By Derek Gonzales
What. A. Month.
As March ends, we can finally catch our breath and gather our thoughts after the month brought us some of the most exhilarating moments of the basketball year. The round of 64 saw 10 double-seeded teams win a game, the most ever in the NCAA Tournament. Eight teams seeded 11th or worse won a game, and 13 games saw the lower-seeded team win. So much for that perfect bracket, right?
How We Got Here:
Let’s start with selection Sunday. Syracuse, who was coming off a 19-13 regular season in arguably the country’s toughest conference, was considered to be on the outside looking in. Though they ended the season losing five out of six, they were a considerably different team with Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim on the side line. (15-8 with Boeheim, 4-5 while he served nine game suspension.) That was enough to gain a 10 seed in the Midwest Region. Tulsa inexplicably was given an at-large bid with a pedestrian 20-11 record with its best win being against a Wichita State team that finished the regular season unranked.
As the first day of the tournament began, #2 seeded Michigan State faced #15 seeded Middle Tennessee State out of Conference USA. Michigan State featured Wooden National Player of the Year finalist Denzel Valentine, and 40 percent of ESPN brackets had the Spartans going to the Final Four. None of that meant much to the Blue Raiders, as they shocked America with a 90-81 win, becoming only the eighth 15th seed to move past the first round.
Northern Iowa beat top-ranked North Carolina early this year as well as Wichita State, and faced a Texas squad in the 6-11 matchup in the West region that had a surprisingly good year under first-year coach Shaka Smart. After Longhorn guard Isaiah Taylor tied the game at 72 with a drive to the basket with 1.7 seconds left, UNI’s Paul Jesperson took the inbounds pass and heaved a shot from half-court, banking it in and sending the Panthers onto the next round and put an abrupt end to Texas’ season.
You would think that Northern Iowa would be out of magic after the Texas game, but they faced three-seeded Texas A&M in the next round. Coach Billy Kennedy and the Aggies were back in the tournament for the first time in five years, but it appeared that they would be going back to College Station when they were down 69-57 with 35 seconds left. A&M applied vicious full-court pressure and it caused UNI to turn the ball over four times, none of which passed half-court, and the (other) Aggies scored 14 points in those 35 seconds to send the game into overtime. A&M would finally complete one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history with a 92-88 double overtime win.
As the Final Four approaches this weekend, who could have possibly had North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Villanova as the teams playing for the title in Houston? 1,140 ESPN bracket entries had these four teams in the Final Four, out of 13 million submitted brackets (.009 percent).
Syracuse has to be the most surprising team, the 10-seed that was on the bubble on Selection Sunday, and their 13 losses this season are tied for the most ever by a Final Four team. They went on a 21-2 run in the second half against top-seeded Virginia to turn a 56-43 deficit into a 64-58 lead en route to the win in the Regional Final.
Oklahoma flies into Houston on a high after beating the West Region’s top-seeded Oregon Ducks 80-68 in the Elite Eight. They have the tournament’s leading scorer in senior guard Buddy Hield, who is averaging 29.2 points in the four tournament games. Coach Lon Kruger is experienced in this situation, having led Florida to their first Final Four in 1994.
Villanova boasts a stingy defense that was key in beating Kansas 64-59 in the Elite Eight. The wildcats are ranked 15th in the nation in scoring defense and have five seniors in their rotation who contribute, including talented point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, and they’re only allowing 63.6 points per game, so it will be a classic offense vs. defense clash against the Sooners on Saturday.
North Carolina was the only one-seeded team able to survive the madness of the tournament to make it to Houston. As the pre-season number one team, they have had ups and downs, but appear to be peaking at the right time after averaging 89.2 points a game, up six points from their regular season average. Senior Marcus Paige is shooting the ball well, with a 48 percent average thus far in the tournament. They are imposing their up-tempo style on each team they face and are the Las Vegas favorite to come away with the title.
As it is sad to see March come to a close, it will be one to remember as this year’s Big Dance brought us more heart-wrenching moments than we have ever seen. Enjoy these last two games that the Final Four brings us this weekend, because as this month proved, absolutely anything can happen, and that’s what March Madness is all about.