Through the first two rounds, the men's NCAA Tournament has delivered on all the Madness we've come to expect. Mid-majors are thriving, No. 1 seeds are out, seniors are crying, coaches are tearing their shirts off. And after four jam-packed days of nonstop action, it still feels as if any number of the remaining teams left could be cutting down the nets in Houston on April 3. Before we gear up for another weekend of hoops starting Thursday, let's follow in the great tradition of the hack pundit sports writers who came before us and take stock of the winners and losers of the first two rounds of March Madness.
That is, aside from the teams that actually won and the teams that actually lost.
Winner: The Big East Conference
Ten years ago, when conference realignment tore through the Big East and left a few charter members to pick up the pieces, a lot of people held a funeral for the basketball powerhouse. Well, to be clear, "a lot of people" here is really just ESPN, because the "Worldwide Leader" was no longer going to be broadcasting Big East games and wanted to make it seem as if the conference was garbage. The ESPN 30 for 30 "Requiem for the Big East" should have been titled "Requiem for watching the Big East on ESPN because now that we don't have the rights, we are never going to show Big East highlights on SportsCenter, and in fact make it seem like this conference doesn't really exist anymore." A longer but more accurate title.
Sure, losing UConn, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame hurt. But several of the founding Big East schools stuck together: Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence — old programs with strong traditions.
They kept the best conference name in college sports. "Big East" is way more exciting and descriptive than an adjective and a number or a geographic area. It earned a new broadcast partner in Fox Sports 1, and it cut ties with the schools fanatically obsessed with getting a piece of the football money. Most importantly, the new conference retained Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament.
Suffice to say, reports of the Big East's demise were greatly exaggerated.
Now, 10 years after the reconstitution of the legendary conference, the Big East has three teams in the Sweet 16, the most since 2013. And it's not just the old heads of the Big East but also some of the newer members making the trip. Xavier and Creighton, two strong basketball schools that admittedly stretch the definition of the term "east," join old powerhouse turned newest conference rival UConn, which is a trendy pick to win it all.
While No. 2 seed Marquette was upset by Michigan State, and Villanova missed the tournament for the first time in a while, the future is bright for the Big East. Ed Cooley's messy departure for Georgetown should introduce a new rivalry between notoriously crazy Providence College fans and the Hoyas.
And what's better for drama than old friend Rick Pitino coming back to the conference and back to New York City at St. John's?
Long live Big East basketball.
Loser: Big Men
This season was supposed to be a renaissance season for big men in college basketball. And yet, as we head to the second weekend of games, the day once again belongs to Mighty Mouse.
Trayce Jackson-Davis and his IU Hoosiers were run off the court by the Miami Hurricanes in the second round. Head coach Mike Woodson was even heard telling the senior big man to "wake up" midway through the first half.
Former National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky dominated the glass with 43 rebounds in two games. And he did more than his fair share of offensive damage against Kansas State in the second round, contributing 25 points on over 60% shooting from the field. And yet, Kentucky lost the battle of the Wildcats and will not be competing on the second weekend of the tournament.
And, of course, the biggest big man disappointment belongs to Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers. This season's presumed National Player of the Year did his part for much of the contest against Fairleigh Dickinson with 21 points and 15 rebounds. But his final field goal of the night came with 9:25 remaining in the second half. Tobin Robinson's Knights double-teamed Edey, with one guy fronting him while another lingered behind to prevent Purdue from casually lobbing it up to Edey. Unable to touch the ball in a position where he could do damage, Edey was not much of a factor in the final nine minutes of the worst loss in Purdue's history, and possibly the last game in his college career.
Winner: New Jersey
Two unheralded big-time underdog schools from the Garden State pulled off massive upsets this past weekend, with the aforementioned No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson bouncing Purdue while the 15th-seeded Princeton Tigers sent Arizona home. Between this year and last season's miraculous St. Peter's run, small-time college hoops are having a moment in Jersey. Some are saying it's the most culturally relevant stretch for New Jersey since the series finale of the "Sopranos."
Princeton outdid FDU, taking out Missouri in the battle of the Tigers to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 1967.
It may come as no surprise to learn that Jersey Mike's is a huge sponsor of NCAA basketball. Is the fix in? Are the sandwich gods leaning on teams to throw games to get more Jersey exposure at the national level? Pie-O-My! Fugheddaboudit.
Loser: The Big Ten
The most overrated conference in the country stunk up the joint yet again this March Madness.
Eight Big Ten teams made it into the 68-team tournament. And many will tell you that Rutgers got screwed and there should've been nine.
And yet after two rounds of play, just one remains: Michigan State.
Can't wait to write this column again next year. Look, just because your conference has parity and the games are tough doesn't mean the basketball is actually good!
Winner: Little Guys
Really fun weekend for little guys. FDU's average team height is 6-foot-4, and they took out the No. 1 seed headlined by a 7-foot-4 Goliath. Five-foot-11 Tyger Campbell didn't score the ball a ton, but did Campbell things, distributing the ball to the tune of 17 assists in two UCLA victories. Six-foot-2 Mike Miles Jr. was a one-man wrecking ball for TCU and almost put it over the top of Gonzaga late Sunday night.
But the No. 1 standout here is Markquis Nowell from Kansas State. The 5-foot-8 point guard decimated Kentucky, throwing behind-the-back passes, leading fast breaks, finishing at the rim and bombing away from deep. The Harlem native had 27 points and nine assists en route to sending John Calipari's Wildcats home.
Markquis Nowell was in his BAG in the second round ??? You?ll get to see more of this magic on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/6MuYXFe3fv
— College Basketball Report (@CBKReport) March 20, 2023
Kansas State plays Thursday night against Michigan State. Where's the game? Madison Square Garden. Of course. The diminutive, tough guard with the twitter handle @MrNewYorkCityy takes center stage at the mecca of basketball. Sports are awesome.
Loser: Gonzaga -4.5 Bettors
Gonzaga pulled out a tough win Sunday night, edging past a tough TCU Horned Frogs team 84-81.
But that is only a small part of the story for anyone who gambled on this one.
For much of the game, it did not look as if the Bulldogs would come close to covering the 4.5-point spread. TCU led for much of the game, and it took everything in Drew Timme and Gonzaga's power just to keep the game close.
But toward the end of the second half, Gonzaga actually did pull away a bit and held a comfortable 7-point lead in the final minute. After an indescribably bad inbounds pass ended up in the hands the Horned Frogs, TCU hit a 3-pointer to cut the game to 4 with just a few seconds left. TCU head coach Jamie Dixon waved his players away from fouling, and yet a Gonzaga player ended up on the free throw line with just 0.7 seconds left. Two free throws go down, and Gonzaga leads by 6 with less than a second left. Miracle cover for Bulldogs bettors, yeah?
Well, no. Because then this crap happened.
TCU hits a meaningless three as the clock expires. A 6-point lead becomes a 3-point lead, and a miracle gambling win becomes a gut-wrenching loss.
The beauty of sports, or some such crap.
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