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Winners and Losers of the Elite Eight

Blue bloods take New Orleans, the Saint Peter’s Cinderella run comes to an end, and North Carolina and Duke set up their first NCAA men’s tournament matchup

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Who shined the most in the Elite Eight of the men’s tournament and Sweet 16 of the women’s tournament? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: Blue Bloods

We are in the era of upsets. In 2018, the men’s NCAA tournament featured a 1-seed losing to a 16-seed for the first time, after 16 seeds had gone 0-for-132 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Only four 15-seeds won from 1985 to 2011; six have won since 2012. Last year, a 15-seed made the Sweet 16 for just the second time—but this year, Saint Peter’s one-upped them, storming through March to become the lowest seed ever to reach the Elite Eight. The Peacocks—and their tiny gym, low budget, and memeable mustache—became America’s team.

But the clock has struck midnight. The magic has worn off. That carriage? Big ol’ pumpkin now. Prince Charming got stuck in an arranged marriage with a random princess from some other kingdom to maintain elite bloodlines. I think I’m out of Cinderella references, so I guess I have to get to my point: Saint Peter’s got the crap kicked out of them by North Carolina. The dream of one of college basketball’s smallest schools making the Final Four has been shattered like a glass slipper. (Who the hell makes slippers out of glass anyway? That’s the opposite of comfy!)

Saint Peter’s gave up the first nine points of the game and never came close. The Tar Heels looked bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled. The Peacocks couldn’t hit anything, shooting a dismal 30 percent from the field. Saint Peter’s once again held its opponent to a poor shooting performance, but they were totally outmuscled, with North Carolina’s Armando Bacot finishing with 22 rebounds.

You always imagine that underdogs who outperformed their seeding will have a smile on their face when their run finally comes to an end after weeks of playing with house money. But that’s not how it goes: The Saint Peter’s players looked devastated. They didn’t get to the Elite Eight by assuming bigger teams would beat them, even if everybody else did. They thought they would win, and then they didn’t.

With the Saint Peter’s dream dead and in a ditch, the Final Four will feature four of the least Cinderella-esque teams in existence: Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Villanova. Only eight schools have won three or more men’s NCAA tournaments, and four of them will be in New Orleans. These teams have won nine of the championships since 2000. These are the sport’s famed blue bloods and notably, all of them wear blue uniforms. (Kentucky probably belongs in this grouping, but, well, they weren’t as lucky against Saint Peter’s.) Meanwhile, the last time a team from outside the Power Five conferences or the Big East won a title was in 1990. (UConn technically won it as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2014, but its program will forever be associated with Big East basketball.)

For the powerhouses of college basketball, the NCAA tournament is a time for championships. The little guys can make memories, but when it comes down to it, it always ends with a loss.

Winner: Tobacco Road

As a member of the media, I have to acknowledge that sometimes the media overhypes things. We know that most people don’t actually care about all the stuff we ram down your throats. Sports fans don’t want to watch 14 Dallas Cowboys games per year or relitigate LeBron vs. Jordan every morning. If the Yankees and the Red Sox never play again, most fans won’t miss a blink of sleep. But we must overhype. If we don’t act like banal stuff is the most important thing in the world, our reason for being would cease to exist, and the industry that feeds us would crumble.

But I must admit: I don’t think we are overhyping the Duke–North Carolina Final Four matchup, which is the first time Duke and North Carolina have played in the NCAA tournament. This is the best rivalry in college basketball—and these two teams have never matched up in the sport’s biggest event. (They’ve played in the ACC tournament pretty regularly and met in the 1971 NIT semifinals, which had to have been pretty weird.) Part of the reason for their lack of NCAA matchups is just the way the tournament is shaped—the selection committee is supposed to avoid letting teams from the same conference play each other in early rounds—and part of it is simply bad luck. The two seemed fated to play in the 1991 championship game, but North Carolina lost in the Final Four to Kansas, which Duke defeated in the title game. (Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas make the Final Four a lot.) In 2019, I wrote about how it was ridiculously unlikely that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils hadn’t matched up yet in March Madness, and projected a Duke-Carolina championship game … but instead both teams got bounced before the Final Four.

But it’s not just a Duke-Carolina Final Four game … IT’S COACH K’S FINAL SEASON. North Carolina already ruined Coach K’s final home game and forced him to go through with his long-awaited retirement ceremony in front of a crowd devastated to have just lost a game—it was a moment for the ages. Now, that moment for the ages will be topped by another moment for the ages. If UNC ruins Coach K’s last year by beating him in his final home game and then the Final Four? Holy crap! If Coach K finishes his career by knocking UNC out of the tournament and then goes on to win a title? HOLY CRAP!!! These will be taunts heard in North Carolina for decades.

But even outside the Triangle, this game will go down in college hoops history. Saturday’s result will be remembered as a defining moment in the legacy of one of the most memorable figures in the history of college hoops, and as a defining moment of the greatest rivalry in the sport.

The thing about a rivalry is that there’s always the next game. Duke blew out North Carolina in the first matchup this year—but Carolina came back to Cameron and won. North Carolina won the championship in 2009 … but Duke came back and won it in 2010. Any feeling of superiority in a rivalry has a potential expiration date roughly 364 days in the future.

But this? This could be forever. There won’t be another last season for Coach K, and there may never be another Duke-Carolina Final Four game. These two teams will play again twice a year forever—but this moment in this iconic rivalry will happen only once.

Loser: The Transitive Property

Saint Peter’s had reason to believe. Yes, this was Saint Peter’s vs. North Carolina—but the Peacocks had just beaten Kentucky and Purdue.

And you know who lost to Kentucky and Purdue? North Carolina! The Boilermakers put up 93 points on the Tar Heels in November during the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Kentucky absolutely walloped the Tar Heels 98-69 in December’s CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas. North Carolina led for just 33 seconds between these two games.

You can create a bunch of takeaways from this, if you feel like it: The most obvious one is that North Carolina has improved drastically. In late January, the Tar Heels were 12-6 and had just lost back-to-back games to Miami and Wake Forest by 20-plus points each. They finished the regular season on a six-game win streak, culminating with a huge win over Duke at Cameron Indoor. Now they’re 28-9 and headed to the Final Four.

But the main takeaway is that this sport we love is really weird. It doesn’t make sense that North Carolina can lose to Kentucky and Purdue and then demolish a team that beat Kentucky and Purdue. But we don’t love this sport because it makes sense. We love it because for a few moments, the second-best team in a conference you’ve never heard of can seem like one of the eight best teams in the country. We’ll start thinking logically again after they cut down the nets in New Orleans.

Winner: Cheerleader Practice

One of the grand heroes of the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament was the Indiana cheerleader who rescued a ball from the top of the basket support. She came through after multiple players and referees (who were extremely unqualified for the job) failed to knock the ball off the support with a mop handle. The cheerleader’s performance went viral and was essentially the only evidence that Indiana actually participated in the NCAA men’s tournament.

Saturday, a similar situation arose in the Elite Eight matchup between Arkansas and Duke. This time, nobody messed around with mops or refs. The Razorback cheerleaders sprung into action right away:

Just 12 seconds after the ball became lodged on top of the support, the cheerleaders were already in place. In the Indiana incident, it took more than 20 seconds from the start of the video until the cheerleaders were summoned to fetch the ball.

This tells a story. The Arkansas cheerleaders all saw the Indiana incident and had the talk: What will we do if a ball becomes wedged in our game? Who will be assigned the task—the honor—of fetching the ball, along with the brief moment of national fame that come with it? After fighting for several hours over who got the job, they got to work. They practiced. They prepped for a moment that might have never come. And when the time came, they didn’t hesitate. They went out and they executed.

There will never be another awkward pause for a ball on top of a support again. Cheerleaders across the country will ensure that no ball goes unsaved. Soon, I suspect that cheerleaders will be our nation’s most dependable saviors of stuck items—cereals on the top shelf at the supermarket, Frisbees on roofs, scared kittens in trees—therefore putting firefighters and extra-long mop-handle manufacturers out of business. The Indiana cheer squad might have thought they were merely fetching a ball—but they were innovators who changed the cheerleading game forever.

Loser: The King of Charges

This year’s tournament was a showcase for one of the greatest executions of one of college basketball’s most sacred acts: Arkansas’s Jaylin Williams, Charge God. Williams is actually pretty fun to watch, but his most unique skill is his ability to aggressively slide into the paths of driving players and get referees to whistle them for an offensive foul.

Williams drew 54 charges this season, including a pair of controversial calls in Arkansas’s upset win over top-seeded Gonzaga. The NCAA doesn’t keep stats on this, but many people claim that the all-time record is held by Shane Battier, who allegedly took 111 charges in his four-year career. Williams would hypothetically break that record in just two years at his current charge-taking pace.

Of course, Battier played for Duke, a school that has earned a reputation for winning lots of games in the most annoying way possible—and the school that Williams’s Razorbacks faced in the Elite Eight on Saturday. Generation after generation of Dukies have crumpled under opposing players and reaped the rewards. Now, they were playing the active charge champ. It was an epic showdown: the charge powerhouse vs. the young upstart! The legend vs. the best currently doing it!

Williams came out ready to annoy. He slid under two Duke players to get two charges within 30 seconds in the first half:

But it wasn’t enough. Williams may finish his career as one of the all-time legends in the field of charge-taking—the GOAT of getting bulldozed! The Picasso of plummeting! But Duke is Duke. You can’t beat them at their own game.

Winner: The Game-Winning Steal

OK, so technically this is a winner of the Sweet 16—but that’s the NCAA’s fault for playing the women’s Sweet 16 and men’s Elite Eight simultaneously. March is a great time for game-winning shots, but I can’t get over this expert game-winning steal by North Carolina State’s Raina Perez.

Notre Dame led 1-seed NC State by as much as 10, including an eight-point lead with six minutes to go. But NC State harassed Notre Dame’s ball handlers from baseline to baseline, forcing six steals in the fourth quarter alone. That tenacity brought the Wolf Pack back to within a point, but Notre Dame had the ball in hand with a one-point lead and under 20 seconds to go. They had to shoot, but if they took care of the ball and ran down the shot clock all the way, they could force NC State into a desperate last-second heave for the win.

But Perez wasn’t interested in waiting. As Notre Dame’s Dara Mabrey tried to extend the play with some dribbling, she briefly turned her back on Perez—and in that moment, Perez swooped in and took it away. There was nobody in between her in the basket, and soon NC State had the one-point lead.

The execution on the steal is one thing. Mabrey’s back was turned for only a split second, but that was long enough for Perez to swoop in and steal the ball—and the game—away from the unsuspecting dribbler. But the move also took guts! She was moving way out of defensive position. A failure to execute might have cost her team the season. Lots of players have had the guts to hit a game-winning shot—but few have had the wherewithal to steal one away.

Loser: Posterized Picks

March Madness is one of our last chances to watch the pros of tomorrow playing against the amateurs of today. Not only is it a final opportunity for scouts to look at these players before the NBA draft, but it’s also a final chance for these players to create moments that will be some of the most memorable of their careers. Pro greats can go to the playoffs year after year, but they might have just one NCAA tournament.

And sure enough, this year’s best pro prospects created some Shining Moments … for their opponents. In last week’s Miami-Auburn game, Jabari Smith Jr. tried to block a dunk by Miami’s Isaiah Wong—but Wong had a step on Smith and punched a dunk on his dome:

And Saturday in the Elite Eight, Duke’s Paolo Banchero made the mistake of getting in between Arkansas’s Jaylin Williams and the rim:

Smith is the no. 2 prospect on Kevin O’Connor’s Big Board; Banchero is no. 3. And of course, Banchero could still win an NCAA title. We can acknowledge that these are two great players with great futures while also pointing out that in their final college run, they got absolutely wrecked, like the computer’s defenders when you play NBA Street Vol. 2 on easy mode. Sure enough, they made moments that fans will be able to look back fondly on—specifically, when Arkansas and Miami fans look at the posters on their walls.

Winner: Hubert Davis

This is a Final Four with four of the most successful programs in the sport—but only three head coaches who have achieved significant success. While Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Jay Wright at Villanova, and Bill Self at Kansas have all won championships as coaches, UNC’s Hubert Davis is in his very first year at the helm after the retirement of legendary coach Roy Williams last year. (You probably saw Roy during the game—he’s no. 2 on the civilian screen time leaderboard this tournament behind only Mickie, Mike Krzyzewski’s wife.)

In his postgame press conference, Davis claimed that this moment likely means more to his players than it does to him. After all, he went to the Final Four as a UNC player—he’s now the second person ever to make a Final Four as a player and coach at the same school. He was also an assistant coach on the championship-winning 2017 squad. But after the final buzzer rang, he broke down in tears. Clearly, this moment actually does mean a lot to him.

A first-year head coach hasn’t made the Final Four since 1998, when another UNC head coach, Bill Guthridge, did it after the sudden retirement of another legendary coach, Dean Smith. Davis’s accomplishment is particularly stunning. The Tar Heels finished below .500 in 2020, were bounced in the first round of the tournament last year under Williams, and struggled deeply at times this year. Fans had reason to be skeptical that the team was headed in the right direction, and Davis’s first few months on the job did little to fix that perception.

The team’s improvement feels like a testament to Davis’s skills as a coach. Last year, a Hall of Famer had roughly the same roster and didn’t perform nearly as well as this team is performing under their new head man.

College basketball is full of players coming back to coach at their old schools, from Davis to Juwan Howard to Penny Hardaway to Patrick Ewing. It always feels great to watch them achieve success. These men have been invested in the success of these programs from the time they were teens and worked their way up. Davis had already been a part of UNC’s success—but he’s no longer just a part of it. He’s in charge of it. And we could see how big a difference that made as the tears poured down his face.

A previous version of this piece misstated UConn’s conference affiliation when it won the national championship in 2014; it was in the American Athletic Conference, though now it’s returned to the Big East.