March 23, 2021

Winners and Losers: March Madness Opening Weekend

After a hiatus that lasted nearly two full years, March Madness is finally back in our lives.

Fortunately, the last four days have been well worth the wait. From the perspective of a fan, it was heaven. There was so much madness it was almost hard to keep up with everything.

Of course, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was amazing for some and a living nightmare for others. In a way, that’s what March is all about, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

As we finally get a chance to breathe for a few days before the Sweet 16, let’s look at the biggest winners and losers of the March Madness opening weekend.

Winner: The Pac-12

The Pac-12 was largely ignored during the regular season but has undoubtedly been the best conference in the NCAA Tournament.

In fairness, the league needed Oregon State to steal a bid just to get five teams in the tournament with No. 5 Colorado being the highest seed. But all of that has been forgotten with the Pac-12 going 9-1 in the tournament thus far, sending UCLA, USC, Oregon and Oregon State to the Sweet 16.

Loser: The Big Ten

All season, the Big Ten was the best conference in the country. However, the conference has been a massive flop in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois became the first No. 1 seed to be eliminated, losing to Loyola. Ohio State suffered the greatest upset, falling to No. 15 Oral Roberts. Iowa’s lack of defense finally caught up with the Hawkeyes in a loss to Oregon.

Of the four teams that ended the regular season in the top-10, only Michigan remains. In fact, the Wolverines are the only Big Ten team left in the tournament, period.

While the Big Ten is a somewhat respectable 7-7 in the Big Dance, all of the brackets that foresaw an all-Big Ten Final Four have been busted.

Winner: Jay Wright

Of the coaches in the Sweet 16, Jay Wright might deserve the most credit. When Villanova lost point guard Collin Gillespie, everybody was counting out the Wildcats, making them a trendy pick to get upset. But Wright was able to turn things around quickly and Villanova has quietly been one of the most impressive teams in the tournament.

Granted, the Wildcats played two double-digit seeds. But with so many high seeds falling victim to upsets, Wright and Villanova deserve credit for not being one of them.

Loser: The Carolinas

With Duke being left out, this was never going to be a good NCAA Tournament for the state of North Carolina, a state with such a proud college basketball heritage. Things got worse when the UNC Tar Heels and UNC Greensboro both got knocked off in the First Round. There was some hope that the Heels could make some noise after an up and down season, but no such luck for Roy Williams. Meanwhile, the two teams from neighboring South Carolina didn’t fare any better. Clemson lost to a lower seed while Winthrop failed to live up to the hype as a dangerous 12 seed, bowing out to Villanova.

Winner: The State of Texas

The Lone Star State might be the new king of college basketball.

The State of Texas sent six teams to the tournament with four of them winning in the First Round. That includes Abilene Christian’s massive upset of the Texas Longhorns and No. 13 North Texas bouncing Purdue.

Ultimately, only Houston remains of those six teams, but it was a strong showing by teams from that state nonetheless. 

Loser: Commonwealth of Virginia

While the Carolinas had it bad, the Commonwealth of Virginia had it even worse.

Five teams from that “state” were invited to the Big Dance, but all went out in the First Round. For what it’s worth, Norfolk State beat Appalachian State in the First Four. However, Virginia Tech and Liberty both fell short in upset bids. Meanwhile, reigning national champion Virginia got ousted by a double-digit seed for the second time in four years.

Of course, nobody had a worse tournament than VCU, as the Rams were never allowed to take the court because of COVID protocol, getting eliminated without playing a game.

Winner: Baylor, Gonzaga, and Michigan

While many good teams failed to survive the opening weekend of the tournament, three teams that we highlighted — Baylor, Gonzaga, and Michigan — reached the Sweet 16.

Think of the teams that appeared to be national title contenders that didn’t survive the opening weekend: Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Virginia, Kansas and Texas. With all of those teams eliminated, the path to a championship got a little easier for Baylor, Gonzaga and Michigan.

Ultimately, the winner will probably have to beat at least one of the other two teams from that trio. But reaching the Final Four is a lot more manageable for the teams at the top.

Loser: Top-4 Seeds

Teams that get seeded Nos. 1-4 on Selection Sunday tend to think they have a path to the Sweet 16 and could contend for a national title. But that’s not how things have played out over the early rounds.

While three No. 1 seeds have found a way to survive and advance, there are just two No. 2 seeds, one No. 3 seed, and No. 4 seeds left. In comparison, there are two No. 11 seeds that have reached the Sweet 16, including one that played in the First Four.

Even if all of the top seeds win in the Sweet 16, there will be a No. 6 and No. 8 seed in the Elite Eight, which is not how many of the top seeds saw things panning out.

Winner: Families

It was a wonderful weekend for families at the NCAA Tournament.

Syracuse advanced to the Sweet 16 with help from Jim Boeheim’s son Buddy, who scored 30 points in the First Round and 25 points in the Round of 32. The younger Boeheim has been red hot since the start of the ACC Tournament, making 24 of his 43 three-point tries. 

It’s a similar situation at Oregon State where Ethan Thompson, the son of assistant coach Stevie Thompson (who played for Boeheim at Syracuse), scored 26 points to lead the Beavers in an upset of Oklahoma State in the Round of 32. The Beavers have now won five straight games, all of which could have ended their season.

At USC, the Mobley brothers were instrumental in leading the Trojans to the Sweet 16. Freshman Evan recorded a pair of double-doubles while older brother Isaiah scored 32 points over the team’s two games after averaging just 9.5 points per game during the season.

Finally, Tanner and Jacob Groves of Eastern Washington deserve a little recognition. The brothers combined for 58 of EWU’s 84 points, helping the Eagles give Kansas a scare before the Jayhawks pulled away.

Photo: Getty Images