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The Winners and Losers of the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight

The regional finals were rough for RJ Barrett, Carsen Edwards, and television executives, but validating for Virginia

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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

Winner: Chalk Art

We all think chalk sucks. I cringe at the idea of writing with chalk, which is probably why I pick 14-over-3 upsets in almost every bracket I fill out. But the Elite Eight of this year’s NCAA tournament proved that sometimes, even the worst instrument can make beautiful art.

The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were about as boring as any in recent memory. There were no buzzer-beaters, no top-3 seeds lost, and every single game in the round of 32 was won by the betting favorite. The tourney seemed like a dud: There were no shining moments, and Cinderella never finished cleaning her ugly stepsister’s rooms.

This weekend, we got the payoff. With only exceptional teams remaining, all four Elite Eight games were classics. In the South, Virginia pulled off a miraculous scramble to force overtime against Purdue, eventually beating the Boilermakers in spite of a record-setting 3-point performance by Purdue’s Carsen Edwards.

In the Midwest, Auburn and Kentucky also went to overtime, with the Tigers emerging victorious and earning their first trip to the Final Four despite an injury to their best draft prospect, Chuma Okeke. In the East, Michigan State squeaked away with a one-point victory over top-seeded Duke and the best player in the sport, Zion Williamson. The most “boring” game of the weekend was a dynamic back-and-forth battle that ended with the best defense in college basketball, Texas Tech, topping the best offense in college basketball, Gonzaga.

In January, I wrote about how the NFL postseason heavily favors its best teams, giving them byes and home-field advantage, a format which frequently results in dull playoffs and thrilling Super Bowls. (This season went differently—the AFC and NFC championship games went to overtime and were won by the lower-seeded teams, and then the Super Bowl was hard to watch.) Sure, the dull early rounds of the playoffs aren’t fun, but time and time again, they put the league’s best teams on the sport’s biggest stage and create classics.

College basketball tends to do the opposite. The NCAA tournament breeds randomness. We worship upsets and game-winners and flukes. Therefore, we ask for a 68-team tournament held entirely at neutral sites, and all the chaos that comes with it. That’s great for a few rounds, but often it doesn’t make for the best late-tournament matchups. Normally, Elite Eight games are just as likely to be blowouts as thrillers—in the past seven tournaments, there were 13 Elite Eight games decided by double digits and 15 decided by fewer than 10 points.

This year, the early rounds of the tournament were historically predictable. But after an Elite Eight of buzzer-beaters, overtime thrillers, and falling giants, I think it may have been worth it.

Loser: Crunch-Time RJ Barrett

Williamson scored to give Duke a 66-63 lead with 1:41 remaining in their game against Michigan State. It was probably the last shot of his Duke career.

On Duke’s next possession, with the Blue Devils up one, RJ Barrett missed a shot in the paint. On Duke’s next possession, with the Blue Devils trailing by two, Williamson passed to Barrett, who instantly shot and missed a 3, which went out of bounds off Michigan State. On Duke’s next—and, as it would turn out, final possession—coach Mike Krzyzewski drew up a play for Barrett, who drove and was fouled. If he had made both shots, Duke would have tied the game, but he missed the first. Duke lost 68-67.

Duke went 29-3 with Zion Williamson this year. In the first game the Blue Devils lost, 89-87 to Gonzaga, Barrett missed five shots in the final minute. In an overtime loss to Syracuse, Barrett missed Duke’s final two shots. (Both desperate 3-point attempts, but still.) And Sunday, he got the ball on each of Duke’s last three possessions, with two misses and a missed free throw resulting in one total point. In total, Barrett went 0-for-9 from the field in the final minutes of these three losses, while the rest of Duke’s roster took three total shots. (Williamson had only one.)

Barrett is a great player. He’s almost certainly going to be a top-5 pick in the NBA draft, and actually outscored Williamson this season by a smidge—Barrett averaged 22.63 points per game to Williamson’s 22.60. He’s a spectacular athlete and a gifted playmaker. Earlier in the tournament, he saved Duke, rebounding a Williamson missed free throw and finishing a putback to give the Blue Devils a win over UCF. On Sunday, he kept Duke in the game with 21 points and a team-high six assists. It makes sense that Krzyzewski kept giving Barrett the ball in late-game scenarios, even if that choice turned disastrous in Duke’s losses.

But Barrett is just a great player. Williamson is an all-timer. Barrett missed those shots, but it feels like the bigger miss was not giving the best player in the country a chance to become a college basketball legend.

Winner: Showtime Michigan State

Michigan State didn’t just beat Duke. They dunked on them, a role reversal after Zion put roughly 352 college basketball teams on posters. Here’s Xavier Tillman dunking through Javin DeLaurier:

Here’s Matt McQuaid dunking over DeLaurier:

Hypothetically, if this game had gone on forever, DeLaurier would’ve gotten dunked on in every conceivable fashion—he would’ve been Weis’d, Mozgov’d, and Lister’d.

But most incredible of all was this McQuaid layup—hurled without looking at the rim while flying backward through the air:

Michigan State has eliminated the Blue Devils from the tournament, and in doing so, ended the Duke career of Zion Williamson, college basketball’s preeminent highlight machine. They can’t replicate Williamson’s dunks and blocks, but they’re picking up his slack with their own brand of ridiculous plays.

Loser: TV Executives

Last week, the executive VP of Turner Sports openly admitted he was rooting for Duke to make the title game. It makes sense: They were the biggest name in the field, had the best player in the field, and were the most captivating draw. Television ratings for Duke games were massive all season long, especially during the tournament. A Duke title game would’ve brought through-the-roof numbers for CBS and so many other of the NCAA’s Corporate Champions, especially if the Blue Devils faced off against another big-name team, like Kentucky, or—and this is when TV folks began frothing at the mouth—North Carolina.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Duke lost. Kentucky lost. North Carolina lost. The Final Four has Michigan State, Texas Tech, Auburn, and Virginia. None of those schools even has the biggest fan base in its own state—I’m sure CBS would rather have a Final Four of Michigan, Texas, Alabama, and Virginia Tech.

Here’s the good news: We are not television executives. We are fans, and this is an awesome group of teams. I love watching Auburn’s run-and-stun style, jacking up 3s and swatting shots and forcing turnovers. Texas Tech’s defense is an engrossing watch. Michigan State is apparently a dunk-fest. And Virginia … anyway, moving on. This Final Four might hurt CBS’s pockets, but it shouldn’t be any less enjoyable for—wait, where are you going? PLEASE KEEP READING OUR WEBSITE EVEN THOUGH TEXAS TECH IS IN THE FINAL FOUR!

Winner: An Unseasonable Toilet Paper Bloom

There is a rare botanical phenomenon which takes place on the plains of East Alabama. Japan has its cherry blossoms, which bloom every March; the Netherlands has its tulips, which bloom every May. And on weekend nights from September to November in Auburn, Alabama, the oaks blossom with thousands of rolls of toilet paper. It’s an arboreal miracle—trees that flower in the fall, when the days grow shorter? But when the Auburn Tigers sow the land with football victories, strange things happen.

Spring isn’t typically a time for toilet paper blooms. Auburn’s basketball teams are historically quite bad. They made the NCAA tournament zero times before Charles Barkley arrived on campus in the 1980s. They made the tournament five years in a row with players like Barkley and Chuck Person, and then made the tournament just three times in the 25 years between 1989 and Bruce Pearl’s hiring in 2014.

But Pearl has made Auburn into a spectacle. He crafted the Tigers into a team that shoots a ton of 3s (they’re eighth in college hoops in ratio of 3-pointers to total field goals), forces a ton of turnovers (they lead the nation in steal rate), and blocks a ton of shots (they’re fifth in the nation in block percentage). And now he has them in the Final Four for the first time in school history.

And for perhaps the first time, the oaks of Auburn are bursting forth with their beautiful white foliage in March:

Loser: The Legend of Carsen Edwards

Carsen Edwards scored 42 points in Purdue’s dominant second-round win over Villanova, and that wasn’t even his biggest show of the tournament. Against Virginia in the Elite Eight, Edwards hit 10 3s, finishing with 42 points:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. But Edwards, who just had his spectacular night ruined by a miracle, somehow managed to share a smile with Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite, who hit the UVA shot to send the game to overtime:

Despite the loss, Edwards’s tournament is still an all-timer. He set the record for 3-pointers made in one tournament with 28—the previous high (27) was set by Glen Rice in 1989, and his Michigan squad won the national championship while Edwards didn’t even make the Final Four. Edwards was the first player with four 25-point games in one tournament since Steph Curry in 2008 and the first player with two 40-point games in one tournament since Bo Kimble in 1990.

Edwards was on fire for two straight weeks, but he won’t be remembered like Rice, Curry, and Kimble. He didn’t hit any buzzer-beaters and he wasn’t on a famous underdog team—the only “upset” the third-seeded Boilermakers pulled was over second-seeded Tennessee. And while Edwards should have gotten to the Final Four, Virginia’s ridiculous play ended his season. Unfortunately, tournament legends have to be on the right side of March magic.

Winner: Virginia Basketball Excitement

Virginia-Purdue had well below the national average of possessions—and Virginia-Purdue went into overtime. The game had five extra minutes and still had less basketball in it than your average 40-minute game. That’s Virginia. They suck the fun out of life and the life out of opposing teams. They win methodically and efficiently. They don’t do “joy.”

But Saturday, they created one of the most incredible March Madness moments I can remember. I already posted the video up there, but let’s look at this again:

Your average buzzer-beater is one guy making an amazing shot. This play has about four perfect plays:

  • Ty Jerome pops the free throw off the front of the rim. Jerome says he was trying to hit the shot, but I have chosen not to believe him. Virginia should have been trying to miss this shot down two points with under six seconds remaining, and the type of miss he got was perfect, popping right off the front of the rim and floating a few feet in front of the rim, over the heads of the rebounders closest to the basket.
  • Diakite taps the ball downcourt—and while he was just wildly whacking at the ball, he taps it the perfect amount. Any closer and it runs the risk of being snagged by a Purdue player; any farther and there’s no way the Cavaliers can execute the play in time.
  • Kihei Clark grabs the ball, looks up, and almost instantly recognizes Diakite is open. All he has to do is sling a one-handed pass 40 feet with enough speed to give Diakite enough time to get the shot off. Clark’s pass might actually be more impressive than the shot.
  • BUT THEN THERE’S THE SHOT. Diakite catches the ball with under a second left, and then sets and releases in that one second. And swishes it.

The miss: perfect. The tap: perfect. The pass: PERFECT. And the shot, well, it was good too.

Virginia has turned into a powerhouse, They’ve finished in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings in four of the past five years and were a dismal 12th the other time. And yet this is their first trip to the Final Four. They’ve always been felled by somebody, sometimes in hilarious or historic fashion.

This Virginia team played 30 regular-season games and lost only two, both against the same team: Duke. Now they’re in the Final Four, and Duke isn’t. Virginia actually did something exciting in their incredible run of near-success. Now it’s time for them to actually achieve success.