Who shined the most in the second round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
Winner: Cameron Krutwig
I reserve a special place in my heart for the college players whose entire basketball lives culminate in March Madness. When these players graduate, they quickly learn that they are not destined for the NBA. About 12 months after that, they are playing professionally in a European country where they don’t speak the language and nobody has ever heard of the men’s NCAA tournament. They lie in their lonely Ljubljana beds and remember the brief moment when they were kings. They are the Heroes of March, and this year has given us a legendary one: Loyola-Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig.
Krutwig is Loyola’s point center. His skill set is un-replicable: He is an exceptionally deft finisher and nifty passer who is remarkably nimble in the post. The only apt comparison for his playing style is Nikola Jokic. It’s also worth noting that Krutwig looks like a middle-aged man with two kids and a job repairing HVAC units that he wishes he could quit but needs to keep so he can make his alimony payments.
He has a next-to-zero percent chance of having a meaningful NBA career: While Krutwig’s playing style is Jokic-esque, Jokic is 6-foot-11 and shoots better than 40 percent from 3. Krutwig is 6-foot-9, with a vertical leap that couldn’t clear a corgi. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer all season.
Cameron Krutwig is putting on a clinic pic.twitter.com/0Q24bXzec2— Let's Talk College Hoops (@Hoops2College) March 21, 2021
And yet, Krutwig tortured top-seeded Illinois, the team picked to win the national championship in the second-most brackets, according to ESPN. He finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and four steals in Sunday’s 71-58 win. Illinois has an exceptional center, Kofi Cockburn; Krutwig drew him away from the basket. Sometimes he worked Cockburn with whirling spin moves and scored.
Sometimes he fed cutting Ramblers who were headed toward the post area Cockburn abandoned.
Thoroughly enjoying the Cameron Krutwig experience. pic.twitter.com/fk4bwST1MV— Brandon Simberg (@BrandonSimberg) March 21, 2021
Sometimes he played his own sport, which may or may not be basketball.
This touch pass from Krutwig pic.twitter.com/Hunp4Pn6Tl— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 21, 2021
Krutwig has now been part of two memorable March runs. In 2018, he earned Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors and helped the Ramblers roll through the bracket: He dropped 11 points on Miami in a first-round upset and 17 against Michigan in the Final Four. After being named to the All-MVC first team in each of the three seasons since and capturing the conference player of the year award this season, he’s now authoring another March run and taking down the big-name team from downstate.
With two trips through the tourney, Krutwig is a certified college hoops legend. But his journey isn’t over yet. There is likely no NBA future for Krutwig—that’s why he needs to play well enough to make this March last forever.
Loser: Floor Slaps
College basketball teams show their commitment to defensive intensity by slapping the floor while their opponent dribbles the ball across half court. Like a hockey goaltender slapping the pipes of the net with his stick, it’s a way of saying, This space is mine, and you can’t get in. The practice is most commonly associated with Duke—Mike Krzyzewski can’t remember the exact origin of the floor slap, but remembers former Blue Devils star Tommy Amaker doing it in the 1980s—to the point that teams have trolled Duke by slapping the floor in games. However, floor slapping has spread to other schools, most notably Michigan State.
This season, Illinois adopted the floor slap—I distinctly remember the Illini busting it out in a January comeback win over Northwestern. But it clearly has yet to grasp when to use it. There is a time and a place for a floor slap: It’s when you’re hosting a big home game, need a critical defensive stop, and want the raucous crowd to let the opposing team know that this is OUR house. It’s not when you’re a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament playing at a neutral-site venue and getting absolutely wrecked by an 8-seed.
Illinois slaps the floor and then gives up a wide open layup.— Connor Newcomb (@ConnorNewcomb_) March 21, 2021
Never slap the floor. pic.twitter.com/ieNYCNNOYX
It’s funny, because one team in Sunday’s matchup was committed to playing tough defense: Loyola-Chicago, which led men’s college basketball in adjusted defensive efficiency this season, played hair-on-fire defense for 40 minutes, and showed up everywhere the Illini wanted to be. The Ramblers swarmed Illinois ball handlers, closed down passing lanes, rotated with fury, and crashed the boards. As a result, they held the Illini to a season-low 58 points. Illinois played 31 games this season; this performance ranked 26th in field goal percentage, 27th in 3-point percentage, 29th in free throws attempted, 29th in offensive rebounds … and fifth in turnovers. It’s telling that Illinois not only missed a ton of shots, but also had one of its worst offensive rebounding nights of the year.
All the while, Illinois slapped the floor, telling the world that it was committed to getting stops as it let a husky balding dude with no shooting range and an almost nonexistent vertical leap put its defense in a blender. Loyola had a higher field goal percentage than Illinois, a higher 3-point percentage than Illinois, more offensive rebounds than Illinois, fewer shots blocked than Illinois, more free throw attempts than Illinois, and fewer turnovers than Illinois. Loyola kept scoring on backdoor cuts—a textbook sign of a defense of getting outhustled. One team brought real defensive intensity; the other brought performative defensive intensity. Illinois won’t get to slap the floor during the Sweet 16.
Winner: Big Boeheim Brand
Jim Boeheim has struggled to land top prospects in the waning years of his Syracuse tenure; NBA hopefuls have understandably shied away from a program that asks them to spend a good amount of time learning a 2-3 zone defense that they would never play in the pros. But I’ve discovered something that could help Boeheim out. There is an NCAA loophole that allows head coaches to give some recruits special treatment. Via this loophole, a coach can provide money, lodging, food, and gifts to a recruit, all of which would be illegal under normal circumstances. Furthermore, this loophole allows coaches to begin speaking to prospects from an early age, even during recruiting dead periods. You can do all these things as long as the recruit in question is your own son.
Boeheim has apparently embraced this strategy: His son Buddy (birth name: Jackson) has become the key to 11th-seeded Syracuse’s run to the Sweet 16. Boeheim isn’t exactly LaVar Ball—he reportedly recused himself from the decision of whether to offer Buddy a scholarship, leaving that up to his assistants. (Buddy had offers from Gonzaga and Georgetown, among others.) And Buddy’s older brother, Jimmy, led Cornell in both scoring and rebounding as a junior, but seemingly never considered playing for his dad. (He’s currently looking to transfer due to the Ivy League’s cancellation of the 2020-21 season, and does not seem interested in playing at Syracuse.)
At this point, it’s impossible to deny that Buddy has become Syracuse’s best player. The 6-foot-6 junior scored 29 points in a 75-67 win over Notre Dame on February 20, which then represented his career high. He’s since matched or surpassed that total twice. He dropped 31 points on Virginia in the ACC tournament and put up 30 points in Syracuse’s first-round upset of no. 6 seed San Diego State on Friday. In Sunday’s 75-72 win over West Virginia that pushed the Orange into the Sweet 16, Boeheim had 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting. The top four scoring performances of his career—and six of the top nine—have now taken place in the past month.
Here’s the younger Boeheim drilling a 3 against West Virginia and telling the defense that in addition to being a Buddy, he’s also a bucket:
Buddy Boheim hitting them with the “I’m a bucket” it’s over pic.twitter.com/vOxUGagil3— Dillon Appleman (@dillappleman) March 21, 2021
This is hardly the first father-son tourney run: In recent years, we’ve seen Greg and Doug McDermott make headlines at Creighton, Steve and Bryce Alford go on multiple Sweet 16 trips at UCLA, and Ron and R.J. Hunter emerge as March Madness darlings at Georgia State. (An iconic March moment: R.J. drilling a 30-foot game-winner, causing Ron to fall out of his chair.) As it turns out, a player has a massive developmental advantage if his father knows every detail of the game and can provide access to top training facilities from a young age.
But this Boeheim situation still feels unique. Buddy struggled early in his ’Cuse career; he hit just four of his first 30 shots as a freshman and got benched by his dad. Now, though, he’s grown into the team’s best player, as well as something bigger—a nearly unstoppable March Madness star. It’s cool to watch this moment that you know both father and son will cherish for the rest of their lives.
Loser: Cade Cunningham’s Teammates
In 2019, Oklahoma State made an all-time-great assistant coaching hire. The Cowboys hired Cannen Cunningham, who played power forward at SMU from 2011 to 2015 and had been working as a video coordinator for Tulane, nominally to work with the program’s big men. Did he help those bigs develop? Honestly, who knows how much better or worse the Cowboys’ centers and forwards would be if they had a different big man coach? But we know that Cunningham’s addition was the key to Oklahoma State’s recruitment of his brother, Cade Cunningham, the top prospect in the 2020 high school class and the presumptive no. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. The 6-foot-8 superstar point guard could have gone anywhere—he was considering Kentucky and North Carolina, among other schools—but he chose the Cowboys in November 2019, just five months after Oklahoma State had hired his brother. “I was this close to picking another school,” the younger Cunningham said, “but blood is thicker than water.” (Between this and Buddy Boeheim, it’s stunning how much of college basketball comes down to people directly recruiting their family members.)
By committing to the Cowboys, Cunningham joined a program that lacked a recent history of success. Prior to his arrival, Oklahoma State hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2017 (the only season when the team was coached by Brad Underwood, who left for Illinois directly afterward) and hadn’t won a tourney game since 2009. In 2019-20, the Cowboys went 7-11 in Big 12 play and lost seven of their eight matchups against teams ranked in the AP poll. They had landed a few players who were ranked as four-star prospects, but nobody near Cunningham’s caliber. After all, they couldn’t hire an entire staff of superstar siblings.
The talent gap between Cunningham and his teammates was on full display in a loss to 12th-seeded Oregon State, which all but certainly ends Cunningham’s one-year college career. Cunningham didn’t have his best outing—he went 6-of-20 from the field Sunday, finishing with 24 points—but his teammates were abysmal. Outside of Cunningham, the Cowboys were 12-of-45 (26.7 percent) overall, 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) from 3, and 18-of-28 (64.3 percent) from the free throw line. On shots characterized as layups in the box score, Cunningham’s teammates were 4-of-14.
Cunningham was the best clutch player in men’s college basketball this season: He scored 106 points in “clutch” situations, and no other player scored more than 63. Sure enough, Cunningham seemed to turn it on down the stretch against the Beavers, when he forced a steal and drilled a 3 to cut Oregon State’s lead to 70-67:
Then his teammates showed up, confidently grabbing the steering wheel from the only person in the car with a driver’s license. Cunningham scored Oklahoma State’s final six points; through the game’s last few minutes, his teammates combined to go 0-of-6 from the field and 0-of-2 from the free throw line. Here is a list of the Cowboys’ possessions immediately following Cunningham’s steal and 3:
- Missed layup by Avery Anderson III
- Missed layup by Avery Anderson III
- Missed three by Keylan Boone
- Two missed free throws by Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe
- Missed 3-pointer by Avery Anderson III
Cunningham deserves some of the blame for Sunday’s loss, as he missed his final three field goal attempts as well. But perhaps his biggest mistake was repeatedly passing to his significantly worse teammates. To be fair, he’s a point guard, and his willingness to share is part of what makes him an enticing pro prospect. Against Oregon State, though, he would’ve been better off playing selfishly.
All in all, Cunningham’s college experience was a success. He had a slew of exceptional moments—his 40-point, 11-rebound performance against Oklahoma, filled with clutch buckets and a game-sealing steal, will never be forgotten in Stillwater. Plus, he shone brightest with no other stars around, securing his spot atop many draft boards. But I can’t help but wonder whether things would have ended differently if Cunningham’s teammates could have helped him out more this March.
Winner: Bad Dancing
The NCAA tournament is often referred to as “the Big Dance,” which helps explain why low-seeded teams that hang around for longer than expected have become known as “Cinderellas.” It also helps explain this clip that aired on CBS, which otherwise would defy explanation:
Great Moments In Sports Television: pic.twitter.com/nen3N5RSdZ— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 22, 2021
So far as I can tell, though, the fans, players, and coaches on these Cinderellas generally turn into Elaine Benes when confronted with actual music. Here is a clip of the Loyola-Chicago student section; please do not invite anyone featured to your wedding:
If Illinois losing wasn't enough! pic.twitter.com/TRKFdDOYXH— Ⓜ️arcusD ▶️ (@_MarcusD3_) March 21, 2021
Here is a clip of Abilene Christian head coach Joe Golding, who has spent most of his time becoming good at coaching basketball and relatively little time working on his dance moves. He heard rap music and started square dancing. Hit the do-si-do, Joe!
And here is a clip of Oral Roberts players celebrating their stunning comeback win over Florida. The Golden Eagles became the second no. 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16 of the men’s tournament and did ... this:
The Oral Roberts locker room was going UP post-game pic.twitter.com/473siOgn7Z— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) March 22, 2021
Perhaps these moves are to be expected—Oral Roberts, founded by and named after the late televangelist, has a student conduct code which to this day outlaws “social dancing.” (The school also outlaws homosexuality, which is why I’m not enjoying its run to the Sweet 16.)
Let’s take everybody’s glass slippers away.
March Madness is typically defined by two things: upsets and buzzer-beaters. This men’s tournament has had plenty of the former. If you add up all the seeds of the teams left standing, you get the highest total ever. There are four double-digit seeds still playing heading into the event’s second week—and this is just the third time that’s ever happened, after 1999 and 2011. And with Oral Roberts beating second-seeded Ohio State and seventh-seeded Florida, a no. 15 seed has reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in men’s history, after Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.
But this year’s tourney is light on buzzer-beaters. We’re more than halfway through the tournament in terms of total games played (52 of 67), and there has yet to be a single game-winning shot in the final seconds. The closest thing we got was this missed last-second layup by UC-Santa Barbara in its first-round matchup against Creighton.
Christian Bishop (@chris_bishop13), who is only a 57% free throw shooter on the season, gets the offensive rebound and drains BOTH of the 1-and-1 free throws for 5 Creighton and after a close 12 UCSB miss, 5 Creighton walks out with the W by a hair. pic.twitter.com/EQ0aLZEDCQ— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 20, 2021
There have been two buzzer-beater-adjacent shots. In the first game of Friday’s slate, Virginia Tech drilled a buzzer-beating shot to force overtime, but then the Hokies lost 75-70.
VIRGINIA TECH— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 19, 2021
Nahiem Alleyne with one of the first cold-blooded shots of March pic.twitter.com/knpM7kb03Z
And 14th-seeded Abilene Christian upset no. 3 seed Texas in its first-round game with pressure-packed free throws to take the lead, but I feel like free throws don’t qualify as buzzer-beaters. As impressive as it was that Joe Pleasant—a 59 percent free throw shooter—hit back-to-back attempts to seal the biggest win in his program’s history, nobody is going to be reenacting this one on the playground.
Joe Pleasant stepped to the stripe a 59% free throw shooter with his school's 1st ever NCAA Tournament victory on the line.— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2021
He sank them both. pic.twitter.com/xM15FiiX3y
Come on, hoopers. Is it really so much to ask that your games come down to the very last second and the very last shot? The men’s Sweet 16 isn’t until Saturday—go back to your hotels and spend the next few days figuring this out. We’re not putting free throws in the One Shining Moment montage!
Winner: Bill Walton
At this point in the NCAA tournament, everybody’s bracket is busted. Everybody’s, that is, except for one man’s: full-time Deadhead and part-time college basketball analyst Bill Walton. It doesn’t matter that he (a) did not follow the rules of how brackets work, and (b) only watched college basketball this season featuring teams from the conference for whom he is paid to announce games. He simply knew that the Pac-12 was the conference of champions—he says this every broadcast, alongside five to 10 fun nature facts—and that was enough.
Bill Walton’s Final Four: USC, Colorado, Oregon State, Oregon (despite being in USC’s region), UCLA (despite that you can only have 4 teams in the final four).— Dave Pasch (@DavePasch) March 14, 2021
Two years ago, I wrote about how the Pac-12 was on the verge of falling out of the ranks of the major conferences. Through the mismanagement of commissioner Larry Scott, the league had fallen significantly behind its power-conference counterparts in terms of revenue. Its member schools hadn’t won a football national championship since 2004 or made a College Football Playoff since the 2016 season—things that are still true. The league’s men’s basketball teams had made only one Final Four since 2008, and its 2019 season was among the worst showings of any major conference ever outside of a surprise tourney run by Oregon.
But the most maligned conference in the country has turned things around. Every one of the five Pac-12 teams in the men’s 2021 NCAA tournament field advanced to the second round; four won games, and Oregon advanced because VCU had to forfeit. And four of its teams have now advanced to the Sweet 16. No. 2 seed Iowa simply couldn’t slow down seventh-seeded Oregon, which scored 56 first-half points en route to a 95-80 victory. No. 12 seed Oregon State, which clinched a spot in March Madness thanks to an improbable Pac-12 tournament run, has pulled off back-to-back upsets, beating both fifth-seeded Tennessee and fourth-seeded Oklahoma State by double digits. UCLA has gone from the First Four to the Sweet 16 behind three wins, most recently a 67-47 rout of Abilene Christian. And on Monday, no. 6 seed USC dominated third-seeded Kansas, 85-51. The only Pac-12 school to lose in the men’s tourney so far has been Colorado.
Is this just a fluke coincidence in a small but prominent sample size? Or is this a sign that the league has finally righted the ship? All I’ll say is this: Larry Scott announced in January that he was quitting the league. If you’re an East Coast college sports fan, you’re going to have to stay up until 2 a.m. a lot in the coming years, because we’re all on Pac-12 time now.