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Winners and Losers From the Sweet 16

Saint Peter’s cemented the greatest Cinderella run ever, Gonzaga ruined our brackets again, and Duke and North Carolina could be headed for one of the biggest showdowns in college basketball history. Let’s break it all down.

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Who shined the most in the Sweet 16 round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: The Peacock Giant-Killers

Every college basketball fan will have a moment that sticks in their mind from this legendary Saint Peter’s run, as the Peacocks became the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. For you, it might be Doug Edert flaunting his newborn mustache after a clutch 3, for someone else, it might be the players mobbing head coach Shaheen Holloway as he tries to give a postgame interview. But for me, it will be a defensive play that serves as a visual metaphor for the entire run—and a perfect example of the ludicrous playing style that has the Peacocks still dancing.

On Friday night, the 15-seeded Peacocks were matched up against third-seeded Purdue, a school that somehow recruits a steady stream of the tallest men alive. They’ve had at least one 7-footer on their roster every season since 2012; at one point they had 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms forming a frontcourt forest. I don’t know why Purdue has become the International House of Giants. Maybe their campus has huge beds? Maybe Matt Painter discovered cloning? Maybe tall dudes just really love engineering? Whatever the reason, this seemed to be a massive problem—literally—for Saint Peter’s, a small school with a small team. Nobody over 6-foot-7 averages more than 15 minutes per game for the Peacocks.

In the early going, Saint Peter’s seemed to be doomed against Purdue’s 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. He’s the biggest player in Big Ten history, and the Big Ten is big (the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is not). Peacock heads barely reached Edey’s shoulders; Peacock arms (wings?) flailed in useless attempts to keep Edey from getting the ball in the post. It looked like Hobbit U had gotten screwed in an unfortunate matchup against Ent State in the Middle-earth hoops tournament.

So here it is, the image I’ll remember: In a matchup of huge vs. tiny, Saint Peter’s somehow won:

Edey got some easy buckets but committed five turnovers and had a season-low two rebounds. Two! Against a team where he was often nine inches taller than his opponent’s tallest guy! Doug Edert had more rebounds, and I’m taller than him. (Seriously, I just stood next to him the other day.) The Edey matchup should have decided the game—instead, Purdue had to bench him because he added so little on offense and became a defensive liability. The Peacocks prevailed, 67-64. They’re the first 15-seed to make the Elite Eight, and no 13- or 14-seed has ever done it either.

The Saint Peter’s run is so improbable, and the team’s story is so good, that it’s hard not to talk about it like it’s pure magic. Saint Peter’s is smaller than even the other small schools that have captivated us in the past, and it keeps getting matched up with teams that are hilariously large to make the contrast more apparent. But the Saint Peter’s success is built on something real: some of the most furious, consistent defense imaginable. Purdue ranked no. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency this year, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Kentucky ranked no. 5. The Saint Peter’s defense put both of those elite offenses in hell. The Peacocks’ opponents in the tournament are shooting a combined 40.1 percent from the field. That’s roughly on par with what Saint Peter’s did during the year, holding opponents to 38.4 percent, fifth-best in Division I. They have taught themselves to win defensively while playing small: Last year, KC Ndefo led Division I in blocks per game despite standing just 6-foot-7.

This isn’t the Cinderella script. Normally, the underdog makes up for its lack of size and speed and strength with incredible 3-point shooting or a zone defense that takes away its opponent’s athleticism. It shouldn’t really be possible for a smaller, slower, weaker team to physically hound its opponents. The Peacocks’ success required more than just grit. They are playing smart defense, knowing every move before their opponent attempts it. They are playing cohesive defense, never missing a beat as they flash through assignments. They are playing brave defense, going full send into assignments that should destroy them.

So when I look back on this run, I’ll remember that image of a smaller man squared up against a 7-footer. To everybody else in the world, it looks like Saint Peter’s is outmatched, and this should be an easy win for the big guy. But the little guy knows that in the end, he’s the one that’s going to win.

Loser: Idiots Who Tell You to Pick Gonzaga Every Year (Like Me)

Gonzaga has had the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years. It’s been a 1-seed three times in a row and in four of the last five tournaments. In addition to having the top seed, it was ranked as the best team in the country by Ken Pomeroy, the pre-tournament favorites at sportsbooks, and the most-picked team in ESPN brackets to win the tournament. And I once again wrote about how you should pick Gonzaga, just like I did last year.

And yet, the trophy case in Spokane is going to look exactly the same as it always has: overflowing with dozens of West Coast Conference championships, and nothing from the NCAA. The Zags got outhustled and outplayed by an Arkansas team that had no trouble keeping up with their high-tempo offense, losing 74-68 to the Hogs:

It’s a yearly tradition at this point: Gonzaga comes into the tournament with a gaudy record after coasting through a non-power conference. It was 26-3 entering the tournament this year, 26-0 last year, 30-3 in 2019, 30-4 in 2018—you get the idea. But the Zags are just 1-12 against 1-seeds, 2-seeds, and 3-seeds since 2001. And when they lose, it’s often ugly. They get punched in the mouth, and they look like they have no idea what to do when it happens. It feeds the reputation that their gaudy records are boosted by a weak schedule and that they’re actually outmatched when playing other top teams.

But I think that reputation is a bit unfair. Gonzaga has won more NCAA tournament games than any team in the past decade (although Kansas can catch it with a championship game appearance this year). The Zags have made six straight Sweet 16s. They made the national championship game last year. So they do play well in the tournament. And even though they’re in a non-major conference, they have started scheduling and beating some of the best teams in the sport—this year they beat Sweet 16 participants Texas Tech and UCLA by a combined 34 points.

It’s pretty wild that we’re in a situation to call Gonzaga “chokers.” The Zags made their first NCAA tournament ever in 1995, won their first tournament game in 1999, had their first NBA lottery pick in 2006, earned their first 1-seed in 2013, made their first Final Four in 2017, and landed their first five-star recruit in 2020. Gus Johnson’s famous THE SLIPPER STILL FITS call was of a Gonzaga game in 1999—because they were a Cinderella. They’ve gone from underdog to underachiever in 30 years. It would be like if we got mad at Saint Peter’s for not having a national championship by 2050.

But here we are again. Everybody expects the big Gonzaga mouth-punch in the tourney, except for Gonzaga, the advanced stats, and idiots like me who have the gall to believe in the best team in the country. I’ll be back again next year to once again tell you Gonzaga is the best team in the sport. I need you to be smart enough not to listen to me.

Winner: Ian Eagle’s Love

March is the time for basketball stars to define their career with performances that will be remembered for decades—and Friday night, we got two of them in one game. One came from North Carolina guard Caleb Love, who had 30 points to push the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight with a 73-66 win over UCLA. Love’s previous career high was 25 points; he had 27 points in the second half on Friday.

The other came from a different kind of basketball star, CBS announcer Ian Eagle, who responded to each Love bucket with an appropriate Love pun or song reference.

Was Eagle freestyling? How did he avoid the minefield of songs with “love” in the chorus that should not be screamed during a nationally televised game? (“Love rises and… CONNECTS! Another cold-blooded 3! I’ll make Love to you! Like you want me to!”) Does he prep puns for various players before games? Did he go to Spotify (the world’s no. 1 audio platform, FYI) and search “LOVE” and write down a list of songs that popped up? Was Eagle prepared to yell PAINT IT BLACK or BACK IN BLACK if UNC’s Leaky Black didn’t finish the game with exactly two points? Should every single NBA announcer retire for having called Kevin Love games for 15 years without a single performance like this?

Eagle’s calls did a great job highlighting how ridiculous Love’s performance truly was. The fact that he had to dig deeper and deeper into his library of references showed how many damn shots Love was hitting.

Ian had Love on the brain, and it allowed him to fly like an Eagle. (See? I’m not as good at it and I had a lot more time to think about it.)

Loser: Anybody in the Way of Duke-Carolina

It’s clear that the thing the people want to see right now is Mike Krzyzewski in the final days of his legendary 43-year career. His final game against North Carolina was the highest-rated game on ESPN in three years. Duke’s second-round matchup with Michigan State was the most-watched early-round NCAA tournament game in three years. (In case you’re wondering what happened three years ago: It also involved Duke winning.)

Sure enough, Thursday night’s Duke game against Texas Tech was the most watched Thursday Sweet 16 game in four years, and Duke won, ensuring more good times at CBS corporate headquarters in New York. The Blue Devils didn’t miss a shot in the final eight and a half minutes of the game—clearly, a sign of their desire to sustain their coach’s career for as long as possible.

Duke is now one game away from the Final Four, which would be an incredible outcome for broadcasters. But it gets better: Remember how I said that Coach K had already coached his final game against North Carolina? That might not be true, because North Carolina is also one game away from the Final Four! UNC and Duke have never played in the NCAA tournament—they almost met in the 1991 championship game, but the 1-seeded Tar Heels were upset by Kansas in the semis. It would be an unprecedented bonanza for the two epic rivals to play in the Final Four with Coach K’s career on the line. The ratings for Duke’s normal tournament games are through the roof. If the Greatest Duke-UNC Game Ever happens? CBS might get the kind of ratings they used to get before we could watch anything we want on our phones at any given time.

So we know what’s going to happen in the Elite Eight: It’s time for the unknown figures who lurk in the shadows rigging the outcomes of American sporting events to shine. Saturday, Duke is going to shoot 117 free throws in 40 minutes against Arkansas. And Sunday? Well, it was a cute Cinderella run for Saint Peter’s—unfortunately, four of your starters are going to get a suspicious case of food poisoning before a game in which North Carolina is allowed to goaltend like it’s NBA Street Vol. 2. If we don’t get Duke-Carolina, I’ll lose all faith in the rigging process.

Winner: Creighton’s 3-Fest

When the women’s NCAA tournament bracket came out, one potential matchup stood out: Iowa and Iowa State were 2- and 3-seeds in the same region, making it likely that we’d get a rivalry battle for the ages. But I guess Creighton has spent decades on the other side of the Nebraska border absolutely fuming at those assholes from the Hawkeye State, maybe for keeping Carter Lake after the Missouri River changed course. The 10th-seeded Bluejays have taken down both of their enemies from the East—first downing Iowa in Iowa on Lauren Jensen’s cold-blooded game-winner, then comfortably cruising past Iowa State on Friday. They’re just the fourth double-digit seed to make the Elite Eight of the women’s tournament.

Creighton is winning with a five-out offense that may be the most aesthetically pleasing in college basketball right now. The school leads Division I in assists per game, assisted shot rate, and assists per turnover, and it’s top 10 in points per play, 3-pointers made, and percentage of points scored off of 3-pointers. Friday, the Bluejays drilled 11 3s, and Iowa State couldn’t keep up.

They’re, uh, probably in trouble against overall no. 1 seed South Carolina on Sunday. But no South Carolina opponent has hit more than eight 3s per game all season; Creighton has hit at least eight 3s in 24 of 32 games this year. Remember that whole spiel I went on about how Saint Peter’s is a Cinderella winning with defense, and it’s unique, yada yada yada? Well, yeah, it’s admirable. But Creighton is doing things the traditional Cinderella way, by which I mean hitting a truly incredible number of 3s. It might have the best shot to take down the best in the game.

Loser: Iowa State

The men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments are staggered by exactly one day. This means that from Friday to Sunday on each of the first two weekends of the two tournaments, the games are on at the same time. It’s a problem for anybody who loves basketball, or anybody trying to write a blog about the Winners and Losers of various rounds of the NCAA tournament.

But it was especially rough for Iowa State fans on Friday night: Both the men’s and women’s Cyclones played, and both were scheduled to play in the final game of the night. The women tipped off against Creighton at 9:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the men tipped off at 10:20 in Chicago. How did Iowa State fans handle it? Did they go to sports bars? Did they put together double-screen watch parties? Fly to one game and listen to the other on the radio?

Hopefully, they decided to spend their Friday night, like, trying to catch up on nominated movies before the Oscars, or something. Anything besides watching basketball. I just told you what happened with the women, but the men also lost 70-56 to Miami. There’s pretty much no way getting both of your teams into the Sweet 16 sucks, unless you go to great lengths to see both of your squads play at the same time, and they both get simultaneously roundhouse kicked in the face for three hours.