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The Winners and Losers From the Elite Eight

Midnight hasn’t struck yet for Loyola-Chicago, as it’s still dancing along with Michigan, Kansas, and Villanova

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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 Elite Eight round? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: Loyola-Chicago Magic

We call them Cinderellas because we believe that some sort of fairy godmother has gifted a seemingly forgettable team with a moment of glory. It should be impossible for UMBC to beat Virginia without the help of magic. It’s supposed to run out by midnight—but it hasn’t for Loyola-Chicago, as the Ramblers are headed to the Final Four.

Loyola hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1985, and it is now two games away from a national championship. It’s easy to see the magic connection because the school’s fans are literally dressed up like the kids from Harry Potter. (Specifically, they’re dressed like the kids in the book who always win at everything. Honestly, I would not root for Gryffindor in the NCAA Quidditch Tournament.) It’s as if somebody pointed their wand at Loyola and yelled EXPECTO FINAL FOUR!

And some believe that there’s a more conventional type of magic at hand: Loyola is a Jesuit school, and Sister Jean is now the face of the tournament. I’d bet less than half of college basketball fans know the name of Loyola’s coach (Porter Moser) and under a quarter know the name of the Ramblers’ best player (MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer), but the whole sports world knows Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who serves as team chaplain and prepares scouting reports for the Ramblers. We all know that every team prays that they’ll win, but older people and nuns are especially effective at turning God’s ear.

Of course, there’s an off chance that Loyola is, in fact, really good at basketball. I’ve been trying to say this since before the tournament, although I didn’t expect the Ramblers would go this far. They did go 17-1 down the stretch in the MVC (which isn’t a bad conference) and beat Florida on the road at Florida. You have to be really good to do that sort of stuff.

The Ramblers did squeak away with some close calls in the tourney, winning their first three games by a combined four points, including the beautifully unnecessary 30-footer to beat Miami. And they also benefited from some bracket luck, having to play only one team rated in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Tennessee, ranked 13th) and none in the top 10. But they were good enough to beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight by 16 points. They have one of the more efficient offenses in college basketball—and not just one of the more efficient offenses among teams with adorable nun fans.

But it’s a better story to imagine that March Magic is to thank for Loyola’s run. That makes Loyola’s story more memorable, although it probably does the Ramblers’ basketball talent a bit of injustice. The Ramblers are legitimately good enough to beat Michigan and make it to the national championship game. Credit a higher power or hoops; both are pretty awesome explanations.

Loser: Duke’s 1-3-1 zone

In February, Mike Krzyzewski made the intriguing decision to switch from a man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone. Duke teams had played zone in spurts before, but Krzyzewski had never employed the defense full time. But it worked: With the wings playing so high that one could describe it as almost a 4-1 zone, Duke’s length crowded perimeters, wrecking opponents’ ability to score from the outside. In the Blue Devils’ first 28 games of the season, opponents shot 39.3 percent from 3, a rate that would be one of the top 25 percentages in the country if a team held it up over the course of a season. In their next eight games, Duke’s opponents shot 32.4 percent from 3, a rate that would be one of the bottom 50 in the country.

And in Duke’s Elite Eight matchup against Kansas on Sunday, Krzyzewski made another switch: After halftime, the Blue Devils came out in a 1-3-1 zone—a look that puts bodies in the middle of the floor, preventing penetration and forcing a lot of turnovers but often leading to open looks from the unguarded corners of the zone. Kansas ate it alive: The team went on a 13-3 run to start the half, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead. After going 4-for-14 from 3 in the first half, they hit three of four looks from deep, all open attempts, in the second half. Duke called timeout after the third Kansas 3 and switched back to the 2-3.

Kansas was exactly the wrong team to use the 1-3-1 zone against—it rarely turns the ball over and is absolutely deadly from beyond the arc, shooting 40.3 percent on the year, ninth best of the 351 teams in Division I. It was a brief moment in what turned out to be an amazing game—two of college basketball’s bluest bloods went to overtime with a Final Four bid on the line. Duke might have won if an odd strategic choice by a coaching legend hadn’t gifted Kansas a few open looks.

Winner: America’s Grayson Allen Haters

The college career of the nation’s least popular college basketball player ended Sunday night, and boy, did it end poorly. Allen had a chance to win the game for Duke on the last play of regulation, and the ball touched every possible part of iron before rolling out.

Allen’s miss sent the game to overtime, and it didn’t get much better there. Allen committed a bad turnover early in overtime, and had two good looks from 3 with Duke down five in the game’s last 30 seconds. He missed both before hitting a meaningless shot with three seconds to go.

All in all, Allen shot 3-for-13 and just 2-for-9 from deep. In his final two college games, Allen went 7-for-28 from the field, 5-for-23 from 3.

And thus ends the career of a college basketball … legend? Eh, probably not, but from his bit part as a freshman on a national championship team to his legitimately excellent play as a sophomore to two years as the most famous player on a team with future lottery picks, Allen had a college career with a richness we rarely see these days. What a long, strange trip it’s been—several trips, actually.

Loser: Leonard Hamilton

Florida State was probably going to lose regardless of what happened in the last 10 seconds of the Seminoles’ game against Michigan. They were down by four and the Wolverines had the ball. At that point, ESPN says the Wolverines had a 95.4 percent chance of winning and Ken Pomeroy’s probability model says the Wolverines had a 99.3 percent chance of winning. Neither of these projections takes into account the fact Michigan’s best foul shooter, Duncan Robinson, was the one with the ball. Whether you believe Florida State had a 4.6 percent chance of winning, a 0.7 percent chance of winning, or worse, the decision not to foul was still a bad one, as it chilled their chances of winning to absolute zero. And considering the fact FSU fouled in a variety of other, less-winnable scenarios this season, it’s odd that the Seminoles didn’t foul with a Final Four berth on the line. But ultimately, it was probably inconsequential.

But we’ll remember it because of Leonard Hamilton’s postgame interview:

Hamilton made it seem like it was patently ridiculous that Dana Jacobson would ask a perfectly legitimate question about an obviously flawed strategy. Hamilton comes off as either oblivious—potentially not understanding a pretty simple game situation—or mean—for understanding it and choosing to belittle Jacobson regardless. Or perhaps both.

Hamilton apologized Sunday, although he again failed to address the decision not to foul. It’s kind of a bummer: Hamilton has been a quality coach for three decades, turning around Oklahoma State, Miami, and now, most successfully, Florida State. This Elite Eight appearance was the greatest success of the 69-year-old coach’s career, a remarkable run by a 9-seed, and its most memorable moment might be a foolish blunder that really didn’t matter that much.

Winner: Villanova’s Other Talents

Villanova is the best shooting team in the country. They are only seven 3s short of breaking the record for 3s made in a college basketball season this year, and there’s a decent argument that the Wildcats have one of the most effective offenses in college basketball history.

On Sunday, in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats had their worst shooting game of the year. They shot 19-for-57 from the field, a season-low 33.3 percent, and 4-for-24 from 3, their second-fewest makes and second-worst percentage of the year. (Their worst 3-point shooting game was a 3-for-20 night against Providence in February—one of just four losses Villanova suffered this season.)

When Nova won the championship two years ago, it was because it shot the lights out for three straight weeks, finishing the NCAA tournament having hit 56 3s on 112 attempts—50 percent on the nose—while attempting over 18 3s per game. So far in this year’s tournament, the Wildcats were set to duplicate that—in the first three rounds, they were 44-for-92, hitting at least 13 3s in all three games while shooting 48 percent. And when Nova lost early in the tournament in other years, it was always because they had uncharacteristically bad shooting nights.

But on a day that Villanova failed to hit its usual level offensively, it discovered new ways to succeed. The Wildcats hit the boards hard, grabbing offensive rebounds on 20 of their 38 misses—20 was a season high in offensive boards, although, to be fair, the Wildcats don’t often miss enough shots to get 20 offensive boards—and held Texas Tech to similarly awful shooting. The Red Raiders shot 33.3 percent from the floor, also their lowest percentage of the year, and the second-lowest percentage shot by any Villanova opponent. With the 3s not falling for the Wildcats, the team turned to point guard Jalen Brunson’s stunningly effective post-up game, clearing out and letting the mouse wreak havoc on Texas Tech’s house.

An off night against a strong opponent for a team living by the 3 typically leads to that team dying by the 3. But Villanova didn’t just survive: It won by 12, 71-59. Champions find a way to win games like this; the Wildcats just need to win two more to take their second title in three years.

Winner: This Dancing Guy

Kansas-Duke was everything we want in a college basketball game: Two powerhouses, 18 lead changes, overtime, and best of all, the true topper: an extensive replay review at one of the game’s most pivotal moments. Maybe we could have used a buzzer-beater and nine or 10 more extensive replay reviews, but it was still a great way to spend the last Sunday afternoon of the college hoops season.

Sum it up, Kansas guy: