There’s a reason they call the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament “March Madness”. And this year, it has indeed lived up to its name. The number one overall seed is out, the betting favorite is out, and the upsets have come on thick, leading to one of the most exciting tournaments in recent years.
The first round of the tournament began in fairly tame fashion. All of the one and two seeds advanced as expected, although Villanova, the number one seed in the East, and Gonzaga, the number one seed in the West, struggled early in their games before winning by comfortable 20 point margins. UNC and Kansas, the two other number one seeds, won their matchups by 40 point margins. The only upset of real note was that Middle Tennessee State University, a 12-seed, beat fifth seeded Minnesota, although it is questionable how much of an upset this really was as many sportsbooks had odds in favor of Middle Tennessee winning. Middle Tennessee State is probably best known for defeating Michigan State in last year’s tournament, pulling off an improbable 15 seed over two seed upset against a team that had that year’s best college basketball player, Denzel Valentine.
There were also a pair of 11-seed over six-seed upsets, one 10 over seven-seed upset and one 9 over 8-seed upset. However, the round was not lacking in quality games. Northwestern beat Vanderbilt in a rather improbable finish as a Vanderbilt player, not realizing that Vanderbilt was leading by one at that point, intentionally fouled a Northwestern player, a strategy generally reserved for when teams are trailing late in the game. Northwestern converted both free throws and ended up winning by two. Michigan also played a very tight game with Oklahoma State but managed to pull out a one point win, still riding the hot streak from its run to the Big Ten Championship. USC also managed to beat Southern Methodist University in another one point game.
However, Saturday afternoon was when the real fun began as Wisconsin took down defending champion Villanova in a nail-biter three-point win. Having defeated one-seeds in three of the last four NCAA tournaments, Wisconsin has earned the title “Number One-seed Killer”. First of all, Wisconsin should not have been playing Villanova in the second round of tournament. They were one of the more notably under-seeded teams, drawing an eight-seed, despite having made it to the final of the Big Ten Championship tournament and having twice beaten Minnesota in the regular season, a team that drew a five-seed. Wisconsin showcased the fact that it was a truly elite team, doing an effective job of containing Villanova star Josh Hart and almost completely shutting down Kris Jenkins, the senior forward who scored the game-winning basket in last year’s national championship game against UNC. Now, Wisconsin looks like the favorite to advance to the Final Four from the East, with only Florida and the winner of the Baylor-South Carolina game standing in the way.
But Sunday brought even more insanity as Michigan defeated two-seed Louisville, Kentucky pulled out a tight win over Wichita State, and Duke fell to South Carolina. Michigan was always known to be a good team. But no one really expected it to win the Big Ten tournament as an eight seed, the lowest seed to ever win the tournament, and certainly nobody expected it to pull off a win over Louisville, one of the best teams in the country. But Michigan now sits in the Sweet 16, awaiting its matchup against three-seed Oregon, a team that has look vulnerable after losing rim-protector Chris Boucher and barely pulling out a win over Rhode Island in the second round.
Wichita State-Kentucky was a tie between very evenly matched despite the disparity in seeding (Wichita State was a 10-seed while Kentucky was a two-seed). Wichita State was probably the most under-seeded team in the entire tournament, posting a nationally top 10 adjusted efficiency margin (a measure of the difference in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent caliber) according to KenPom.com, but somehow was only given a 10-seed by the ranking committee. And they showed that they were under-ranked as they fought Kentucky, led by Malik Monk, De’aaron Fox, and Bam Adebayo, the trio of NBA-bound superstar freshmen. In the end, it was Kentucky that got to celebrate, but only won by three points. It came down to some incredible defense by the Kentucky squad, blocking a pair of three point attempts on Wichita State’s last two possessions of the game. But just like the Wisconsin-Villanova game, this was a matchup that was much more worthy of the Sweet Sixteen or even Elite Eight.
The real shocker of the day, however, was Duke’s defeat at the hands of South Carolina. Duke was the preseason favorite to win the national championship and the bettor’s favorite after having put regular season drama behind it to win the ACC Championship Tournament. But against South Carolina, they managed to squander a halftime lead, surrendering 65 points in the second half, the most ever in a half under head coach Mike Krzyzewski. After Duke star Luke Kennard fouled out, Duke was unable to fight its way back and instead let South Carolina run out the last 15 seconds of the game as they sat in a seven-point hole. Duke, which had looked so promising in its late season form, was instead send back to Durham with lots of regrets and plenty of potential that failed to appear in the NCAA tournament.
The Sweet Sixteen now looms this coming weekend with some great games to look out for. Wisconsin threatens to make a run to the Final Four in search of its second championship game appearance in three years. However, the matchup between two-seed Kentucky and three-seed UCLA looks to be the best game of the round, and possibly of the tournament. In this matchup, the likely Wooden Award recipient (given to the best college basketball player in the country) Lonzo Ball will lead the Bruins against Kentucky’s superstar trio.
Let the madness reign.