The NCAA tournament brings stunning upsets, thrilling buzzer-beaters, and a plethora of unforgettable moments that could only be created in a single-elimination tournament featuring a bunch of college players. So who shined the most in March Madness’s first round? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
The four letters will echo into college basketball eternity. UMBC delivered the ultimate upset on Friday night, shocking top-seeded Virginia in its first-round matchup. Some school with an awkward acronym and a cute mascot beat the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, snapping the 135-game losing streak that no. 16 seeds had in games against no. 1 seeds. And the Retrievers didn’t just win; they won by 20 points. We still talk about Virginia’s 1982 loss to Chaminade—Virginia handles being the no. 1 team in America like teens handle liquor—and that famous upset happened in an unfilmed game in the middle of the night. This happened on the sport’s biggest stage, with seemingly everyone in the world watching. We’ll talk about UMBC for as long as we talk about basketball.
How the hell did this happen? How did University of Maryland–Baltimore County flip the script?
I believe the answer is simple: script.
UMBC’s jerseys look eerily close to the ones from Teen Wolf; they have a gold background and a font that might appear as an option when ordering Little League jerseys in bulk. Look around college basketball, though, and you’ll notice a trend. On Friday afternoon, no. 13 seed Marshall knocked off Wichita State. Here are Marshall’s jerseys:
Jon Elmore after scoring 27: “Just another day in the park. I don’t care who you put on me I’m going to attack you for 40 minutes.” Recapping Marshall's magic moment: https://t.co/NebTwzniel pic.twitter.com/F3Y6fJaZum— Allan Taylor (@AllanTaylorWVU) March 16, 2018
On Thursday afternoon, 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago topped no. 6 seed Miami. Take a look at the Ramblers’ jerseys:
And while it wasn’t an upset, no. 7 seed Nevada’s win over 10th-seeded Texas was maybe the most thrilling game of the tournament to date. You already know what the Wolf Pack’s jerseys look like:
Nothing really connects these upsets—Loyola won on a buzzer-beater, Nevada in overtime, and Marshall and UMBC by comfortable margins—except the teams’ choices to wear cursive on their uniforms. Honestly, the threads aren’t even connected: UMBC has Under Armour jerseys, while the other three schools wear Nike. But script teams are 4-0 in the tourney, and one just turned in a victory that will go down as the biggest upset in college basketball history.
Cursive is retro, beautiful, and the most important determinant of how a team will fare in this year’s tournament. And you always made fun of the people who picked their bracket based on jersey preferences.
Loser: Anybody Complaining About Their Bracket After Virginia Lost
I still cannot believe what I witnessed Friday night. I had sort of reckoned with the fact I might see a no. 16 seed upset a no. 1 seed someday, but I didn’t expect it to happen like this. A 20-point win! UMBC’s triumph wasn’t a fluky buzzer-beater, but rather total domination, a game that was all but decided with 10 minutes left to go.
With the loss fell America’s most popular title pick—18.5 percent of ESPN’s brackets had the Cavaliers winning the title. Surely, you know many people who now have no hope of winning their bracket pool. There’s a pretty good chance you are one.
But unless you went to UVA or you’re this person who lost $20,000 on a parlay that would have won $900, I refuse to have sympathy for you about this loss. (And even then, I am skimping with my sympathy.) If you’re upset about this result, you’re a loser for two reasons:
1. A team named after dogs knocked off the brutally efficient national championship favorite, and you somehow managed not to have fun. Virginia was the least fun great basketball team in the country; every few months, someone would spring up to argue that these Cavaliers weren’t boring but beautiful, although just because their team was good does not mean we had to enjoy watching them. And then this dog team came along and drilled 12 3s on the Cavaliers’ ultraefficient defense. (UMBC isn’t even named after the types of dogs many teams are named after! They’re Retrievers! Extremely smiley, friendly pups!) This is why we love sports—for improbable, ridiculous, spectacular moments such as this—and if you can’t enjoy it because this ruins your chances of cashing in on the probably small investment you made in the most commonly picked team in a 68-team tournament bracket, you don’t deserve sports.
2. You’re also a loser because you lost. Your bracket is trash.
Winner: The State of West Virginia
Marshall is my favorite NCAA tournament squad. I anointed the Thundering Herd the funnest team in the tournament while searching for Cinderellas, and that was before Friday’s preposterously fun upset win against Wichita State.
There are so many things to love about Marshall’s game. They love 3s. They love 3s so much that they’ll pass up wide-open layups to take 3s:
They love off-balance, heavily contested 3s:
(Those two 3s were both by Jon Elmore, who finished the game with 27 points on 13 shots.)
They love extraordinarily deep 3s:
The Herd are coached by Dan D’Antoni—brother of Houston Rockets coach Mike—so of course, they rank among the top 10 teams in the nation in both tempo and 3-pointers attempted.
The Thundering Herd also spent the game gleefully jacking the ball from any Shocker who momentarily dipped his head:
That’s not a common characteristic of Marshall. The Herd notched a season-high 12 steals, which was the second-highest total allowed by the Shockers all season. This no. 13 seed is a force of chaos. A force of chaos led by a man who looks like he forgot to dress nicely before going to a fancy restaurant and had to wear a loaner jacket:
The best part of Marshall advancing ... you guessed it!— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 16, 2018
DAN D'ANTONI, FASHION ICON. pic.twitter.com/TFfllrKRO9
Marshall is fun, but I think the thing I enjoy most about them is learning that Dan D'Antoni always dresses like the airline lost his luggage. Khakis, a team-logo t-shirt, and whatever blazer is available. It's powerful.— David Roth (@david_j_roth) March 16, 2018
(Honestly, I really dig the vintage tee with the friendly cartoon bison.)
When Marshall hired D’Antoni four years ago, the decision was widely panned—yes, he had a famous last name and was an alum, but he was a career high school coach whose NBA assistant gigs were obviously gotten via nepotism. But D’Antoni, with his brother’s trademark playing style and his own sartorial style, not only got Marshall its first NCAA tournament bid since 1987, but also got them the greatest moment in the school’s basketball history.
A few hours after Marshall got its win, West Virginia took the floor in San Diego, and took a comfortable 85-68 victory over no. 12 seed Murray State. That sets up a clash between the only two Division I programs in the Mountain State—the first ever in the NCAA tournament. The schools haven’t played in a few years, and D’Antoni has traded barbs with his rival in casual dresswear, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins:
We've never needed anything like we need West Virginia to play Marshall in the Round of 32. pic.twitter.com/FbZl90tMVz— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 16, 2018
Most of the time the NCAA tournament creates matchups between schools with no history; it’s awesome to see a rivalry that has fallen by the wayside forced back into action due to fortuitous bracketeering. San Diego hotels need to make sure their couches are fireproof.
Arizona didn’t just get upset by Buffalo on Thursday night; it got thoroughly blown out. The Bulls went 15-of-30 from 3-point range, while the Wildcats went 2-of-18. Buffalo won 89–68, the second-largest margin of victory a no. 13 seed has ever had in a matchup with a no. 4 seed.
With this result, the Pac-12’s run in the NCAA tournament is officially over. UCLA and Arizona State, the conference’s two other teams included in this year’s field, both played in the First Four, and were eliminated without even making the round of 64. It might seem dumb to analyze a league’s tournament performance — games are won by teams, not conferences — but the NCAA makes payouts to conferences, not teams. The whole Pac-12 missed out on money when Arizona, UCLA, and Arizona State lost.
It’s been a really long time since a power conference went oh-fer in the NCAA tournament. (I checked back to 2004 to see the last time it had happened before giving up and deciding to write “it’s been a really long time” in this article.) And this comes on the heels of the Pac-12’s horrific bowl season, in which its teams went 1–8 and were left out of the College Football Playoff.
Another year like this, and I say that the Missouri Valley Conference takes the Pac-12’s spot in the power-conference hierarchy.
Winner: Trae Young
Sure, Young lost. Oklahoma’s first NCAA tournament game ended in an 83–78 overtime defeat against Rhode Island, the Sooners’ 12th loss in their final 16 games. But it’s hard to pin the outcome on Young, who went 9-of-18 shooting with 28 points and seven assists while his teammates combined to go 20-of-51 from the field, including 1-of-11 from beyond the arc.
There has been some hand-wringing about Young’s performance — how can a future lottery pick allow his team to lose in the first round? (You might remember this 2016 talking point How can the potential no. 1 pick in the NBA draft miss the NCAA tournament and skip the NIT? or 2017’s How can a projected top pick let his team go 9–22?) But Young played great. He may have had six turnovers and struggled to get to the free throw line, yet my primary takeaway from watching Oklahoma was that Young’s teammates were bad, husks that didn’t belong on the court with him. He made some great passes, but I’d argue that every pass he made was awful, because it gave one of his teammates the ball.
Oklahoma lost, but that just means Young is probably done playing with mediocre teammates at a level where he can’t get paid. If it’s over, his college career was short and brilliant, and I’d be happy he were NBA-bound.
Millennials will stop at nothing. We killed casual dining, the diamond industry, malls, and apparently some NCAA tournament upset bids!
Stephen F. Austin almost pulled off an upset against Texas Tech — the no. 14 seed Lumberjacks led the third-seeded Red Raiders 58–57 on Thursday before losing 70–60. Afterward, SFA head coach Kyle Keller explained that he would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids.
And the millennials today, they don’t even watch college basketball. A lot of our guys didn’t even know who those cats were because they don’t watch the game. They’re on their phone and doing that kind of stuff. I hate to say it, but as much as you or I or anybody in here watches the games, they don’t. Or the NBA. They might watch the slam dunk contest in February on TNT or whatever, but that’s about the extent of it.
This is true. Most of us millennials have no idea who LeBron James and Steph Curry are, because neither has been in the dunk contest. One time I almost saw somebody shoot a free throw, but then I decided to post a selfie on Snapchat, so I missed it!
Keller’s words have been widely misconstrued; many sites have written that he blamed the habits of the millennial generation for the Lumberjacks’ loss, claiming that his team’s phone obsession left it unprepared. In actuality, Keller was trying to say that his players had no fear of Texas Tech because they hadn’t watched the Red Raiders enough to know how good they were.
We should show Keller some sympathy. I think it’s unfair that he’s the only coach who has to deal with millennials, while other teams in the field get to play with rosters full of spry, righteous 42-year-olds who somehow haven’t used up their eligibility. Maybe someday he’ll learn how to be a professional coach of college students without having to interact with college students.
Winner: Religious Old Ladies
The star of Loyola-Chicago’s thrilling 64–62 upset win over Miami on Thursday wasn’t Donte Ingram, who hit a beautiful and ill-advised buzzer-beater. It was Sister Jean, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain:
Sister Jean helps the Ramblers in a basketball sense — she gives the team detailed scouting reports on their opponents, although it’s unclear whether the players use them — and in a spiritual sense, leading the roster in prayer. “I ask God to be especially good to Loyola so that, at the end of the game, the scoreboard indicates a big ‘W’ for us,” she told The New York Times this week.
She’s not the only one out there praying for basketball success. This Gonzaga fan let out a “THANK YOU, FATHER” after the Bulldogs pulled ahead for good in Thursday’s 68–64 victory over UNC-Greensboro.
While godless millennials ruin everything they touch, these blessed older women are connecting with higher powers to help their basketball teams advance deeper into the bracket. Until gods release apps, the preferred teams of the elderly are going to be unbeatable.
Winner: Rob Gray
The Houston star had the worst possible ending to the American Athletic Conference tournament. In the championship game against Cincinnati, Gray messed up a simple pass, hurling the ball out of bounds to seal a brutal 56-55 loss.
ROB GRAY ***IS*** CLUTCH pic.twitter.com/KckSlcpUr4— Barstool Cincinnati (@UCBarstool) March 11, 2018
But he had the best possible beginning to his first career (and last) NCAA tournament. Gray dropped a career-high 39 points in a 67-65 win over San Diego State on Thursday, including the game-winner.
In addition to the eyes of the college basketball world, Gray had 10 Aztecs’ eyes on him during this play, as San Diego State knew the guy who already had 37 points was probably going to try to score again. But Gray was able to slickly wind in and out of SDSU’s stout defense, leading his team to victory with a finish that was at least 100 times harder than he made it look.
Before the tournament’s first round, perhaps you knew Gray as the college hoops player with the man bun. Perhaps you just straight-up didn’t know him at all. His career deserved more appreciation, as he posted excellent numbers for three years to help revive a program that hadn’t really seen any notable success since the Phi Slama Jama era. Nobody could figure out how to make the Cougars good—not even Clyde Drexler, who went 19-39 in two seasons of an ill-fated attempt to break into coaching. But with Gray, head coach Kelvin Sampson has made things click, getting the Cougars NIT bids the past two seasons and now breaking through with the team’s first NCAA tournament win since 1984.
You get to control how you’re remembered in the NCAA. Suffice it to say, Gray’s game-winner will create a lot more memories than his bad pass.