Exactly a year ago Sunday, the staircase inside Loyola-Chicago’s Damen Student Center was shaking. Ears were splitting. Ramblers were Rambling, all the way to San Antonio, punctuating 10 days of college basketball unlike any the NCAA tournament had ever seen before. Ten days that broke records and brackets alike.
After four days of Madness last March, the 2018 equivalent of this very article gushed about “the good, bad and historically insane” of the tournament’s opening weekend. About a 16-over-1, a 22-point, 11-minute comeback, buzzer-beaters and upsets galore.
What a difference a year makes.
One season later, there is no insanity to relive. No buzzer-beaters to replay. Very few upsets to rehash.
Whereas the 2018 NCAA tournament was historically insane, the 2019 edition, so far, has been historically chalky. For just the second time ever, all top-three seeds have reached the Sweet 16, along with two of the 4s. In the Round of 32, every single favorite won – the first time that’s happened since the tournament expanded in 1985.
And they won by margins – 14.2 points, on average – that were higher than those of any other NCAA tournament opening weekend this century.
Thus, we come to you this year to recap the good, the bad, and the not so Mad of the chalkiest NCAA tournament first round in a decade.
The Not So Mad: 2009 redux
The only other case of a tourney this chalky was 2009, when four 1s, four 2s, four 3s, two 4s, a 5 and a 12 survived to see Week 2. The 12 was a financially mighty, tradition-rich Pac-12 power. Three of the No. 1s came from the same conference. The top dog among them, in the bracket’s upper left quadrant, was on an Elite Eight collision course with second-seeded Michigan State. And—
2009: 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 5 | 1, 2, 3, 12
2019: 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 4 | 1, 2, 3, 5 | 1, 2, 3, 12
— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 25, 2019
The similarities between 2009 and 2019 are eerie. Almost freaky. Oh, and by the way: The champion that year? North Carolina, which ran off six wins by double-digits in a row.
*checks scores of North Carolina’s first two games this year* ... *rushes to bank, takes out life savings, books flight to Vegas*
The Good: Contenders flexing
As detailed on Saturday, the vast majority of legitimate contenders have looked like ... well, legitimate contenders.
Of the 10 teams comprising the top two tiers of our pre-tournament rankings, UNC, Virginia, Gonzaga, Texas Tech and Michigan each won two games by 12 or more. Duke, Kentucky, Florida State and Michigan State had average margins of victory in double-digits. A tier down, so did Virginia Tech, Purdue and Houston. Only Tennessee really struggled. The favorites haven’t just won; they’ve looked dominant – which bodes well for the near future. More on that below.
The Good: Power conferences
The ACC was 10-2. The SEC was 9-3. The Big Ten was 10-5. The Big 12 was only 5-5, but hey, somebody had to lose a few games, right?
Of the 15 defeats those four conferences suffered, 10 were power-conference-on-power-conference crime. An 11th was at the hands of Gonzaga, a 12th at Houston’s, and a 13th the Pac-12’s. Only two teams from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 lost to true mid-majors.
The Not So Mad: Scoring margins
We mentioned average scoring margins above. The first round’s was 14.3. The second round’s was 14.2, and the entire weekend’s 14.2. How does that stack up against the rest of the 21st century?
2019 — 1st: 14.3 | 2nd: 14.2 | Both: 14.2
2018 — 1st: 12.0 | 2nd: 11.1 | Both: 11.7
2017 — 1st: 13.1 | 2nd: 9.6 | Both: 11.9
2016 — 1st: 13.5 | 2nd: 10.9 | Both: 12.6
2015 — 1st: 10.7 | 2nd: 10.8 | Both: 10.7
2014 — 1st: 11.9 | 2nd: 13.0 | Both: 12.3
2013 — 1st: 15.2 | 2nd: 12.1 | Both: 14.1
2012 — 1st: 11.1 | 2nd: 9.7 | Both: 10.6
2011 — 1st: 13.2 | 2nd: 10.4 | Both: 12.3
2010 — 1st: 11.6 | 2nd: 10.9 | Both: 11.4
2009 — 1st: 13.6 | 2nd: 10.9 | Both: 12.7
2008 — 1st: 15.3 | 2nd: 11.3 | Both: 14.0
2007 — 1st: 16.1 | 2nd: 8.8 | Both: 13.6
2006 — 1st: 10.3 | 2nd: 9.9 | Both: 10.1
2005 — 1st: 10.4 | 2nd: 11.6 | Both: 10.8
2004 — 1st: 12.8 | 2nd: 10.1 | Both: 11.9
2003 — 1st: 10.9 | 2nd: 13.1 | Both: 11.7
2002 — 1st: 13.7 | 2nd: 10.4 | Both: 12.6
2001 — 1st: 13.0 | 2nd: 15.9 | Both: 14.0
2000 — 1st: 12.7 | 2nd: 10.3 | Both: 11.9
Case in point. Thrice the first round has been more lopsided. Once the second round has. Never since the turn of the century has the entire weekend featured blowouts of this magnitude.
To some extent, an increase in margins should be expected. The shorter shot clock means more possessions. More 3-pointers – which there have been each of the past five seasons – means higher variance and wider differentials. But still, this year’s tournament has been extreme.
The Good: KenPom
Not only did the committee’s top-rated teams progress unscathed, with ease. The top 14 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings are all still alive. And so is No. 18, LSU. (The outlier is No. 29 Oregon.)
The Good: Ja Morant
From the “In A Losing Effort” division, Ja Morant was the weekend’s big individual winner. He dazzled in a 19-point upset of Marquette, then tried to beat Florida State on his own – because that was his only option. He had the upper hand on a title contender for portions of a memorable eight minutes. He exited in tears, but not before winning our hearts and justifying NBA draft hype.
The Bad: Popular upset picks
A few fancied Cinderellas gave it a go. Yale needed a few more 3-pointers to fall. Belmont was foiled on its final possession. New Mexico State fell a missed free throw or a passed-up layup short. And of course, Liberty and UC Irvine did come through. But for the most part, popular upset picks were duds. Northeastern was overmatched by Kansas. Non-Yale 14-seeds lost by a combined 59 points. Vermont lost despite being plus-39 from behind the 3-point arc. Cinderella simply never emerged.
There will likely by dozens of thinkpieces written about why that is. About why 2019 has been so chalky. There will be a collective search for explanations or even blame. But in reality, this is randomness at work. Good teams win basketball games. Oftentimes they don’t all win. Occasionally, they do. And this year, they have.
Boom. There’s your thinkpiece.
The Bad: Pink eye
The most prolonged upset bid? It was undermined by a peculiar case of pink eye inflicting the Patriot League Player of the Year.
The Good: Feisty 16-seeds
Underdogs may not have given us late-game drama. But they did give Duke, North Carolina, and especially Virginia full halves of nerves. Heck, you could argue Gardner-Webb’s double-digit lead over the Cavaliers, in a post-UMBC world, was a top-five tense moment of the tourney so far. It was a truly unique feeling. The prospect of the unprecedented suddenly becoming commonplace was enthralling. It fizzled out, but that anxiety is part of what makes March Madness so intoxicating.
The Good: Zion
Ho, hum. Another weekend in the life of an American sporting sensation. Zion equaled Kevin Durant’s record for most points by a freshman on the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. He was a human highlight reel in Round 1, and a Tacko-conquering hero in Round 2. He even nailed three of seven 3-point attempts. Without any of the three, his college career would be over.
The Bad: Duke’s point guard shooting
Coach K has a dilemma. As a January loss to Syracuse demonstrated, he absolutely needs a point guard in the game at all times. But the only true point guard on his roster, Tre Jones, shoots 23 percent from 3. The closest thing K has to a backup, Jordan Goldwire, shoots 12 percent. So what will Duke do when an opponent decides to completely ignore those players if they aren’t within 15 feet of the rim?
Jones went 1-of-8. Goldwire was 1-for-3. If Duke’s Big Three, none of whom shoots better than 33 percent from deep, didn’t drill eight of their 14 triples, their season would be over.
No team has ever misfired from long range as often as the Blue Devils and made the Final Four. Coach K, if he wants to get there, has some thinking to do.
The Good: UCF
From the delightful Tacko Fall to the devastated sobs, UCF was a first-weekend winner even if it won’t live to see the second. Fall, for 48 hours, became a Zion-level hoops heartthrob. Aubrey Dawkins hung 32 points on the program he grew up around. Johnny Dawkins drew up the blueprint for beating Duke. When he and his team came up just short, he delivered the rawest moment of the tournament so far, a heartfelt locker-room speech that will get your emotions churning:
— UCF Men’s Hoops #GKMO (@UCF_MBB) March 25, 2019
Even Coach K felt bad that UCF had to lose the game. The Knights came out of nowhere to very nearly steal a week’s worth of our attention.
The Bad: Bruce Weber and the Autobench
Kansas State was the biggest “giant” – and we use that term loosely – to fall in Round 1 because its coach, Bruce Weber, deployed one of college basketball’s most illogical strategies: the Autobench. His star, Barry Brown, picked up two early fouls. Weber sat him for the rest of the half. You know how many fouls Brown finished the game with?
In other words, Weber benched the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for roughly 14 minutes for no good reason. Yet coaches across America do similarly all the time. So let’s get this straight: The punishment if a player fouls out is a benching. Self-imposing that punishment makes zero sense – especially when the player is less than halfway to the threshold, and especially when he only commits 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes. Weber preempted a far-off, unlikely, potential penalty to get himself knocked out of the NCAA tournament. So, uh, congrats, Bruce.
The ... Good(?): Selfless Admiral Schofield
Did Admiral Schofield bench himself for similarly illogical reasons late in Tennessee’s win over Iowa? We’re not quite sure. That appears to have been part of the reason. But there were others, and Schofield’s unselfish command – play Kyle Alexander in crunch time, not me – worked out in the end.
The Bad: The Big East
The conference that claimed three No. 1 seeds in that aforementioned 2009 tournament? A decade on, it went 1-4 with a negative-64 scoring margin. It got shut out of the Sweet 16. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The Extremely Mad: Tom Izzo
This wasn’t supposed to be a category. But we’re making an exception for Izzo, who erupted under the nose of freshman Aaron Henry and incited 48 hours of debates over whether his rage was acceptable or effective.
The Good: Turner/CBS
Since we always crucify TV networks for mistakes, and whine incessantly about the most minute details of major-event coverage, let’s recognize Turner and CBS for a job well done through one week. From a smooth Selection Show to a pretty flawless first and second rounds, there was very little to complain about. That’s not to say the studio analysis is always insightful or the play-by-play is always soothing and rhythmic, but there was nothing egregious.
Except, that is, for ... uh ...
The Bad: “Phil”
If you watched any of the tournament’s opening weekend, you got familiar with “Phil.” He was funny for a few hours. He made you want to swing viciously at your TV by Thursday evening.
The Good: Carsen Edwards
Purdue’s catalyst was Good Carsen on Thursday and Saturday. He tops the tourney scoring charts with 68 points through two games. Could he turn into Bad Carsen any day now? Sure. But he was toasty against Old Dominion and Villanova.
The Bad: Auburn-New Mexico State final minute
Casual fans haven’t been exposed yet to the death march that is a final minute ruined by referees attached to replay monitors. But the length and quantity of reviews was particularly egregious in college basketball this year. On Thursday, Auburn and New Mexico State gave us a glimpse.
Not only was the basketball terrible; not only did neither team want to win; they spent 20-25 minutes – which equated to one whole minute of game time – bickering about who would lose and how. The Aggies ultimately won the argument.
The Good: Iowa comebacks
Midway through their first-round matchup with Cincinnati, Iowa’s annual late-season tailspin appeared just about complete. Two days later, the Hawkeyes were in overtime with second-seeded Tennessee, having erased a combined 38 points of deficits to the Bearcats and Volunteers. They ran out of juice in OT, but their comebacks injected some life into a bland opening weekend that only featured that one overtime, and only gave us four games decided by three points or fewer.
The Not So Mad: Lack of one-possession games
How do those four one-possession games compare to past tourneys? Not favorably:
All of these numbers are to reinforce your gut. It wasn’t just you. The 2019 tourney’s opening weekend really was relatively unexciting.
The Good: Sweet 16 matchups
The upside of all the Not So Mad is the heavyweight bouts it arranges. Look no further than the first of eight Sweet 16 battles, on Thursday evening in Anaheim. Gonzaga vs. Florida State. Two Final Four-caliber teams meeting two rounds too early. Across the board, there are enticing encounters. North Carolina-Auburn. Houston-Kentucky. Michigan-Texas Tech. Duke-Virginia Tech. The list could go on.
In the past, when opening weekends haven’t met our lofty expectations, second weekends very often have. In the end, betting against March is almost always ill-advised. Chances are, at some point on Saturday or Sunday, staircases somewhere will be shaking just like they were a year ago.
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