Who shined the most in the second round of March Madness? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
Congratulations to whoever picked the most boring bracket in your pool. They are coasting on a historic wave of unsurprising results to glory. Welcome to March Mehness!
We got off to a bad start in the first round, when 15 of 16 top-four seeds won their games, with just UC Irvine managing to pull an upset. (Hey, we called it.) It got worse in Round 2. All 12 top-three seeds advanced, 15 of 16 games were won by the higher seed, and all 16 were won by the Vegas favorite. The only lower seed to win was 5-seeded Auburn, which was favored by 2.5 over 4-seeded Kansas. This ties the record for the chalkiest Sweet 16 ever, matching a 2009 Sweet 16 that also had 14 top-four seeds. The only double-digit seed remaining in the field is Oregon, a 12-seed which matched up with 13-seeded UC Irvine. It’s been so predictable that somebody literally predicted it—there’s still one perfect bracket floating around out there. That has literally never happened. Nobody has ever made it this far without missing one game.
Not helping matters was the fact the games were pretty dull—six of the 16 second-round games were decided by 19 points; 11 were double-digit wins. We still haven’t had a legit buzzer-beater—LSU won on a last-second layup, Iowa-Tennessee went to OT, and Duke had a game-winner in the final 10 seconds, but nobody has taken a game-winning shot that went through the hoop after triple zeroes.
Hypothetically, this should pay off soon. There are no duds left in the field. Every matchup remaining will pit a great team against a great team. But, like, if we just wanted the best teams to play each other, we’d demand seven-game series. The thrill of this tournament is the randomness and the opportunity for unknowns to become legends. We’ll get quality hoops, but we’ve paid for it by losing some of the madness that makes March magic.
Loser: Fletcher Magee
There is something tragic about watching someone with a great skill lose it. Saturday, the player who has made more 3-pointers than anybody in college basketball history had an opportunity to spin his career from a quirky record book anecdote into an iconic March Madness moment. Instead, Wofford’s Fletcher Magee set a new record—most 3-pointers attempted in a single NCAA tournament game without making any.
Magee set the 3-point record on Thursday in Wofford’s first-round game against Seton Hall. He drilled seven 3s, including some that defied logic. Hitting the milestone during the NCAA tournament was a fitting culmination of four spectacular years of gunnership by Magee, who led Division I in 3-pointers made in both of the past two seasons. Last year he knocked down eight 3s (including a Steph Curry–range game-winner!) to take down Georgia Tech and had 27 points in a win over fifth-ranked North Carolina. This year he averaged 4.5 3s per game, leading Wofford to an 18-0 record in Southern Conference play, and won his second SoCon Player of the Year award. I wrote about how I thought Magee and the Terriers had a legitimate shot to take down 2-seed Kentucky in their second-round game—provided, of course, that Magee played the way he has time and time again.
Most of the Terriers did their part. Wofford fought hard, taking a six-point lead in the first half and getting the game within two points in the final minute. But Magee played the worst game of his career, going 0-for-12 from 3—only the second time this season he failed to hit a 3 in a game. Nobody had ever taken more than 10 3s without making one in a tournament game before Magee.
It was not Fletcher Magee's day.— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 23, 2019
Kentucky is poised to hang on. pic.twitter.com/AS5KjPZ83e
It may have been the toughest defensive test he’s ever faced—sure, SoCon defenses have sold out to stop him, but he’d never been hounded this thoroughly by athletes this good. But Magee never stopped shooting, even if he couldn’t find an open look. Wofford was fine with that, because most of the time, Magee still finds a way to connect on absurd, closely guarded attempts. The Terriers weren’t going to win without his hitting ridiculous shots. On this night—the biggest of his career—he just couldn’t.
It was so hard to watch Magee struggle. He kept shooting and shooting and shooting, each attempt providing three seconds of hope to keep Wofford’s dreams alive. Each one clanged. Now Magee is out of chances, as he’s a graduating senior with limited pro prospects. Thanks to his incredible talent, the world finally learned his name, and, on the day the world learned his name, he failed. That’s the tragedy: that Magee was great enough to become a disappointment.
Winner: The Biggest vs. the Best
Sunday’s UCF-Duke game pitted the two players I considered to be the most physically dominant in college basketball this season. One was Duke’s Zion Williamson, who you surely know about—he’s the best player in college basketball, and he’s going to be the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft. His basketball talents defy explanation—how can the same guy slam this dunk, make this pass, and swat this shot? The other was UCF’s Tacko Fall, whose basketball talents can be summed up by my telling you that he is 7-foot-6. It was a matchup between an unstoppable climber and an unclimbable tower.
Both players had masterpiece performances Sunday. Williamson had 32 points—the most he’s scored in a regulation game—plus 11 rebounds. Yeah, he can jump:
Zion almost jumped out of the building to haul in this pass. pic.twitter.com/0UYGVUi90x— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 24, 2019
Fall guarded the hoop effectively enough to transform Duke into a jump-shooting team—they are bad at jump shooting—while going 7-for-10 from the field on seven dunks. No, he can’t really jump, and it doesn’t matter:
Tacko rebound and dunk pic.twitter.com/kTjEgix4cK— Ⓜ️arcusD ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ➟ᴹᵃʳᶜᵘˢᴰ² (@_MarcusD3_) March 24, 2019
The game’s defining moment was a clash between the two. Trailing by three with 15 seconds left, Williamson took the ball straight at the giant:
Williamson converted and drew a foul on Fall, his fifth. He missed the free throw, which Fall presumably would’ve rebounded had he not been disqualified, and R.J. Barrett put it back for the game-winner. At the other end, UCF’s desperation attempts rolled around every part of the rim and dropped off. All this led to Tacko Fall crying the biggest tears you’ll ever see, as his career ended in heartrending fashion.
Tacko-Zion was a fascinating matchup—one player whose athleticism defies what the body seems like it should be capable of, and one player whose body itself seems to defy possibility. At first, it was billed primarily as a gimmick—can Zion dunk on Tacko?—but as the game went on, it became clear that Tacko’s game-changing size could legitimately end the season of the team that’s been a championship favorite since November.
In the end, Duke moved on, and its title hopes remain alive. But Duke won the game in those 11 seconds after Zion got Tacko disqualified. The unstoppable object remains unstopped, and the unclimbable tower also remains unclimbed.
Loser: The Rest of the Murray State Racers
Ja Morant showed up for Murray State’s second-round game. After becoming just the 12th player to record a triple-double in the tournament, Morant came out fighting against fourth-seeded Florida State, shooting 5-for-5 from 3 in the first half. After his third 3, Morant had Murray State up 13-7.
The Racers eventually lost 90-62. Morant’s teammates shot just 12-for-40 (30 percent) and 2-for-12 from 3 (16.7 percent). Morant had four assists; the rest of his teammates had three combined.
In just two games, Morant proved that the hype surrounding his talent is real. He deserves to be one of the top picks in June’s NBA draft, which just highlights how absurd it is that he wound up at Murray State playing against and among players nowhere near his skill level. (Murray State has great OVC players, but still: OVC players.) Morant’s career at Murray State was an unusual basketball moment, and I’m glad we got to witness it. I do wish it could have lasted longer, and the reason it didn’t is the same reason his presence on Murray State was interesting in the first place.
Winner: LSU’s Substitute Coach
Remember when you had a substitute teacher, and you spent the first few minutes of class trying to test what you could get away with? Would the sub actually try to teach stuff? Would they collect homework? Would they punish the class clown’s increasingly loud heckling? How the sub responded to those early tests determined their fate. Some subs showed a backbone and managed to wrangle the attention of bummed-out classes. Others flailed as classes devolved into anarchic chaos.
Saturday’s game between LSU and Maryland featured a similar concept. LSU head coach Will Wade is suspended because of allegations that he oversaw payment to players on the team, meaning the team’s current head coach is assistant Tony Benford, whose lone head-coaching job was a dismal spell at North Texas during which the Mean Green finished .500 or worse in all five seasons. Sure, Benford changed next to nothing after taking over a team that had just won the SEC regular-season championship. But he’s in charge after serving as an assistant all season.
LSU dominated the first half of its matchup with the Terrapins, but after halftime, Maryland made the unusual decision to switch to a zone—a defense it played on fewer than 2 percent of its possessions this season. This wasn’t something on the scouting report. Maryland wanted to force Benford to adapt to something that neither he nor his team had been expecting. Could he come up with changes on the fly, or would he struggle to lead a team that isn’t really his?
It didn’t look like he could. LSU’s offense looked lost as the Terrapins stormed back from 15 down to take the lead. But with the game on the line, Benford drew up a play that he felt would work against man or zone—and it got Tremont Waters the game-winning layup:
Benford is the first interim coach to reach the Sweet 16 since 1989, when Steve Fisher ended up winning the NCAA tournament with Michigan. Teams will continue to try to take advantage of him. This happens every time a star goes down with an injury and an untested backup comes in—in the world of sports, every weakness must be exploited. Benford was shaky, but passed his first test. Maybe this sub will get LSU deep into this tournament; maybe an opposing coach will convince him that Will Wade just let opponents watch movies.
Loser: Iowa’s Amazing Comeback
Iowa had the greatest comeback of the tournament Sunday. After it looked like Tennessee would run them off the court, the Hawkeyes battled back, fighting from 25 points down to force overtime. They played their hearts out. They defended the perimeter vigorously, allowing just one 3-pointer in the entire second half. Facing impossible odds, they fought knowing that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if they didn’t expend every possible ounce of energy to try to keep their season alive. It was inspiring.
And then Tennessee wiped the floor with Iowa in overtime, scoring the first seven points before winning 83-77. If they’d just aimlessly farted for the final 20 minutes, at least they could’ve ended their season saying, “Well, we lost because we didn’t try hard.” Instead, the Hawkeyes gave everything they had and all they got was a pile of disappointment. Man, trying is overrated.
Winner: Charles Barkley
One of the strangest choices made in U.S. sports coverage is the idea that people talking about sports online shouldn’t have a rooting interest in the game—and that the people watching at home would prefer that. No! We’re sports fans! We hope that the people talking about sports are sports fans too! And sports fans like some teams more than other teams! It’s absolutely more enjoyable to watch people living and dying with the results of games than it is to watch indifferent analysts.
Luckily, with college sports, we’re OK with a little favoritism slipping in. For some reason, we would find it odd if a national analyst who spent a decade playing for the Utah Jazz hyped up the Utah Jazz during their games, but we tolerate the same analysts hollering about the colleges where they spent, at most, four years. A college choice is more of a lifestyle choice, and it’s one you get to rep your entire life.
Anyway, here’s Barkley watching Auburn’s second-round matchup against Kansas on Saturday:
Barkley had stuffed animals, balloons, and basically everything you’d want at a 6-year-old’s birthday party besides a weird magician. And he proceeded to have an excellent time watching Auburn obliterate the Jayhawks, taking a 51-25 lead into halftime and advancing to the Sweet 16. It’s just about the best situation Auburn has been in since Barkley played for the school—before last season, the Tigers hadn’t even made the tournament since 2003.
I hope CBS throws Barkley more and more elaborate celebrations for the Tigers with each ongoing round. Give him an orange-and-blue bouncy house and try to find a party hat big enough for his extremely round head.