March Madness Winners and Losers
The greatest sporting event on Earth has come to an end and as always there were some teams who had a better three weeks than others. Ratings were up over 13% even though this tournament featured far fewer iconic moments than recent tournaments. Regardless, the tournament provided for plenty of drama and controversy and ended with North Carolina cutting down the nets in Glendale.
Winner: North Carolina
That’s right, the NCAA tournament champion is a winner. I’ll give you a second to pick your jaws up off the floor, but North Carolina and Roy Williams were able to win the sixth national championship in school history. North Carolina played a number of close games in the tournament and avenged last year’s gut-wrenching loss to Villanova. The biggest thing is that they did it with a very experienced team. In the age of the one-and-done trend, UNC and Roy Williams have not succumbed to that ideology and it finally paid off with a championship. Roy Williams also becomes just the sixth coach to win three or more championships. It wasn’t pretty by any means, and it took a break or two that we will discuss later, but UNC was able to gut it out and walk away with a championship.
If you were a Cinderella hoping to make a run, then this was not your year. Last year ten double-digit seeds made the Round of 32, whereas this year we only had five teams make the Round of 32. Many of the trendy mid-majors drew tough matchups and lost in the first round. Xavier, the lone double-digit seed to survive the first weekend, made it all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to Gonzaga. Xavier was better than the 11 seed they were given but they lost Edmond Sumner in January and didn’t finish the season strongly. The biggest Cinderella was probably South Carolina and we will get to them, but to me a true Cinderella is a double-digit seed.
The SEC catches a lot of flack for being a pretty average basketball conference outside of Florida and Kentucky, but this year they proved that they deserve some respect. Four of the five teams they got in (South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas) all won their first round games, and they all would have if Vanderbilt hadn’t committed one of the dumbest fouls in basketball history against Northwestern. Arkansas then went out in the next round after giving North Carolina all they could handle. Florida, South Carolina, and Kentucky all advanced to the Elite Eight before South Carolina knocked out Florida to reach the Final Four and Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the best game of the tournament. South Carolina eventually lost to Gonzaga in the Final Four but not until a 14-point rally nearly saw them sneak into the national championship.
The Gamecocks became the first SEC team not named Florida or Kentucky, to reach the Final Four since LSU did it in 2006. This was also the first time since 1986 that the SEC got three teams into the Elite Eight. The SEC could build on this momentum next year with Florida’s continual return to prominence, Kentucky’s continued dominance, South Carolina’s sudden rise, Alabama’s strong recruiting class, and plenty of returning talent on Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Auburn.
On the other side of the coin, the ACC failed to live up to lofty expectations. The ACC is widely considered the best college basketball conference in the country and they got nine teams into the tournament. Things didn’t go as planned and eight of the nine teams were eliminated by the end of the first weekend. Wake Forest lost in the First Four, and Miami and Virginia Tech lost in 8/9 seed matchups to Michigan State and Wisconsin, respectively. In the Round of 32, five seeds Virginia and Notre Dame lost to four seeds. Then the real upsets came when Duke (a two seed) fell to the tournaments dream team, South Carolina. Louisville (a two seed as well) fell to a red-hot Michigan team, and then Florida State (3) lost to the aforementioned Xavier team. However, North Carolina obviously survived and won the championship so it was not all bad for the ACC.
Winner: Frank Martin
I have been a big Frank Martin fan since Martin’s time at Kansas State with Jacob Pullen and his fantastic beard. Frank Martin has been able to go to two football crazy schools in South Carolina and Kansas State, and turn them into respectable basketball schools. At Kansas State, Frank Martin was able to win Kansas State’s first tournament game since 1988 and guide them to their first Elite Eight since that same season. At South Carolina, Martin has been able to win South Carolina’s first tournament game since 1973 and got the Gamecocks to their first ever Final Four. It is about time that Fiery Frank Martin got his due, and this run should not only put his name on the national radar, but South Carolina’s as well.
Loser: My Picks
If you were one of the three people that read my “Trust, Trash, or Trendy” piece before filling out your bracket, I am sorry. I said to trust Arizona (they lost to Xavier in Sweet 16), Gonzaga (got one right!), and Duke (lost to South Carolina in Round of 32). I said to trash Kentucky (made Elite Eight), Baylor (also made Elite Eight), and the Big 1o (three teams in Sweet 16). My trendy picks did not fair any better. ETSU and Vermont lost in the first round and Rhode Island and Middle Tennessee disappointed by going out in the Round of 32. In a year with few upsets, few upsets paid off, but my predictions seemed bad enough to warrant their own section.
Winner: Oregon Ducks
Oregon’s chances at a deep run seemingly took a huge blow when they lost senior anchor Chris Boucher to an ACL injury in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. They then got edged out by Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship and fell all the way to a three seed on Selection Sunday. Oregon did not have the toughest road (they faced a 14, 11, and 7 seed) but they still shocked many and made a run to the Elite Eight. Once there, they beat a Kansas team that had been blowing teams out all tournament to reach their first Final Four since 1939! The improbable run came to an end in crushing fashion against North Carolina, when the Tar Heels missed four straight free throws only up one, but Oregon failed to pull down the rebound either time. They shouldn’t hang their heads though, as they vastly exceeded expectations.
Loser: The First Weekend
Maybe we were spoiled last year or maybe it was just a down year, but this year’s opening two rounds were rather disappointing. It is not to say the games were bad, most were competitive, but there were few upsets, no overtime games, and no buzzer beaters. This is the greatest sporting event on Earth and any weekend with 48 games in four days is a good weekend, but it left a lot to be desired this year. As previously mentioned, ratings were way up and the latter rounds provided for a few thrilling and fantastic games so it is a moot point now, but here’s to hoping that next year’s first weekend re-captures that magic of March that we all love.
Double losers because these two are related. This tournament featured some some truly baffling officiating decisions. In the first round we learned that intentional fouls at the end of games could be called as flagrant 1 fouls, which have never been called that way ever, ever, ever:
In the second round we had the no-call on a goal tend in Gonzaga-Northwestern and then the no-call charge on Joel Berry in the UNC-Arkansas game. Neither of those games were necessarily won or lost on those no-calls but again the inconsistency was frustrating.
Then there was the championship game.
Maybe it was the game we deserved after such a “meh” tournament, but there were nearly as many fouls called (44) as field goals made (46). The first 12 minutes of the second half had no flow to it and resulted in the Gonzaga bigs being forced into foul trouble. Zach Collins was Gonzaga’s best player in the game and he missed nearly all of the second half after picking up his fourth foul with 15 minutes to go and then his fifth and final foul with just over five minutes to play. Then with 40 seconds to go and Gonzaga down one, a possession arrow was called (because of course it was) and awarded possession to North Carolina. The replay showed that UNC big man Kennedy Meeks had his full hand out of bounds with an official right over the play and nothing was called. And to top the whole thing off the play was not even reviewed! It was just a frustrating yet somehow appropriate end to the night and tournament that will leave Gonzaga fans deservedly bitter for a while.
Winner: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Now we get to the Bulldogs from Spokane, Washington. It was about time that Gonzaga made a Final Four. With all the great teams they have had over the last 15–20 years, the Final Four was the one thing that was holding them back. After a string of disappointing second round exits from 2010 to 2014, they were able to reach the Elite Eight in 2015 and then the Sweet Sixteen last year after a down season. This year’s team was one of the best they have ever had and they were able to reach the milestone that all the previous teams had failed to reach, and go one step farther and reach the championship game. Yes they lost, but as we just discussed they got hurt by the officiating and it was the wrong time for Przemek Karnowski to play his worst game of the season. Choose to remember the joy of reaching the Final Four Gonzaga fans, and don’t dwell on the fiasco that was the championship game.
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