It has been this insane before. That’s why they call it March Madness, after all. But not often. Rarely has an NCAA tournament’s first weekend featured this much drama; this many upsets; this much upheaval as we charge onward into the Sweet 16.
The first four days of the 2018 NCAA tournament rank right up there with memorable opening weekends from the past. They rank alongside 1986, 1990, 1999, 2000 and 2010.
Over four days, nine of 16 top-four seeds fell. Only twice before have so many favorites failed to win two games. The carnage began Thursday night, and continued piling up all the way through the penultimate game of Sunday. Of the 48 games, 15 were won by lower-seeded teams, a figure that ranks behind 2010 (16) and 1999 (19) but ahead of many topsy-turvy early rounds.
The result is a Sweet 16 in which the sum of all seeds is 85. That’s four lower than the sum in 1986, when 14th-seeded Cleveland State shocked Indiana and St. Joe’s. It’s three lower than 1990’s, when Ball State and Loyola Marymount won two games apiece. But it’s the highest since 2000.
The past four days have been the wildest four days of the NCAA tournament this decade, and quite possibly of the 21st century. There is, therefore, a lot to get to. A lot to rehash. A lot to celebrate, a lot to commiserate over, a lot to criticize. A lot to store in your memory banks for the next time a friend or relative asks about the craziest four days of sports you’ve ever witnessed.
So let’s stop dallying, and dive in. Here is the good, the bad, the historic, the insane, and the historically insane of the 2018 NCAA tournament’s first two rounds.
THE HISTORIC: UMBC
There is one and only one place to sensibly begin. Because on Friday night, a team that lost 85-39 to Albany in January did something nobody had ever done before. One hundred-and-thirty-five overmatched underdogs had tried; 135 had failed. UMBC, the 136th, didn’t just take down No. 1 overall seed Virginia; it rolled into the history books by 20 points.
And then it enjoyed 48 hours of unprecedented fame. The spotlight found everyone, from players to sassy tweeters to undergraduate applications. The dream ended Sunday night, just two days after it began. But those 48 hours will leave an indelible mark on the school. And they’ll be remembered by sports fans forever.
THE BAD: Virginia
The other side of history, of course, is infamy. And that’s what Tony Bennett and his Virginia Cavaliers will have to carry with them for some time. Bennett entered the 2018 NCAA tournament with an irrational, unfair reputation for coming up small in March. He had, though, molded a team that was more susceptible to the unthinkable than other national title contenders. And although he and his players handled failure with class, the unwanted tag of first No. 1 to lose to a 16 will be difficult to shake.
THE INSANE: Loyola Chicago, times two
The Ramblers were one of only two teams to win twice as an underdog. They were the only one, however, to trail in the final five seconds of both their wins. Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer to beat Miami might have been usurped two days later as the top buzzer-beater of the tournament, but it got a rollicking four days underway.
Clayton Custer then beat Tennessee – with the help of a benevolent rim and backboard – and Loyola, an 11-seed, is a completely legitimate Final Four threat. How about that for a story?
THE BAD: Michigan State
The other team to win twice as an underdog? Syracuse, which actually did so three times in five days. Its most high-profile victim? Michigan State.
But the Spartans were as much their own victims as Syracuse’s. They tailored their offense against Jim Boeheim’s zone to play to one strength – 3-point shooting – but veer away from another – interior size, strength and skill. And the strength they chose inexplicably turned into a weakness on the afternoon. Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges, Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid made just eight of 37 attempts from beyond the arc. Izzo kept going back to them, and away from Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson. He paid dearly for that decision, got outcoached by Boeheim down the stretch, and is gone ’til November.
THE HISTORICALLY INSANE: Nevada
From 22 down with 11 minutes left! The Wolf Pack etched their name into NCAA record books with a comeback that tied Duke’s over Maryland at the 2001 Final Four for the second-biggest ever in the NCAA tournament. But Duke’s 22-point deficit was in the first half. BYU’s 25-point comeback against Iona was in the First Four, so it’s less legitimate. Nevada’s, it’s safe to say, ranks right up there with Texas A&M’s over Northern Iowa as the greatest in March Madness history.
Oh, and the Wolf Pack also came back from 14 points down in the second half to beat Texas two days earlier. Thirty-six points worth of second-half deficits overcome in a three-day span has to be some sort of record as well.
THE ACTUALLY INSANE: Eric Musselman
THE HISTORIC: Top-seed ousters on the left
They’ve, uh, disappeared. Completely. On the left side of the bracket, both No. 1 seeds are gone. Both No. 2 seeds are gone. A 3 and 4 have been eliminated in the upper left quadrant as well, making the South the only region in tournament history to head to the Sweet 16 without a top-four seed.
The causes for the attrition have been multiple. Xavier, which lost to Florida State late Sunday night, was always an underwhelming top seed. So were Tennessee and Cincinnati. But North Carolina, the reigning national champs, ran straight into a talented Texas A&M buzzsaw. Virginia’s disintegration was completely unforeseen and unexplainable.
THE GOOD: Everybody else remaining on the left
One of the following teams will play for a national championship on April 2: Florida State, Gonzaga, Kansas State, Kentucky, Loyola Chicago, Michigan, Nevada and Texas A&M.
That’s not only eye-opening and remarkable; it’s a big reason why the three biggest winners of the weekend were Kentucky, Gonzaga and Michigan. The Wildcats and Zags in particular looked good on the court, but also got a ton of help elsewhere. Think about Kentucky: four days ago it was staring at a Final Four path of Davidson-Arizona-Virginia-Cincinnati. Now its looking at – or rather salivating at – Davidson-Buffalo-Kansas State-Loyola/Nevada. The toughest road to San Antonio, in four days, became the easiest.
THE INSANE: Jordan Poole’s dagger
The left half of the bracket would have been without both of its 3-seeds, too, if not for the shot of the tournament thus far.
And, without a doubt, the celebration of the tournament thus far.
THE GOOD: Mo Wagner’s sportsmanship
Poole’s shot, and the ensuing celebration, also gave us one of the most touching moments of the tournament thus far.
THE GOOD: Rob Gray
Poole’s shot was cruel on Houston, which played outstanding basketball the week prior at the AAC tournament, and brought the same high level of play to Wichita. But before Michigan could send them packing in heartbreaking fashion, the Cougars left their mark. Most of all, Rob Gray left his mark, putting up 62 points over two games, and earning Houston the second with a prolific final minute against San Diego State.