The first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has 32 literal winners and 32 literal losers. You can learn all about them by checking a scoreboard. In this space, you can find a list of winners and losers that include some of those teams, plus individuals, conferences, ideas, and various other nouns both proper and common. Here are a handful after Friday, the first full day of March Madness action.
Winner: Oral Roberts
The Golden Eagles beat No. 2 Ohio State in overtime, 75-72, becoming the first 15 seed to win a tournament game since 2016, when Middle Tennessee knocked off Michigan State. It’s not the biggest tourney upset of all time, but it’s in the next tier below No. 16 UMBC beating top seed Virginia in 2018. ORU’s strength all season was its shooting, both from the foul line and 3-point range, where they ranked first and 13th in Division I, respectively. They shot well below their averages but won anyway because the Buckeyes couldn’t hit anything. Ohio State was a brutal 5-of-23 from deep and an arguably even more brutal 9-of-18 from the line. OSU’s defense also let it down late; the Buckeyes needed only one stop at the end of regulation to close out a narrow win, but they couldn’t get it and lost in the extra period. Now, Oral Roberts will play Florida for a spot in the Sweet 16, and will continue its quest to become the best free throw shooting team of all time.
Loser: the Big Ten
The other big upset of the day was No. 13 North Texas beating No. 4 Purdue (also in overtime), 78-69. There’s still a solid chance the Big Ten will put a team in the Final Four, with Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois all having decent chances to make it to the semis and a handful of other teams still alive. But there’s nothing more fundamental to college sports than overreacting to small-sample postseason results to denigrate a conference in a year in which it was otherwise great, and two of the Big Ten’s upper-class teams going down to the Summit League and Conference USA will provide all the ammo anyone needs to take the B1G down a peg or two. As a bonus, Michigan State blew a double-digit lead on Thursday night to lose to UCLA in the first four, also in overtime. By all means, chant OVER-rated—clap clap clap clap clap if you please.
Winner: No. 12 seeds
Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to pick tournament upsets is to go with a No. 12 seed to knock off a No. 5. The difference between the seed lines is wide enough that 12-over-5 games have a significant upset feel, but they happen regularly enough that they’re not total long-shot bets. Since 2000, only four tournaments have passed without a No. 12 pulling out a win in the round of 64. And indeed, 12th-seeded Oregon State cruised past Tennessee on Friday, 70-56. Pick 12 seeds. It’s a good idea.
Loser: the NCAA
The NCAA is always a loser. The organization exists to take the public heat for the exploitative labor practices that make its member schools many millions of dollars each year. But it’s a particularly big failure this March, not just because current college players have joined the chorus criticizing it, but because the NCAA got caught offering brazenly worse amenities to players in the women’s tournament in Texas than to the men playing in Indiana. The majority of issues blamed on “the NCAA” are more the fault of its hundreds of member schools, but the failure to treat women’s basketball equitably this week is on the NCAA office, which manages basketball championships. Of many NCAA failures, the most dumbfounding might have been that it outfitted women’s weight rooms with a tiny fraction of the equipment the men got:
Fortunately, a worthy hero came riding in to salvage the situation.
Congratulations to Dick’s Sporting Goods for identifying an opening and hitting it with unprecedented speed. This is the tale of how a nonprofit’s failure to provide adequate resources to a women’s tournament that makes less money than its accompanying men’s event turned into a giant corporation’s storytelling opportunity. What’s more American than that?
Loser: North Carolina
In all likelihood, the best the Tar Heels could’ve done as the South Region’s No. 8 seed was to get by Wisconsin in the round of 64 and then roll over against a much better Baylor. UNC is one of the youngest teams in the country, and 2021 was never going to be their year. Still, it would’ve been nice to see a few signs of life against the Badgers. None appeared in a drab 85-62 loss in which UNC never led. The Badgers couldn’t miss, but UNC was barely even there.
Roy Williams’ program has now completed a second straight year as a non-factor nationally. Save for a lousy two-year run under Matt Doherty, one of the two coaches sandwiched between Dean Smith and Williams, the Heels haven’t had two years this uninspiring since Smith’s early days in the ‘60s.
Winner: Cade Cunningham
Oklahoma State’s star guard and the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft had one of his worst shooting games ever against No. 13 Liberty. He was 3-of-14 from the field and had to drop in seven free throws (on nine tries) to get to 15 points. But the fourth-seeded Pokes won anyway, and Cunningham got a neat feather in his cap, as noted by Justin Ferguson of the Auburn Observer: Assuming he’s the top pick, he’ll join Zion Williamson as the only two players to go No. 1 in the last six years who’ve won an NCAA tournament game. That’s a cool achievement! And given that NBA front offices demonstrably don’t care about tourney results, his bad shooting night is no big deal. It’s also a win for fans that we’ll get to watch him in the round of 32.
I’ve been a sports nihilist the last 12 months. A lot of games aren’t that fun to watch without the fans bringing some ambience. Hockey looks weird with giant tarps covering the rows behind the glass. English Premier League games don’t feel quite right without raucous crowds audibly cursing the ancestors of visiting players. And college basketball—the sport where home-court advantage is typically most vital—–felt utterly bizarre with few or no fans in attendance.
But the mostly empty arenas in Indiana on Friday didn’t bother me much. Maybe that’s because the NCAA tournament has never really been a fan-driven event. It’s played at sterile neutral sites even in normal times, where the crowds are full of fans with no rooting allegiance, who just happen to live in the host city. The joy of postseason college basketball comes from the players themselves, and they brought plenty of it to start this March Madness.
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