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 Sweet 16? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
Winner: The Left Side of Your Bracket, or the Right Side, But Not Both
Just flipping a coin 63 times, you’d have a one-in-9.2 quintillion chance of filling out a perfect NCAA tournament bracket, but I’d bet the functional odds are even longer. Just look at the way the bracket currently looks, and I’ll explain why.
Thursday night’s games were ridiculous: It was silly enough that 9-seed Kansas State, 9-seed Florida State, and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago even made the Sweet 16; then, all three won their Sweet 16 matchups. The Elite Eight matchup in the South region will pit the Wildcats and the Ramblers, the first-ever regional final between a 9-seed and an 11-seed.
Friday night’s games were mundane. Top-seeded Villanova and Kansas both won, as did 2-seed Duke. The magic Loyola-Chicago mustered was not there for 11-seed Syracuse. In Sunday’s Elite Eight games, two 1-seeds will square off against a 2-seed and a 3-seed.
If you filled out your tournament picks using statistics and logic, the right side of your bracket likely looks great. But the left side is probably a massacre. If you threw caution to the wind and hurled underdogs into the Final Four while killing off popular championship picks, there’s a small chance the left side of your bracket makes you look like a genius, while your right side makes you look like a madman. Who could manage to be alternately rational and ridiculous in the exact manner needed to get everything right? Not a single ESPN bracket got all eight Elite Eight teams correct.
The NCAA tournament is so unpredictable because it’s not entirely unpredictable; it is a perfect blend of chalk and chaos.
Loser: Zone Offense
There was a sick part of me that was excited to see Syracuse play Duke. Obviously, I wasn’t rooting for either, but I was semi-curious to see how the matchup would unfold: Syracuse has famously played a 2-3 zone under Jim Boeheim for decades, and this year was their zoniest team ever. Duke historically hasn’t been a zone team, but Mike Krzyzewski decided to run a similar look in February to make up for some of his team’s defensive shortcomings—a look he learned in part when Boeheim worked as his assistant with USA Basketball.
I don’t like watching teams play zone defense, but figured that two zone teams playing each other might be intriguing. The zone does have a code that can be cracked by crisp, decisive passing and perimeter shooting, and I presumed that two teams that spend every practice going up against a zone defense would each know exactly which buttons to press.
Nah. Both offenses were totally stifled by defenses you’d think they would understand. Duke aimlessly chucked threes—Grayson Allen alone went 3-for-14 from downtown, and the Blue Devils went a dismal 19.2 percent from beyond the arc—and Syracuse committed 16 turnovers.
I had hoped the keen understanding each team had of the other’s strategy would make this matchup look like the final fight in a martial arts movie—an apprentice facing a master, each inside their opponent’s head. It was more like the battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor—two giants hurling shell after shell at each other’s identical, impregnable defenses.
Winner: Block Battles
Block Battles are great. Much better than Blake Bortles.
West Virginia-Villanova was the most stylistically dynamic game of the tournament: College basketball’s best offense vs. a wildly physical team that runs a full-court press for 40 minutes. It was intriguing to see Villanova struggle, but eventually crack the code of West Virginia’s unique attacking defense.
It was a showdown that can best be defined in two plays: First Villanova’s Mikal Bridges cruised rimwards for what he thought was a simple dunk, only to meet West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate:
Do not call this a “swat.” There was no swatting motion. This was a stuff. Konate—who was second in college basketball in block rate, recording a block on 15.6 percent of opposing 2-point shots—constructed a vertical wall with his two arms. Bricks are generally bad in basketball, but I think that’s what Konate’s arms are made out of.
Bridges, by rule, had to retire, leaving Villanova without one of its best players and prematurely ending the career of a potential lottery pick, and his teammates vowed revenge. When West Virginia’s James Bolden thought he had beaten his man, he tried lofting a shot toward the rim , only to discover Villanova’s Omari Spellman appearing out of nowhere to send his shot to Hades.
Omari Spellman just went BERSERK. pic.twitter.com/x3GrxuF76N— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 24, 2018
Millions of years from now, scientists in the area we now call “Massachusetts” will discover the massive crater created by Spellman blocking this shot into the floor of Boston’s TD Garden at 83,000 miles per hour. “Finally,” they will say, “we have discovered the impact site of the explosion that caused West Virginia to go extinct.”
I would argue that great blocks are cooler than great dunks, but there’s no way to arrange a block contest. This Block Battle is as close we can get. Spellman’s was more forceful, but the shot he was blocking was weak sauce. It looked like what would happen if you sic’ed a grown man on a middle school recess pickup game. Konate’s play was one that could only happen in a high-level hoops game, as he needed to perfectly time the rise of a dynamic dunk. Honestly, I can’t decide. But the tiebreaker goes to Spellman, who followed up his dunk by sprinting down the court and finishing a putback dunk by draping his crotch on a West Virginia player’s shoulder. That is worth a lot of points in my scoring system.
Loser: Sister Jean’s Bracket
Loyola’s run may be thrilling, but it comes with a price: Sister Jean, the school’s beloved 98-year-old chaplain—who, by law, must be mentioned in every article or television segment about the NCAA tournament—picked the Ramblers to make only the Sweet 16 in her bracket. She was trying to be realistic. As Paul the Apostle wrote in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, although some things, like getting a mid-major to the Elite Eight, are highly unlikely, and you really shouldn’t count on it.”
The woman of faith was teased about her lack of faith in Loyola:
On their way off the floor, the Loyola Chicago players reminded Sister Jean of what she had done.
“I said I don’t care that you broke my bracket,” Sister Jean said on CBS after the game. “I’m ready for the next one. This is a great feat for us.”
True grace by someone who won’t be winning the convent pool. Drop $10 in the collection plate, better luck next year.
It feels unfair to say that Texas A&M lost Thursday night. There was no battle here—a cosmic basketball force in the form of a brilliant maize-and-blue flash of light obliterated everything on the court. Michigan won 99-72 with nine players drilling 14 threes on 24 attempts. Even C.J. Baird, the walk-on who used to be a team manager, hit a three:
Michigan was the higher seed, but one might have expected the opposite—A&M was coming off a blowout 21-point victory against second-seeded North Carolina, while the Wolverines needed the wildest shot of the tournament to survive against six-seed Houston. But fortunes can change quickly in March: By halftime, Michigan already led 52-28.
Right now, fortune favors Michigan. They are the only top-8 seed remaining on the left side of the bracket: They’ll face 9-seed Florida State in the Elite Eight, and if they win there, either 9-seed Kansas State or 11-seed Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, Houston was the toughest team the Wolverines will have to play until a hypothetical championship game, and while the three teams in their way have all had admirable runs, none of them have beaten a team as high in Pomeroy’s ratings as Michigan.
There are no easy roads in March, but the Wolverines have turned from a team that would need an upset to make the championship game to a team that will need to be upset to avoid making it.
Loser: Atlanta-area ticket resellers
Much of the supposed power in the South region dropped out during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, as that section of the bracket became the first in the history of the tournament to lose its no. 1, 2, 3, and 4 seeds in the first two rounds. However, that was okay for anybody trying to sell tickets in Atlanta: Kentucky, the biggest draw in the bracket, was still alive.
But as fate would have it, the region got even sillier: 9-seed Kansas State downed 5-seed Kentucky, and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago dropped 7-seed Nevada.
I’m sure every last Ramblers fan alive is swarming to Atlanta to see Loyola’s biggest game since the 1960s, but, well, there are slightly fewer Loyola fans than Kentucky fans, and Chicago is farther from Atlanta than Lexington. There might be fewer people in attendance than at your average Hawks game. (This is not a knock on Atlanta fans, who are wonderful and entirely reasonable for not paying to witness a 21-51 NBA team.)
Your busted bracket didn’t cost you as much money as the money lost by the poor souls trying to move tickets to Kansas State vs. Loyola-Chicago.