played on Sunday. They were an absolute freight train.

We saw the makeup of a team that can win the national championship in this game. What does this team have?

— An All-American big man in Adama Sanogo, who scored 24 points to go along with eight rebounds in the win over the Gaels. In two NCAA Tournament wins, the junior has combined for 52 points and 21 rebounds. 

“We can do something special in this tournament,” Sanogo said in an exclusive 1-on-1 earlier this weekend. “We have everything we need.”

Sanogo’s motor is limitless, and he went full throttle in the final 20 minutes against the Gaels, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 from the floor.

— A deadeye sharpshooter that looked like Richard Hamilton on Sunday: Jordan Hawkins. The sophomore has a neon green light, and it showed when he put the game out of Saint Mary’s reach. Knocking down four triples in a five-minute span in the second stanza, he can go into microwave mode and change the complexion of a game. He’s got a one-way ticket to the NBA Draft this June.  

— A point guard who understands what he needs to do to run the team, Tristen Newton. The East Carolina transfer filled a gaping hole at point guard for Hurley and his staff last offseason, and while it’s taken some time for him to fully get going, he has gotten better and better and is peaking at the right time. Newton hit one of the momentum-changing shots of the game on Sunday, canning a trifecta before the buzzer to put the Huskies ahead 31-30 at the break. He finished with 13 points and five assists.

Actual, material depth. A lot of coaches say they have it, and we like to use the term in cliché ways, but Hurley can mix up his rotations. The ability to go to freshman 7-footer Donovan Clingan inside, or to throw in the experienced guards Nahiem Alleyne or Hassan Diarra, or a sharpshooter in Joey Calcaterra, allows for Connecticut to throw wrinkles at opponents.

The talent shouldn’t be denied. On Sunday, it all resulted in the heights that Hurley has talked about achieving in Storrs.

The mental hurdles that come with being at UConn, one of the sport’s big brands, and following in the footsteps of Jim Calhoun, are real. There’s no doubt about that. But being able to reach a Sweet 16 game and facing Eric Musselman’s Arkansas team on Thursday night signals that Connecticut is ready for new chapters of success going forward, and that this is Hurley’s UConn team. 

And it feels like UConn has enough to make more noise this March, not to mention having the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class set for 2023. 

For now, Sanogo, Hawkins and the Huskies are where they belong: the second week of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in close to a decade. Connecticut backed up its talk with March results.

No. 7 Michigan State 69, No. 2 Marquette 60

SPARTY MARCHING ON: Michigan State takes down Marquette 

March belongs to Tom Izzo, and he reminded the country of that on Sunday evening in Columbus. 

Squaring off with Big East champion Marquette, which entered the matchup on a 10-game winning streak, the Spartans’ defense rose to the occasion en route to victory to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

Izzo told FOX Sports in an exclusive interview ahead of the game that defense would be mandatory against the nation’s sixth-most efficient offense or else his team would be heading home. 

Michigan State silenced Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek, holding him to seven points on just two made field goals. The Spartans cut off the head of the snake for a Golden Eagles team that won 29 games this season. 

On the offensive end, it wasn’t a work of art from Sparty, but Michigan State has won the way it did on Sunday plenty of times in the tournament, as Izzo advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in his 28-year head coaching career. 

The Spartans won because of their main offensive trait: veteran guard play. With Michigan State up 56-55 with 3:36 left and Marquette climbing back in, Tyson Walker said goodnight. The senior, in his second year with the program, scored eight of the 10 unanswered points to put the Golden Eagles away. He capped it off with an uncontested dunk with 40 seconds left, sending the sea of green into a frenzy and Izzo into a fist pump.

For everything this team has been through this year, with the on-campus mass shooting in February that resulted in the tragic death of three students, it led to high emotion in the final seconds and celebration that ensued in Columbus.

There’s no shortage of experience for this Michigan State team, and even on a day when they shot 2-for-16 from 3, the Spartans prevailed with toughness and a 32-16 advantage in the paint.

Markquis Nowell and Kansas State are next, and that will be no easy feat. 

But Izzo has led the Spartans to the Final Four in each of the last two trips they’ve made the Sweet 16 (2019, 2015). 

Why can his team get there? 

Experienced backcourt players, a stretch-4 in Joey Hauser (14 points on Sunday), and an alpha in Walker who has embraced the role of alpha. Last fall, Izzo said Walker had the best offseason of any player he had ever coached.

On Sunday, the Spartans felt that reward, and they’re heading to New York.

No. 5 Miami (Fla.) 85, No. 4 Indiana 69

Twice is nice for Miami while Indiana’s season ends with disappointment

While many longtime coaches have stepped away from the sidelines in college basketball in the past year, Jim Larranaga has aged like an elite-level wine in the sport. 

Miami — yes, The U — is going to back-to-back Sweet 16s in the NCAA Tournament. Larranaga is responsible for three of the program’s four trips to the second weekend after the win over Indiana on Sunday night.

Isaiah Wong, a key part of last year’s historic Elite Eight run, showed his experience on the stage with a 27-point performance to charge the Hurricanes, while Jordan Miller delivered 19 and Nijel Pack added 12. The Hurricanes have the guard play to cause nightmares for opponents, and their backcourt was a nightmare to Indiana, which just didn’t have enough on the perimeter to match the Canes and really struggled defensively.

A big point: Norchad Omier (ankle) being healthy can’t be overstated. He dominated the rebounding battle with 17 boards. 

For the Hoosiers, the Sweet 16 drought that Trayce Jackson-Davis sought to end will head into an eight-year spell entering next March. Indiana has not made the second weekend of the tournament since 2016. TJD had 23 points and eight rebounds while Jalen Hood-Schifino notched 19, but the Hoosiers just couldn’t find a formula for stops, something that Mike Woodson has typically been strong at in his two years. 

It’s a disappointment for IU and the Big Ten, which had eight teams make the second weekend of the tournament and will only have one, Michigan State, represented in the Sweet 16. 

Jackson-Davis deserved a better exit, but on Sunday night, the Canes dominated while outscoring the Hoosiers in the paint 46-28 and outrebounding them 48-31. 

As for what’s next for the Hurricanes, it’s a date with Houston in Kansas City on Friday night.

Can Miami pull it off? Yes, because their guards are wired to score and perimeter shot-making is necessary to knock off the Cougars. 

There’s no doubt it will be an uphill climb. 

No. 3 Gonzaga 84, No. 6 TCU 81

MAKE IT 8 STRAIGHT! Gonzaga rallies to beat TCU, advance to Sweet 16

Drew Timme had been in this role before. A year ago, he and Gonzaga were down by a dozen late in the first half to Memphis, only to come back and find a way to advance to a seventh consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

On Sunday night, the Bulldogs senior star and his team trailed 25-15 early on to TCU. A 10-point hole? No problem for Mark Few’s group. 

The Zags were unflappable and showed yet again that they get taken for granted at times in the sport. Timme went off for 28 points and eight rebounds, while the Zags held a 24-10 advantage in fast break points as they outlasted a tough TCU team.

The question all year with Gonzaga has been simple: does Timme get enough help? On Sunday night, Rasir Bolton put up his biggest scoring performance in 10 games, going for 17 points while Julian Strawther added 10.

When Timme has a “robin” who can give the Zags 15-or-more-points, it makes Few’s team Final Four worthy. 

With less than two minutes left to go and the Horned Frogs within a possession, Timme delivered the lay-in that served to dash any last doubt for the team from Spokane. 

It’s a tough way to go out for Mike Miles, who led the Horned Frogs with 24 points and served as the leader of this program’s return to relevance. His toughness and playmaking made TCU Basketball relevant for the first time in what felt like forever. 

But on Sunday night, the Zags lived to fight another day, and will meet UCLA on Thursday in Las Vegas at 9:45 p.m. ET. It’s a massive battle between two West Coast powers and two faces of the sport, Timme and Bruins superstar Jaime Jaquez. 

My big question: can the Zags match the Bruins’ defensive intensity? We shall see.

One big history note! The matchup will mark the 17-year anniversary of the Bruins’ improbable comeback win over Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 — when the two programs were the exact same seed numbers. Oh. My.

No. 9 Florida Atlantic 78, No. 16 FDU 70

The Owls are hooting their way to New York City

Fairleigh Dickinson did everything it could as the ultimate Cinderella, but Florida Atlantic held on for the victory to advance to the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.

For the Owls, who had only been to the NCAA Tournament one time in their 30-year Division I history, it’s nothing short of incredible that Dusty May has powered this program to its first Sweet 16 in the history of the school. 

Major credit belongs to FDU, which captivated the hearts of the world and wore Cinderella’s slipper after the epic result over Purdue. Tobin Anderson and the Knights join UMBC in college hoops lore forever. 

With 9:19 on the clock, it looked like the Knights could pull off more magic as they held a 54-51 lead. It was then that Nick Boyd and Johnell Davis took over, combining for the game’s next seven points.

Davis was the star for the Owls, and what a sophomore year he has had: With his 29-point, 12-rebound, five-assist, five-steal performance, Davis became the first player in NCAA Tournament history to record a game of 25 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals (FOX Sports Research).

Can the Owls keep this run going against Tennessee on Thursday? Why not! But they will need to do better than 9-for-31 from 3, which was their mark against FDU. Memphis plays with a rich amount of physicality and the Owls found a way to beat them. This team’s guard play has to negate Santiago Vescovi’s production if FAU is going to pull it off.

No. 6 Creighton 85, No. 3 Baylor 76

Creighton justifies preseason hype 

Creighton has saved its best basketball for the perfect time of year. The 6th-seeded Jays played their A-game on Sunday against 3rd-seeded Baylor in the South Region, as Greg McDermott’s program advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years with a commanding victory.

The beauty of Creighton: within their starting five, anybody could go off for the big night. Sophomore point guard Ryan Nembhard had to watch the NCAA Tournament from the bench last year with a wrist injury. On Sunday, he was shining on the hardwood and put up his finest hour as a Jay. The Creighton orchestrator scored a career-high 30 points on 8-of-13 from the floor, charging the Jays throughout a complete performance. On a day when he was meeting one of the best backcourts in the nation — LJ Cryer posted 30, by the way — Nembhard had the last word. 

His backcourt mate, Trey Alexander, went for 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Arthur Kaluma added 11 and seven, while Ryan Kalkbrenner posted 10 and seven. In total, six players scored at least eight points for McDermott’s well-oiled offense.

What does this mean going forward? The Bluejays will face 15-seed Princeton on Friday in Louisville for a berth to the Elite Eight. Before 2021, the Jays had not made a Sweet 16 since 1974.

The last time the program was one of the last eight standing? 1941. 

McDermott doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of credit he deserves.

One more thing: The Big East is having its best NCAA Tournament in a decade. The conference is sending three teams — Xavier, UConn and Creighton — to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the league reconfigured in 2013. The record at the moment? 7-2. The league has put itself at the big boy table, matching the SEC for the most programs still remaining on the big dance floor.

No. 3 Kansas State 75, No. 6 Kentucky 69

The Little Apple is heading to the Big Apple.

The Kansas State Wildcats, who were picked dead last in the Big 12 preseason poll, are Sweet 16-bound in the East Region after beating Kentucky, a team many considered to be a national championship contender heading into the season.

Jerome Tang has authored arguably the best story in college basketball this season in large part because nobody saw it coming. 

If this result doesn’t sum up the meaningless nature of preseason polls and the climate in college hoops in general, nothing does. 

Just when it looked like John Calipari and Kentucky were going to advance to the second weekend and silence the haters, Kansas State punched back in an unlikely way — with 3-point shooting! 

K-State went 2-for-18 from downtown in the opening 36 minutes of the game. Trailing 60-56 with 3:58 to go, the man who guided them all day rose to the occasion. Markquis Nowell was in control of the game all day, and buried a huge triple. The All-American point guard finished with 27 points and nine assists. He was the best player on the floor. 

This game, which was one of the best of the weekend, had serious March magic, too. 

With Kentucky up 62-61 with 2:43 on the clock and Big Blue Nation in raucous form, the ball ended up in the hands of junior role player Ismael Massoud. The New York native hit his only shot of the day from the right wing, helping his Wildcats to the trip back home this upcoming week.

Off an ensuing stop, Keyontae Johnson fittingly put it away. The comeback player of the year buried his only triple of the day to put Kansas State up five with just over a minute left.

On the other side, it’s more of the same song and dance for a Kentucky program that has underachieved over the last four seasons. The Wildcats have not made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2019, and this team’s biggest wart reared its ugly head down the stretch on Sunday.

Kentucky couldn’t shoot the ball consistently all season. It shot 4-for-20 from downtown on Sunday, with Antonio Reeves going 1-for-15 from the field.

An aside: I feel bad for Oscar Tshiebwe. He had 21 points and 18 rebounds. He really commanded the way the game was played inside, charging UK to a 44-25 advantage on the glass.

Cason Wallace was tremendous with 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists. He will be drafted this summer. But there just wasn’t enough from Kentucky’s supporting cast. That was the case all season, and that’s why the season ended at a disappointing 22-12.

There’s also some history to this result: 

As for K-State, the Wildcats booked the Big 12’s second ticket to the Sweet 16, joining Texas. Baylor and TCU will look to join that pair later today. 

There’s not enough that can be said about Tang and the DNA of toughness he’s brought from being Scott Drew’s right-hand man in Waco to the head job at Kansas State. 

The Wildcats went 14-17 a year ago, saw Bruce Weber out, and had a total rebuild to spring with Tang. The power of the transfer portal, and at the forefront of it, a returnee in Nowell, has resulted in an incredible ride for Kansas State.

They will meet either Michigan State or Marquette on Thursday in New York City.

No. 3 Xavier 84, No. 11 Pitt 73

When Xavier was a 1-seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the Musketeers were widely considered one of the best programs in college basketball. 

They were a staple to the Big Dance, making 16 of 18 appearances on college basketball’s grandest stage. But then, Chris Mack left for Louisville, and his right-hand man, Travis Steele, was given a chance. 

The four years that ensued for the program led to February collapses, and not a single appearance in the Big Dance.

One year ago today, Xavier decided to pull the trigger and hire Sean Miller. It was perceived to be a slight risk, as Arizona was charged with five Level I violations from incidents that allegedly took place during Miller’s tenure there.

In the end, Miller did not face any sanctions, and now, one year later, he has the Musketeers back on college basketball’s national map. 

In just 365 days, the program has gone from greatly needing a winner to bringing back a man who loved his time in Cincinnati, serving as an assist at Xavier from 2001-04, before taking over the head coaching role from 2004-09.

Xavier showcased its high-scoring offense in the first half Sunday, outscoring Pitt 48-34 in the opening frame and rolling to an impressive 84-73 win over the Panthers. 

The victory sends the Musketeers to their first Sweet 16 since 2017, where they will head to Kansas City to meet 2-seed Texas on Friday. 

Xavier blitzed the Panthers from the jump, assisting on 17 of its 19 made field goals and getting a combined 29 points from Adam Kunkel and Jack Nunge in the first half. 

The Musketeers had six players in double-figures and showed that with their offense, they’re capable of beating anyone because they can overwhelm teams on that end of the floor. Colby Jones continues to show why he’s deserving of NBA Draft looks, as the versatile junior wing had 10 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. 

Kunkel could not miss in the first half, drilling his first five 3-point attempts and finishing with 15 points, while Nunge had 18 points to lead the charge. Indiana transfer Jerome Hunter continues to play his best basketball of his career, adding 14 points in the win. Hunter has now totaled 38 points in two NCAA Tournament games.

In the second half, Souley Boum found a bit of a rhythm as well, finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

With the victory, Miller improved to 8-0 in Round of 32 games. 

The Big East improved to 5-1 in the NCAA Tournament, with Marquette, Creighton and UConn still in action today.

On the flip side, Pitt’s magical season concluded, but give credit to Jeff Capel for resurrecting the Panthers program and winning multiple NCAA Tournament games. 

As for Xavier, the Longhorns lie ahead in a matchup of teams with opposing styles. Watching the Musketeers’ offense against the Texas defense should be highly entertaining. 

But for today, it’s a celebration for Xavier and Miller, who reinvented the way he’s done things in his year away from the sidelines and adapted his offense. 

What a difference a year makes for the Musketeers. 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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