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The Winners and Losers of the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16

Duke squeaked by Virginia Tech on the strength of it’s lucky last-second defense and … Tre Jones’s shooting? Plus: PJ Washington’s surprising performance, RIP to the perfect bracket, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Who shined the most in the second round of March Madness? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: Duke’s Unbeatable Last-Second Open Layup Defense

Virginia Tech ran the perfect play to tie Duke in the final seconds of their Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night. Coach Buzz Williams drew up a lob play for Ahmed Hill where the senior guard would sneak past Zion Williamson and his ceiling-scraping shot-blocking abilities for a completely uncontested look at a game-tying layup.

It worked, up until Hill just … missed it.

It was a perfect opportunity, but the shot was never on target. Hill had 1.1 seconds to get the ball out of his hands, but rushed as if he only had 0.1 and tapped an inaccurate, doomed shot towards the wrong side of the rim.

This came after an extremely similar end-game scenario in Duke’s second-round matchup against UCF. In that game, the Knights trailed by one but missed back-to-back close attempts to finish:

Duke is the best team in college basketball this season. The Blue Devils have won 15 games by at least 20 points, and 24 games by at least 10 points. They got the overall no. 1 seed in the tournament, and they deserve it. They have Williamson, who is the best college basketball player this year and in the running to be considered one of the best ever. Their greatness is undeniable.

Earlier this year they were demolishing teams by miles. Now, they’re escaping by millimeters:

Duke’s chances for a championship remain alive by the grace of thick rims, fortunate bounces, and players who matched the Blue Devils for 39 minutes and 59 seconds and will spend the rest of their lives thinking about the one second where things were just a tad off.

Loser: Fans of Inside The NBA

The chemistry between Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith has been the rock of one of America’s best sports studio shows for over a decade. But sadly, I think that’s over:

Winner: Sudden Shooter Tre Jones

It isn’t just missed layups keeping Duke alive. The Blue Devils are heading to the Elite Eight because of a surprising contribution from an unlikely source: Tre Jones, whose name is “Tre” and whose number is three despite the fact that he generally does not make 3s. It’s like if Nathan Peterman’s first name was “Accurate Touchdown Pass” and he wore six.

Duke might be great, but the team has one obvious flaw: outside shooting. (It doesn’t usually matter much, because Zion.) The Blue Devils shoot 30.7 percent from beyond the arc, tied for 329th out of college basketball’s 353 teams. Dismal Duke shooters include Jordan Goldwire, who went 3-for-25 from 3 this season, and Jack White, who at one point this year had missed 28 consecutive 3s. And perhaps worst of all is Tre Jones, a freshman guard who shot 23.2 percent in the regular season. In the last round, UCF left him wide open—like, Draymond Green–level wiiiiide open—and Jones responded by shooting 1-for-8 from beyond the arc.

That’s typical for Jones. He went 1-for-6 and 1-for-5 in two games against UNC this year, and 1-for-7 twice against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. From November 27th to January 26th, Jones played 11 games and was a combined 2-for-19 from 3. If your friend goes 2-for-19 in a pickup game at the gym, do you want them taking the 20th attempt, even if they’re wide open? Now imagine you’re not just a bunch of randos playing pickup ball, but the best team in college basketball. Every team Duke plays wants Jones to shoot, and he generally obliges.

Virginia Tech followed that strategy. And that’s why they’re headed home:

Jones went 5-for-7 from 3 on Friday, finishing with 22 points. It was the first time he’s hit multiple 3s in a game since November 19th—32 games ago. Jones had five makes from beyond the arc in the last six games, and it took him 28 shots to do that. (Maybe someone should sign Nathan Peterman during next year’s NFL playoffs.)

So here we are. Sure, Duke has Zion Williamson (and don’t worry, he’s still making ridiculous blocks and throwing down massive alley-oops and crumpling steel with his bare hands.) But they’re going to win the national championship because everybody else misses last-second layups and their stormtroopers are turning to sharpshooters.

Loser: Perfect Bracket Guy

Gregg Nigl did something miraculous. The Ohio neuropsychologist somehow correctly picked the winners of the NCAA tournament’s first 50 games—every single game up to the Sweet 16! It was an unprecedented achievement so far as anybody can tell. If you think of every game as a 50-50 call, that means there’s a 1-in-2-to-the-50th-power chance of correctly guessing 50 picks in a row, aka 1-in-1-quadrillion. The odds are probably a bit better than that, since, like, 1-over-16 games aren’t 50-50 calls, but still. Nigl was helped by an extremely chalky bracket (all top-3 seeds made the Sweet 16) and the fact that he’s a Big Ten fan—specifically a Michigan fan who lives in Columbus, Ohio, which has to be awkward—and the Big Ten is having an incredible tournament.

For a week, Nigl was a celebrity. He went on The Today Show! His strategy was the subject of articles on sports websites! Buick, which sponsors the tournament, flew him out to Anaheim to see Michigan play in the Sweet 16!

And then on Thursday, he had to watch his favorite team, and perfect bracket, get dismantled in person. Michigan lost to 3-seeded Texas Tech 63-44 in absolutely brutal fashion—the Wolverines shot just 1-for-19 from 3 and had nearly as many turnovers (14) as made baskets (16). I can’t imagine a less enjoyable game to watch as a fan. The Red Raiders dug their tentacles into Michigan and sucked the lifeforce from them for 40 minutes straight. Nigl, of course, had the Wolverines winning. His bracket is now in 348th place out of the millions of brackets on the NCAA’s website. (Pathetic!) (Please do not ask to look at my bracket.) Earlier in the week, Nigl explained that his bracket isn’t even in a pool for money, so if he holds on to beat his friends, it’ll just be for bragging rights.

Nigl had a good run—a great run, a historically exceptional run! But in the end, all it won him was the opportunity to see his favorite team get their souls ripped out up close and personal. A rough break for a guy who made history.

Winner: Ryan Cline’s Extremely Accurate Trebuchet

Purdue led Tennessee by 18 in the first half of Thursday night’s game, but watched in the second half as that lead quickly evaporated. The Volunteers scrambled back and actually took the lead for themselves. At least until Ryan Cline’s 3-pointer took over.

In the final 10 minutes of the game, Cline’s Boilermaker teammates went 0-for-10 from the floor while Cline went 4-for-4, all 3s. He made his final six attempts of the game which, again, were all 3s. He single-handedly powered the Boilermaker choo-choo to overtime, and the team beat Tennessee 99-94. Throughout crunch time the Volunteers knew Cline was going to shoot, and they dedicated increasingly desperate resources to stopping him, which forced Purdue to design increasingly elaborate plays to get him open.

Trailing by three in the game’s final minute, Purdue just completely ditched any premise that it was going to run any play besides a Cline 3, giving the ball to the senior guard in isolation. He, uh, couldn’t really do much in isolation, because dribbling isn’t exactly his gig. But he still got enough space to unleash one shot.

Basketball is a game of versatility. Every player has to play both sides of the court. On offense, if a player can’t shoot or can’t drive, they will be ignored. On defense, if a player is too short or slow or weak, they will be attacked. All 10 players have to be capable of so many things. So it’s always stunning to see one player use one skill to take over an entire game. But that’s what Cline did. Tennessee simply couldn’t stop that jumper.

And what a jumper! In an era of quick releases where wasted motion is frowned upon, Cline has a windup like an ostentatious 1970s pitcher and a release like a primitive siege engine. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it worked. But technically, he still hasn’t missed since his incredible run. Now I can’t believe that he’ll ever miss again.

Loser: A Tournament Without Chuma Okeke

Chuma Okeke powered Auburn to a 97-80 upset of 1-seeded North Carolina on Friday night. It’s not just that he led all players with 20 points and 11 rebounds: He was emblematic of the incredibly fun way Auburn won the game. He hit three of the Tigers’ 17 3-pointers, part of a massive offensive barrage that buried the Tar Heels. On defense, he recorded two steals, helping North Carolina to 14 turnovers, and he blocked this shot in the midst of a 10-0 run that sealed the game.

And then, in the game’s closing minutes, Okeke went down with a knee injury. It’s not clear exactly what the problem is, but when asked about it after the game, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl broke down crying and said that it’s “serious.”

In the locker room, Okeke’s teammates helped him over to the ceremonial bracket, where he slapped Auburn’s sticker into the Elite Eight.

Auburn is one of the most enjoyable teams in college basketball—they play fast, launch 3s, force turnovers, and swat shots. Okeke’s not their leading scorer, but perhaps more than anybody, he enables that playing style. This is the farthest the Tigers have gone in the tournament since 1986, and now they’ll have to play on without their heart.

And the effects of Okeke’s injury could extend beyond the tournament. Okeke is a legitimate NBA draft prospect, with a chance to be a first-rounder. We don’t know the extent of the injury, but if it’s serious, it could shift from costing Auburn in an amateur basketball tournament to costing Okeke professional money. I hope the Tigers find a way to fight on without Okeke, even though I can’t imagine what an Auburn team without Okeke will look like.

Winner: PJ Washington

Kentucky played the first two games of this tournament without PJ Washington, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Washington suffered a foot sprain during the SEC tournament, and was wearing a cast earlier this week. There wasn’t much expected of Washington heading into Friday night’s game against Houston, considering he hasn’t been practicing and seemed pretty pumped about merely walking.

So, of course, he had the game-saving block:

Washington had 16 points and Kentucky squeaked out a 62-58 win. John Calipari deserves some sort of award for best NCAA tournament poker face.

Loser: Anybody Behind Me at the Sweet 16 Games in Anaheim

I attended Thursday night’s Sweet 16 games in Anaheim, and upon my arrival at the Honda Center I was stunned to find out the NCAA had decided to put me in press seats just two rows back from the action, right near midcourt. There was me, Reggie Miller’s head, and then a basketball game. And I didn’t even have to hear Reggie’s analysis! It was the best of all worlds.

I’d never sat anywhere near that close to a high-level athletic event before. I’ve spent my whole life watching basketball from broadcast angles and cheap seats. Those provide great overviews of the action, but up close, I was blown away by the physicality of the game. The middle of the court felt so much bigger than I typically think of it—you never really grasp the speed with which players run fast breaks on TV—and the area around the basket so much more compact—you can really sense the physical exertion it takes to get the ball near the basket. It was incredible to watch Florida State build walls with their length, and see Gonzaga scheme to beat it. And watching Texas Tech, the best defense in college basketball, somehow make wild scrambles to shut off driving lanes look perfectly controlled and routine was exhilarating.

I was so enthralled by the action in front of me that I didn’t pay attention to what was behind me—or, more specifically, my behind. On Friday I learned that Rich Eisen of the NFL Network—who was attending the game as a fan to watch his alma mater, Michigan—was seated directly behind me. I didn’t notice him during the games, and was surprised to learn that he devoted several minutes of his Friday radio show to discussing my ass:

I’d like to apologize to Rich. My ass is trash, and I didn’t mean for anybody to see it. Also, it should be noted that despite Rich’s accusations to the contrary, I was wearing a belt. I will be subjecting the belt to a thorough performance review to better understand the breakdowns that took place.

However, I’d like to encourage Rich to reconsider his reaction to our face-to-face (face-to-cheek?) encounter. I think we both learned something about high-quality basketball seats on Thursday. Great seats provide those lucky enough to sit in them with up-close access to sights and sounds that simply don’t translate through a screen. As it turns out, one of those sights is my horrible ass. It’s just another part of an unmatched experience.