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.
Loser: No. 1 Seeds
Nobody is better at filling out a bracket than the NCAA selection committee, as 1-seeds have historically outperformed everybody else in the tourney. From the introduction of the 64-team bracket for the men’s tournament in 1985, 24 out of 37 national champions and exactly half of the 74 title game participants have been 1-seeds. Even as college basketball has entered its Upset Era, 1-seeds have thrived: 12 of the last 15 national champs were 1-seeds, including the last five. We’re more likely to get an NCAA title game with two 1-seeds (seven times since 1985), guaranteeing a chalk champion, than we are to get a Final Four with zero 1-seeds (just three times since 1985).
But the reign of the highly ranked is over. For the first time in NCAA history, none of the 1-seeds even made the Elite Eight. Overall top seed Alabama lost to San Diego State on Friday, outhustled and outmuscled by an Aztecs squad that could barely hit a shot but held the Crimson Tide to 32.4 percent shooting:
SAN DIEGO STATE CAN FEEL IT #MarchMadness @Aztec_MBB pic.twitter.com/8cFbX3z9EW— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2023
And then Miami upset the Houston squad, which was ranked first in the nation for large swaths of the season, shooting 11-for-25 from 3 and spoiling the Cougars’ dreams of playing in the Final Four in their hometown. I couldn’t even find a good highlight to include here because Miami won so comfortably, leading by as many as 17 points:
.@CanesHoops is headed BACK to the Elite 8 as Miami takes down the remaining No. 1 seed Houston.— CBS Sports College Basketball (@CBSSportsCBB) March 25, 2023
There are now NO No. 1 seeds in the Elite 8 for the FIRST TIME EVER‼️ pic.twitter.com/M5Nx8YPmwS
The other two 1-seeds, Purdue and Kansas, didn’t even make the Sweet 16 this year. What we have left is a tourney unlike any we’ve ever seen. The only team remaining in the field that has ever won a national championship is UConn, who has won four titles but last made the Elite Eight in 2014. Roughly half the teams that are still alive have no history of any kind on this stage: We have two first-time Elite Eight participants in San Diego State and Florida Atlantic—the Aztecs are the first team from the entire Mountain West Conference to ever make it this far—as well as a Creighton squad, which had only reached the Elite Eight in 1941, before anybody called it the Elite Eight, because there were only eight teams in the field to begin with and also because nobody really talked about the NCAA basketball tournament because it was 1941 and nobody had TVs because it was 1941. Miami hadn’t reached the Elite Eight before doing so last year. The highest remaining seed is no. 2 Texas, which is being led by interim head coach Rodney Terry after firing its head coach in January; the Longhorns’ last Elite Eight appearance was in 2008.
For all the talk about upsets and Cinderellas, what typically happens in the tourney is an opening weekend of excitement when the East State Tech Sasquatches pull an upset on a last-second buzzer-beater before the same blue-blood programs from the same power conferences take over during the Sweet 16 and end up cutting down the nets when the whole thing is over. This tournament not only brought some of the greatest first-round upsets ever, but schools and conferences that are historically overlooked are battling it out as we head toward the Final Four. Finally, the tournament has delivered a whole month of madness.
Loser: Mateen Cleaves
Hoops at Madison Square Garden always brings out celebrities—for a Knicks home game, it’s always, like, Ben Stiller, the guy who played Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos, and whoever was the lead guest on The Tonight Show last night. But as a sports obsessive, I was actually more starstruck by the array of celebs who turned out for Michigan State–Kansas State at the Garden Thursday night. I was seated directly in front of the MSU booster section, which featured two NFL head coaches (Jets coach Robert Saleh and former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur), the current and former MSU head football coaches (Mel Tucker and Mark Dantonio), new Suns owner Mat Ishbia, and a who’s who of former Spartans turned pro stars from the NFL (like Plaxico Burress) and NBA (Steve Smith).
On the Kansas State side was … Cam’ron. (Well, Cam’ron and Ma$e, but primarily Cam’ron.) Wearing a Kansas State football jersey, a Diplomats hoodie, and enough chains to fund the entire Miami NIL collective, the Purple Haze rapper was cheering on K-State’s purple haze because of the surprising number of Harlem-raised players that went from Manhattan to Manhattan, Kansas. (Asked what it was like to have a Harlem hero cheering him on, K-State’s Nae’Qwan Tomlin quoted me a line from the Diplomats’ “Dipset Anthem.”)
K-State’s star is 5-foot-8 point god Markquis Nowell, a player so New York that if you cut him, the white sauce/hot sauce combo that you ask the guy at the halal cart to put on your chicken over rice would ooze out. MSU didn’t cut Nowell, but it did injure his ankle—and Nowell bounced back and set the record for assists in an NCAA tournament game. The record-tying assist came in a tied game with a minute left in overtime on a no-look alley-oop pass. Let me say that again: The record-tying assist came in a tied game with a minute left in overtime on a no-look alley-oop pass.
Markquis Nowell is now tied for most assists ALL TIME in an NCAA Tournament game (18). #MarchMadness @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/JtQ9mlrsKv— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
There’s not that much for me to say that I didn’t write in my article about Nowell on Friday. He is a first-ballot entrant into the Hall of Tiny March Madness Legends alongside Earl Boykins, Tyus Edney, and Khalid El-Amin. Hang that child-size-large jersey in the rafters!
Nowell kept balling against MSU because he needed to win all the arguments he was having. “When people start talking to him, that’s when he gets going even more,” K-State forward Keyontae Johnson told me. One of the people Nowell was jawing with was Mateen Cleaves, the 2000 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. I could see them yelling back and forth at each other for most of the second half—but I didn’t see that before the alley-oop, Nowell looked at Cleaves and said “Watch this,” a tidbit Nowell confirmed in a postgame press conference.
But Nowell didn’t realize he was talking shit to a two-time All-American. He admitted he recognized Isiah Thomas, one of Ishbia’s employees with the Suns, but thought Cleaves was just one of Thomas’s friends—not one of the most successful players in college hoops history. It makes sense: Nowell was born in December 1999 and was about three months old when Cleaves led MSU to the title. (This may also be why I—a 32-year-old—was more excited to see Cam’ron than all the players who were literally two years old when “Hey Ma” came out in 2002.) Cleaves won plenty of games for MSU—but a new tourney Nowell only knew him as the guy who lost the Spartans the game from the stands via trash talk.
Winner: Miami’s NIL Strategy
Last offseason, Miami booster and billionaire John Ruiz reached a pair of very public deals with athletes transferring to play basketball for the Hurricanes—both Name Image and Likeness deals, which were questioned for their size and efficacy as college sports fans come to terms with the once-taboo topic of paying athletes cash. (The NCAA was also curious.)
On the men’s side, Ruiz agreed to pay $400,000 per year to Nijel Pack, a transfer from Kansas State. Hypothetically at least, the deal paid Pack to appear in advertisements for Ruiz’s company LifeWallet, although it’s hard to imagine anybody buying … whatever LifeWallet is …. because of Pack’s endorsement; we can all generally agree the deal was a way to entice Pack to play for Miami. Pack was first-team all–Big 12 at Kansas State last year, but he wasn’t considered to even be the best player in the transfer portal—that was Tyrese Hunter, who left Iowa State for Texas, or Kendric Davis, who switched from TCU to Memphis. And the massive size of Pack’s deal apparently caused dissension within Miami’s team—star Isaiah Wong reportedly threatened to transfer unless he got a similar deal, although he didn’t end up following through.
On the women’s side, Ruiz worked deals with twin sisters Haley and Hanna Cavinder, a pair of Fresno State transfers. Although Haley was named Mountain West player of the year last season, the Bulldogs finished 11-18 and failed to reach the NCAA tourney when the twins were at Fresno; their real value seemed to stem more from their massive social media fame—they currently have 4.5 million followers on TikTok—than their on-court performance. (The NCAA did wind up punishing Miami head coach Katie Meier for the Cavinders’ NIL deal with Ruiz and LifeWallet—though not because of the deal itself but because NCAA investigators reportedly found that Ruiz broke a rule by treating the twins to a meal.)
But both deals have paid off in the tourney. For the men, Pack drilled seven 3s and scored a season-high 26 points in Miami’s upset win over top-seeded Houston:
Nijel Pack went OFF to lead Miami past Houston for a spot in the Elite 8 @NijelPack24 pic.twitter.com/O4cY3alx4N— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) March 25, 2023
The performance earned a postgame smooch from head coach Jim Larrañaga:
Jim Larrañaga kissed Nijel Pack after Miami's win over Houston #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/OXhmHJynEH— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2023
And after the women beat Indiana at Indiana to become just the third team in the last 25 years to beat a 1-seed in the second round last week, they toppled Maddy Siegrist, the nation’s leading scorer, and Villanova in the Sweet 16 on Friday. Haley Cavinder is the team’s leading scorer on the season, though the star on Friday was Jasmyne Roberts, who scored a career-high 26 points including the game-winning bucket:
COUNT IT! ✌️ more for @CanesWBB#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/FtsY7dXYpR— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 24, 2023
Friday was easily the greatest day in Miami hoops history: Neither team had reached the Elite Eight before last year. Now the men are the only team in the nation to appear in the Elite Eight in both of the last two seasons, and the women have become the upset stars of the tournament en route to their first Elite Eight ever. College sports spent decades demonizing the very concept of paying athletes, but now one thing is clear: Ruiz is getting a bargain, even if I still don’t know what a LifeWallet is.
Loser: Brandon Miller and Alabama
Alabama’s loss to San Diego State falls broadly on the shoulders of Brandon Miller, the star freshman forward who carried the Crimson Tide for much of the season. Miller played one of the worst games of his short college career, scoring just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting. He couldn’t hit shots, he couldn’t drive, and he had twice as many turnovers (six) as assists (three).
The lanky scorer stunk all tourney. He was held scoreless against 16-seed Texas A&M–Corpus Christi in the first round and shot just 5-for-17 against Maryland. In his three tourney games, he shot a combined 8-for-41—the lowest shooting percentage ever for any player with at least 35 shots in a single tournament. The likely explanation is that he was still suffering from a groin injury suffered in the SEC tourney—it was reported that he wasn’t 100 percent—but he didn’t look physically hampered in these games. He just looked like a guy who couldn’t get a bucket.
Miller is the no. 2 prospect in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide and by far the most famous draft prospect in the tournament—many of the top prospects aren’t even playing college hoops or played smaller roles on worse college teams than Miller’s. At least one Final Four participant has been a top-10 pick in every draft since 2006; this year all the likely lottery picks have been eliminated before the Elite Eight.
And then there’s the thing briefly mentioned in hushed tones on tourney broadcasts: Miller also became nationally infamous when his teammate Darius Miles was charged with capital murder for the January shooting death of Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother. Police have said Miller drove the murder weapon to Miles and was present at the scene of the shooting. The official story, from both police in Tuscaloosa and the Alabama basketball program, is that Miller didn’t know Miles’s gun was in his car, and that Miller couldn’t have possibly known that said gun was going to be used in a crime, which is why Miller hasn’t been charged with anything. Even in the scenario that Miller was just a witness to a tragic murder, his final few months as a college player were tainted by the lingering sense that Alabama, and especially head coach Nate Oats, had done everything in its power to keep Miller’s presence at the scene of the shooting quiet to ensure its star player could keep playing. I would’ve canceled some games after a player on the team allegedly killed someone—if for no other reason than to let the facts come out and allow the team to cope with everything. But Alabama cut Miles and played on; Miller had 30 points against Vanderbilt about 36 hours after the shooting.
In this tourney, Miller looked less like a future pro star and more like a teenager crumbling under the simultaneous pressure of trying to carry a team deep into March and boost his draft stock while under a magnifying glass because of his (alleged and accidental) role in a young woman’s death. His final college games will raise questions about his skill set and his mindset. It always felt like Alabama was doing wrong by Harris by ensuring Miller played no matter what—and now that it hasn’t paid off, it’s fair to wonder whether it was the right thing to do for Miller and his team as well.
There aren’t a lot of NCAA tournament rivalries. A true college hoops rivalry is built by proximity of programs and repeated matchups, and by design, the NCAA tournament throws a bunch of teams from across the country in a blender. What are the odds that two programs would get paired up in a 68-team tourney—and then meet again in Marches to come? But Gonzaga and UCLA have now played four NCAA tournament games against each other, and three of them have been classics.
In 2006, the Bulldogs and Bruins met in the Sweet 16, with UCLA scoring the final 11 points to win 73-71—a game best remembered for Zags star Adam Morrison’s tearful breakdown before the game was even over. In 2021, the schools faced off in the Final Four, and Jalen Suggs canned a half-court buzzer-beater off the backboard to send Gonzaga to the title game. (The teams also met in the 2015 Sweet 16, a largely forgettable 12-point win for 2-seed Gonzaga.)
Thursday night was a chance for UCLA to even up this tournament series against Gonzaga. And it was another classic: Gonzaga overcame a 13-point first-half deficit, then late in the second half, UCLA overcame a 10-point deficit. The Bruins looked like they had they’d gotten the Zags back for the Suggs back-breaker on this cold-blooded Amari Bailey 3, taking the lead with 12 seconds to go:
AMARI BAILEY CLUTCH ❄️— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
UCLA LEADS WITH 12.2 REMAINING!!#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/ixcoWc11hx
But just like in 2021, Gonzaga answered back with a deep 3 from the logo that instantly became a part of March Madness lore. Trailing by just one point, any basket would’ve given the Zags the lead. Head coach Mark Few claimed the play was designed to get Julian Strawther going downhill—but the guard pulled up from midcourt. Swish—Gonzaga loves to beat UCLA from 35 feet or farther.
STRAWTHER FROM WAY DEEP— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
GONZAGA HAS THE LEAD #MarchMadness @ZagMBB pic.twitter.com/jBYf4gpn4q
The NCAA tourney feels so final: One team fights on and one team goes home. But the Gonzaga vs. UCLA perma-battle spread across many Marches is the closest thing we’ve got to a real March Madness rivalry. Even their buzzer-beaters happen in a flurry of back-and-forth shots. I’m looking forward to the Final Four showdown between these two in 2027 or so, ending with an 80-footer.
Loser: Kim Mulkey’s Stylist
Back in the 1800s the flamingo nearly went extinct as fashionable ladies paid exorbitant sums of money for their giant pink plumes to adorn hats. Apparently Louisiana State women’s coach Kim Mulkey is single-handedly keeping the illicit flamingo feather black market alive in 2023 so she can strut the NCAA tournament sidelines looking like Miami Vice Big Bird:
The Tigers are here to ruffle some feathers #MarchMadness x @LSUwbkb pic.twitter.com/vnME7brgrG— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 24, 2023
The Sweet 16 game between LSU and Utah was a thriller, with the Tigers emerging victorious after a pair of excruciating free throw misses by Utah’s Jenna Johnson. But it was legitimately hard to focus on the game when the ball came down to LSU’s side of the court because the human eye is naturally drawn to gigantic hot pink objects—it’s why they invented neon signs!
A little baseline basket from @palmerisabel11 #MarchMadness x @UTAHWBB pic.twitter.com/4PIiqiYXlh— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 24, 2023
Mulkey has always dressed colorfully. In 2019, Swish Appeal wrote about how she has long believed that women’s basketball players and coaches “have to look like ladies.” But that used to mean wearing a relatively normal outfit with a bright flair, like a highlighter-green blazer when she was at Baylor. Now she has a stylist—a stylist who must be punished. Against Hawai’i, Mulkey wore a sweater with “KISS ME I’M A QUEEN” stitched on in barely legible script font:
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Kim Mulkey— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 17, 2023
Normally I’d be happy to celebrate a successful coach with extremely questionable fashion taste. (Just last week, we highlighted a coach who prefers to wear no shirt at all!) But Mulkey is hard to celebrate; she had something like a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy for her gay players at Baylor—gay players like Brittney Griner who won her national titles—and she hasn’t really changed her opinion on that over the years. (She didn’t even acknowledge Griner’s return home from Russian prison.) It seems hypocritical to ask her players to hide who they are while she’s burning out our retinas so she can tell us exactly who she is.
Winner: Conference USA (for Now)
The NCAA selection committee clearly did not think very highly of Conference USA. Even though FAU went 31-3 and was ranked 13th in the committee’s NET ratings before the tournament, the Owls received a 9-seed and were the only C-USA team included in the tourney field. Now, that 9-seed is one of the last eight teams playing. FAU used lockdown defense and a second-half offensive run Thursday to storm past Tennessee and reach the school’s first Elite Eight. Immediately after the game at Madison Square Garden, the Owls were supposed to stay in their locker room to get interviewed by dorks like me, but as the media prepared to file in, the squad sprinted out to celebrate with their families. They don’t know any better, it’s their first time!
The FAU players all left the locker room to go into the stands to celebrate with fans/family. Overheard a MSG security guard defeatedly saying “this is… not what they’re supposed to do” pic.twitter.com/w5BYuGyjKd— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 24, 2023
And FAU isn’t the only C-USA team having postseason success. North Texas and Alabama Birmingham won road games against Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt to reach the semifinals of the NIT, and could potentially play each other in the title game in what would be a rematch of the C-USA semis. And Charlotte even won the CBI. It’s entirely possible for C-USA teams to win all three postseason basketball tournaments, which has obviously never happened before. Advanced stats heralded C-USA play all year long—FAU, UNT, and UAB are all ranked in the top 50 on KenPom—and the postseason performance is showing what people in the league already knew, even if the selection committee didn’t see it.
Unfortunately, C-USA’s tourney triumph will be short-lived. When Texas and Oklahoma announced they’d be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, they set in place a chain reaction, which caught the C-USA three dominoes in. The Big 12 added four schools from the American Athletic Conference, which led to the American taking six of C-USA’s 12 schools, including all four of the C-USA teams that thrived this month.
This is the way things work in the era of college realignment: Smaller conferences never actually get to reap the rewards of their success, as the teams responsible for that success move to the bigger leagues as soon as they get good enough. It’s always been this way. Memphis used to be in C-USA, but after its success under John Calipari, it headed up to the AAC. And you might assume that FAU will get to play with fellow Elite Eight participant Houston when it reaches the AAC—but just as the Cougars enjoyed the most successful season in their program history, they will leave the AAC for the Big 12. And their journey once started back in the C-USA as well.
The small league stays small not because it never has quality teams, but because everybody who is good leaves. The only thing C-USA gets to keep is all of the money from FAU’s tournament wins.