Who shined the most on the second day of March Madness? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
The second day of March Madness brought a Cinderella worth celebrating: the UC Irvine Anteaters. The 13-seeded ‘Eaters trailed Kansas State by as much as 10 in the first half, but when an anteater sticks its 2-foot-long eel-like tongue into an enormous pile of dirt and doesn’t find any ants, do you think it gives up? No. It cannot quit because, like, it needs to eat ants. That’s sorta the gist of anteating. The Anteaters kept shoving that proboscis down the ant mound and emerged with a 70-64 win. Here’s everything you need to know about UCI’s big victory:
- Seriously, they’re called the Anteaters. That’s thanks to a 1965 poll, not because Southern California is overrun with sloths. I wish it was, though—I live here, and it would really spice up life if there were frequent anteater sightings. The UC Irvine Anteater is named Peter, and the noise he makes is “Zot,” although anteaters in real life do not actually make that noise. (Here is President Obama zotting.)
- This wasn’t a fluke. Irvine won 16 straight games to close the season, beat both NCAA tournament teams it played this year, and led the nation in 2-point field goal defense. They also led college basketball in that stat in 2014, and finished in the top 10 each of the last three years. They have a niche, sorta like anteaters’ niche of eating ants.
- I CALLED THIS WIN. I CALLED IT. I called it twice! Honestly, I wanted to make the headline of this section “Winner: Rodger, The Guy Who Called It,” but my editor wouldn’t let me.
Normally, we’d celebrate this fun win and move on with our lives. But things set up pretty nicely for the Anteaters, since 5-seed Wisconsin lost to Oregon in their region. It’d barely be an upset if the 13-seeded Anteaters beat the 12-seeded Ducks next round. (Honestly, I think an anteater could beat a duck in a fight.) Win that game, and UC-Irvine will be in the Sweet 16. There are plenty of tasty insects left in this massive mound of March Madness for these Anteaters to nom on.
Loser: Cheering on Your Friends
Kansas State had a chance to avoid being slurped up by the “Eaters’” endless tongues. Trailing by two with 41 seconds left, the Wildcats could have tied or taken the lead, but senior point guard Barry Brown Jr. threw a pass to … hold on, wait, who the hell was he throwing that pass to?
At first, I thought this was just a horrific pass, but after rewatching the play, I think what happened is sadder. I think Brown brought the ball across halfcourt, saw an uncovered white jersey in the corner, and passed. Unfortunately, he was passing to a teammate on the sidelines, and not a teammate on the court. His teammates on the bench had decided to stand up, and they weren’t wearing any sort of warmups to differentiate themselves from the teammates Brown was allowed to pass to.
Brown’s teammates thought they were helping by standing up and getting rowdy, but for a split second, they distracted him enough to ruin their team’s season. There actually is a danger in being too supportive of your friends. And that’s why I keep skipping your improv shows, Steve—I just don’t want my uncontrollable cheering to ruin your big moment.
Winner: Getting Dumped
Buffalo got dumped in 2015. The Bulls were a pretty dismal program before 2014, when the school hired former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley as head coach. In his first year, the Bulls won the MAC East. In his second year, they won the MAC tournament to make the NCAA tournament for the very first time ever. And then Hurley left, ditching the world of mid-majors to become head coach of Arizona State.
Friday, Hurley’s Sun Devils faced off against Buffalo. You’d expect this to be a mismatch—the coach who made Buffalo good left for a bigger-name school in a better conference with deeper pockets. And, sure enough, it was a mismatch—because the six-seeded Bulls walloped Hurley’s 11-seeded Sun Devils, 91-74.
Since Hurley left Buffalo, the Bulls have only gotten better. Hurley’s successor, Nate Oats, led Buffalo back to the tournament the year after Hurley left, and again last year. This year, Buffalo had its greatest season of all time, going 31-3, with wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. Oats’s run-and-gun style made Buffalo the fifth-highest scoring team in college hoops, as the Bulls average 84.9 points per game.
Some people get dumped and wallow. Buffalo got dumped and improved. Hurley probably hoped he could stunt on the Bulls with his rich and hot new partner. (Seriously, ASU has a lot more money than Buffalo and it’s definitely hotter in Tempe than in Buffalo.) Instead, Buffalo got to show exactly how well they’ve been doing since the breakup. It’s quite possible Oats will do the same thing in the coming weeks, as he’s sure to be highly sought after on the coaching market. If that happens, let’s hope he never matches up with the Bulls in future years—for his sake.
Loser: Optical Hygiene
Fifteenth-seeded Colgate put up a fight against second-seeded Tennessee today, leading the Volunteers with 11 minutes to go and staying within a few points until the final buzzer. But I’m left wondering what might have been different had the Raiders had their best player, Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas. Ivanauskas played in the first half and played terribly, going 0-for-4 from the field with two turnovers, before sitting the rest of the game.
At the time, it was reported on the broadcast that Ivanauskas had issues with his contacts, which seemed to check out—in the second half, cameras showed him sitting at the end of the bench wearing non-athletic glasses and looking miserable. But after the game, head coach Matt Langel revealed the full story. Colgate might be known for dental health, but their ocular cleanliness could apparently use a boost:
Colgate’s Rapolas Ivanauskas has pink eye. “He woke up this morning, and it just wasn’t happening,” coach Matt Langel says. “Your heart breaks for him.”— Brian Hamilton (@_Brian_Hamilton) March 22, 2019
Poor Ivanauskas tried to play through his pus-filled peepers, but had to call it a day. He’s not the first basketball player to try to fight through pink eye—Kawhi Leonard had a bout of conjunctivitis at the start of the 2014-15 season, missing most of the preseason and the first official game of the year. When he eventually came back, his eyesight wasn’t right, as he shot 26.9 percent from the field in his first three games, struggles he blamed on the pink eye.
You’ve gotta feel for Ivanauskas. His entire body felt ready to go, but his entire game was still affected by a fluky vision issue. Colgate played well without him, but they could’ve pulled off one of the upsets of the year if he’d been able to see.
My one suggestion: Next time a star player comes down with pink eye, he should take part in biological warfare and stay on the court all game with his highly contagious and highly gross ailment. Who’s gonna try to post up a guy with pink eye?
Loser: Plucky 16-Seed Upset Bids
Some things are just too perfect to be true. Like your bracket—obviously, every pick you made was the right one, from your bold-but-wise upset picks to that one smart-but-underrated team you picked to go all the way and win the national championship. But nobody can ever pick a completely perfect bracket—it’s just impossible. And so it was with the three 16-seeds that put up a fight on Sunday—all of whom took big leads on 1-seeds in the first half, then fell short. First up was 16-seed Gardner-Webb’s upset bid against top-seed Virginia.
After the Cavaliers became the first-ever one-seed to lose to a 16 last year after suffering a stunning 20-point loss to UMBC, you had to assume that Virginia would figure things out this year. Virginia is the most consistent, most mistake-free, dullest team in college basketball—of course they’d smother their vastly inferior opponent. But for the entire first half, it seemed like the Runnin’ Bulldogs could pull it off. They jumped out to a 28-14 lead on Virginia, who committed eight turnovers while Gardner-Webb drilled five 3s. In front of a heavy Gardner-Webb crowd—the game was played in Columbia, South Carolina, just two hours from GWU’s campus in Boiling Springs, North Carolina—the galloping chubby pups were feasting.
The world preemptively laughed. How could Virginia suffer the biggest upset in the history of college basketball … and then do the same thing again, one year later? How could any team be so great all season and so piss-poor on the big stage? Could they just not handle the goodness of the dogs they’ve faced in the past two years? Would Virginia be, like, obligated to fire Tony Bennett, in spite of the fact that he’s turned UVA into a basketball machine? HOW WAS THIS HAPPENING?
Later came North Dakota State, which briefly outshone Zion Williamson, as the Bison held a 20-10 lead against no. 1 overall seed Duke. And Iona tried to outshoot UNC, hitting 10 first-half 3s and taking a 38-33 lead into halftime.
Unfortunately, none of these underdogs could hold on. All three no. 1 seeds ended up winning by double digits—Virginia and North Carolina by 15, Duke by 23. But there was a moment in the first half when all three massive underdogs seemed destined to make something incredible happen. The Runnin’ Bulldogs ran as fast as their pudgy bodies could take them; the Bison had a legitimate stampede; and Iona … I think Gaels are, like, Irish people? I can’t think of any cute, evocative verbs for that one. Moving on.
Anyway. No, your bracket didn’t hold up, and neither did these upsets. But I still believe there’s a world where all your savvy picks did pay off, and another where these 16-seeds kept their first-half brilliance up long enough to build on what UMBC started last year.
Congratulations to the Cavaliers for beating a 16-seed. As they’ve proven, it’s harder than it looks.
Even the most college basketball–illiterate person in your bracket pool knows about the 12-over-5 upset. Even if you know nothing about the teams, you can pick a 12-seed, and even though a 5-seed should be significantly better than a 12-seed, you’ve got a great chance of it working out.
If you did that, you’re in pretty good shape. Friday, both 12-seeds won—Oregon beat Wisconsin (by 18!) and Liberty beat Mississippi State—and yesterday, Murray State beat Marquette (by 19!). The fourth 12-seed, New Mexico State, had two excellent opportunities to beat Auburn, but was doomed by missed free throws and an airballed buzzer-beater. All things told, the 12-seeds beat the 5-seeds by a combined 42 points, averaging a 10.5-point win.
Somehow, this isn’t the first time the 12-seeds have combined to beat the 5-seeds: It’s the fifth. There’s never been a year when all four 12-seeds won, but this is the third time in the past seven tournaments that three of the four have won. In the history of the tournament, there’s a marked truth to the 12-over-5 trope. 12-seeds have now won 50 of 140 first-round games since 1985 (35.7 percent). That’s just two games worse than 11-seeds (52-of-140, 37.1 percent), and only slightly worse than 10-seeds (55-of-140, or 39.2), but significantly better than 13-seeds (29-of-140, or 20.7). And it only gets worse for 14-seeds and 15-seeds.
There’s an explanation for this. One-seeds through 11-seeds are, for the most part, teams that have gotten at-large bids from the selection committee—that is, teams that didn’t win their conference tournament, but were selected because of their résumé. These spots skew predominantly towards teams from major conferences. Starting with the 12-seeds, though, we get teams that won their conference championships, but otherwise wouldn’t have been good enough to make the tournament, according to the committee. In my opinion, the committee vastly underrates the best teams from smaller leagues—teams like Murray State, which went 16-2 in conference play, and is currently ranked higher in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings than seven teams which received at-large bids. I’ve railed at length about how the committee snubs teams from smaller leagues, in spite of their quality tournament performances and plenty of metrics that show how good they are.
That not only manifests in the teams that are chosen for the tournament, but also where they’re seeded. And in a way, that punishes 5-seeds. Because the committee undervalues small-league champions that deserve to be 9- or 10- or 11-seeds, 5-seeds are left out to dry.
Winner: Zion Williamson’s Highlight Reel
While Virginia flailed against its 16-seed opponent, Duke demonstrated the other way a 1-16 game can be thrilling—with the one-seed just obliterating the 16-seed, blasting them to hell with hilarious flair. Here are three separate things Zion Williamson did:
- Got into a footrace with a North Dakota State guard half his size, then dribbled past him and scored:
Zion is a running back/linebacker/power forward/Monstar hybrid. pic.twitter.com/cZn6B814ld— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) March 23, 2019
2. Turned a simple one-point free throw into an explosive two-point dunk:
Zion missed free throw...no problem pic.twitter.com/lYmUiVfdE3— Ⓜ️arcusD ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ➟ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ² (@_MarcusD3_) March 23, 2019
3. Tested out the earthquake-readiness of a basket stanchion:
Good god the backboard cam shake on this Zion dunk pic.twitter.com/XAlIz1wZxH— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 22, 2019
Williamson is making a strong case for the best college basketball season of all time, which mainly has to do with his production, efficiency, and how much better he makes Duke. He went 12-for-16 with 25 points in an 85-62 Duke win. But the joy of watching Zion isn’t about his efficiency, his impact, his pro prospects, or anything serious. It’s about watching a preposterous athlete do things he shouldn’t be capable of. Even against a 16-seed, that’s fascinating.