Who shined the most in the second round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of winners and losers.
Do they not teach the kids at Princeton how to behave these days? We are nothing without manners—it’s what separates human from beast and, more important, people who attend fancy colleges from those who don’t. And in their victory over Missouri on Saturday, the fancy Tigers seemed not to understand the rules of upset etiquette—upsetiquette, so to speak.
Proper upsetiquette is about restraint. Win, but don’t take more than you need—perhaps a two-point victory, like Princeton’s famed 43-41 victory over UCLA in 1996. Oral Roberts and Saint Peter’s both won their first-round upsets in overtime; FDU was pushing the boundaries of taste on Friday when it beat Purdue by five. It’s unseemly to keep banging 3s and pull off a stunner 15, as Princeton did Sunday.
PRINCETON ON FIRE— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 19, 2023
No. 15 Princeton running up the board on No. 7 Missouri pic.twitter.com/DymmNh9nDh
Score, but an upset victory is supposed to prove that basketball is a game of skill and finesse, not a bodybuilding contest. Win with exceptional shooting and a unique offensive strategy rather than through physical dominance. Princeton freshman Caden Pierce broke upsetiquette with his seven offensive rebounds and … and … I believe this is called a “dunk” basket. Dreadful.
And after pulling off an upset, one must continue to behave with deference and respect. What on earth was Blake Peters doing when he gave a postgame interview shouting about how “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE”?
"ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE" @PrincetonMBB pic.twitter.com/FSaSDkDbPZ— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 19, 2023
Allegedly, this is a quotation from a professional athlete of note. But Princetonians shouldn’t attempt to resemble professional athletes. And what a foolish sentiment! A great deal of things are impossible!
No Ivy Leaguer should commit all these blatant breaches of upsetiquette. It’s enough to make you think that even though Princeton is just the fourth no. 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16, it’s actually just a good basketball team rather than an underdog, and that these are just quality wins rather than luck-tinged upsets.
It felt like a welcome-to-the-spotlight moment when FAU’s Johnell Davis cursed on live TV after beating Fairleigh Dickinson. He caught himself immediately and apologized—but clearly the Conference USA sophomore wasn’t used to speaking off the cuff on national TV. Sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl expertly coaxed him through the slipup, encouraging him to keep going and noting that a curse is OK because “we’re on truTV.” (Is Impractical Jokers R-rated, and I didn’t know about it?)
Johnell Davis: “I’ve been trying to prove this shit since Day 1 … oh no.”@JamieErdahl: “That’s alright we’re on TruTV, man.”— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) March 20, 2023
But as it turns out, even an experienced March Madness vet can make the same mistake. Gonzaga’s Drew Timme is now in his 37th men’s NCAA tournament—it’s actually just his third, but it certainly feels like his 37th—but he also swore on TV. (This one happened on TBS. If anybody swears on CBS, it could be an issue.)
"I'm like, we cannot be the team that fucks this one up."- Gonzaga star Drew Timme #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/COQ0ux12Sn— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) March 20, 2023
But unlike Davis, Timme wasn’t apologetic—or like he was last year, when he fought really, really, really, really hard to keep from cursing during a postgame interview. As CBS’s Matt Norlander explained in his profile of Gonzaga’s living legend, the dude just really likes saying the f-word. And after a few dozen men’s NCAA tourneys, he doesn’t care too much about avoiding bad language on TV. It’s like how your grandma swears more than your mom—when you’re old enough, you realize you’re done wasting time caring about what other people think.
Winner: Eric Muscle-man
Most basketball coaches used to wear suits. Just look at pictures of Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman during his broadly unsuccessful stints in the NBA, when he was head coach of the Kings and Warriors. He looked uncomfortable, swimming in poorly tailored jackets with way too much fabric for his 5-foot-7 frame. But the sideline suit has fallen out of fashion in the last decade or so. (I think the post-pandemic sweatpantification of society just about finished it off—Iona’s Rick Pitino is just about the lone holdout.) Musselman has looked a lot comfier since joining the college ranks in 2015, roaming the sidelines in a much more sensible polo shirt or other team-issued gear. But it seems like he’d ideally like to be wearing no clothing at all—as evidenced by the way he instantly shed his shirt after Arkansas beat 1-seed Kansas in Saturday’s battle of -ansases.
Arkansas is going to the Sweet 16. I deserve hazard pay for this pic.twitter.com/gcG5ktSVSg— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) March 18, 2023
Musselman has been taking his shirt off for years now—in fact, it was the primary focus of Katie Baker’s 2018 profile from his time as head coach at Nevada. (Baker compared the coach to “a toddler who urgently needs you to know that he has a belly button.”) When Musselman’s Wolf Pack won the Mountain West? He lifted his shirt up so his wife could write “MW champs” on his chest in Sharpie. When they beat Cincinnati to reach the 2018 Sweet 16? He was shirtless before his players could start dousing him with water. When the Razorbacks took down top-ranked Auburn at home last year? Musselman somehow managed to get his shirt off within seconds of the final buzzer despite the fact that he’d recently had shoulder surgery and his arm was in a sling. Musselman’s abs are a sign of March, like the return of leaves to trees and the first robin of spring.
He doesn’t do it because he’s ripped. (The haunting art on that 2018 Ringer profile notably does not give him a six-pack.) He does it because he’s got a lot to celebrate. In eight years as a college head coach, Musselman’s teams have made the NCAA tournament in six of the seven years when there was a tourney, and in the one year his team didn’t get into March Madness, his squad won the CBI. He took Nevada to its second Sweet 16 in school history and has been to the Elite Eight in back-to-back years at Arkansas, despite being a 7-seed or lower every year but one. With one more win in this tournament, he can make it three in a row. Is there a “no shirt, no service” line in the NCAA rule book saying he can’t just coach the whole game shirtless?
Loser: 3-Point Shooting
The official sound of this NCAA men’s tournament is CLANG! The best teams in college basketball can’t hit a 3. The two biggest upsets of the tourney—16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson over 1-seed Purdue and 15-seed Princeton over 2-seed Arizona in the first round—featured the higher-ranked teams going ice-cold from behind the arc: The Boilermakers went 5-for-26 from 3-point range, and the Wildcats shot 3-for-16.
Through the first 42 games of the tournament, teams shot 30.6 percent from 3, according to Jeff Goodman of Stadium. That’s significantly below the Division I average this season of 34 percent. You’d expect the opposite to be true, since most teams that get into March Madness are, you know, good at shooting. The field of 68 included three of the top four teams in 3-point shooting percentage, five of the top 10, and 19 of the top 50; 36 of the tourney teams shot above that national average, while just 21 were below it. (San Diego State made exactly 34 percent of its 3-point attempts heading into the tournament.)
By my count, eight teams (Colgate, Iowa State, NC State, Northern Kentucky, Texas, Texas Southern, Virginia, and Xavier) had their worst 3-point shooting games of the year in this tournament. Colgate was the only team in Division I to shoot over 40 percent from 3 for the season; it went 3-for-15 against Texas.
It feels like there are two possible explanations: The first is that the tourney is played in some arenas that aren’t typically used for college basketball—like Legacy Arena in Birmingham and Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Four balls got stuck in the rim at Des Moines, and arena officials in Greensboro had to repeatedly adjust the rim to ensure it was level. But the poor shooting is also happening at sites where both NBA and college teams do play.
The culprit could also be the ball. Last year, fans noticed that the ball used at the NCAA tournament was extremely orange, and it turned out they were onto something. Wilson had debuted a new ball for the tournament and chose to make it highlighter orange so it showed up better on TV. Then, last year’s men’s tournament had the worst 3-point percentage of any tourney since the 3-point line was introduced—it will be the second worst if this year’s trend continues. During the regular season, home teams provide their own balls, and studies have found that players shoot worse when playing against an opponent that uses a different brand of balls (leading to some coaches choosing to use obscure brands for additional home-court advantage). But some schools do use normal orange versions of the Wilson ball during the regular season, and those teams are also shooting poorly in the tourney.
Whatever the explanation is, the 3-point shooting stinks. Good defense is fun to watch—but that’s not what’s happening. Teams are simply missing their deep shots.
Winner: NYC Guard Homecomings
New York City is the mecca of basketball. Just ask New Yorkers like me—and also ignore the fact that the Knicks haven’t won a playoff series in a decade, that the Nets have been frauds since the day they came to Brooklyn, that we don’t have any good college programs, and that the last born-and-raised New Yorker to make an NBA All-Star team was Kemba Walker. We’re still the mecca of basketball! New Yorkers love hoops and can’t stop talking hoops, and there are people playing hoops in playgrounds across the city at all hours. The eyes of the basketball world will be on NYC next week when the East Regional is held at Madison Square Garden—and a couple NYC natives made sure they’ll be playing.
Kansas State plays in Manhattan—Manhattan, Kansas, the Little Apple—but their key cog comes from the Big Apple. Harlem native Markquis Nowell is the star point guard for the Wildcats, ranking second in Division I in assists per game. (In case you need more evidence he’s from New York, his Instagram handle is @mr.newyorkcity.) At just 5-foot-8, Nowell has to have a full suitcase of pristine handles, crafty layups, and slick passes to thrive—and he emptied the whole bag on Kentucky on Sunday. He had a bunch of head-turning passes, including this behind-the-back dime for a clean layup in transition:
NOWELL THE PASS ➡️ KEYONTAE THE FINISH— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 19, 2023
SHOWTIME FOR KANSAS STATE #MarchMadness @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/fLbgCq4FEp
But the mini magician from multiple Manhattans really exploded down the stretch. He scored 16 of Kansas State’s final 26 points and assisted on six of the other 10 points. Nowell’s burst of brilliance allowed the Wildcats to outscore the, uh, other Wildcats by 10 points in the final four minutes, turning a four-point deficit into a six-point win and a trip to the Sweet 16.
NOWELL AGAIN OH MY GOODNESS ☔️#MarchMadness @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/a9NA75YYmF— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 19, 2023
Next up on Sunday’s slate was Michigan State versus Marquette, with the Golden Eagles hoping to return to MSG after winning the Big East tourney there last week. But they ran into another New Yorker: Spartan guard Tyson Walker. (Technically, Walker is from Long Island, but he played for Christ the King in Queens—the alma mater of Lamar Odom, Sue Bird, and others—so he’s got NYC cred.) Walker had a team-high 23 points, including seven of the final nine. As Marquette tried to rally in the last minute, Walker stole the ball and dunked for the first time in his career:
Tyson Walker said postgame that his second-half dunk was the first he's pulled off in his career in-game — much to the surprise of coach Tom Izzo.— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) March 20, 2023
Walker: "I ain't never dunked in a game."
Izzo: "Never dunked?"
Walker: "Nah, but I went for it." pic.twitter.com/fD8FTe4GkC
Nowell told reporters that he hasn’t been back to New York in three years, as he has pursued his hoops dreams at Kansas State. He’ll be going head-to-head with Walker next week in their shared hometown. There were no reports of players from Las Vegas, Louisville, or Kansas City dominating games down the stretch to ensure they play their Sweet 16 games at home, so there you have it: NYC is the mecca of basketball.
The NCAA tourney is the biggest non-football event of the year in sports. Eighty-two of the top 100 most-watched telecasts of 2022 were NFL games, including 19 of the top 20, and then there were five college football games also in the top 100. But two Final Four games cracked the list, tying the World Cup and Olympics, which obviously don’t happen every year. This is basketball’s time to shine, even more so than the NBA Finals, which didn’t have a single appearance in the top 100. Finally, a chance for college basketball to seize the spo—ahhh, DAMMIT, we let football into the basketball.
The basketball coach drawing football plays.— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) March 20, 2023
My man was so excited he didn’t take a single breath pic.twitter.com/1vnFEkVt6s
Kansas State running a WR Now Screen out of 3x1 pic.twitter.com/lIjyVChyPp— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) March 20, 2023
When a team is inbounding the ball from under its own basket in a late-game, likely-to-foul situation, it has become popular in recent years to run a football-style play in which a “QB” stays behind the “line of scrimmage” while four “wide receivers” break down the court and run routes to get open. It creates a bit of chaos, and perhaps more important, the players like running it because everyone likes football so much. “You always want to put things in that will excite your guys and get them fired up,” Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen explained. “Part of it is that they’re always throwing the ball around the gym, catching it with two feet inbounds, acting like they’re quarterbacks and wide receivers anyway.” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang revealed that his team’s football play is named after Patrick Mahomes. (Kind of an insult to the rocket-armed, Kansas-adjacent hero since the design is essentially a screen pass.)
Here's Jerome Tang on Kansas State's bubble screen inbound play inspired by #Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. pic.twitter.com/h2encevQVD— PJ Green (@PJGreenTV) March 19, 2023
Not only has the most popular sport in America taken over a part of our lovely little niche, but basketball teams have also given in to another critical element of football culture: trick plays with cutesy nicknames.
To keep the scourge of football from encroaching any further on March Madness, I’d like to explain the trick to these types of plays so that any opponent defending in this scenario can break up the pass or even secure an interception: The whole goal of the football play is to inbound the ball to a guy who is good at shooting free throws. That means every team that runs it is just having their worst free throw shooters sprint downcourt to distract defenses while the guy who is good cuts back to get the ball. So keep safeties in deep zone coverage (single high will probably work; the court is small enough that one defender can probably break up any vertical routes) while your CBs play press man on the good free throw shooters. And keep one guy rushing the QB and trying to break up a pass at the LOS. Ah crap, it worked—this is football now.
Winner: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark
It’s understandable that people focus on Iowa guard Caitlin Clark’s absurd scoring. She is the NCAA’s all-time leader in points per game and has led Division I in scoring in two of her three seasons. (She was edged out for that honor this year by Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who scored 35 points in Nova’s win over Cleveland State on Saturday.) Clark regularly pulls up from 30-plus feet in completely unnecessary scenarios—and drills it, like she did in Sunday’s second-round game against Georgia.
Caitlin Clark has the green light from the logo— ESPN (@espn) March 19, 2023
: ABC pic.twitter.com/wWHCVTsHiW
Yet after that logo 3, Clark struggled to score against the Bulldogs. (Relative to her normal scoring, at least.) She had just 22 points, tied for her seventh-worst performance of the year. But Clark isn’t just the all-time leader in points per game—she also ranks fourth in assists. And although her shots (well, some of them) weren’t falling on Sunday, she still led the Hawkeyes to a win and a spot in the Sweet 16. Iowa scored 33 points in the second half to stave off a tough upset bid from the Bulldogs. Thirty-one of those were either scored or assisted by Clark; the other two were free throws. Clark was the offense.
Caitlin Clark's scoring is one thing but again the passing. pic.twitter.com/IDDsuoqcjg— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 19, 2023
Good players are great on their best days. Superstars are great even on their bad days. And that’s why Clark has Iowa headed to the Sweet 16 again.
The best and worst part of the women’s NCAA tournament is the fact that the first two rounds are hosted by the top seeds rather than played at neutral sites. The atmosphere is incredible, with the fans of the best teams in the sport getting rowdy for their biggest games of the year. But all those hyped-up fans provide a huge home-court advantage, which makes upsets few and far between.
Take Stanford, which entered this year’s tournament on a 14-year streak of Sweet 16 appearances—that’s 28 home wins against lower-seeded opponents. This year, they earned a no. 1 seed, led by All-Americans Haley Jones and Cameron Brink. Every women’s no. 1 seed since 2010 had made the Sweet 16—that’s 96 home wins against lower-seeded opponents. On Sunday, Stanford hosted Ole Miss, a no. 8 seed that had lost every single game it played against ranked opponents this year. It was a formality.
Unfortunately for Stanford, Ole Miss’s preferred style of basketball is “make your opponent’s life a living hell.” They haunted passing lanes, the glass, and the nightmares of every Stanford player for the rest of their lives. Stanford tied its season high with 21 turnovers and allowed 20 offensive rebounds while hitting a season-low two 3-pointers. The Rebels didn’t hit a lot of shots, but they kicked a lot of ass. With the game tied in the final minute, Ole Miss forced back-to-back-to-back turnovers and handed Stanford an unthinkable loss.
PICKED OFF!! pic.twitter.com/1YBJp1M7eJ— Ole Miss Women's BB (@OleMissWBB) March 20, 2023
And perhaps Ole Miss unlocked a new type of achievement, something that could become one of the best things about the women’s tourney: Only in this format can you go into the house of one of the best teams in the country and end its season.
Winner: Fairleigh Dickinson and Friends
We don’t get to stay close with our March friends forever. Eventually, all the Cinderellas go home. Only one team gets to end its season with a win, and it’s probably not going to be a team with a double-digit seed. We get them to sign a yearbook—actually, it’s a song—and we say we’ll remember them forever, and maybe we will. But we don’t stay in touch. Did you watch any Saint Peter’s games this year? How about Loyola-Chicago? Do you still know what “UMBC” stands for?
Fairleigh Dickinson’s clock struck midnight on Sunday. I actually thought the no. 16 seed played a more complete game in the second round than it did in the first—its upset over Purdue was a game almost entirely built around annoying Zach Edey and forcing his teammates to win the game; to stay close they had to hit shots and get boards and defend everybody on the court in addition to playing their tiring full-court press. They rallied back from a double-digit first-half deficit to seize the lead late against Florida Atlantic, and there was a second when I really believed they’d advance to the tournament’s second weekend. My heart swelled with pride seeing a team I had no emotional attachment to 48 hours ago grow into something even bigger than before:
CAMERON TWEEDY GIVES FDU THE LEAD BACK #MarchMadness @FDUKnightsMBB pic.twitter.com/rGRXcaUwcS— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 20, 2023
But they eventually lost the FAU-FDU matchup nobody had predicted. We waited over 30 years for the first 16-over-1 NCAA upset; we can wait a little longer for the first 16-seed to reach the Sweet 16.
FDU’s players and coaches believed they could beat Purdue, but Sunday we learned that … well … the school wasn’t quite prepared for a moment in the national spotlight. While Division I schools generally boast full athletic communications staffs of full-time employees, FDU has a do-it-all student, who was featured during the telecast:
Jordan Sarnoff is currently a junior at FDU, but he's already working as the Director of Athletic Media Relations for @FDUKnightsMBB, among other sports. @JamieErdahl has the story. pic.twitter.com/LBxqU237Ov— March Madness Men’s Basketball TV (@MM_MBB_TV) March 20, 2023
While other schools have pep bands, FDU doesn’t. The school hired the University of Dayton’s band, which learned FDU’s fight song minutes before tip-off and bought a bunch of fake swords—to cheer on the Knights, get it. But the best twist of all? With no band, FDU’s players didn’t actually know the school had a fight song.
FDU doesn't have a band, so the University of Dayton's band stepped up to help cheer on the Knights ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/k4vupCpwYo— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 20, 2023
FDU’s band of Dayton Flyers was a fitting representation of how this all works. When a Cinderella emerges, they quickly become America’s team, and we cheer loudly and proudly for a school we’ve never heard of. We play them songs that even they don’t recognize. They didn’t sign up to be an underdog hero—they just wanted to play some basketball and win some games—but it’s gotta feel pretty good to learn that you have a fight song, and somebody else is willing to play it to cheer you on. But there’s also a guaranteed expiration date. The Dayton Flyers band was always going to go back to being the Dayton Flyers band when this run ended, and we were always going to go back to our regular fandoms. FDU probably won’t even have any nationally televised games next year. And when another Cinderella comes out of nowhere to beat a 1-seed, we’ll cheer for them.
We are left with the memories of the time that we had Fairleigh Dickinson and Fairleigh Dickinson had us. Don’t let them slip away, because there’s nothing more special than the March Madness moment when we all sign up to play a fight song we’ve never heard before.