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How to Fall in Love With a Team in the NCAA Tournament

Sabrina Ionescu and the Oregon Ducks tick all the boxes you need in a squad to root for during March Madness

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With 21 seconds to go in the second quarter of last Sunday’s second-round matchup between Oregon and Minnesota, Oregon’s Maite Cazorla dribbled several feet past the 3-point line. She was waiting for the clock to wind down so Oregon could take the last shot, but really she was waiting to give the ball to Sabrina Ionescu so that Sabrina could take the last shot.

At about the eight-second mark, Cazorla began her attack. She dribbled toward a screen set by Sabrina, who then broke off and ran toward a different screen that had been set for her back where Cazorla was at the start of the play. The action forced Minnesota’s center, Jessie Edwards, into guarding Sabrina near the center of the floor about 21 feet from the rim, which, let me tell you right now: It didn’t work out so great for Edwards.

Sabrina, a basketball savant, saw that the play had created the mismatch, and so she knew it was time to eat. She sized Edwards up a bit, giving her a couple of tiny feints just to see exactly who she was dealing with, and let me tell you something else right now: It felt a lot like those clips they show during Shark Week when some curious scientist drops a camera into the ocean and a shark pokes it with its nose a few times as it decides whether or not to bite into it.

Sabrina saw that there was no way that Edwards—stronger and bigger, sure, but also heavier and slower—was going to be able to match her footspeed, and so as soon as Edwards sat back on her heels for half a second too long, Sabrina started her move. She dribbled one time to her left, which forced Edwards to begin to retreat toward the rim, but then Sabrina planted her foot, hopped backward, and pulled up from 25 feet over not only Edwards’s outstretched hand, but also a secondary defender who had begun cheating over a second or two earlier. The ball went up, the buzzer went off, the announcer teed up what he knew was inevitable (“Stepback threeeeeeeeee … ”), a ref blew a whistle because the secondary defender had gotten a piece of Sabrina while contesting the shot, the ball banged its way in, the arena exploded, and the announcer completed his thought (“ … IS GOOD AT THE BUZZER! They cannot stop her!”).

Sabrina, who’d gotten bumped to the ground, jumped up and started barking at the universe with so much attitude that —and this is going to sound fake when you read it, but I swear to god it’s true— she started barking at the universe with so much attitude that it broke my TV in half. (It’s impossible to hear what she was saying in that moment when you watch the replay, but her body language —defiant and bold and confrontational— makes it clear that it was likely something close to, “THERE’S NOBODY ON THIS WHOLE FUCKING PLANET WHO CAN GUARD ME!”) (Also: She was so fired up that nobody even realized a foul had been called, which is probably the highest level of Fired Up that someone can get.)

The basket was part of a 16-0 run by Oregon that stretched from the last few minutes of the second quarter into the opening of the third quarter. (Minnesota was down only five points with about three and a half minutes to go in the second. A little over a minute into the third quarter, they were suddenly down 21, headed toward being down 30 shortly after that.) Sabrina had 22 points in the first half while shooting 72 percent from the field, adding five rebounds and seven assists just because she’d gotten bored of scoring. (My favorite stat from the game: Sabrina was responsible, through either points or assists, for 26 of Oregon’s first 30 points. She was very much on some Basketball Terminator shit.) (My favorite Sabrina stat from the past few weeks: Oregon lost one game at home the entire season. It was to Stanford. They played Stanford after that in the Pac-12 championship. Sabrina hung a 36-4-4 stat line on them. Oregon won by 20.) (My favorite Sabrina stat from all of history: She broke the NCAA record for career triple-doubles BEFORE THE END OF HER SECOND SEASON.)

But so what I’m saying is: Sabrina is a giant. And Oregon beat Minnesota. They play Central Michigan on Saturday in the Sweet 16.

Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu
Sabrina Ionescu in Oregon’s game against Maryland
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon is, right now, my favorite team to watch in the NCAA tournament. It has all of the big pieces necessary to be a very good I Think I’ll Start Rooting For This Team Now team. It has:

A legitimate, bona fide, inarguable superstar. It’s Sabrina, obviously. But here’s the thing: Superstars aren’t as fun alone as they are when they’ve got backup, which is why there also has to be …

A Justice League. A neat note: Every single player who starts for the Ducks averaged double-digits in scoring this season. That’s great. That’s what you need. You need for there to be a chance that a player you weren’t expecting to go bonkers in a game goes bonkers in a game, because that’s how you win a championship, really. Somewhere along the way, some other player besides your superstar has to put their stamp on a game. (A very good example: In 2003, the Spurs were in a playoff series against the Mavericks. They were playing Game 6 and it was in Dallas and the Spurs were down 15 points in the third quarter and it looked very much like they were cooked. Then Gregg Popovich put in Steve Kerr, who’d not played even one single second in the game. He caught fire, hitting four straight 3s, including three in quick succession during a two-minute stretch in the fourth quarter that pulled the game in the Spurs’ direction, and so now mostly everyone in San Antonio calls it the Steve Kerr Game.)

A player you can be emotionally invested in. The player you pick is (obviously) a very subjective thing, but there has to be at least one on the team who you can start rooting for just because they grab ahold of your attention somehow. Ruthy Hebard, for example, is a good option. She’s a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Alaska who spends most Oregon games putting defenders in a torture chamber under the rim. There was a stretch this season when she hit 33 shots in a row, which, I mean, come the fuck on. How does that even happen? (Other notable 33s: It was Larry Bird’s number. It was how old Jesus was when he was crucified. It’s how many people were trapped underground for over two months during the Chilean mining accident in 2010, all of whom ended up surviving. It’s how many shots Nas says he fired on “One Mic.”) For me, my pick was Aina Ayuso, a freshman guard from Spain who, on two separate occasions, has put defenders in the dirt with her crossover. (The best part of the video above of Ayuso crossing up her defender is the announcer literally laughing at it as she watches the replay.)

A cool mascot and/or good colors. Oregon’s mascot is a duck and I am very pro-duck, be it a duck that is daffy or mighty or is serious or likes to get dangerous or likes to sell insurance. Also, dark green is a good color for me.

And a legitimate shot at being great, but it’s not guaranteed. There’s this scene during 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds where, as Poindexter is smoking weed while a girl attempts to make out with him, he very philosophically asks, “Wait. Wait. No. No, wait. Would you rather live during the ascendency of a civilization or during its decline?” That’s (essentially) what I’m talking about here. When you’re looking for a team to become one of your new teams, you don’t want whoever it is that’s already at the top. That’s no fun. You want a team that’s fighting to snatch that Alpha Dog status away from someone. (In this case, I suppose that “someone” would be UConn.) It’s just more interesting that way; it’s just more interesting to be like, “We’re not there yet, but there’s a chance we can get there.” And that’s for two reasons: (1) You need the threat of being demolished by the current overlords to make everything feel more real and more dangerous, and now seems like a good time to tell you that Oregon was atom-bombed by UConn last year in the Elite Eight, and so when Oregon finally gets around to playing them (possibly in the semifinal) this year I’m expecting for Sabrina’s revenge game to be extremely violent and terrifying. And (2) that sort of championship potential is always very intoxicating, very invigorating. And Oregon definitely is that, and definitely has that. When head coach Kelly Graves first started just three years ago, the Ducks finished the season 13-17. This year, right at this very moment, they are 32-4, and they also won the Pac-12 championship for the first time in school history. Add that to the fact that of their 14 players, only two of them are seniors and only two of them are juniors, and it means it’s very likely that they’ve got, at minimum, a solid two-year stretch when they’ll make deep runs into the tournament. We’re watching a thing being built. We’re watching the ascendancy of a basketball civilization.