What. A. Week. We have waited for two years to watch the glorious NCAA tournament and all the hope and finality it brings. We start with 68 wide-eyed teams that have, in just a few days, whittled down to just 16. So much has happened over the past five days that we need a little time to recover before we start back up on Saturday. Epic upsets and championship-caliber teams crashing down and eliminated have entertained us while a dose of reality of the world around us injected itself into the fun and games.
So let's take a look back at the winners and losers of Week 1 of the NCAA tournament.
The Conference of Champions is certainly playing like they are going to end their 24-year title drought. UCLA, USC, Oregon State, and Oregon comprise a quarter of the Sweet 16 with one Pac-12 team (due to the USC-Oregon matchup) guaranteed to reach the Elite 8. It isn't just they are winning, but Oregon destroyed Iowa and USC pummeled Kansas. The conference has gone 9-1 in this tournament and is shutting up those who ... like me ... didn't believe in them.
Nine teams entered. One team remains.
Much was made about how powerful the Big Ten was this season but that hasn't been the case in this tournament. No. 2 seed Ohio State became the first big time casualty when they were upset by Oral Roberts. Later on in the day, 4th-seed Purdue (the only Indiana team playing in a tournament held entirely in Indiana) would get stunned by North Texas. In the second round, however, Illinois became the first No. 1 seed to get knocked out of the tournament when they were beaten pretty soundly by in-state foe Loyola-Chicago. Iowa, another No. 2 seed, were spanked by Oregon in the second round.
Sure, Wisconsin blasted North Carolina, Rutgers rolled past Clemson and Maryland took out UConn in the first round, so the middle of the league showed the depth of the conference, but all three were eliminated in the second round. Add in Michigan State's First Four loss and the Big Ten failed to come through on the big stage. Michigan carries the torch to become the first national championship from the league since 2000.
A No. 15 seed has only won two games in a tournament twice now that Oral Roberts has advanced to the Sweet 16 (Florida Gulf Coast also did so in 2013). The Golden Eagles took out Ohio State from the mighty Big Ten before mounting a huge comeback to topple Florida. Can they beat Arkansas next to keep this ride going? That will be a tall task, but no team in the dance has captured the nation quite like ORU. Max Abmas led the nation in scoring this year and his running mate Kevin Obanor (who is averaging 29 points and 11 boards in this tournament) have been the best duo going in March.
Every year there is some team that becomes the shocking upset to begin the tournament ... and this year that team was Ohio State.
Oral Roberts' Max Abmas, the nation's leading scorer, had himself a big day. He played all 45 minutes against the Buckeyes and lit them up for 29 points while forward Kevin Obanor had a bigger day, scoring 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Those two scored 59 of the Golden Eagles 75 points. Kudos to Oral Roberts for their great game, but Ohio State went just 9-of-18 from the free throw line and hit just 5 of their 23 threes. Ohio State's defense was a concern heading into this tournament and the fact they let two guys get off like that, plus only forcing six turnovers by ORU, led to one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. What compounded the bad weekend was forward E.J. Liddell receiving threats from fans for missing the front end of a one-and-one late in the loss to Oral Roberts.
For the first time in NCAA tournament history, two HBCUs won a game in the same tournament. Texas Southern beat Mount St. Mary's, 60-52, for the SWAC's 7th tournament win in 43 tries. That same day, the MEAC's Norfolk State nipped Appalachian State in a nail biter, 54-53. While some may point to the fact that both schools won in the First Four as 16 seeds (which the Selection Committee tends to put both conference champions in annually), the wins are still very significant for those universities and their conferences beyond just the satisfaction of victory. Winning those games inject more money for their leagues over the next six years, which is pivotal for schools that don't have a large athletic department to pull from.
The ACC got off to a bad start before the tournament even began. ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright was declared out for the first weekend, which stung Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets would go out and lose to Loyola-Chicago. Also on Day One, North Carolina was drilled by Wisconsin in an offensive clinic by the Badgers, Virginia Tech's comeback bid was thwarted by Florida in overtime, and Clemson was upset by Rutgers. The one bright spot was Syracuse's annihilation of San Diego State.
On Day Two, Virginia ended up losing to Ohio, marking their second first-round upset loss in the last three tournaments, and Florida State fought off a game UNC Greensboro team. The ACC salvaged their reputation a bit by getting two teams into the Sweet 16, but the league showed why it wasn't as strong as it usually is.
The First Four typically is ignored by the masses as tournament week starts up. In normal years, two games pop up just two days after Selection Sunday that no one is ready for -- then we do the same thing the following night. Most bracket pools completely ignore the games and interest beyond the competing schools is low. This season, like in many other ways, was different. All four games were played on Thursday, which not only built up anticipation for the tournament to start but it lands on the day we're all used to the "real tournament" starting. That doesn't even touch on the fact that we had four really good games to watch, with three going down to the wire. Drake and Wichita State went back and forth before the Bulldogs pulled out the one-point win. Norfolk State fought off a comeback by Appalachian State (and they had to make their own comeback) to also win by a point. Then UCLA and Michigan State went into overtime before the Bruins pulled away for a six-point victory. In each of those games, we had a shot at the buzzer to win it (all three missed) and we saw the winning team have to make a late run to take the lead.
Wow. Who would've thought that Kansas would lose by 34 points to USC? The Big 12 got off to a nice start by seeing their seven members going 6-1 in the first round (Texas was the lone losing team) but it all fell apart over the weekend. Texas Tech lost a nail-biter to Arkansas. Oklahoma State just couldn't catch up to Oregon State. West Virginia fell to Syracuse by three. Oklahoma, as expected, was dismissed by Gonzaga. Then that stunning Kansas blowout. Of the seven Big 12 teams to make the tournament, four were eliminated by a worse-seeded team. Not too long ago, the Big 12 boasted five teams in the top 15 of the rankings. Now they have just one team, Baylor, alive in the tournament.
Texas schools Baylor, Houston, Texas Tech, North Texas, Abilene Christian, and Texas Southern are 8-4 in this tournament. Six of the seven Texas schools who made the tournament won at least one game (sorry Longhorns, who did lose to a school from the Lone Star State) and three schools have made it to the Sweet 16. Houston has seen its quadrant of the bracket completely shattered, making them the overwhelming favorite in a region with Syracuse, Loyola-Chicago, and Oregon State.
The only time the state of Texas has won a national championship was the legendary Texas Western title in 1966.
Virginia, Virginia Tech, Liberty, and Norfolk State all lost their first-round games, while VCU was eliminated despite not even getting to play. Virginia was upset by Ohio, their second first-round upset loss in three tournaments. Virginia Tech hit a buzzer-beater to send their game with Florida to overtime, where they'd end up losing to the Gators. Liberty and Norfolk State (who did win a First Four game) fell short of pulling major upsets in their first-round games. VCU's COVID issues called for their game against Oregon to be uncontested, leaving the Commonwealth's five tournament bids wiped out in the round of 64.
The long-time football power league that died a quarter-century ago has made a splash this year in basketball. Three of the former nine-team league find themselves in the Sweet 16. Arkansas (who left the SWC for the SEC in 1991), Baylor (who joined the Big 12 when the SWC folded), and Houston (who joined the Conference USA after the SWC folded and now play in the American Athletic Conference) will all play this Saturday will a chance to get to the regional final.
A lot of tournament droughts ended last week. Abilene Christian and North Texas won their first-ever NCAA tournament games. Rutgers won their first tournament game since 1983. Oregon State hadn't won a tournament game since 1982 ... and they've done it twice. Speaking of winning twice, fellow Sweet 16 school Oral Roberts won their first tournament game since 1974. Then there is Drake, who won their first tournament game in 50 years. Fans of big programs take for granted what these schools will remember forever.
One of the cool things about the first week of the NCAA tournament is finding out about all these talented players in all corners of the country. Most of America got introduced to the Groves brothers for the Eastern Washington Eagles as they had Kansas on the ropes before falling to the Jayhawks. Older brother Tanner Groves, a junior, looks like he has been living in the ABA era of basketball with a headband holding back a magnificent mound of hair that accentuates his furry beard. If you had to draw up what a basketball player in eastern Washington would look like, Tanner's look would come to mind. Sophomore Jacob Groves looks like Napoleon Dynamite with athletic ability. Both ate well against Kansas by putting up career highs, with Tanner pouring in 35 points and Jacob adding 23. As Kansas pulled away late, Tanner congratulated the Kansas players before walking off the court. With both brothers likely back next season, Eastern Washington should be a team to watch.
No one is a bigger loser than VCU, who had to drop out of the tournament due to COVID-19 issues within the program. Obviously, everybody understands the decision why the Rams couldn't play but it is a shame that they weren't able to cap off a great season by at least competing in the big dance. Even teams that lose at least get those moments of playing on that stage and VCU didn't get that opportunity. Furthermore, it is a haunting reminder that the pandemic cloud hangs over the tournament and still surrounds us, and could creep up in the tournament the closer we get to the national championship.
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton has made the term "new bloods" a catchy alternative for those programs that aren't typically at the forefront of college basketball. Well, those "new bloods" are having their day in the sun in 2021. Aside from Villanova, only one school in the Sweet 16 has won a national championship in the last 25 years (Syracuse in 2003). Villanova and UCLA are the only schools remaining that have won multiple national championships and nine schools have never won a title. There is a very good chance we either have a brand new champion or a school that hasn't won one in quite some time.
This is the first Sweet 16 to not have North Carolina, Duke, or Kentucky since 1979 ... and it isn't that big of a shocker. Duke didn't make the cut to be invited to the dance and Kentucky had one of its worst seasons in decades, so the likelihood that this streak would have been extended was shouldered by an erratic Tar Heel team. North Carolina had a high ceiling and a low floor, and they chose to show everyone how low they could go by getting blasted by a reeling Wisconsin team. Even if they had won that game, they would've been heavy underdogs to Baylor in the next round. Add in Kansas' complete destruction by the hands of USC and most of the blue bloods (I see you, UCLA) had a bad week.
We had to wait two years for the NCAA tournament after it was ripped away from us just a week before it was supposed to begin last year, and we have been rewarded with an entertaining and outstanding week of basketball. Many experts went chalk with their picks, yet we had plenty of upsets to awe us each day and tight games to keep us at the edge of our seats. While it is a different feel to the tournament, it is still the great event has always been and the fact we've gotten through the first week with only one COVID-related hiccup is quite remarkable. Hopefully, that can continue for the remaining two weeks of the big dance.
Sure, despite all the chaos we still have the three best teams all year long still alive. Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan were popular picks to cut down the nets but a lot around them has crashed down. The Midwest Region is in shambles with two double-digit seeds and a No. 8 seed joining Houston in the Sweet 16. There were 12 games where the winning team was seeded five spots below their opponent. The record for an entire tournament is 13, and there are three opportunities for it to happen again in the next round.