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 second round? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
I feel like this is the maddest March Madness we’ve ever seen. That might be a bold proclamation, but some quick facts to back it up:
- It has the most upset-heavy region in NCAA tournament history, the South, where none of the top four seeds managed to make it through:
In the history of the tournament, there has never (I repeat NEVER) been a region that has featured none of the top 4 seeds in the Sweet 16. Until now. The South Region in Atlanta will feature (5) Kentucky, (11) Loyola Chicago, (7) Nevada and either (9) Kansas St. or (16) UMBC.— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) March 19, 2018
That’s the region that John Calipari initially complained was too hard. Now only Kansas State, Nevada, and Loyola-Chicago are between his Wildcats and the Final Four. It’s not that much more sensible in the West region, where 1-seed Xavier and 2-seed North Carolina are out. It’s just the fourth time that two 1-seeds have failed to reach the Sweet 16. (The last time was in 2004, when Kentucky lost to UAB and Stanford lost to Alabama in the same round.) There are as many 11-seeds left as 1-seeds. There is essentially one Sweet 16 matchup that a purely chalk bracket could have predicted—the game between 2-seed Purdue and 3-seed Texas Tech.
Of the 16 top teams in the field, nine have been eliminated. There are more teams remaining seeded fifth or worse than teams seeded fourth or better. Six of the 11 most popular picks to win the championship in ESPN’s bracket pools have already lost.
- It had the largest upset in NCAA tournament history, UMBC’s stunning win over the tournament’s top overall seed, Virginia. We waited for this upset for 33 years.
- It tied for the second-largest comeback in NCAA tournament history, as Nevada clawed back from a 65-43 deficit to beat Cincinnati on Sunday.
And that was the second huge comeback by Nevada alone—the Wolf Pack beat Texas in overtime after trailing by 14 in the opening round.
- It’s had a slew of dramatic endings—11-seeded Loyola-Chicago has had two game-winners; Houston hit a game-winner in its first game before giving up a buzzer-beater to Michigan:
I can’t remember a better opening weekend to an NCAA tournament, but maybe that’s a case of recency bias. All these amazing things happening around me might be clouding my vision, causing me to think irrationally. Is there some sort of word for that?
Loser: UMBC’s Cinderella Dreams
By beating Virginia, UMBC became the first 16-seed to reach the second round of the tournament. And against Kansas State, they looked … well, like a 16-seed. The Retrievers had more turnovers (17) and personal fouls (also 17) than field goals (14). They shot 29.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free throw line. They had a second-half field goal drought that lasted eight minutes and 23 seconds. Joe Sherburne, who had 14 points against Virginia, went 0-for-9 with zero points.
Kansas State also played poorly, shooting just 18-for-44 and making just one 3. It was a rockfest, exactly the type of game I had always imagined when I imagined a game that a 16-seed could win. But it wasn’t to be: K-State won, 50-43.
It would have been nice if UMBC made the Sweet 16. But UMBC’s moment is and always will be those 40 minutes against Virginia. Most casual college basketball fans probably can’t remember the four teams from last year’s Final Four off the top of their heads. (Oregon made it! Who knew?) But we’ll remember UMBC forever.
The life of a tourney Cinderella is, sadly, like the life of a pet. We know going in that it’s not going to last particularly long, but those memories will stay with us for the entirety of our significantly longer lives. All dogs go to heaven, and sadly, the UMBC Retrievers have crossed the rainbow bridge. They were excellent dogs.
Winner: Texas A&M
Winning by a lot is great. Winning by a little is sometimes even better. The Aggies did both on Sunday.
What’s worse: getting posterized, or having an opponent audition for a dunk contest while none of your teammates are even in the frame? They’re both so embarrassing, for entirely different reasons.
Blowing the hell out of the team that won the title last year is a dream, but I’d argue it wasn’t even A&M’s best hoops win of the day. I’d give that to the Aggies’ women’s team, which came back from a 17-point deficit against DePaul to win on this 3 by Chennedy Carter:
CHENNEDY CARTER FOR PRESIDENT— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) March 18, 2018
Carter had 37 points, 32 in the second half, and drilled seven of nine 3s. That’s incredible, but this final play blows past incredible to legendary. The espnW Freshman of the Year came up the court with the calm confidence of a player who knew she was going to hit the game-winner, hit her defenders with an And1 through-the-legs dribble to buy her some space on her left, pulled up to drain the shot, and then sealed her triumph with the most monumental hair whip in basketball history.
It’s a tight contest, but I think Carter’s shot is my favorite game-winner of March. It combined the swagger of a playground crossover with the importance of an NCAA tournament victory. Plus, all the guys who have hit buzzer-beaters thus far don’t have enough hair to pull off the victory hair whip.
Loser: Tom Izzo
For years, we’ve heard about March Genius Tom Izzo, a coach whose reputation was based around the fact his teams always seemed to play their best when college basketball’s season turns into an elimination tournament. We’ve also heard that this Michigan State team, seeded third, was Izzo’s most talented ever. Combine Izzo’s knack for elevating his team in the postseason with MSU’s already-high ceiling, and this should have been a great month for the Spartans.
But Sunday, MSU went up against Syracuse and Jim Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone. Offensively, the Spartans looked like a dog that sees a reflection of itself in a mirror and starts barking at it and then freaks out because oh crap the OTHER dog is barking and then tries to fight it and AHH THE OTHER DOG IS RUNNING TOWARD ME TOO. Most of their possessions involved aimlessly passing the ball around the perimeter instead of trying to get into the middle of the zone. Miles Bridges, the team’s most dynamic player, spent most of his time about 30 feet from the rim, seemingly by design. The Spartans took a school-record 37 3s and hit only eight. Michigan State attempted 29 3s only once this year before Sunday, when the Spartans missed 29 3s in 40 minutes; one every minute and 23 seconds. What did the rims at Little Caesars Arena ever do to the Spartans?
But perhaps more bewildering was Izzo’s decision to bench likely lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. for most of the second half, giving Ben Carter, a graduate transfer from UNLV, a season-high 23 minutes. Carter hadn’t seen non-garbage time minutes since December and didn’t even see the floor in MSU’s final three games before the NCAA tournament, but Izzo hyped up his “basketball IQ” when explaining why he would be critical in attacking the zone. Carter did a good job of getting into the middle of the zone, but seemed too scared to shoot, passing up a series of open, makable looks from within the paint. He finished with two points—well over his season average of 0.6 points per game!—while Jackson sat for large swaths of what should be his final collegiate game.
MSU should have won this game. Syracuse was absolutely abysmal offensively, shooting 15-for-42 from the floor and 1-for-8 from 3. And the Orange couldn’t get a rebound, allowing the Spartans to grab 29 offensive boards on 49 missed shots.
Cuse’s most important player, point guard Franklin Howard, fouled out with 6:39 to go. Howard essentially had no backup: Boeheim played him 39 or 40 minutes for the team’s previous 15 games, meaning Syracuse hadn’t really played any meaningful basketball without him on the floor in months. Because he never fouled out—it happened only once this year, in a double-overtime game—this wasn’t a problem. But in this contest, Boeheim had to play Braedon Bayer, a transfer from Division III Grinnell, a player who had played only 11 minutes all season. Boeheim was forced to play somebody who sat on the bench all season in the most critical minutes of the year, and Michigan State didn’t take advantage. (Izzo also played somebody who sat on the bench all season in the most critical minutes of the year, but, as we’ve explained, that was by choice.)
The two main aspects of a coach’s job are creating sound strategies and playing the right players. Izzo failed on both counts Sunday, and for the third time in three years, the guy famed for getting his team to overperform in the NCAA tournament has lost on the tourney’s first weekend.
Winner: Seton Hall and People Who Bet on Seton Hall
Eight-seed Seton Hall trailed by eight points with 66 seconds to go, but the Pirates refused to give up the ship. In the final minute and six seconds, Hall couldn’t miss. They went 5-for-5 from the field, including three 3s (a fourth 3 that swished through the rim was wiped out by an offensive foul). The Pirates scored 15 points, culminating their furious run with a buzzer-beating 3.
And they lost by four. But the spread was 4.5, so that seemingly meaningless 3 changed a lot of people’s fortunes.
The best bettor video of the Kansas cover beat from last night. Jayhawks are 4.5 point favorites. Seton Hall hits 3 at buzzer to make it a four-point final (via @MikeVanErmen, @DavidPurdum) pic.twitter.com/MBiqsuzYuV— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 18, 2018
Every team in the NCAA tournament fights for themselves, but when the Pirates couldn’t do that anymore, they did everything they could for the people that really mattered—the degenerate randos they’ll never meet who believed they were almost good enough to win.
Loser: Every School in the FBI Investigation
Several eyebrows were raised when a few schools named in the FBI’s investigation into bribery in college basketball were left out of the tournament in spite of metrics that favored them getting in. Either these schools were victims of the NCAA using its selection committee as a rogue vigilante-justice unit, or the selection committee just did a bad job like every other year.
But the committee could not keep out every school named in the FBI report; Arizona, whose assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested in September, won the Pac-12 tournament and received an automatic bid; Auburn, whose assistant coach Chuck Person was also arrested in September, was a top-25 team all year.
Arizona got stomped by Buffalo in the first round, somehow losing as a 4-seed by 21 points to a 13-seed. Auburn got stomped even harder by Clemson, trailing by as many as 41 points in an 84-53 loss. Plus, a flurry of other schools tangentially named in reports—Michigan State, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Xavier, Seton Hall, Texas—made untimely tournament exits.
Is it just a coincidence that the tournament with a freaky number of highly seeded teams losing early happens to be the same year that the FBI decided every major college basketball program was doing something vaguely illegal? Or has the NCAA rigged the tournament against teams that may have cheated?
Let us not overlook the second-best game between a 16-seed and a 1-seed of the weekend: UConn’s 140-52 win over St. Francis (Pennsylvania) in the first round of the women’s tournament. St. Francis decided that its best chance of beating the undefeated Huskies was to attempt as many 3-pointers as it could, with coach Joe Haigh telling ESPN’s commentators he hoped to set the NCAA tournament record for 3-pointers attempted in a game. And it were successful, at least in the shooting part: St. Francis took 57 3s, or one every 42 seconds of game time, breaking a record previously set in a multiple-overtime game.
But the strategy did not work: The Red Flash hit just 10 of those 57 3s, and since most of their possessions ended in just a few seconds with a missed 3s, UConn was able to quickly take the ball the other way for a layup. The Huskies scored 55 points in the first quarter (the previous tournament record was 45) and 94 in the first half (the previous record was 80) and broke the record for points in a tournament game by 19. (Surprisingly, they didn’t set the record for largest victory—Baylor beat Texas Southern by 89 last year.) Only once has an NBA team scored 94 points by halftime of a game, and NBA halves are four minutes longer than college basketball halves.
Let’s look at the shot chart!
st francis shot 30 three pointers in the first half to try and beat uconn— Whitney Medworth (@its_whitney) March 17, 2018
it turned into a layup line for uconn holy crap. shot 73.6% from the floor. 94 damn points. pic.twitter.com/H3mGXTxjyC
Just about every time it plays, UConn is playing against itself, each game a 40-minute attempt to be as good as it can possibly be. This game, the Huskies were joined by an opponent in a similarly quixotic quest. It felt as if St. Francis was challenging UConn—not to win (we all knew UConn would do that from the very tipoff), but to see just how many points it could score. The game was lopsided but thrilling to watch both teams achieve their extremely different goals.
The first two days of the NCAA tournament were characterized by scalding shooting performances helping unknown Cinderellas to shocking upsets. UMBC and Buffalo went a combined 27-of-54 from downtown in their blowouts of higher-seeded teams; Marshall, led by coach Dan D’Antoni, also won with an up-tempo 3-heavy attack. It’s 2018: The basketball world knows the value of the 3-point shot, and players are better at it than ever.
The next two days of the NCAA tournament were defined by absolutely abysmal shooting. The 3-ball abandoned the underdogs, as UMBC shot 6-for-22 from deep and Buffalo shot 7-for-31. Bad shooting knocked exceptional teams out of the tournament, as Michigan State shot 8-for-37 from 3 and UNC went 6-for-31. Auburn shot 7-for-32 from 3; Cincinnati went 5-for-17. Even the teams that won didn’t shoot particularly well—Syracuse and Kansas State won by hitting one 3 apiece.
The first round brought us upsets from the analytical present; the second round sent us back to the era when any shot from outside of the paint was a low-percentage heave.
Matt Haarms has enormous shoes to fill. Purdue’s star center Isaac Haas broke his elbow in the Boilermakers’ opening-round game, so Haarms was forced to play a career high in minutes in the second-round game against Butler. The 7-foot-3 Dutchman filled them admirably, with seven points, six rebounds, and an NCAA tournament record 53 head tousles.
Haarms adjusts his hair immediately after every play—sometimes while the ball is still live. I got to witness his follicular fidgeting during the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden, and I can promise you, he messes with the hair even more than cameras capture. I think it’s a compulsive thing—yes, the big floppy coif at the front of his head might interfere with his vision, but if it were a serious hindrance, he’d be trying to knock it out of his eyes during play, which he never does. (Please trust my opinion on this, as a guy who played IM basketball with near-shoulder-length hair.) Houston’s Rob Gray wears his hair in a man-bun for this reason, but I feel like Haarms never could—he needs to run his hand through his hair to feel comfortable on the court.
Either way, Haarms and Chennedy Carter have shown the power of Basketball Hair these past few days, punctuating their heady performances with acknowledgments of the stuff growing out of their head. Carter chose to go with a dramatic headbang, using her hair to capture the power of the moment; Haarms is quietly ensuring that his signature self-stylings put the final mark on every play when he’s on the court.