Who shined the most in the opening round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.
We used to have to make our NCAA tournament upsets last a while. When the harvest of 2007’s tourney failed to bring a new crop of upsets the following March, we had to add water to our Northwestern State–over-Iowa, thinning out the broth so we’d have something to fill our bellies with the next day. It might have only been a 14-over-3, but that’s what we had back in the day. They were hard times.
Today, we have more upsets than we know what to do with. In two days, we saw the second 16-over-1 upset ever and the 11th 15-over-2 upset in NCAA men’s tournament history. This was the first year ever that both a 15- and a 16-seed won. If only our grandparents who would’ve given everything they owned to see a 12-over-5 tourney upset could see us today, in the land of milk and honey.
The big one was Fairleigh Dickinson over Purdue, which I believe is the biggest upset in the history of the sport. Purdue won the Big Ten regular-season title and its conference tournament and has the likely National Player of the Year, 7-foot-4 Zach Edey. FDU is the shortest team in college basketball and failed to win the regular-season or conference title in the Northeast Conference, the lowest-rated conference in Division I; it was the 68th of the 68 teams in the tourney field.
(16) FDU UPSETS (1) PURDUE— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
MARCH. KEEPS. ON. GIVING. #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/4T0K3n13Er
But there was also 15-seeded Princeton over 2-seed Arizona—finally, a good break for Princeton alumni—the third straight year in which a 15-seed won a game.
PRINCETON KNOCKS OFF 2-SEED ARIZONA #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/U9XHuN41ON— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
In some years, 13-seed Furman’s ridiculous steal and ensuing game-winning 3-pointer against Virginia would be the wildest things to happen in a tournament—it’s the coolest play we’ve seen so far, but the upset was nowhere near as ridiculous as FDU beating Purdue.
ARE YOU SERIOUS?!— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
FURMAN WITH THE STEAL AND 3 TO TAKE THE LEAD WITH 2.2 SECONDS REMAINING #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/fSCNKUzboq
Cinderella? Cinderella? Which one of you is Cinderella? Prince Charming is walking through the ball and it’s filled with dozens of stunning women who have been forced by their evil families to clean furnaces. He can’t walk a foot without stepping on another damn glass slipper. He’s asking FDU and Princeton if they would consider a throuple situation.
I have a theory for why this keeps happening—I wrote about it last year when Saint Peter’s went to the Elite Eight as a 15-seed, an unprecedented event that might now become precedented. The blue-blood programs aren’t flush with NBA-caliber talent. Only one of the top four prospects in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide is playing college basketball this year, and the pro prospects who do play in college tend to leave quickly. Last year, Purdue had the player who would become the fifth pick in the draft (Jaden Ivey), and Arizona had a player who went sixth (Bennedict Mathurin), and both of them were sophomores. It’s not hard to imagine how Ivey would’ve helped Purdue avoid an upset as the FDU Knights swarmed Edey and none of his teammates could hit a shot.
The little guys counter that turnover with cohesion. FDU’s top two scorers against Purdue, Sean Moore and Demetre Roberts, transferred together from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas before this season to follow head coach Tobin Anderson. Princeton and Furman are both loaded with upperclassmen. All three of this year’s Cinderellas had smart game plans they executed exceptionally. They made up for the talent disparity by playing together and playing well.
And yet we have to note that even though upsets are easier now, they are still beautiful miracles. FDU, Princeton, and Furman were winless against opponents in Quad 1 of the NCAA’s NET rankings heading into the tournament; Purdue, Arizona, and Virginia were undefeated against opponents from outside the power conferences. And yet on the biggest stage, it all turned. There may be more upsets than ever—but let’s never stop celebrating every single one.
Loser: Bad Beat Bettors
The NCAA tournament allows you to see the full life span of the sports bettor. On the one end of the spectrum are the first-time pool entrants, drawn in by the concept of wagering cash for the shared communal experience and general ease of filling out a bracket and watching their name move up or down a leaderboard. They experience the rush of joy when that first-round upset pick hits, and they suddenly care greatly about something they were never interested in before. But the opening days of the tourney aren’t just great for the gambling noob—they’re also two of the biggest days of the year at the sportsbook. A journey that starts with a $5 pool, where you’re simply excited about getting a surprise upset pick correct, somehow ends with 12 hours in front of 40 screens freaking out about the first-half spread.
When there are 16 games back-to-back-to-back over the course of 12 hours on Thursday and Friday, there are bound to be a few funny endings. No normal person cared about this foul with 0.7 seconds remaining in the San Diego State–College of Charleston game Thursday afternoon. The Aztecs were up four points, and regardless of whether Charleston fouled or not, SDSU was gonna get the W.
This meaningless foul resulted in two made free throws for the SDSU (-5.5) cover pic.twitter.com/yCLbpUF9eM— Bookmakers Review (@BMRReviews) March 16, 2023
But to gamblers, this was a literal game changer. SDSU was favored by 5.5 and covered the spread by hitting two free throws after the foul. The meaninglessness of the moment left anybody who wagered on the game asking so many questions: Why did Charleston feel the need to foul trailing by two possessions with just a few seconds left? Why did the referee watch three or four seconds of foul-ish contact by Charleston and then call the foul with less than a second left, just as the Charleston players seemed to realize the futility of the situation? Why call the foul at all instead of just letting the clock expire?
And yet that was only the second-most ridiculous buzzer-beating bad beat of the first day. With 1-seed Alabama about to finish off its expected blowout of Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi point guard Ross Williams decided to make the scoreline a bit more respectable:
NOOOOOOO FUCKING WAY pic.twitter.com/GzVRsP62eq— Gavin McHugh (@gavinmchughh) March 16, 2023
Alabama was up by 24 and won by 21 after Williams’s 3, which of course didn’t make any difference to anybody who picked Bama to win the national title in their pool. But the spread was 22.5, which made this final possession unnecessarily epic. There’s a moment where Williams turns back toward midcourt, apparently content to head back to Texas with his head held high: His team had won their conference tournament, gotten out of the First Four in Dayton, and held future NBA draft pick Brandon Miller scoreless. Williams could’ve walked away, and everybody’s bets would’ve cashed.
And then he turns around. The adopted son of Pelicans head coach Willie Green, Williams battled his way to Division I—transferring up from NAIA Menlo College to Division II Colorado Christian University and finally enrolling at A&M–Corpus Christi. A grad student potentially playing in his last competitive basketball game, he seemed determined to end his career with a bucket.
And for some reason, with the outcome of this game not in doubt, Alabama’s defender was equally locked in! Williams was going up against an Alabama walk-on with eight points in his career. That guy, Adam Cottrell, had been running sets and chasing loose balls in practice all season long in hopes that at the end of the year, his coaches might let him play in the end of a 16-vs.-1 NCAA tournament blowout. This was his Super Bowl. Cottrell checks Williams 30 feet from the hoop. He forces him left—that’s right, the walk-on read the scouting report—and puts a hand directly in his face. Williams can’t get an easy look. He has to settle for a tough contested fadeaway.
Abstract artists argue that you can find beauty in lines and shapes that appear random or meaningless, and there is so much artistry in this pointless possession. At least you can sorta see that Charleston was trying to win when they fouled SDSU late, but there was no reason for Williams to attempt this shot or for the Crimson Tide to defend it like their lives depended on it. And yet people lost actual money that could’ve been used on goods or services on this shot that didn’t need to be taken. It’s the most beautiful buzzer-beater of March Madness.
Loser: Virginia, Again
Poor Kihei Clark made a split-second decision that will live for eternity on college hoops highlight (and blooper) reels. With under 10 seconds left and a two-point lead on Friday against 13-seed Furman, Virginia didn’t even need to advance the ball across half court. The Hoos simply needed to hold on to the ball. Instead, Clark threw it away, blindly hurling the ball downcourt, where only a Furman player could’ve caught it. Did Clark think he was throwing the ball to a teammate? Did he think his lob would stay in the air long enough for the clock to expire? Did he realize his team had a time-out?
The result was yet another embarrassment for a Virginia program whose March Madness failures are becoming a trademark for an otherwise successful program. In 2018, the Hoos ensured a permanent spot in men’s NCAA tournament infamy by becoming the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed. (I wrote this entry on Thursday and later had to edit “only” to “first.” Congrats, UVA! You’ve got a friend now!) And they didn’t just lose to UMBC—they lost by 20. Two years ago, they lost to 13-seed Ohio, and now they’ve lost to a 13-seed again.
Virginia’s struggles against double-digit seeds are so blatant that they’ve become a critical factor in picking my annual Best Upset Pick. I picked Ohio two years ago and picked Furman this year. (Check back in about 362 days to see who I pick next year! Probably Virginia’s first-round opponent!) The Cavaliers play at one of the slowest paces in college hoops, lowering the sample size and minimizing opportunities to capitalize on talent advantages against lower-seeded opponents. They also don’t shoot a lot of 3s—on Thursday, they went 2-for-12 from deep while Furman went 10-for-28. They’re a great team, but it’s easy to see how they leave the door open for upsets.
There’s just one issue with the narrative of Virginia as a perma-doomed NCAA tournament loser: It won the NCAA tournament in 2019. Like, the entire thing. The national title. It was a capper on a dominant year in which UVA won the ACC regular-season title, went 35-3, finished top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, and produced three NBA draft picks. Two of its final three games in that title run were won in overtime (including its championship game win against Texas Tech), and UVA nailed three last-second free throws to beat Auburn in the Final Four. It was one of the clutchest title runs ever, a parade of Having That Dog in Them.
In that 2019 tournament, Clark made another split-second decision that will live for an eternity. Trailing by two with five seconds left, Virginia’s Ty Jerome bricked a free throw, and his teammate Mamadi Diakite tapped it into the backcourt. Clark, then a freshman, chased the ball down and calculated what was possible in three remaining seconds. Instead of shooting, he decided to whip a 40-foot pass back to Diakite with two seconds left—a bold and seemingly doomed choice. But Diakite caught the ball and scored to force overtime.
I believe that it’s simultaneously true that Virginia is one of the best basketball programs in the sport and that its slow style makes it susceptible to NCAA tournament upsets. Virginia should consider speeding things up come tourney time and take more 3s. But I’m also confident Virginia would rather be known as a national champion with three first-round upsets than a regular Sweet 16 participant with zero titles. Every year, 362 Division I teams end their seasons with a loss; being the one that ends with a win buys a decade of failure.
It’s true that Clark’s brain fart will live on forever—but you know what else will live on for an eternity? His national championship. He’s on a banner that will fly forever, he’s got a ring that will never lose its luster, and he has an accomplishment nobody can take away from him. His highlight and lowlight are both part of NCAA tourney lore, but one matters a lot more. Virginia’s national title doesn’t exempt it from trying to figure out how to avoid these embarrassing Ls—but when the team looks back on things a few decades down the line, maybe all the heartbreak will make its one magical run all the more sweet.
The Ivy League is objectively the weirdest Division I basketball conference. It’s the smallest (just eight teams), it’s the only one that doesn’t give out athletic scholarships (although that’s currently the subject of a lawsuit), and until 2017 it was the only conference that awarded its automatic NCAA tournament bid to its regular-season champion instead of holding a conference tournament.
And yet, something about Ivy basketball works. The conference has an outsized performance in comparison to other smaller leagues, in both men’s and women’s hoops. The only win by a women’s NCAA tournament team seeded 14th or lower came when Harvard pulled a 16-over-1 upset over Stanford in 1998; Ivy men engineered upsets in four of seven tournaments from 2010 to 2016, including Cornell’s Elite Eight run in 2010.
Now we’ve got Princeton, this year’s Ivy League champion on both the men’s and women’s sides. The Tigers play in a geodesic dome that also features a running track and several squash courts. Their all-time leading scorer and rebounder served three terms as a senator. There are history professors listed on their official website’s roster pages. And yet Princeton has a distinct place in college basketball lore, thanks to the trademark offense used by legendary coach Pete Carril and the 14-over-3 upset the men pulled over defending national champ UCLA in 1996.
That place in college basketball lore grew this week. The men—coached by Mitch Henderson, who was the point guard on that 1996 Princeton squad—pulled off a 15-over-2 upset over Arizona, and the women, a 10-seed, hit the biggest game-winner of the opening day of the Round of 64 to upset NC State. Only Princeton and Maryland have advanced teams in both the men’s and women’s tournaments so far:
GRACE STONE GAME-WINNER— ESPN (@espn) March 18, 2023
PRINCETON TAKES DOWN 7-SEED NC STATE! pic.twitter.com/BcJ0Z8QlH3
We probably should adjust our expectations for Ivy League basketball teams in March—for all of the conference’s quirks, its teams consistently outperform the other one-bid conferences every year come tourney time. I feel like the league holds on to those quirks for a reason: This is the one opportunity every year for the academic institutions with the largest endowments on the planet and the future presidents and CEOs in their student bodies to act like underdogs—and holy hell, do they make the most of it.
Winner: The First Four
There’s a trend I forget about every single year when I fill in my NCAA tournament bracket: One of the teams that has to play in the First Four in Dayton always wins. It’s happened in 11 of 12 seasons since the NCAA introduced the First Four in 2011—but this year brought a first for the First Four. (Say that 10 times fast!)
The four play-in games in Dayton are divided into two categories: First, there are two matchups between the four worst teams in the field, typically squads that each went on a fluke conference tournament run to earn their league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance (or, in the case of this year’s Fairleigh Dickinson team, the squad earned its spot in the field of 68 by default because the actual conference champ was ineligible for the postseason). You can generally ignore the worst four in the First Four (say this 10 times fast) since they’re headed to be sacrificial first-round opponents for 1-seeds. Entering this year, these teams were 0-22 in the first round, with 22 double-digit losses.
Then there are two games between the “last four in,” the final at-large teams chosen by the NCAA’s selection committee. These are typically 11-seeds, but often 12s or 13s. Since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 in 1985, 11-seeds are 47-81 in the first round—a 36 percent win rate. But the last four in are 11-13 coming out of the First Four—a 46 percent rate. It’s truly stunning that this would happen: These teams are supposedly worse than the average 11-seed and also have to go to Dayton to play a game before traveling to a Round of 64 game, while their opponents just have to practice. How could they outperform the average 11-seed?
But it happened again this year: 11-seed Pitt held on to beat Mississippi State in Dayton on Tuesday night, then went to Greensboro, North Carolina, to play 6-seed Iowa State on Thursday. But Iowa State looked like the tired team playing on short rest, shooting 23.3 percent—the 11th-worst shooting performance by a Division I team this year—and losing by 18.
And then FDU did the unprecedented. As the lowest-ranked team of the 16-seeds and the only one that didn’t actually win its conference tournament (actual NEC champ Merrimack was ineligible for the tournament because of its ongoing transition upward from Division II), FDU had to play in Dayton too. It thumped Texas Southern on Wednesday night, talked some trash about potentially beating Purdue, traveled to Columbus (not a bad trip from Dayton, but still a hassle!), then upset Purdue on Friday night. Half of the 16-over-1 upsets in NCAA history (OK, just one of two) are now by a team that had to play an extra game because it wasn’t considered good enough.
And now we have evidence that the First Four Phenomenon isn’t just limited to the men’s tournament. Last year was the first year of the First Four in the women’s tourney, and while all the First Four winners lost last year, we got a hit this year: 11-seed Mississippi State beat Illinois on Wednesday, then turned around and beat 6-seed Creighton on Friday. It’s the only win by an 11-seed or lower so far.
You’d think the extra game would be a huge disadvantage, but in a tournament where teams have to go on win streaks, perhaps it does benefit to stay in rhythm and build confidence. Remind me to pick a First Four team in my bracket next year—and remind NCAA teams to be just bad enough to get sent to Dayton for the extra game.
Winner: Oscar Tshiebwe
We’re probably never going to see any important single-game NCAA tournament men’s basketball records fall, and honestly, that’s fine. The records for things like points (61), rebounds (34), assists (20), and blocks (13) were all set in 1970 or earlier. Nobody really threatens them, and honestly, it’s fine!
But on Friday, Kentucky star Oscar Tshiebwe came about as close as anybody can come to one of those untouchable tournament records. He had 25 rebounds (including 11 offensive boards) in the Wildcats’ 61-53 win over Providence. Although Tshiebwe only scored eight points, his rebounding clearly provided the difference in a tight game that featured poor shooting. Kentucky had 18 second-chance points while Providence had just two.
Tshiebwe’s performance ranks 19th in total rebounds in an NCAA tournament game—but all 18 of the performances ahead of him came before 1977. He’s second all-time in offensive rebounds behind just Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble. And out of the thousands of college basketball games this season, only one player had more boards—a 26-rebound effort by Southern Indiana’s Jacob Polakovich against Southeast Missouri State, which made the NCAA tournament as a 16-seed.
But this wasn’t Southeast Missouri State. Providence is a power conference team good enough to get to the NCAA tournament specifically because of its rebounding. The Friars were 16th in Division I in offensive rebounding rate. When they beat Marquette in December, they did it by getting 46 percent of their own misses, with Bryce Hopkins (who actually transferred away from Kentucky because he couldn’t get playing time behind Tshiebwe) snagging 23 rebounds.
It’s inspiring watching Tshiebwe on the boards. He’s not a Zach Edey–esque giant—Tshiebwe is “just” 6-foot-9—but he combines power and a relentless pursuit of space with an unteachable knack for one of the game’s most important skills. Last year, it wasn’t enough: After winning consensus National Player of the Year, he couldn’t lead Kentucky past 15-seed Saint Peter’s in the first round of the tournament. Luckily for Tshiebwe, that’s no longer the most recent or most embarrassing NCAA tournament upset featuring a National Player of the Year losing to a school we’ve never heard of from New Jersey. It’s nice to see a spectacular college hoops career swerving toward a better ending.
The sport of basketball would be lost without the humble whiteboard, the locker room staple, with its markers that emit lovely little squeaks that echo the sound of shoes on hardwood. But why are we so cruel to something we need so much? Tom Izzo snapped one in half during his team’s win over USC.
"We are down one whiteboard"— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 17, 2023
Tim Izzo snapped it in half with ease pic.twitter.com/2vnLt6eVO4
What would he have done if his squad had lost? Take a look at the poor board left behind by Purdue:
The whiteboard in #Purdue’s locker room#MarchMadness @WISH_TV #BoilerUp pic.twitter.com/J0h7ojvY5P— Angela Moryan (@SidelineStormer) March 18, 2023
There’s no need for violence—it’s so easy to erase stuff from these bad boys!
Winner: Charles Barkley
The CBS-Turner broadcast presentation of the NCAA tournament deservedly draws a lot of flack for employing part-time college hoops analysts instead of relying on people who actually watched all four months of the college basketball season. Specifically, they bring on members of TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, who, coincidentally, are often criticized by NBA fans for not seeming to know that much about the NBA.
During one halftime segment this weekend, Charles Barkley neglected to talk about the games or the teams and instead spoke about how much of an honor it is to call the tournament. (Translation: “I don’t watch the games, but I am very happy to be here!”) Barkley’s monologue meandered into thanking the trainers, which in turn veered to him thanking the equipment staff, which led him to reminisce about how things are different than when he played at Auburn in the 1980s. He finally wrapped up by sharing a story about his early NBA playing days. Back in his day, Barkley said, teams didn’t have support staff to wash the uniforms, adding that it was common for players to shower in their uniforms to clean their jerseys and their bodies simultaneously. His colleagues on the TNT set, who, it is important to add, also played basketball in the 1980s, quickly noted that nobody ever did this at any point in history, nor would it have ever made sense to wash clothing or the human body in this way.
Charles Barkley had an, uh, interesting way of washing his jersey back in the day. pic.twitter.com/AbmQSydRPs— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 17, 2023
I’ve come around to the experience of watching Barkley and other college hoops part-timers. This is a 68-team tournament where every team has played 30 games. For anybody to watch all the games of all the teams would be impossible—and even if they did, a lot of that expertise would immediately be rendered irrelevant by the completely nuts nature of a tournament where Purdues inexplicably lose to Fairleigh Dickinsons. And if we had a college basketball expert up there telling us about the subtleties of why Kansas State was beating Montana State, we’d have missed out on Charles Barkley revealing he used to shower in his clothing.