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Winners and Losers of the March Madness Elite Eight

Gonzaga looks unstoppable. South Carolina is reinventing the art of the blowout. And can UCLA really qualify as a Cinderella?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Who shined the most in the Elite Eight? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special March Madness edition of winners and losers.

Winner: The Tournament’s Strangest Cinderella Story

Congrats to UCLA, the strangest Cinderella in NCAA tournament history. We almost had one of the chalkiest men’s Final Fours ever—no. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor barreled through their respective regions, while no. 2 seed Houston swept through the Midwest region after Illinois got upset in the second round. And top-seeded Michigan was heavily favored against the 11th-seeded Bruins in Tuesday’s Elite Eight matchup. UCLA lost its final four games of the regular season, and then played in the First Four—how could it possibly go from that to the Final Four?

But the Bruins won, putting the Wolverines in a headlock and forcing them to play in one of the ugliest games imaginable. The final score was 51-49, with Michigan missing its last eight shot attempts. I guess that’s one reason why UCLA is a strange Cinderella: Instead of winning on a buzzer-beater, it won by forcing its more talented opponent to hurl potential buzzer-beaters everywhere besides the basket. Here are two final-minute shots by Franz Wagner, who airballed one and slammed the other off the backboard. He finished 1-of-10 on the night.

Of course, there’s another reason why UCLA is a strange Cinderella—it’s UC-freakin’-LA, the most successful program in men’s college basketball history. The Bruins hold the record for most Final Four wins, most consecutive winning seasons, and most national championships, with 11. None of the other three teams in this Final Four have won a national title. These Bruins are underdogs, but they’re underdogs bred from a pair of impossibly fancy poodles that won the Westminster Dog Show.

Somehow, I’m kind of buying into this UCLA Cinderella narrative. Its roster is full of misfits, outcasts, and what-ifs: Its coach, Mick Cronin, embraced an egregiously ugly style of basketball at Cincinnati and seemed like an ill fit at UCLA upon being hired in 2019; its star player, Johnny Juzang, was billed as an elite shooter as a recruit and then shot 32.6 percent from 3 as a freshman at Kentucky before transferring away; its prized 2020 prospect, Daishen Nix, decided to go the G League instead of suiting up for the Bruins; its leading scorer from 2019-20, Chris Smith, tore his ACL toward the start the Pac-12 play; its second-leading scorer from last season, Jalen Hill, took an indefinite leave of absence from the team in February.

Yet the guys who are left have played gritty and effective basketball. They beat Michigan in a game that had only six made 3-pointers. Their swarming defense forced the Wolverines to miss nine second-half layups. Juzang appeared to hurt his ankle at one point, re-aggravating an injury that he suffered earlier in the tournament—but came back and finished with a game-high 28 points. Sounds like an underdog story, right?

So you have to ask yourself: When UCLA takes the court in the Final Four, will you see a school with a storied legacy and 11 national championships? Or will you see a no. 11 seed looking to extend an improbable March run? It’s worth mentioning here that none of this team’s players had anything to do with UCLA’s historic past. Besides, it’s been decades since the Bruins’ glory days—this is the school’s first Final Four run since 2008.

The tourney is always defined by Cinderellas. But can someone be a Cinderella who’s been part of the royal family all along?

Loser: Shooting Jumpers With Textbook Form

Ask any shooting coach, and they’ll tell you that the most important element of one’s form is consistency. If somebody lacks textbook form but is able to replicate the same form every single time, that’s acceptable. The key is to eliminate unpredictable motions that create unwanted variables.

This is a problem for Baylor guard MaCio Teague, whose shot is built on unpredictable motions and unwanted variables. Watch this shot from Monday’s Elite Eight game against Arkansas, which features a hitch so aggressive that it looks like he’s fighting back a sneeze. Now watch it in slow motion: Teague pushes the ball away from his body, brings it back, pushes it away again, then brings it back and launches. I do this when I’m about to roll dice, but that’s because accuracy isn’t particularly important in any game where you roll dice.

It’s one of the ugliest strokes I’ve ever seen … and he swished it. That’s not uncommon: Teague is connecting on 39.6 percent of his shots from deep this season, and went 43.7 percent from beyond the arc in his two seasons at UNC Asheville before transferring. Baylor leads men’s college basketball in 3-point percentage (41.1) in 2020-21, and Teague was third on the team in 3s made. In the Bears’ last game before the Big 12 tournament, he went 10-of-12 from 3-point range. Watch his highlights from that game—most of his shots look pretty normal, and then around the 40-second mark there’s the hideous hitch that almost looks like a pump fake. (Another swish.)

Teague actually seems to have fluid mechanics when shooting off the dribble. The hitch only comes out when he’s wide open on catch-and-shoot looks. It’s almost like he’s trying to replicate the rhythm and motion of his off-the-dribble shots even though he’s not dribbling.

Against Arkansas, Teague’s hitch hit the national stage. He missed four of his first five 3s, including several that featured the pre-shot spasm. But when the game got close late, Teague drilled 3s on back-to-back possessions to give Baylor an 11-point lead. He finished with a team-high 22 points and drilled each of his last three attempts from deep. The Bears won 81-72 after going 8-of-15 from beyond the arc as a team.

Could Teague be a better player if he fixed whatever the hell is going on with that shot? Yes, and the NBA scouts who are watching this Bears run are almost certainly thinking that. But there’s only a week left in his college career, and that’s not enough time to untangle this knot. If he’s going to win a national championship, it’ll be on the strength of that herky, heaving, halting, hideous—and stunningly effective—shot.

Winner: The Even-More-Dominant-Than-Expected Gonzaga Bulldogs

Before the NCAA tournament, I wrote about how 2020-21 Gonzaga is one of the best college basketball teams ever. At the time, the Bulldogs were 26-0 with 25 double-digits wins and had three of men’s college basketball’s best players and one of the most prolific offenses in recent memory. I thought that they were head and shoulders better than every other team during the regular season. And yet, I’m still somewhat surprised by how thoroughly they’ve demolished their competition in the tourney.

On Tuesday, Gonzaga beat USC in the Elite Eight by 19 points—slightly more than the 18 points by which it beat Pacific in February. The Zags’ road to the Final Four has been every bit as easy as their undefeated regular season. That’s not an exaggeration—their average margin of victory in the regular season was 23.2 points, and their average margin of victory in the NCAA tournament win has been 24.0. They haven’t played a close game since December, and the Final Four tips off Saturday. They are simultaneously explosive and effortless. Drew Timme has begun to reuse his celebrations.

Gonzaga’s March Madness run to this point has been one of the most dominant of all time. Villanova won a championship three years ago without playing a game decided by single digits, but heading into the Final Four its combined margin of victory was 73 points. The Zags have outscored their opponents by a combined 96 points. The last team to reach the Final Four with a larger combined margin of victory was Kentucky in 1996—a team nicknamed The Untouchables. We probably should find a fitting nickname for these Zags.

There are still two games left that Gonzaga could potentially lose. But let’s be honest: It’s much more likely that Gonzaga will win both of them by 15-plus points. Watch this team so you’ll have something to tell your grandkids about.

Loser: Everybody in UConn’s Path

The UConn Huskies are the gold standard of women’s college basketball. Technically, they’re in the midst of a championship dry spell—they haven’t won the national title since their four-peat ended in 2016—but they’ve still made it to 13 consecutive Final Fours. Their average margin of victory this season is 30.7 points, easily the most in the nation. All five of their starters were ranked as five-star recruits by ESPN, including freshman point guard Paige Bueckers, the most exciting player in the game. Every team from a major conference lost at least two games in the 2020-21 regular season … except UConn, which went 24-1. (Cal Baptist went undefeated in the WAC, but wasn’t eligible to compete in this NCAA tournament since the school is currently in the process of transitioning up from Division 2. The Lancers are this season’s true champions!)

But the NCAA selection committee decided that Stanford—no slouch at 25-2—deserved the top overall seed in this year’s women’s tournament. The committee also gave UConn a spectacularly difficult path to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, the Huskies played Iowa, led by the nation’s leading scorer in Caitlin Clark. In the Elite Eight, they played Baylor, the defending national champion and a team that almost certainly should have received a no. 1 seed. HerHoopStats rated Baylor as the fourth-best team in Division 1 after it went 25-2 and won both the Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament titles. (No. 1 seed NC State went 22-3 and didn’t win the ACC regular-season championship.) Before Monday’s matchup, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said the Bears were “underseeded” and demanded that reporters “explain to me how they are a no. 2 seed.”

Because UConn and Baylor played against each other, though, we got the game of the year. The teams spent 40 minutes throwing haymakers. When the Huskies leaped out to a 12-point first-quarter lead, the Bears responded with a 10-0 run and eventually pulled ahead. When Baylor jumped out to a 10-point third-quarter lead, UConn responded with a 19-0 run fueled by 10 points by Bueckers. (Baylor’s last hope was dashed by a brutal no-call, but I’d rather focus on the 40 minutes of stellar play than the bad officiating.)

The consensus among people who watched this game was that it came too early. That shouldn’t have been a game to get into the Final Four—it should’ve been part of the Final Four, if not the national championship.

UConn is running the damn gauntlet. It’s like the Huskies are the heavyweight champs, and the WWE forced them to enter the Royal Rumble first just to see if they could beat the next 29 people to enter the ring. They beat one of the most exciting players in the sport, and then took down this Baylor beast. Odysseus had to defeat fewer monsters between Troy and Ithaca than UConn does on its route to this title.

And you know what? While it’s definitely unfair to UConn, I’m on board with this as someone who has no emotional attachment to the Huskies. I’ll leave the season believing that UConn was the nation’s best team regardless of whether it cuts down the nets. Until then, I’m having a great time watching this team win battle after battle to prove its dominance.

Winner: South Carolina’s New Take on Blowout Tactics

The endings of most basketball blowouts are dull. The starters come out, the walk-ons come in, and everybody generally goes through the motions on defense. In the Elite Eight against Texas, though, South Carolina found a way to make a blowout captivating: Instead of trying to run down the clock or run up the score, it became the first team I’ve ever seen that focused intensely on stopping its opponent from scoring.

The top-seeded Gamecocks entered the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s matchup against no. 6 seed Texas leading 52-34. The game was all but over: The Longhorns hadn’t scored more than 15 points in any of the first three quarters, and had just one quarter left to erase an 18-point deficit. But instead of zoning out, South Carolina dialed in. It held Texas scoreless in the fourth quarter—the first time any team had ever been held scoreless in any quarter of a women’s NCAA tournament game.

South Carolina ended the night on a 16-0 run that lasted almost 13 minutes. Texas missed its final 20 shot attempts, six of which were blocked by springy 6-foot-4 sophomore Laeticia Amihere. (Amihere finished with nine blocks, six coming during the Longhorns’ scoreless stretch and four coming in the final quarter.) Even with the outcome completely decided, the Gamecocks never let up defensively. They rotated with a vengeance, put their full bodies into box-outs, and threw themselves at any Texas player unlucky enough to wind up for a shot. With 28 seconds remaining and the Gamecocks ahead by 28 points, Amihere sprinted to the 3-point line to close out on Longhorns guard Shay Holle, sprinted back in the opposite direction when her closeout proved too aggressive, soared to swat Holle’s 15-foot baseline jumper, and then leapt out of bounds to save a loose ball. She did this all up 28 points, with just over 20 seconds left.

I’ve seen teams throw down vicious dunks to cap off victories, and I’ve seen them jack up 3s with a result already determined. But I’d never seen a team winning a blowout clamp down defensively like South Carolina did on Tuesday. Even with the game well in hand, it still wasn’t going to let Texas get even a single bucket. It was just about the meanest thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. I absolutely loved it.

Almost Winner: The 1-3-1 Zone

By the end of the first half of Monday’s game between no. 2 seed Houston and no. 12 seed Oregon State, it looked like the Beavers’ surprise March Madness run was over. The Cougars looked dominant in jumping out to a 34-17 lead. Oregon State was getting outshot, out-rebounded, and out-hustled. But in the second half, head coach Wayne Tinkle called for a 1-3-1 zone defense. The Beavers clawed back and tied the game at 55 as Houston struggled to drive, pass, or shoot against a defense that it might not have played against all season.

The 1-3-1 is my favorite of defensive strategy in basketball. If you’re not familiar with it, that’s probably because you primarily watch basketball played above the high school level. In a 1-3-1 system, players are asked to commit to unusual responsibilities that they’d never take on in a different defense; in Oregon State’s 1-3-1, for example, 7-foot-1 center Roman Silva steps out to about the free throw line and tries to block off passing lanes, while 6-foot-3 guard Gianni Hunt plays the position closest to the hoop and sprints back and forth along the baseline. The 1-3-1 zone can be incredibly effective, but it takes weeks of practice to install and requires nonstop effort from all five defenders on the floor. This is why most teams that are—how do I say this politely—good choose to avoid it. Michigan and Baylor used the 1-3-1 occasionally about five years ago, but I can’t recall any team that played it regularly going on a deep tourney run in recent years.

However, it can be great for an underdog, who can suddenly spring an obscure defensive strategy on an opponent that hasn’t seen it all year. (Middle Tennessee State ran the 1-3-1 zone in its 15-over-2 upset victory over Michigan State in 2016.) I honestly didn’t watch enough of the Beavers this season to say whether they regularly played the 1-3-1—why would I have, given that they were picked to finish last in the Pac-12?—and I don’t recall seeing them use it during their Pac-12 tournament run. But I found articles about the program running the 1-3-1 last March, and one tweet about the team running it earlier this season. In its Sweet 16 matchup against Loyola-Chicago, Oregon State deployed the zone with great success.

There are two main problems with the 1-3-1 zone. The first is that an opponent can generate wide-open 3-point looks with just a few quick, effective passes. Houston hit 11 of them in Monday’s game, while Oregon State hit only six. The second is that the zone is terrible from a defensive rebounding perspective, because defenders are focused on blocking passing lanes instead of blocking out, and because the center plays the center of the zone instead of standing under the basket. On Monday, Houston missed 42 shots but grabbed 19 offensive rebounds—a 45.2 percent offensive rebounding rate. The Cougars won, 67-61.

For a few minutes, I was thrilled at the prospect that basketball’s quirkiest defensive strategy could power a team to the Final Four. While that was too much to ask, it did lead to this iconic bad beat.