Who shined the most in the Final Four? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special March Madness edition of winners and losers.
Winner: Jalen Suggs, College Basketball Hero
Jalen Suggs won’t have a long college basketball career. Everybody knew that from the moment he committed to Gonzaga in 2020 and chose playing for the Zags over playing a year professionally overseas. Suggs is one of the many hypertalented men’s players whose college careers were always seen as one-season preludes to a high draft pick and the millions of dollars that come with it. He’s a presumptive one-and-done guy, whose talent all but guarantees that his college career will only last a few months.
But on Saturday night, Suggs made a pair of plays that ensure his college career is remembered forever. When Gonzaga found itself in its first close game since December, the superstar freshman delivered an iconic performance to secure the Bulldogs’ place in the national title game.
Top-seeded Gonzaga entered the Final Four as a 14-point favorite over 11th-seeded UCLA, but was tied at 77 with two minutes left in regulation. Following a beautiful pick-and-roll play, 6-foot-9 Bruins forward Cody Riley had an open lane to the hoop and appeared poised to give UCLA the lead. But Suggs, who had been screened by Riley, recovered and blocked the much taller Riley from behind. This was already a whoa moment—Jim Nantz yelled “MY GOSH,” which is the Jim Nantz equivalent of screaming 17 straight F-words—and then Suggs started a fast break and snaked an absolutely perfect 30-foot bounce pass through a forest of UCLA defenders to feed Drew Timme for a transition dunk. It was a turning point in the game; UCLA had led sporadically throughout the first 37 minutes of the game, but didn’t lead again after Suggs’s denial-to-dime combo.
WHAT A SEQUENCE @ZagMBB #FinalFour pic.twitter.com/lfdsPYiMXh— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 4, 2021
The block, the rebound, and the pass were all stunning feats of basketball skill. Suggs pulled them off consecutively in a span of mere seconds. This sequence looked so easy and smooth for him, while everyone else seemed a step slower. It was like Suggs was wearing ice skates and the rest of the players were slipping and sliding across ice in regular shoes.
But the play that will live on in NCAA tournament lore happened in overtime. UCLA tied the game at 90 with 3.3 seconds remaining in the extra period. This matchup was bound for double overtime—but within a flash, Suggs was standing triumphantly atop the press table, the default celebration for players who’ve just hit a shot so incredible that they’re not quite sure how to celebrate.
JALEN SUGGS. UNBELIEVABLE! @ZagMBB #FinalFour pic.twitter.com/QeEAjENYmG— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 4, 2021
Suggs’s clutch performance took a wrecking ball to every argument that one-and-done players are bad for college basketball. In the most exciting moments of the season, one of the most talented players on Earth showed off absolutely everything in his incredible arsenal. His Gonzaga career will be short, but he gave everything he had to make it last one more game.
Winner: The UCLA Bruins, Valiant in Defeat
Entering Saturday night, five double-digit seeds had played in the Final Four in men’s NCAA tournament history; four had lost by at least 10 points. The exception was 2011 VCU, which played against no. 8 seed Butler and still lost by eight. When mediocre teams play elite teams on the sport’s biggest stage, they generally get blown out and leave feeling happy just to have made such a deep tournament run. So this game, between no. 1 seed Gonzaga and no. 11 seed UCLA, should have been a blowout. The Zags are one of the best teams in college basketball history, coming into the Final Four with a perfect 30-0 record; the Bruins lost their last four regular-season games before March Madness began.
I guess UCLA didn’t study the history of double-digit seeds in the Final Four. The Bruins simply would not stop making shots, hitting 57 percent of their attempts from the floor and 47 percent from 3. They seemed intent on singlehandedly bringing back the midrange jumper: The shot chart shows that UCLA took nine shots from between the free throw line and the 3-point arc—and went 9-of-9 on those shots. Johnny Juzang went 12-of-18 and finished with 29 points; I’d bet 17 of those shots were tightly contested.
Johnny Juzang is just TOO SMOOTH pic.twitter.com/yxnZXv8mAv— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 4, 2021
The Bruins ultimately fell short, because Gonzaga is a team for the ages. But let’s not forget about this UCLA group, and its remarkable fight in this tournament. It once trailed by 14 points in its First Four matchup against Michigan State and seemed unlikely to even make the 64-team field; it ended its season a few moments shy of playing for the national title. It played in three overtime games in this tourney—against Michigan State, Alabama, and Gonzaga—and beat Michigan by two points. It won both high-scoring swish parties and hideous brickfests.
I can’t believe the team got this far. After the Sweet 16, I figured UCLA was sure to lose in the Elite Eight. After the Elite Eight, I figured that it had no shot of toppling the Zags. I kept thinking that the Bruins had reached the end of their rope—and now that they’re done, I keep thinking about how I want to watch this team play more. It shouldn’t be possible for one of the most storied programs in college basketball to become the sport’s best underdog. But that’s exactly what Johnny Juzang and Co. did.
Loser: Everybody Who Watched a Game-Saving Charge
Before getting into this, I want to be clear: I’m not mad at Drew Timme, and I’m not mad at the referees. I am simply mad at the concept of the play that prevented UCLA from attempting a game-winning shot at the end of regulation.
The Bruins had the ball with the clock running down, and of course it was in the hands of Juzang. He ditched Suggs with a beautiful behind-the-back dribble, and left Corey Kispert—who had been expecting Juzang to use a screen—woefully off-balance. Juzang had an open lane to the hoop, but Timme stepped in and drew a charge with one second remaining.
Nice crossover by Juzang to get by Suggs. Great job by Timme of stepping up to take a charge. pic.twitter.com/SQ5chbypkB— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 4, 2021
This instantly becomes the most clutch charge in basketball history. Every young kid with a buzz cut, limited athletic ability, and dreams of playing point guard for Duke will hang a poster of this moment on their wall.
It was an incredible play by Timme, Gonzaga’s mustachioed big. It took some remarkable presence of mind—who even thinks to draw a charge with the clock running out?—and equally remarkable execution. If Timme had picked the wrong spot, even by a few inches, this could have been called as a block that would have sent Juzang to the line for game-winning free throws. But he identified the exact place where Juzang was headed, and he occupied it. Timme has become an expert at this: He’s developed a go-to celebration for charge calls, where he shimmies and points in the other direction. (That hopeful Duke point guard will also spend his middle school career developing the perfect charge celebration.)
And it was a great call by the refs. This was a charge, no doubt. Timme’s body was set, his feet were out of the restricted area, and Juzang barreled into him. We’re quick to roast refs when they botch critical calls, so let’s also give them their due when they nail one.
At first, I found this moment completely captivating. I can remember dozens of buzzer-beaters, game-ending misses, and clutch blocks. It felt cool that this game swung on a different type of play in a crucial moment. This would be like if a baseball team sent a game to extra innings on a bases-loaded hit by pitch in the bottom of the ninth. But there’s a difference: A hit by pitch is entirely the pitcher’s fault, since no player goes up to the plate with the intention to get hit. Batters are up there to swing, and sometimes they just happen to get hit. Timme, on the other hand, intentionally chose to get knocked over. The guy has a getting-knocked-over celebration. He could’ve tried to block this shot, but he wanted this outcome.
One of the defining moments of the season is a player being rewarded for the act of standing motionless while somebody else barrels into him. That seems wrong. Obviously, the game has to recognize a defender’s right to occupy space between the ball handler and the basket, and it has to have a mechanism for punishing out-of-control ball handlers seeking contact. But great plays should feel heroic. Getting knocked over doesn’t qualify.
Winner: Adam Morrison
One of the most famous moments in college basketball history came in a Gonzaga-UCLA game. In 2006, the Zags blew a double-digit lead in the Sweet 16, allowing the Bruins to score the final 11 points of a 73-71 win. Adam Morrison, the men’s Division I scoring leader and AP national player of the year, broke down in tears. It became an enduring image of March.
15 years ago today, UCLA scored the last 11 points of the game and shocked the Zags in the Sweet 16 @marchmadness— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 23, 2021
Left Adam Morrison in tears pic.twitter.com/mPwH2mewei
Morrison’s life has had some twists and turns since then. He was the no. 3 pick in the 2006 NBA draft, but failed in the pros and was widely derided as a bust. He won two NBA championships with the Lakers, but played in just a handful of games, and didn’t meaningfully contribute to those teams. He was out of the league before his 30th birthday, and briefly worked as an assistant on Zags head coach Mark Few’s staff. He settled back in Spokane, and now he calls Gonzaga’s games on the radio.
Gonzaga and UCLA have also had some twists and turns since 2006. When Morrison signed up to play for the Zags, the program was an upstart and the textbook example of a tournament Cinderella. (“THE SLIPPER STILL FITS!”) Now, it’s a powerhouse. In ’06, the Bruins were in the midst of making three straight Final Four runs; now, the team sometimes plays in the First Four and sometimes misses the tournament altogether. Saturday night’s game had the same ending as that ’06 classic—a Cinderella getting its heart ripped out by a juggernaut—but this time, the roles were reversed.
And instead of crying on the court, Morrison was screaming on the sideline. Here’s a clip of his radio call—and the moment he saw the kids playing for the program he helped transform live out what was once his dream.
Jalen Suggs' all-time game-winner against UCLA called by Gonzaga's IMG radio team of Tom Hudson and Adam Morrison (yes, that Adam Morrison): pic.twitter.com/DBtqdFjenL— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) April 4, 2021
There’s no stupider choice being made by a major American sports organization than the NCAA’s refusal to refer to its women’s basketball tournament as “March Madness.” The NCAA owns the copyright to the phrase “March Madness,” but for some reason it only uses it in reference to the men’s tournament, which is why the men have played in venues with the words MARCH MADNESS printed at midcourt while the women have played in venues with WOMEN’S BASKETBALL printed instead. Using the phrase for both tournaments would cost the NCAA nothing; only using it for one tells everyone which tournament the NCAA feels is more important. Not since Leonidas kicked that guy into that bottomless pit has anybody had such a strict policy about what is and isn’t madness. (Speaking of stupid choices … did anyone in 300 explain why Sparta had a bottomless pit in the middle of town? Seems like an unnecessary hazard.)
But the ending of Friday night’s Final Four matchup between South Carolina and Stanford? This was definitely madness:
South Carolina was THIS CLOSE ‼️#WFinalFour pic.twitter.com/UHjaxkEKyl— ESPN (@espn) April 3, 2021
This game was everything that a showdown between two no. 1 seeds should be. There was spectacular shooting and hustle: The Gamecocks and Cardinal combined to hit exactly half of their 3-pointers (14-of-28) and grab offensive rebounds on exactly half of their missed shots (39 combined offensive boards on 78 missed field goals). There were star performances from both sides: Stanford’s Haley Jones, considered the top player in the 2019 recruiting class, dropped 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while South Carolina’s Zia Cooke had 25 points, including five 3s. There were clutch plays on both offense and defense: Destanni Henderson scored all nine Gamecocks points in the final 150 seconds, while Stanford’s Cameron Brink blocked four shots in the fourth quarter alone.
With 32 seconds remaining, Jones hit a go-ahead jumper for the Cardinal—ESPN tweeted out the clip with the words “MADNESS!” in all caps, in defiance of the NCAA. On the next possession, Brink blocked a shot by South Carolina All-American big Aliyah Boston. That set up the sequence that will haunt the Gamecocks forever. They stole the ball from Brink but missed a pair of layups that could have sent them to the national championship game. The NCAA won’t call Stanford’s thrilling 66-65 victory that was decided in the final moments madness, but let’s be honest: This was March Madness at its finest.
Well, fuck me. I try not to swear in these articles, but I am simply following a request from Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, who has led the Wildcat women to their first Final Four—and now their first national championship game, after a stunning 69-59 upset win over UConn.
In my last article, I wrote that I’d probably consider UConn to be the best team in the nation regardless of what happened in the Final Four. But on Friday, Barnes’s Wildcats clearly proved themselves to be better than the Huskies by absolutely dominating them for 40 minutes. UConn entered as a 13.5-point favorite, but never led in the game and trailed by double digits for nearly the entire second half. The Huskies simply couldn’t contain Aari McDonald, who finished with 26 points. And despite UConn’s roster being physically larger than Arizona’s, the Wildcats controlled the paint, holding the Huskies to 2-of-14 shooting on shots that were described as “layups” in the official box score.
After the game, Barnes pulled her team aside and gave a speech about how the Wildcats believed in themselves when nobody else did. The NCAA didn’t even put Arizona in its hype video for the Final Four, centering the promo entirely on the three other teams. (It deleted the video after Arizona complained about it.) Everybody thought Arizona would lose—so Barnes shoved her two middle fingers in the air and yelled FUCK EVERYBODY.
Arizona’s coach going double birds in the huddle! Congrats to Adia Barnes and her team pic.twitter.com/JPL8iDXxdo— Jordan Dajani (@JordanDajani) April 3, 2021
Barnes wasn’t expecting her pep talk to go viral, and afterward seemed a little embarrassed about it—she later shared a euphemized version of her speech in a press conference, following the Cee-Lo Green method of replacing the F-word with “forget.” But her point was clear: Everybody looked at UConn’s 11 national titles and Arizona’s zero previous trips past the Sweet 16 and simply assumed that the Huskies would win. Barnes had built Arizona into a team capable of playing bigger than the larger humans they were defending, and still nobody gave them the time of day. So fuck all of us for not noticing.
That said, Stanford should beat Arizona in Monday’s national title game. These teams played twice in the regular season, and Stanford won both times, by 27 points in January and by 14 points in February. So I’m picking Stanford to win it all—but I’ll be thrilled if Barnes gets to throw some more middle fingers my way.
Winner: UConn’s Final Four Curse
With UConn’s loss to Arizona, the Huskies have extended one of the strangest sports streaks imaginable. They have gone to 13 consecutive Final Fours—and lost in the national semifinal four straight times. In 2017, they were riding a 111-game win streak when they lost to Mississippi State on a buzzer-beater by Morgan William; in 2018, they were undefeated until they lost to Notre Dame on a buzzer-beater by Arike Ogunbowale. (Again, the NCAA does not want you to call these games “madness.”) In 2019, they blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and lost to Notre Dame again. Head coach Geno Auriemma is 11-0 all time in national title games—and 11-10 all time in the Final Four. When there’s a national title on the line, UConn is literally perfect, but the Huskies keep falling one game short of playing for a championship.
The 2020-21 UConn team was the program’s best of the last few seasons. Freshman Paige Bueckers was the Huskies’ first AP Player of the Year since Breanna Stewart won the award three years in a row from 2014 to 2016. While the 2018-19 and 2019-20 UConn teams lost a combined five regular-season games, all by at least nine points, this season’s team lost just once in the regular season, by three points. And yet this group had the worst Final Four loss of any of these teams. How is this possible? How does UConn keep reaching exactly this point and then losing?
The Huskies still feel like the premier program in women’s hoops: No other school has been to back-to-back Final Fours, let alone to four in a row, let alone to 13. But the competition has caught up. From 2013 to 2016, UConn won four consecutive national championships. There were questions about whether its dominance was bad for the sport.
In retrospect, it’s clear the opposite was true. UConn’s greatness spawned a slew of unique and hungry adversaries. The Huskies had their era as giants, and they’re still the most consistent program in the nation. But their Final Four losing streak shows that we’ve entered the era of giant slayers.
Loser: Houston’s Cupcake Final Four Run
Let’s take a brief moment to praise the Houston Cougars, who on Saturday played in their first men’s Final Four since 1984. It’s really cool that Kelvin Sampson has built this team up after some dark years for both the head coach and the program. I picked the Cougars to make the Final Four, so I really do think they were great this season. It was easy to pull for a team built so much on second chances.
OK, moment of praise over. Houston’s appearance in the Final Four was as short and ugly as possible, as Baylor rolled, 78-59.
The Cougars simply didn’t look prepared to take on a team as talented as the Bears—and maybe they weren’t. Houston played only one ranked opponent in 2020-21: Texas Tech, which was ranked 14th in the AP poll when the teams met in November and finished the season ranked 21st. The Cougars followed up that campaign by enjoying the easiest path to the Final Four in history. They played 15th-seeded Cleveland State in the first round, which is normal for a no. 2 seed. They played 10th-seeded Rutgers in the second round, which is also fairly typical. But after that, they had matchups against 11th-seeded Syracuse—which won its First Four game and then pulled a pair of upsets to make the Sweet 16—and 12th-seeded Oregon State, which only made the bracket because it won the Pac-12 tournament. Houston became the first team ever to play four double-digit seeds en route to the Final Four. It didn’t blow away the competition either; it trailed late against Rutgers before winning 63-60, and was tied late in its game against Oregon State before winning 67-61.
When the Cougars finally played a no. 1 seed, well … oof. They couldn’t get a clean look against an aggressive Baylor defense that made every pass, dribble, and shot difficult, and were held to just 38.2 percent shooting while coughing up 11 turnovers. They couldn’t disrupt Baylor’s shooters, as the Bears went 11-of-24 from beyond the arc. And they couldn’t box out, allowing Baylor to pull down 13 offensive rebounds on 26 missed shots. The Bears raced out to a 25-point first-half lead, and won going away.
You could say that Houston was a fraudulent Final Four team whose appearance deserves an asterisk—but pretty much everybody will only remember that it made the Final Four.
Winner: The Perfect Finale
There is one game left in the men’s college basketball season, and it is indisputably perfect. No. 1 seed Gonzaga will play no. 1 seed Baylor on Monday night, with the winner being crowned the champion.
All season long, it’s been clear that these are college basketball’s two best teams. Back in November, the Zags and Bears were virtually tied atop the two major polls. Gonzaga had 1,541 votes in the AP poll while Baylor had 1,540; Baylor had 764 votes in the coaches’ poll while Gonzaga had 762. The Zags affirmed that the preseason voters were correct by winning every game they played. They’ll be the first undefeated team to play for a national championship since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979. The Bears won their first 18 games and went 22-2 in the regular season. The teams were ranked first and second in 15 of the 17 AP polls released in 2020-21. They are the two best teams in the country, and now they will play for the title.
We love upsets in this sport, but a championship game like this is rarer—and better—than pretty much any upset. Since the NCAA tournament started seeding teams in 1979, there have been eight matchups between no. 1 seeds in the national title game. But most of those were not between the consensus two best teams over the course of the season. North Carolina and Gonzaga were both no. 1 seeds in 2017, but UNC was never ranked higher than third in the AP poll, and Gonzaga was only briefly no. 1. Duke and Wisconsin were both no. 1 seeds in 2015, but Kentucky was easily the best team in college basketball that season, going 38-0 before its stunning upset loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Kansas and Memphis were both no. 1 seeds in 2008, and were ranked no. 1 and no. 2 for a few weeks in February. But they entered the tournament ranked second and fourth. I’d argue the closest thing to this Gonzaga-Baylor final in recent memory is the 1999 men’s matchup between UConn and Duke, who traded the top spot in the AP poll all season long. (The Illinois-North Carolina matchup in 2005 comes close.)
It’s going to be beautiful. Gonzaga has a future NBA superstar in Suggs, the best shooter in the country in Kispert, and the tournament’s potential Most Outstanding Player in Timme. Baylor has an impossibly deep roster, with five quality guards and three quality bigs, and the ability to deploy the perfect players to match up with every style of opponent. Neither program has ever won a national championship, as Mark Few and Scott Drew both have reputations as brilliant coaches who can’t close the deal in March. Whoever wins will truly deserve it. Saturday’s game between Gonzaga and UCLA was one of the best ever—and Monday’s game could be even better.