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There Will Not Be a Repeat NCAA Champion

Villanova crashes out, Virginia meets a deserved fate, and another mid-major dream ends early, as the first half of the Sweet 16 is set. Plus: the lopsided first round on the women’s side.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

There was a benefit to the complete lack of upsets in the first two days of the NCAA tournament: everybody left is good! No, Day 3 didn’t bring us buzzer-beaters, but there was reasonably OK basketball between some good college basketball teams. Plus, there was an exciting development — the best team in the field, according to the NCAA selection committee, was defeated, leaving us without a clear favorite.

Saturday’s games were generally exciting — except for Xavier kicking the crap out of Florida State and Florida beating the crap out of Virginia. But the Gators’ win was deeply, deeply satisfying. We’ll get to that one later.

Here are my seven takeaways from Day 3 of the NCAA tournament.

1. Villanova got screwed, and also screwed themselves.

Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Taurean Green can all get together and pop champagne. With Villanova’s 65–62 loss to Wisconsin, the Wildcats will not be joining the 2006–07 Florida Gators as the only repeat NCAA champions of this century.

On Selection Sunday, we quickly pointed out that Villanova got the short end of the stick in this year’s bracket. Yes, they earned the top overall seed, but that placed them in a vicious region, where they’d have to get past underseeded Wisconsin, underseeded Florida or Virginia, and underseeded Duke to make the Final Four. The last few are moot now, as Wisconsin took care of the job.

But the defending champs still should have beaten Wisconsin. This Wildcats team was actually better than last year’s in the regular season. The 2016 national champs lost four regular-season games, including a blowout to Oklahoma, and lost in the Big East tournament to Seton Hall. This year’s squad lost three games, none by more than eight, and won the Big East tourney. They were the best team in the country.

But then they had one of their most atypical performances of the year in Buffalo, hitting just five 3s and recording a season-low five assists. This tournament is stupid; this tournament is beautiful.

Please, Joakim and Al, wait for Taurean. I know he’s playing overseas and might not be able to get back for a few months, but he’s really looking forward to this.

2. I want to watch Caleb Swanigan and Deonte Burton play one-on-one. Forever.

Purdue beat Iowa State 80–76, but that doesn’t quite tell the story of this 4–5 game. The Cyclones were down 19 with just under 14 minutes to go before a furious run gave them the lead with a little more than three minutes to go.

The highlight of those final three minutes was the fact that by some strange luck, Iowa State guard Deonte Burton and Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan ended up guarding each other. Putting “guard” and “forward” in front of their names doesn’t do either player justice. Burton is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tank with wings; Swanigan is is a 6-foot-9 vacuum cleaner with a 3-point shot.

Both players were helpless defensively. Burton changed directions too quickly for Swanigan to stick him; here he is building up a head of steam from beyond the 3-point arc and stuffing the ball through the rim with enough power to dent the floor:

But Swanigan could bully Burton in the post:

It was like watching Pacific Rim, when the kaijus and jaegers go to battle. At the end of the game, Swanigan had an opportunity for an uncontested dunk to seal the win, but Burton launched through a wormhole to send it back:

Burton finished with 25 points; Swanigan had 20, 12 rebounds, and seven assists — plus the win.

Let’s skip the rest of the tourney. Put these two dudes in an octagon with rims at either end and just let them play to 151.

3. The Virginia basketball abomination has been sent to hell.

Look, look, look, don’t start by telling me about how Extremely Good Virginia basketball is. I know. I had the privilege of watching them from about 15 feet away at the ACC tournament, and, I mean, it’s incredible. They allow nothing. Their offense might be slow, but it’s effective. That doesn’t mean I have to root for them. Watching Virginia succeed is like watching a boa constrictor suffocate and eat your family’s dog.

But Fido is now safe.

Florida took care of that, absolutely obliterating the Hoos, 65–39. The Gators slammed repeatedly while Virginia passed the ball for 28 seconds and hurled the ball aimlessly at an unforgiving rim.

Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Virginia’s intense slowness — they’re 351st out of 351 in possessions per game as well as seconds per offensive possession — hurts them in a tournament where one game can end your season. They have been a very good, top-10 KenPom team for three of the past four years, but have just one Elite Eight trip to show for it. Perhaps with fewer possessions in a game, they have fewer possessions to exercise their goodness.

Or maybe this is just a world with a chill college basketball god. This is how Virginia deserves to go: a cooler team dispatching them with malice and dunks.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

4. The women’s NCAA tournament is unforgiving.

Apologies to those of you who can’t stand reading about women playing sports for three paragraphs.

The women’s NCAA tournament began Friday, which unleashed the best teams in a disparate sport upon the champions of its worst leagues. We sometimes see a 1-seed double up a 16-seed in the men’s tournament; it seems to happen with every 1-seed on the women’s side. UConn continued its 108-game win streak by trouncing Albany, 116–55. The Huskies led by 39 after three quarters and hit seven of eight 3-pointers in the fourth (including one with 38 seconds left) to tie an NCAA record for points in a tournament game.

And then Baylor broke that record, pasting Texas Southern 119–30, nearly quadrupling the poor Tigers with the biggest margin of victory in the tournament’s history. Every player on Baylor scored; only three players on TSU did. Elsewhere, second-seeded Duke outscored Hampton 31–2 in a 10-minute quarter.

When I tweeted about this, some argued that the women’s tournament should be truncated. I’d have to disagree. For one, those smaller schools really do need the possibility of an NCAA tournament appearance to function. But more importantly, in a sick way, I find myself fascinated to see how viciously UConn can wipe a team off the earth. Clearly, they find this prospect interesting, too — otherwise they wouldn’t be drilling 3s up 60 with 30 seconds left.

5. The refs are bad.

Gonzaga beat Northwestern thanks to the innovative Shove Your Arm Through The Basketball Hoop defense.

When Northwestern coach Chris Collins (accurately) argued that the Shove Your Arm Through The Basketball Hoop defense was illegal, he was called for a technical foul. Northwestern had cut a 20-plus point lead to five points and would have cut it to 3 had the refs accurately called basket interference; instead, Gonzaga took a seven-point lead.

Yes, yes, yeah, shut up, I know I’m a bitter Northwestern fan, but the referees have been particularly bad this tournament. Later Saturday, they helped keep Saint Mary’s from knocking off Arizona by calling a foul on this Gaels player for getting shoved out of bounds by Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen.

And the other day, they hosed Seton Hall by calling a flagrant foul on a regular-ass foul as the Pirates tried to take down Arkansas.

I tend to side with refs. The sport moves really quickly and they’re human. But the best refs in college basketball — supposedly — shouldn’t be routinely blowing critical calls in the most important games of the year.

6. Let’s meme some kids.

On the one hand, it’s not good when we overly share images of children at sporting events. They’re kids, they’re emotional, and they’re just there to have a good time and not to be mocked online. I am glad there are not pictures of Child Rodger losing his mind at sporting events floating around on the internet.

On the other hand: This kid — reportedly the son of Northwestern AD Jim Phillips — is everything good about sports.

Sports bring us so many emotions, and sadly we don’t have enough facial muscles to express all of them at once. This kid tried, and for that I salute him.

7. Middle Tennessee can give us only one win at a time.

For the second straight year, Middle Tennessee gave us a first-round NCAA tournament upset. Sure, last year’s was one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history and this year’s was not even really an upset, but still, both were beautiful moments, featuring a team you’ve never heard of from a league you’ve never heard of taking down one of the big boys. And for the second straight year, our heroes burned out quickly. Middle Tennessee fought valiantly against Butler, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to five on several occasions in the game’s closing minutes, but fell 74–65. My MTSU player of choice, Giddy Potts, went 0-for-8.

None of the 16 seeds, 15 seeds, 14 seeds, or 13 seeds made it out of the first round; and now our only 12-seed is gone. There are now no more teams from one-bid leagues remaining in the tournament; Rhode Island is the closest thing we have to a Cinderella.

The mid-major dream always ends in a loss, but this year I’d hoped this loss would come a bit later.