BY MATT DE SARLE
The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament overcame COVID-19 in 2020-2021 to produce on of the best tournaments ever in March of 2021. This version of March Madness featured a Cinderella 15 seed (Oral Roberts) nearly making the Elite 8, ten double digit seeds making the field of 32, and one final upset for the record books. Historians will look back at how Baylor was actually the betting underdog in the championship game against Gonzaga. College basketball fans will look back at this tournament as yet another example of where specific annual traditions came back to life in a post-COVID world.
And we buried our lead about 2021’s March Madness. That’s because historic basketball icon UCLA actually made the Final Four as an 11 seed!
Despite the unusual year including quarantines and mask-wearing, college basketball observers shouldn’t be surprised by some of the normal antics. Here are 6 normal ingredients that renewed themselves as fixtures in a melting pot of madness.
6. Skaky Teams Get Shocked in The First Showdown
This happens literally every year. A team that has flirted with the AP Top 10 throughout the season gets bounced in the first pair of days. People look at the roster on paper and ask, “how can this happen?” This year was saw NBA draft pick Jericho Sims surrounded by a fleet of future (possible) lottery picks like Greg Brown and Kai Jones. You watched them lose at home down the stretch of the regular season to other in-conference mid-Top 25 AP programs like West Virginia and Texas Tech and ask “how is this happening?”
Oh, it’s happening. And it will happen again.
In 2021, it was 14-seeded Abilene Christian defeating a Texas Longhorns team that was inexplicable running on fumes down the stretch of the season.
With two losses in late February, and an early exit from the SEC Tournament, perhaps we should have saw the 2021-2022 Kentucky Wildcats struggling with 15 seed Saint Peters in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue is another team that lost to this same Saint Peter’s bunch. The Boilermakers also showed signs of trouble late in the season. They lost three games in the final two weeks of the regular season (at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, and home to Iowa).
Do we expect Purdue to be undefeated the final two weeks in a tough Big 10 gauntlet of a schedule? No.
Were the warning signs there for a team stacked with NBA talent? Yes.
Should we have seen an Elite 8 run for Saint Peters? Now, that’s a stretch.
5. Leading Scorers Nationwide Need Be Feared Regardless of Conference, Size
If CJ McCollum and Harold “The Show” Arceneaux haven’t taught us anything, then Max Abmas and the Oral Roberts Eagles have made it officially official. The scoring abilities of a guard who ranks top 5 (or first overall) in scoring nationwide can translate in the tournament.
Max Abmas and the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles flew into March Madness 2021 and 2023.
4. CBS Hosts a Questionable Yet Must-See TV Immediate Sunday Matchup
Wichita State basketball fans are still not over the let-down of losing to 8 seed Kentucky on Sunday, March, 23rd of 2014. Sorry, too soon? Yet, they have good company now this season with Illinois basketball fans.
Anyone who follows basketball, especially the inner workings of how the bracket is constructed, knows that 1 seeded Illinois had no business playing Loyola Chicago as a 9 seed just 72 hours into the tournament. And yet, it happened. Loyola Chicago was ranked in the neighborhood of the 10th best team in the nation when the tournament started, according to which poll you subscribe to. However, the Sunday matinee television programming of Sister Jean and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers renewing their Cinderella ways against an in-state foe was too flavorful for the NCAA to pass up.
Let me say this. I am a college basketball fan, so I want the NCAA and CBS to collaborate to create the best programming schedule possible. So I would stop short of calling it collusion. However, if you’re a fan of Illinois basketball, you’re probably still bitter about this monumentally short-coming season. Big man Kofi Coburn had a cast of talented ballers around him. Yet, Sister Jean’s prayers were answered.
The game was amazing and Loyola Chicago dominated down the stretch to upset the 1 seeded Illinois. It was just too good of a television programming moment for committee and/or television executives to pass up.
2022 Update: March Madness Traditions, Sunday’s Made-for-TV Matchup Returns
Bonus points for “Holy Matchup” of faith-based institutions on Sunday afternoon
And it happened again. The following year, in 2022, Sister Jean returns to the road to root on her Ramblers. That’s because CBS and/or the committee arranged for a perfect All-American showdown against Christian-founded schools, Villanova and Loyola Chicago. And with each team’s early play on Friday, this sets up perfectly for a holy matchup right after Sunday mass.
Was this divine intervention on the bracket construction?
Or, perhaps a little nudge by multi-media giants have their fingerprints on this one?
In fact, let’s just have the NCAA and TV executive comes out and say it. “We schedule the bracket in such a way to provide great sports drama on television!”
I mean, I for one would not protest that sentiment if it got published to the record. I want sexy matchups in the bracket, but I would prefer we call it for what it is.
3. Getting Back Together with the Ex – NCAA Committee’s Fascination with Reunions
To take this a step further, the orchestration of great storylines goes far beyond this niche Sunday matchup. The committee also loves to arrange for an awkward date between two exes. That also makes for great TV drama! The most recent example is how Michigan State transfer Foster Loyer will be playing against his old team in round 1. The committee didn’t even wait for the field of 32 to re-unite this broken relationship!
The marriage between players and their ex-teams in the field of 64 or the field of 32 has happened countless times. It also frequently happens for coaches. The most recent example that comes to mind is when 11 seeded Arizona State got paired with 6 seeded Buffalo in the first round. That presented an awkward meeting between Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley and his former school. What’s even more suspect in this situation, is that the mid-major team was the higher seed. It’s not only that Buffalo played against its former coach. The players also got the opportunity to play their former coach on the heels of their highest-ever tournament seeding. What drama! And the mid-major Buffalo Bulls in fact did beat the 11 seeded Arizona State Sun Devils in 2019.
2. Play-In Game Winners Gain Momentum and Beat the Odds
As improbable as this sounds, the play-in game winner has become very dangerous. Those teams carry momentum. They get the natural advantage of getting familiar with the arena on a Tuesday or Wednesday before they play the at-large opponent on Thursday or Friday.
In 2022, 11 seeded Notre Dame beat Rutgers in a close (play-in) game and then crushed 6 seeded Alabama by 14 points in the next matchup. Notre Dame then gave 3 seed Texas Tech trouble before losing by 6 points.
In 2021, UCLA won it’s play-in game as an 11 seed and continued its magical run all the way to the Final 4.
In 2018, Syracuse made the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed after beating Arizona State in the play-in game.
In 2017, 11 seed USC upset (4 loss) SMU in the first round after winning its play-in game.
In 2016, Fred Van Vleet and the 11 seed Wichita State Shockers beat Vanderbilt in the play off game before upsetting 6 seed Arizona.
And so this trend of the 11 seed gaining momentum…is gaining momentum.
Fun fact: In the last 30 years, an 11 seed is much more likely to make a Final 4 as compared to a 6 seed. The last 6 seed to make a Final 4 was the Fab Five in 1993. Meantime, there have been four 11 seeds to make the Final Four since 2006 (George Mason, VCU, Loyola Chicago, and UCLA).
- Future NBA Greats Don’t Always Dominate
If you’re a fan of 1990s NBA hoops, think of the best players of the past 3 decades who actually played some college basketball: Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan. None made a Final 4. In fact, most of these greats struggled to advance beyond the first weekend.
Conversely, the media darling doesn’t always excel. Jimmer Fredette and Luka Garza became National Players of the Year, as well as media darlings. However, they never cracked the Sweet 16.
Final Thought: In closing, it’s a murky picture. Some might even say it’s madness. As you pick your bracket in future years, remember that your future NCAA legend should be good, but not too great. The team should be must-see TV, but not have a tragic character whose reputation could never outpace his play. Good luck with that.
Thank you for reading! Please tweet your observation to @CBBEyeTest for a retweet!
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