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Winners and Losers of the First Round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament

The long-awaited return of March Madness brought stunning upsets, busted brackets, and a toothpaste tube used as motivation. Plus, the NCAA’s hypocrisy was on full display yet again.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at Texas Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Who shined the most in the opening round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: The End of Decades-Long Tourney Droughts

College basketball is typically dominated by the same damn teams: Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, etc. But Duke and Kentucky missed the men’s NCAA tournament this season, and North Carolina lost its first-round game. Somebody else had to step up.

Enter a bunch of schools that haven’t been relevant in the sport over the past few decades—if ever. Nine of the 32 teams to advance to the second round have double-digit seeds. That includes four programs that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in at least 30 years, and two that had never won an NCAA tournament game prior to this weekend.

At least one team from every seed except for the no. 16 seeds won a first-round game. Among the Cinderellas is 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, which defeated Ohio State in overtime to become the first no. 15 to take down a no. 2 since 2016.

There’s also 14th-seeded Abilene Christian, which beat Texas—yes, the school that represents the entire state where Abilene is located—on a pair of last-second free throws by Joe Pleasant, who remained as calm during those shots as his name would indicate:

Time and again this weekend, decades of sadness ended. Let’s run through some of those droughts:

  • With a 70-56 victory over Tennessee, Oregon State won its first NCAA tournament game since 1982. To make clear how long ago that was, Gary Payton started playing for the school in 1986—and lost all three March Madness games in which he played. Payton went on to have an 18-year NBA career, retire, and make the Hall of Fame ... all without Oregon State winning a single NCAA tournament game. Then Payton’s son, Gary Payton II, grew old enough to play college basketball and went to Oregon State, and during his time on campus the Beavers still didn’t win a tourney game. Following Friday’s result, both generations of Paytons can rejoice.
  • With a 60-56 win over Clemson, Rutgers won its first NCAA game since 1983 in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991. James Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers in 1983, and his fictional daughter’s boyfriend would attend the school (before dropping out) in roughly 2000. Since then, Rutgers has been part of four different conferences (it moved from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East, which became the American Athletic Conference, before realigning to the Big Ten) and fired two coaches for their role in player abuse scandals.
  • Oral Roberts’ upset of Ohio State was the school’s first tourney win since 1974. Oral Roberts, the controversial televangelist for whom the university is named, was actually alive back then! In the 1970s, the team was called the Titans and didn’t belong to a conference. Now, it’s named the Golden Eagles and plays in the Summit League.
  • If we’re counting the First Four, we can add Drake to this list, as the Bulldogs beat Wichita State on Thursday. Drake hadn’t previously won a March Madness game since 1971. By comparison, Drake was born in 1986, and didn’t begin attending Degrassi High until 2001.
  • North Texas and Abilene Christian—neither of whom had ever won a game in the men’s NCAA tournament before this weekend—beat Purdue and Texas, respectively. Almost every team in Texas got a tourney win … except, of course, for Texas.

This is what’s great about March Madness. As much as the sport is defined by the programs with the most famous names, it’s the schools you’ve never heard of that played the most incredible games and had the most iconic moments. The blue bloods can have their decades of dominance—we’ll savor the time that these teams have in the sunlight.

Loser: VCU, Through No Fault of Its Own

Nobody will have a worse NCAA tournament exit than VCU. Sure, some teams will lose on buzzer-beaters, and have the joy of victory ripped from their hands. Others will succumb to big upsets, and lament how they failed to play up to their standards. But at least they got to play. The players will always know that they got to suit up and give it their best shot. Nobody has ever had a tournament exit like VCU, which was sent home this weekend without even taking the court.

The Rams are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Head coach Mike Rhoades said Saturday that the team had been tested daily for the past three weeks, but that multiple players tested positive in the last 48 hours. The speculation is that VCU players became infected not in Indianapolis, but rather in Dayton last week at the Atlantic 10 tournament. According to Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, the Rams stayed in a hotel that was open to the general public. Per Norlander’s sources, the hotel was “packed” with people that had “differences of opinion about COVID-19.” The conference championship game in which VCU played was refereed by Roger Ayers, who has since tested positive for COVID and told CBS that he struggled all week with the virus.

Even though just a few players tested positive, VCU was pulled out of the tournament. It was the only possible decision. The team has been living and practicing together. More positive tests are likely to come—and if VCU and Oregon had played their scheduled first-round matchup, it’s easy to imagine that the virus could’ve spread to opposing players and coaches.

The quotes from VCU’s players are devastating. Rhoades said that sophomore guard Bones Hyland responded to the news that the team wouldn’t play by repeating, “But coach, this is what I’ve been dreaming of my whole life.”

I love college basketball, but all season I’ve been haunted by the fact that thousands of college athletes are playing an indoor sport without wearing masks during a pandemic which has killed more than 500,000 Americans and is primarily spread through indoor, maskless interactions. And as more and more vaccines have been doled out, I’ve kept thinking—wouldn’t it be safer if we delayed the tournament by just a couple of weeks or months?

The NCAA has pressed on, though, for roughly a billion reasons. For the most part, that seems to be working. But VCU’s tears are a byproduct.

Winner: Division I Scoring Leader Max Abmas

You’d think the player who leads men’s college basketball in scoring in a given season would be famous. Sometimes, that’s true: Steph Curry, Trae Young, and Adam Morrison are all examples of players who led Division I in scoring, became household names, and were taken early in the first round of the NBA draft. But more often than not, the player who leads the nation in points per game is on a largely unknown team with exactly one scoring threat. In 2018-19, this was Chris Clemons, who never made the NCAA tournament during his four years at Campbell. In 2016-17, it was Marcus Keene, who averaged 30 points per game for 16-16 Central Michigan. In 2015-16, it was James Daniel III, who scored 27.1 points per game for a Howard squad that finished 12-20. In 2014-15, it was Tyler Harvey, who averaged 23.1 points for Eastern Washington. Even the players who led Division I in scoring twice can be forgotten: Take VMI’s Reggie Williams, St. Peter’s (the Peacocks!) Keydren Clark, and LIU-Brooklyn’s Charles Jones. If someone leads the nation in scoring, it doesn’t mean he is on a good team—the last Division I men’s scoring leader to win an NCAA tourney game was Creighton’s Doug McDermott, in 2014.

This season’s Division I men’s scoring leader is Max Abmas—pronounced Ace-miss—who, like many of his prolific predecessors, plays for a program that spent much of the year toiling in anonymity. An undersized shooter, he wasn’t a coveted prospect; according to The Athletic, the only scholarship offers he garnered coming out of high school were from service academies, Marist, and Oral Roberts. And his team wasn’t great, finishing fourth in the Summit League regular-season standings. In November and December, Abmas toured the country and put up spectacular numbers in losses to superior teams. He scored 28 points (and went 6-of-11 from 3) in a 85-80 loss to Wichita State. He scored 33 points (and went 6-of-12 from 3) in a 83-78 defeat to Oklahoma State. The scouts there to watch Cade Cunningham probably didn’t pay him much attention.

Oral Roberts went 0-5 against Division I teams from outside the Summit League. After winning their conference tournament, the Golden Eagles were slotted as a no. 15 seed in March Madness, earning a first-round date with Ohio State. They were listed as 15.5-point underdogs. Friday’s game shouldn’t have been close.

But there’s a difference between Oral Roberts and some other schools that had players who led college basketball in scoring. Oral Roberts doesn’t have one good player—it has two. Abmas works in tandem with Kevin Obanor, who averaged 18.6 points per game. Against the Buckeyes, Abmas dropped 29 points and went 5-of-10 from 3—and Obanor went 5-for-12 from deep and finished with a game-high 30 points. It was Obanor who led Oral Roberts to this win—at the game’s most critical juncture, he went on a personal 9-0 run, scoring the final four points of regulation and the first five points of overtime. ORU beat OSU, 75-72. Cue the celebration.

Abmas was the leading scorer in college basketball this season. Now, fans will remember his name. The longer that Oral Roberts stays in the tourney, the more chances we’ll have to see him drain jumpers from the logo:

Loser: Virginia’s Two-Year National Title Reign

My favorite upset pick in this men’s NCAA tournament was the no. 13 seed Ohio Bobcats. I would have picked them to beat pretty much anybody they faced in the first round—but I felt even more confident when I found out that they would play against fourth-seeded Virginia. On Saturday, Ohio beat the Cavaliers, 62-58. While the Bobcats didn’t play particularly well—they shot 30 percent from deep, forced only three turnovers, and committed a series of costly errors as they tried to close out the game—Virginia looked like a team that hadn’t practiced all week. Perhaps that’s because Virginia hadn’t practiced all week, after one of its players tested positive for COVID-19 during the ACC tournament.

And so, Virginia has completed the strangest championship sandwich in NCAA history:

  • In 2018, the top-seeded Hoos lost to no. 16 seed UMBC in the first round, becoming the only no. 1 seed in men’s NCAA tournament history to ever lose a game against a no. 16 seed.
  • In 2019, the Cavaliers WON THE WHOLE DAMN TOURNAMENT, capturing the first national title in school history by completing one of the most dramatic March Madness runs of all time. Virginia won both their Elite Eight and national championship matchups in overtime, and squeezed out a one-point win in the Final Four behind some clutch free throws.
  • In 2020, there was no NCAA tournament, giving Virginia a rare second season atop the national throne. This will go down as a strange garnish on this championship sandwich, like sprouts or banana peppers.
  • In 2021, the Hoos lost to a no. 13 seed in the first round, the team’s second loss to a double-digit seed in a span of three tournaments.

On the one hand, Virginia has just cemented its reputation as a program that routinely gets whooped by unheralded mid-majors in the first round of the tournament. From now until eternity, people will look at their brackets and say, “Oh, the Middle Wisconsin Tech Porcupines are playing Virginia in the first round? This upset is a lock.”

On the other hand … the Hoos won an NCAA tournament. Every fan in college basketball would take these embarrassing losses if they knew they came with a title. Virginia has emerged as a consistently elite program, and that means it’ll end up playing a lot of games against teams with seeds like 13 and 16 affixed to their names. Virginia will take the title and the jokes.

Winner: The Hamlet Family

Hate to say I told you so, but 13th-seeded North Texas upset no. 4 seed Purdue. After winning the Conference USA tournament in overtime on a floater by Javion Hamlet (who led all of college basketball in floaters this season), the Mean Green beat Purdue in overtime behind Hamlet’s 24 points, eight of which came in the extra period.

I was happy that my big upset pick hit—but nowhere near as happy as Hamlet’s father, Louis. (If there’s one benefit to only a few hundred fans attending these games, it’s that it makes it really easy for the cameramen to locate the most emotionally invested people in the building.) The elder Hamlet was a constant presence on the broadcast, wearing an airbrushed sweater featuring a massive picture of his son surrounded by a list of his accomplishments.

Finally, a Hamlet family is getting the love it deserves. No longer are we focused on the one from Denmark, where King Claudius murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet); married Hamlet’s mother; and then prompted Hamlet to kill his mom and his uncle/father-in-law. The next time you think of the Hamlets, maybe you’ll think of the one with ties to North Texas and their beautiful father-son love. I’m expecting the Mean Green to pull off another overtime win against Villanova in the round of 32—Hamlet always brings the action in the final act.

Loser: Anybody Playing Syracuse’s 2-3 Zone in the NCAA Tournament

I’ve recently realized that I am a Syracuse basketball hater. My reasons for this are manifold. For starters, I think Orange head coach Jim Boeheim is a crotchety, nose-picking jerk who should have retired 10 years ago. I’m not a fan of the team’s style, which involves using a 2-3 zone on every defensive possession and forcing opponents to abandon their usual offense in favor of a boring one built around methodical passing and shooting. Furthermore, I don’t think Syracuse basketball is very good. While the Orange used to have fun and good teams—I loved them when they had Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick!—their style has begun to scare off talented recruits, as ‘Cuse hasn’t produced an NBA lottery pick since Michael Carter-Williams in 2013. I didn’t think this season’s Syracuse team deserved to get an NCAA tournament bid; I didn’t think their 2016 and 2018 teams, the latter of which squeaked into the First Four, deserved bids either.

But year after year, Syracuse dunks on me and its NCAA tournament competition. (Clearly, I have a blind spot for teams from upstate and western New York.) The 2016 Orange went to the Final Four after winning four straight games as a no. 10 seed. The 2018 team made the Sweet 16 as a no. 11 seed. And this season’s 11th-seeded team just defeated no. 6 seed San Diego State in an absolutely hideous upset. The Aztecs, who shot 39.5 percent from 3 in Mountain West Conference play, went an awful 11-of-40 from beyond the arc, and barely tried to get the ball inside. Meanwhile, Buddy Boeheim—yes, the coach’s son—went 7-of-10 from deep, finishing with 30 points in a 78-62 win.

It is with great regret that I must acknowledge that Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is, in fact, a devastating weapon of March destruction. San Diego State joins a long list of teams that have been absolutely baffled by the zone. During the Orange’s run to the 2013 Final Four, their opponents shot 19 percent from 3. During their run to the 2016 Final Four, opponents shot just 32.4 percent from deep. In 2018, Syracuse’s NCAA tournament foes shot 24.1 percent from beyond the arc; in an all-time March Madness meltdown, Michigan State shot 8-of-37 from 3 against the Orange and made the mystifying decision to pull future NBA standout Jaren Jackson Jr. so it could run a zone offense through little-used reserve Ben Carter.

No matter how lackluster Syracuse’s teams look from November through February, they turn into juggernauts come March. This makes some sense: Boeheim builds his roster around the 2-3 zone, recruiting lengthy players who fit the scheme, and then spends all season coaching to perfect it. By the time the tourney hits, ‘Cuse’s starting lineup runs the zone better than any five players on Earth. And while ACC teams are familiar with the zone and often beat Syracuse handily—this year, the Orange lost by 23 points to Virginia, 20 points to Pitt, and 17 points to Clemson—‘Cuse’s opponents in the NCAA tournament learn they have to play against the zone with just two or three days’ notice. They haven’t played anybody like Syracuse, and have no way of simulating that defense in practice. They end up completely flummoxed, tentatively passing the ball around before bricking a 3.

In the future, I will never again doubt Syracuse basketball in the tourney. The Orange might look bad during the regular season, but they’re simply preparing for something bigger.

Winner: Eric Musselman’s Toothpaste Gag

Picture, if you will, a coach busting out a stupid prop gag in his pregame speech to motivate his players to win a game. What did you picture? Did you picture someone who is good at his job, or a substitute gym teacher trying to pump up his 2-7 high school football team before it gets demolished by the state champs?

Well, on Friday Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman became the first coach of a no. 3 seed to turn to prop comedy to get his team fired up before a matchup against a no. 14 seed. To be fair, the Razorbacks were playing Colgate, and some jokes are just too good to pass up. So Musselman took out a tube of toothpaste and squeezed it on the locker room floor:

I have many questions:

  • Was the toothpaste in question Colgate brand?
  • Was this Musselman’s personal toothpaste? If so, does he have backup? If not, did he specifically acquire toothpaste for this gag?
  • How long did it take Musselman to decide he was going to squeeze toothpaste on the floor?
  • Was he proud of himself when he came up with this?
  • Is Musselman aware that Colgate University is actually named after the guy who founded the toothpaste company?
  • Did Musselman ever consider that the floor of this locker room was carpeted? And that bathrooms never have carpet floors, for reasons including that it is probably difficult to get toothpaste out of carpet?
  • Did Musselman immediately clean up the toothpaste? Or did he leave the pile of the toothpaste on the carpet?
  • If Musselman left the toothpaste on the carpet, did any players step on it after the speech ended and they got ready to take the court?
  • If you step in a big pile of toothpaste before playing an NCAA tournament game, do you have to change shoes? Or do you play with the toothpaste caked to the bottom of your soles, potentially hampering your traction?

Arkansas won 85-68 and will take on Texas Tech in the next round. If Musselman wants to properly inspire his players beforehand, I imagine that he’ll have to win a duel against an actual Red Raider.

Loser: The NCAA

The women’s NCAA tournament tips off Sunday, but it’s already dominated the conversation over the past week. When the coaches and players participating in the men’s NCAA tournament shared their accommodations in the Indianapolis bubble, the women competing in San Antonio realized they had been screwed. The men got a full weight room; the women barely got a weight rack.

The men got a heaping swag bag; the women got a paltry one. The men were told that they’re part of “THE BIG DANCE”; the women were told that they’re part of “Women’s Basketball.” The insults trickle down to the tiniest details: The men’s swag bags included a 500-piece puzzle; the women got 150-piece puzzles.

Perhaps most damningly, the men have been getting daily PCR tests for COVID-19, while the women have been getting daily antigen tests. The Food and Drug Administration says that antigen tests “have a higher chance of missing an active infection.”

This isn’t like the men got top-tier options and the women got slightly worse ones. The NCAA provided its men’s basketball players with elite facilities while providing its women’s basketball players with resources that are clearly inadequate. The men got a Ritz-Carlton; the women got a shack.

While it’s true that the men’s NCAA tournament is more popular and profitable than the women’s event, the NCAA is supposed to ignore that. When lawsuits have been brought against the association arguing that the athletes who compete in events that make the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars should be paid, the association has contended it is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide athletic opportunities for talented students, regardless of the revenue they generate. The justification for the NCAA’s very existence rests on its supposed belief that men’s basketball players are not more meaningful than everybody else! This is the last group that should give athletes special treatment based on who makes more money!

And instead of talking about how the women’s tournament is less popular than the men’s version, we should talk about why that’s the case. Is it because the women’s tournament is worse? No—trust me, watch the games. The women’s tourney will have just as many thrilling upsets and buzzer-beaters as the men’s tournament. And women’s sports can be popular: The U.S. women’s national soccer team outdraws the men; the WNBA is just about the only professional sports league in the country that’s currently growing in popularity. But there’s an uphill battle here, considering that the men’s NCAA tournament is commonly referred to as “the NCAA Tournament” while the women’s NCAA tournament is commonly referred to as “the women’s NCAA Tournament.” That the women’s event has a qualifier makes it seem like it is less than. This is the first time ever that every women’s NCAA tournament game will be on TV, something that’s been the norm for the men’s version for years.

These two tournaments could and should be equally popular. But even the people who organize the tournaments are telling us that they’re not. What type of message does it send when the NCAA gives its men’s athletes gifts and its women’s athletes shit?