Who shined the most in the Sweet 16? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special March Madness edition of winners and losers.
Loser: The Buzzer-Beater Time Will Forget
There have been two buzzer-beaters in this year’s men’s NCAA tournament, but no game-winning buzzer-beaters. The first was a shot by Virginia Tech’s Nahiem Alleyne that sent the Hokies’ first-round matchup against Florida to overtime; the Gators still prevailed, 75-70. The second came Sunday night, when Alabama’s Alex Reese drilled a deep bomb to send the Crimson Tide’s Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA into overtime. This sequence was absolutely ludicrous:
Reese’s shot defied logic. Up by three points, UCLA should have fouled Alabama, which went just 11-of-25 from the free throw line for the game. And Reese shouldn’t have been the guy to shoot. A 6-foot-9 reserve forward, the senior entered this weekend as a career 31 percent 3-point shooter, with a dismal 27.9 percentage in 2020-21. In fact, Reese ranked 10th on the Tide in 3-point percentage this season, behind all five of the team’s regular starters. It seems like Reese was mainly on the floor to set a screen for guard Jahvon Quinerly, who led Bama by connecting on 44.2 percent of his attempts beyond the arc. But the two didn’t link up, and so Reese was stuck in no-man’s-land as Quinerly got double-teamed in the backcourt. The ball ended up in the hands of the team’s worst shooter … and swiiiiish. Reese hit a deadeye shot destined to be talked about in Tuscaloosa for decades.
Or not. Within the span of a few minutes, the shot became a first-ballot entry into the Hall of Instantly Forgotten Sports Miracles. After scoring just 25 points in the 20-minute second half, UCLA exploded for 23 points in the five-minute overtime period—if the Bruins had kept up that pace for all of regulation, they would’ve scored 184 points in 40 minutes. Alabama lost 88-78. Now, instead of celebrating Reese’s shot, Bama fans will get mad about ShortsGate—when officials took away a critical, late Tide possession by heading to the replay monitors and determining that a kicked ball grazed the shorts of Alabama star John Petty. (In 2013, Bama lost a game when a late kick was too short; in 2021, Bama lost a game when a late kick was through shorts.)
The NCAA tournament is filled with shots like this—plays that should be legendary, but were quickly overshadowed or else rendered irrelevant. The all-time example is Marcus Paige’s miracle shot to tie the 2016 national championship game—directly before Kris Jenkins sunk his title-winner. And who can forget Kevin Pittsnogle’s big 3 to tie Texas in 2006—before the Longhorns’ Kenton Paulino drilled a game-winner on the next possession? Oh, everybody forgot that 3? (At least nobody will ever forget Pittsnogle’s wedding attire.) Even Christian Laettner’s famous shot wouldn’t have been possible without a stunning go-ahead floater by Kentucky’s Sean Woods seconds earlier.
From my own personal experience, I’ll never forget watching Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter hit a one-legged 3-point runner in 2017—and get instantly one-upped when Florida’s Chris Chiozza hit a one-legged 3-point runner of his own in overtime. I was covering that game and interviewed Showalter afterward; he sounded like he had used up his entire human allotment of emotion in the last half-hour and would not be able to have any more emotions for the rest of his lifetime.
Time will forget Reese’s incredible shot—so if you can, cherish the memory. It was iconic.
Winner: First Four Magic
In 2011, the NCAA decided to expand the men’s basketball tournament from 65 teams to 68. It did this by adding three extra play-in games before the start of the full first round. Before 2011, there was just one such play-in game, between the two worst teams in the field—generally those that won the championships of the worst conferences in the sport. With this move, the NCAA upped the number of play-in games among no. 16 seeds to two, and added two play-in games between the final four at-large teams in the field—those that the selection committee nearly left out of the tournament altogether. When this change first went into effect, I thought it was a terrible idea. Who needed more matchups between aggressively mediocre teams that were sure to be eliminated quickly?
In the first year of the 68-team field, though, VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four. And Sunday night, UCLA—a team that lost its final three games of the regular season and lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament—beat Alabama in overtime to reach the Elite Eight.
The success rate of at-large teams that win their First Four games has been ridiculously high. On average, no. 11 seeds win 37.1 percent of their first-round games, make the Sweet 16 15.7 percent of the time, and get to the Elite Eight just 5.7 percent of the time. But of the 20 at-large First Four teams since 2011, nine have won their first-round games (45 percent), five have advanced to the Sweet 16 (25 percent), and now two have reached the Elite Eight (10 percent).
This is one of the least explainable trends in all of sports. The First Four teams aren’t good; there’s a reason why they’re the last teams in the field. They aren’t “peaking at the right time”; they’re at-large selections, which by definition means they aren’t conference champions, which means they all lost a game immediately before playing the NCAA tournament. And they’ve been forced to play an additional game that nobody else does. So why do these teams keep winning? Is the NCAA selection committee just really good at identifying which average teams are primed to pull off big upsets?
I used to think First Four teams were energized by the mystical basketball powers of Dayton, Ohio—the site where these play-in games are typically held. But this year’s First Four games were held in Indiana, so we can cross that theory off the list. Whatever the explanation, it’s clear what teams with dreams of deep March Madness runs should do: They should collapse enough at the end of the regular season so they don’t make the 64-team tournament field, but not so much that they miss out and play in the NIT. Tanking is no longer just for NBA teams.
Loser: 3-Point Shooting, As a Concept
There’s a certain contingent of basketball fans who complain about the sport’s increasing dependency on the 3-point shot. These fans say that games used to be determined by a variety of factors, whereas now they’re simply competitions in which two teams attempt to launch as many 3s as possible. If you’re one of these fans, well, do I have the basketball event for you: the Sweet 16 of the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament, in which nobody could hit a damn shot. Following Saturday and Sunday’s games, the broad side of every barn in greater Indianapolis remains completely unharmed.
In the eight men’s games played this weekend, the 16 teams combined to shoot 91-of-334 from beyond the arc—27.2 percent. That number wasn’t dragged down by the teams that lost, either: Arkansas beat Oral Roberts while shooting 1-of-9 from 3; Baylor beat Villanova while shooting 3-of-19, and Michigan beat Florida State while shooting 3-of-11. Only four of the 16 teams managed to shoot better than 30 percent from deep in this round, and only USC managed to shoot better than 40 percent. (This comes in sharp contrast to the women’s tournament, where eight of 16 remaining teams shot better than 40 percent from 3; Missouri State, South Carolina, and Georgia Tech hit at least half of their 3s.)
The men’s games were won in the paint, at the free throw line, and on the glass. For as frustrating as modern basketball can sometimes be, I’ll always take a 3-point shooting contest over a nonstop brickfest.
Winner: The Drew Manchu (Fu Man-Drew?)
Drew Timme isn’t the most talented player on top-seeded Gonzaga’s roster—that’s Jalen Suggs, a projected top-five pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Timme isn’t Gonzaga’s best player either—that’s Corey Kispert, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring, was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year, and earned first-team AP All-American honors.
But Timme is the player who has led the way for Gonzaga during the NCAA tournament. The Zags are rolling through the West region—their average margin of victory through the first three rounds is 25.7 points—and Timme has been their leading scorer, over both Suggs and Kispert. As opponents have scrambled to defend Gonzaga’s litany of elite shooters, the 6-foot-10 big man has been dominant inside. Timme put up career highs in points and rebounds (30 and 13) in a 87-71 win over Oklahoma. And he paced the Zags in scoring with 22 points in a 83-65 rout of Creighton.
What has caused Timme’s tourney breakout? Well, the answer is right there on his face. During the regular season, he rotated between several facial hair styles: He had a relatively trim mustache in December, which he enthusiastically rubbed while celebrating dunks; he had a generic (but handsome!) beard earlier this month, which was on full display as he cut down the nets following the Zags’ conference title. But when Timme showed up in Indianapolis, he unleashed this look on the world:
After throwing down a jam against Creighton, Timme busted out his signature celebratory ’stache stroke:
And after Sunday’s win, he claimed he simply can’t contain his facial hair:
It sounds like Timme's facial hair has taken over Timme himself.— Justin Reed (@JustinReed99) March 28, 2021
"It is something that really can't be tamed, I can't even control it." pic.twitter.com/aCsUGSlkVW
Clearly, every team should urge its center to grow the facial hair of a 1970s porn star. The impact is undeniable—and undeniably glorious. But players can’t just sprout facial hair like this on a whim. Timme’s flavor saver is the result of an entire season’s worth of growth. All year long, as the fans and media members were focused on Suggs and Kispert, Timme was grinding, cultivating his follicles. Then, on the eve of the tournament, he made his big ’stache surprise, revealing the One Shining Mustache that would take over the college basketball world.
This was a historically upset-filled men’s NCAA tournament: Add up all the seed numbers of the teams that made the Sweet 16 and you get 94—the highest figure ever. (The previous high was 89 in 1986.) But most of those underdogs fell flat against significantly more talented competition over the weekend. The total seed count for the Elite Eight is just 37. Six of the eight Sweet 16 games were won by the teams with better seeds; six of eight teams that advanced are from the Power Five conferences, with the only exceptions being Gonzaga and Houston—not exactly nobodies.
Cinderella’s last gasp came on this shot by Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas on Saturday; had it gone in, the Golden Eagles would have beaten Arkansas and become the first no. 15 seed ever to advance to the men’s Elite Eight. Instead, it hit rim.
Max Abmas (@maxabmas) gets a good look at the buzzer for the Shot at the Elite 8 for 15 Oral Roberts and misses by JUST A LITTLE and they fall to 3 Arkansas. Hearts are broken across America and the world pic.twitter.com/fSyeHEn03Z— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 28, 2021
In some ways, the Oral Roberts defeat was inevitable. This was a team that lost to all five power-conference foes it played against during the regular season—including this Arkansas team, which beat the Golden Eagles 87-76 in December. Friday’s game script felt similar: In that first matchup, Oral Roberts raced to a 10-point halftime lead but fell short after allowing 24 offensive rebounds and going 8-of-29 from 3-point range. In this game, Oral Roberts led by seven at halftime but succumbed after allowing 18 offensive rebounds and shooting 8-of-31 from 3. The wins over Ohio State and Florida were miracles; eventually, Oral Roberts was going to stop winning games against faster, stronger, and taller teams.
Abmas nearly defied the odds. The men’s Division 1 leading scorer turned in his third straight spectacular outing, becoming the first player to score 25 points in each of his first three NCAA tournament games since Stephen Curry in 2008. (Anyone heard from that guy lately?) Abmas emerged as a household name by accomplishing something nobody expected, but it wasn’t enough. He still collapsed, crying, into the arms of his coaches.
Just as Curry’s Davidson run isn’t remembered for the way it ended, though, the same will be true for Abmas. The NCAA tournament is almost always won by schools from a small and select set; since 1970, all but one tournament has been won by a team now in a Power Five conference or the Big East. (The one outlier was UNLV in 1990.) Still, every NCAA tournament is defined by its Cinderellas, even if we know that the clock will eventually strike midnight.
Winner: The 2024 WNBA Draft
Saturday brought one of the most-hyped individual matchups in recent March Madness memory—a point guard showdown between UConn’s Paige Bueckers, the latest in a string of Huskies superstars, and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who led all of women’s Division 1 in scoring as a freshman (and outscored Kentucky for an entire half in the Round of 32). The game, one of the first women’s college games to be broadcast on network TV in decades—didn’t disappoint: Clark finished with a team-high 21 points and drilled three third-quarter 3-pointers to keep the Hawkeyes close, while Bueckers nearly recorded a triple-double with 18 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. UConn had more depth—Christyn Williams, not Bueckers, led the Huskies with 27 points—and came away with a 92-72 win. For stretches, though, the two freshman stars went toe-to-toe.
If this were the men’s side, the matchup would represent the first and last college showdown between these stars, since the NBA considers players eligible to be drafted once they turn 19 years old. But the WNBA maintains a strange set of eligibility rules that specifically disadvantages those who play at the college level. While international players are eligible to enter the WNBA at age 20, women who play college basketball can’t join the WNBA until they’re 22 or have completed their undergraduate degree. Although both Bueckers and Clark are clearly capable of outplaying their college competition, they can’t move on to the pros for three more years, unless they take extra classes and graduate early. (Since the NCAA also prevents athletes from profiting off their names, images, and likenesses, Bueckers and Clark also can’t make money off their huge social media followings.)
The good news is that we’ll get to spend the next three years watching these two stars face off in March. The bad news is that they’ll be forced to keep making money for others without making any for themselves—and for some reason, the WNBA is choosing to keep things that way. Fans are excited about these players now, and would be excited to watch them regardless of where they were playing.
Loser: Every Sweet 16 Scheduling Plan Before This Year
The men’s tournament schedule was slightly altered by this year’s unique format. Normally, the Sweet 16 is played on Thursday and Friday, with the Elite Eight following on Saturday and Sunday. This year, the Sweet 16 was held on Saturday and Sunday, and the Elite Eight will be played on Monday and Tuesday.
As this weekend proved, the Saturday-through-Tuesday schedule is a massive improvement, because it’s the only format that allows fans to watch every minute of every game. During the Sweet 16, there are four games per day. When those games are played on Thursday and Friday, TV execs want to broadcast all four after most Americans have returned home from work. This means two of them have to be played simultaneously; in 2019, for example, there were games on CBS at 7:09 p.m. and 9:39 p.m. ET, and games on TBS at 7:29 p.m. and 9:59 p.m. ET. With this year’s Sweet 16 taking place over the weekend, however, the games were given stand-alone broadcast windows spread throughout the day for the first time in tourney history. Viewers could watch all eight games with no overlap.
This schedule won’t cause broadcast issues in the Elite Eight, either. Since there are only two games played per night, they can each get a stand-alone slot. Monday’s matchups are set to tip off at 7:15 p.m. and 9:57 p.m. ET.
I’m not fully sure why this tournament’s coronavirus precautions led to the shift from Saturday to Tuesday, or why we just now realized that there was a way to give every game its own television window. But who cares? It’s clear that this layout is way better than what we used before, and we should plan to keep it in future seasons.
Winner: Third-Place Games
At the Olympics, an athlete who finishes third in a given event is awarded a bronze medal and gets to return home a hero. In virtually every other major sporting competition, the athletes or teams who fall just short of winning titles are questioned, criticized, or ignored. And we generally don’t even bother to acknowledge those who come in third. Everyone who loses is simply sent home. As such, I’ve advocated for the reintroduction of the third-place game into sports leagues across the United States.
Despite this, I was surprised to look at the college basketball schedule for Sunday and see that not only was the NIT championship game set to take place (head coach Penny Hardaway’s Memphis team defeated Mississippi State 77-64), but also that Louisiana Tech and Colorado State were set to square off in the third-place game. It seems strange that the NIT was held at all this year: We’re still living in a pandemic! We don’t need a second-tier basketball tournament! But it seems especially strange that the NIT would choose this year to stage a third-place game for the first time since 2003. Couldn’t we just send the athletes home after a long, difficult season?
But the NIT third-place game was great. Both teams seemed to be 100 percent into it—and the matchup delivered the goods, with Louisiana Tech triumphing on a last-second shot by Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Lofton is not related to the former MLB player who played point guard for the 1987-88 Arizona team that made the Final Four.) The Bulldogs were clearly giddy to have won:
Kenneth Lofton Jr. (@itzjunior34) uses his body to get in and some finesse on the leaning layup for Louisiana Tech to get 3rd place in the NIT over Colorado State in the NIT 3rd Place Consolation game after a great run and trailing by as much as 11. pic.twitter.com/hLz8y5ZWjY— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 28, 2021
I’m taking this as a sign that the NCAA tournament should bring back its third-place game, which was discontinued in 1982. (The NCAA deemed the game expendable after everyone involved in the 1981 edition—which tipped off shortly after there was an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan—openly questioned why it was being played.) Considering the single-elimination nature of the NCAA tournament, the NIT, and all of the conference tournaments, just about every college basketball team ends its season with a loss. But it was a joy seeing Louisiana Tech’s euphoria after ending its season with a win, even if it only meant that the Bulldogs were the third-best team in college basketball’s second-best tournament.