Who shined the most in the final round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of winners and losers.
Winner: The UConn Non-Dynasty
There were no buzzer-beaters, no comebacks, and never really a moment when it looked like UConn might lose any of the six games it played in this NCAA tournament. The Huskies trailed in the second half of a game only once, and for about 40 seconds, in the entire tournament; their average margin of victory was 20 points. The Huskies’ shining moment was a solid month of squeezing the life out of their opposition. I think the most exciting play of their title game win over San Diego State was … this blown dunk? That’s how you know you’re the protagonists—even your misses are more interesting than everybody else’s makes.
April 4, 2023
The Huskies went up by double digits on SDSU after just 12 minutes of game time and kept it that way for most of the night. Their defense was too good, they crashed the offensive boards as usual, and they hit 89 percent of their free throws. There was a brief moment of drama when San Diego State cut the deficit to five points in the second half—I almost thought the Aztecs were going to cover the seven-point spread—but this was UConn’s championship, and it had been clear that it was UConn’s championship to win for most of the past two weeks.
And this year they were a 4-seed. They were dominant in November, dominant in December, went 3-5 in January, were dominant again in February, March, and into April. That January blip convinced people, notably, the NCAA selection committee, that they weren’t the best team in the sport. We shouldn’t pay so much attention to blips.
UConn has now won five championships in the past 25 years; nobody else has more than three. The Huskies have won titles with three coaches; they have switched from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference and back to the new Big East, in large part because none of the bigger leagues was interested in taking on the albatross that is their football program. There is no rhyme or reason connecting UConn’s basketball titles: 1999, 2004, 2011, 2014, 2023, like the handiwork of a drunk darts player. They have missed eight of the 23 NCAA tournaments since their first title: about 33 percent of the time, they are not one of the top 68 teams, and about 20 percent of the time, they are the best team.
College basketball is a sport of randomness, so it is fitting that it ends with a single-elimination tournament played primarily by teenagers. And so college basketball’s greatest program shouldn’t be one that wins every year. Perennial domination is dull—if you don’t believe me, rewatch UConn’s games from this year’s tournament. UConn understands the spirit of a sport that values short-term brilliance over everything. UConn is the uncle who goes off the grid for years at a time and then shows up for the best Thanksgiving ever; in a sports culture that worships dynasties, they’re on the Grover Cleveland plan. Every few years, these weirdos show up out of nowhere to be the best team in the sport.
Of course, UConn could do it again next year. Only one of its starters from this championship squad, Tristen Newton, is a senior; only one, sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins, is projected as a first-round pick in The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide. Their Most Outstanding Player, Adama Sanogo, should be back again. I need UConn to realize it can’t repeat. Go 13-18 and miss the NCAA tournament entirely, fire Dan Hurley, realign into the Horizon League, and come back to win the 2027 championship. All hail the Huskies, the on-again, off-again kings of March.
Loser: Whatever It Was SDSU Did on Offense
I will start by being nice: I picked San Diego State to make the Final Four! The Aztecs are incredible on defense! And as a fan of mid-major hoops, I was pulling for them throughout their improbable run to the national championship game. Their Final Four buzzer-beater to beat Florida Atlantic will go down in March Madness history, and the Aztecs should be proud.
But there is one big problem with SDSU as a basketball team: They are not very good at shooting the basketball through basketball hoops. At one point in the national title game, they missed 14 shots in a row, the most consecutive misses of any team in any game in the entire tourney. They shot 32.2 percent in the loss, and some credit certainly goes to a UConn team whose interior defense powered it throughout its championship run. But the Aztecs shot worse than 40 percent in three of their six tourney games, and their 32.2 percent on Monday night wasn’t even their worst shooting performance in the past month: They shot 20-for-63 (31.7 percent) in the Mountain West championship game against Utah State.
I was rooting for SDSU—and gosh, it was hard. There’s nothing more draining than getting your hopes up every single time a shot goes in the air and watching it clang away.
Winner: Jasmine Carson
The numbers say the hot hand isn’t real, that the concept of a shooting streak is just randomness over small sample sizes. But the numbers have never met Jasmine Carson, whose scorching hands won LSU the national title on Sunday.
JASMINE. CARSON.— ESPN (@espn) April 2, 2023
That's the tweet. pic.twitter.com/tMQvdEPd74
Carson is a fifth-year senior who had lost her shooting touch in the final month of her college career. After transferring from Georgia Tech to West Virginia and from West Virginia to LSU, she’d finally found a starting role with the Lady Tigers. She was their most consistent shooter—arguably their only consistent shooter—and peaked when she drilled seven 3s in a game against Florida. And then the consistency vanished: She went 0-for-6 from 3 in the regular-season finale against Mississippi State, missed every shot she took in the SEC tournament, and started off the NCAAs by going 0-for-4 from 3 in a first-round win over Hawai’i. Kim Mulkey benched her, and it looked like a smart call, as Carson was held scoreless in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four.
But LSU was going to need shooters against Iowa. For the second straight game, Iowa gambled that its opponents couldn’t or wouldn’t attempt 3-pointers. The strategy had worked against South Carolina, and LSU is even more 3-point averse than South Carolina is, ranking 350th out of 363 Division I teams in the rate of possessions ending in a 3-pointer. The Tigers were going to need someone to hit shots. Before the game, this LSU media member speculated it could be Carson—go bug him if you need lotto ticket numbers.
Jasmine Carson getting loose. A couple threes from her could change the game. pic.twitter.com/issrtHcXAT— Matthew Brune (@MatthewBrune_) April 2, 2023
Like Donte DiVincenzo but with cooler hair, Carson played the best game of her life in the biggest game of her life. Carson shot 5-for-5 from 3 in the first half, helping LSU build a 17-point halftime lead it wouldn’t give up. You could see the confidence and exuberance returning to her after one of the coldest shooting streaks of her life had exiled her to the bench; that energy flowed through her and into her teammates. Her last make was a banked buzzer-beater at the end of the second quarter, hammering home the fact that anything she threw up was going to go in:
JASMINE CARSON AT THE BUZZER pic.twitter.com/6Lw6KIM07w— Alex (@Dubs408) April 2, 2023
LSU hit seven combined 3s in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four. The Lady Tigers went 11-for-17 in the title game. The Hawkeyes gambled that LSU couldn’t shoot; Carson made them pay.
Newton’s Third Law of Taunting goes like this: For every athlete who adopts a signature taunt, there is another athlete who will throw an opposite and equal taunt back in their face. It has been proved time and again: when players sack Aaron Rodgers and do his “championship belt” celebration or when LeBron James cracked up while doing DeShawn Stevenson’s “I can’t feel my face” gag. It is especially useful when the originator of a signature taunt loses the biggest game of their life, like when Antoine Winfield Jr. won the Super Bowl with the Bucs and hit Tyreek Hill with the “deuces.” But even before Newton could prove his Laws of Taunting, philosophers had hypothesized on their existence. As Aristotle once said: Talk shit, get hit.
The taunt tolled for Caitlin Clark on Sunday. Over the course of March Madness, the Iowa guard set the record for the most points in an NCAA tournament, most assists in a women’s NCAA tournament, most 3s in an NCAA tournament, and most taunts in an NCAA tournament, hitting her unfortunate opponents with John Cena’s “You can’t see me” move. And after LSU defeated her Hawkeyes in the national title game, LSU’s All-American Angel Reese hit Clark with her own taunt:
ANGEL REESE TO CAITLIN CLARK pic.twitter.com/2NY0CEzwJ3— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 2, 2023
What made Caitlin Clark so fun to watch all season long is that everything she does requires an over-the-top level of confidence: You need to be really sure of yourself when you shoot from the logo, because nothing looks dumber than a bricked 40-footer. The same goes for her trash talk: It’s thrilling when she talks the talk and walks the walk because we know the risk if she can’t back it up.
Reese and the Tigers flipped it on her. We watch sports for moments like this, when a player’s confidence pays off or backfires. Some people were upset by Reese’s gesture; these people either don’t understand what makes sports enjoyable or, more likely, are just trying to get your attention, but in either case, they should probably be ignored. LSU did what nobody else could and outshot the best shooter in the nation; Clark’s celebration is theirs now.
Loser: Women’s Refs
Fans of every sport seem to think they have the worst refs. NFL fans have laundry lists of incomprehensible taunting and roughing-the-passer calls; baseball fans are actively trying to replace their umps with robots; NBA players happily eat tens of thousands of dollars in fines to complain about specific refs; college sports fans have opinions about which conferences have the worst refs; soccer fans, hockey fans, and so on and so forth have the same takes. It’s bad refs all the way down.
All of these people need to watch women’s college basketball, where officials yearn to take over games and force players to adhere to their own personal opinions about how players should behave on the court. Both were on display Sunday, as the officials called 37 fouls—it didn’t seem like a particularly physical game, just 40 minutes of bad ticky-tack calls followed by bad ticky-tack calls on the other team to keep things even.
Both teams were affected. LSU’s Reese and Kateri Poole both picked up two fouls in the first quarter. The All-American Reese played just 29 minutes, basically the only non-blowout all season long in which she played so little. Iowa watched its second- and third-leading scorers, Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock, respectively, both foul out. Czinano was particularly important for Iowa in the paint and represented Iowa’s only hope of going head-to-head with LSU’s powerful post players; Czinano’s backup, Addison O’Grady, played a season-high 18 minutes.
There were plenty of egregious calls, but none was worse than when Caitlin Clark received a technical for … lightly tossing the ball behind her back when there was no official present.
"Here's the T on Caitlin Clark... I mean... you have GOT to be kidding me." - @RyanRuocco— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) April 2, 2023
"No player in this game should get a technical foul for that." - @RebeccaLobo pic.twitter.com/qQuJD6bUTz
By rule, it was a failure to immediately return the ball to a referee after a warning; in reality, it gave the most exciting player in the game a fourth foul for a delay of game that didn’t actually delay the game at all. (Play was stopped while everybody waited for LSU to shoot a free throw.) Clark spent the last quarter of the game matador-ing away from steal attempts, knowing she couldn’t risk getting disqualified.
Women’s college hoops officiating is a joke—literally, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball joked about how bad the officiating was days before the title game. The NCAA’s former head of men’s basketball officiating told The Athletic on Monday that “There is not perfect officiating anywhere ever, but, man, that was awful.” I don’t think anything would’ve changed the outcome of the game, but it would’ve been fun to see the players we tuned in to watch on the court instead of seeing them on the bench.
Winner: Jim Nantz
This was the final Final Four for CBS’s Jim Nantz, who has been calling the event since 1991. He’ll hold on to the assignment that CBS wants him to do (the NFL) and the assignment that he wants to do (the Masters), but this was it for his career as a college basketball announcer.
Nantz is not the best hoops announcer—he doesn’t call the sport outside of March, and pretty clearly has other interests—and even though he’s voiced dozens of the biggest and best college basketball games of all time, he doesn’t really have any iconic calls. The closest I can think of is his IT ALMOST WENT IN! ALMOST WENT IN! after Gordon Hayward’s close-but-not-quite 50-footer against Duke, and even then he kinda rushed the moment so he could get to his tradition of doing a dorky little pun as the confetti falls (“Duke is the King of the Dance!”). He’s not particularly excitable, which the tourney calls for. I’d argue we’re in for an upgrade when Ian Eagle takes over as CBS’s lead announcer next year.
But what Jim Nantz does better than anybody is familiarity. He signs on to every game by calling us his friends, he is perennially warm and even-keeled. If it was easy to come across as friendly and relatable, as Nantz does on air, every announcer would do it—and that feeling is essential as the NCAA tournament winds to a close. Over the years, March Madness transformed from a quaint tournament for amateurs into a billion-dollar event—but when Nantz segues into One Shining Moment, that homeyness returns. We remember we’re watching a bunch of kids having the greatest month of their lives.
And so it’s fitting that the highlight of the last night of Nantz’s college hoops broadcasting career wasn’t a climactic call, but an earnest, voice-cracking soliloquy about humanity: “Everybody has a dream, and everybody has a story to tell—just try to find that story. … be kind. … Thank you for being my friend.”
"Thank you for being my friend"— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) April 4, 2023
One final goodbye from Jim Nantz at the #NationalChampionship pic.twitter.com/mRgtmyQKU8
Goodbye, friend. Enjoy the golf.