By Martha Sullivan
How is this March Madness different from every other version?
(Sorry, for the play on Passover!)
With a record-setting 23 combined losses entering the NCAA tournament, this year’s No. 1 seeds were the weakest in recent memory. So the craziest thing about March Madness was that despite a flurry of early upsets, the teams on the top line all waltzed to the Elite Eight with relative ease.
When the first two No. 1s went down on Saturday, with top-overall Kansas losing to Villanova and Oklahoma defeating Oregon, it wasn’t all that shocking: The Wildcats and Sooners had spent time this season ranked No. 1 in the country, and there was little doubting their credentials as Final-Four worthy.
Then the real insanity began. No. 10-seed Syracuse not only upset a No. 1 Virginia team, but the Orange pulled off one of the most memorable comebacks in tournament history. After trailing 35-21 at halftime, and trailing by 13 with less than nine minutes to play, Syracuse finished the final 8:23 on a 25-6 run to pull off the 68-62 stunner.
Sixth-seeded Notre Dame almost made it four for four taking down the tournament’s Goliaths in one fell swoop. The Fighting Irish surged to a second-half lead and silenced a boisterous crowd decked out in baby blue. Then the Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run en route to a 88-74 victory, making sure that one No. 1 survived the weekend’s carnage.
This Elite Eight whirlwind finally restored the NCAA tournament to its natural state: disorder. The tournament favorite, Kansas, has been banished. A team many thought had no business even getting invited, Syracuse, has reached the Final Four. Notre Dame even lost on Easter Sunday. And there’s one No. 1 left, North Carolina, just pretending that logic and reason play any role in all of this.
Syracuse’s emergence as a Final Four team stands as the tournament’s ultimate head-scratcher. First, there’s the history—or lack thereof. The Orange are just the fourth double-digit seed to ever make the semifinals. And Syracuse is nothing like the underdogs who did it most recently. George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 were upstarts that carried a banner for overlooked and perhaps under-seeded mid-majors.
Syracuse, a college basketball powerhouse, wasn’t overlooked. The Orange were looked at, crumpled up and thrown into the nearest trash receptacle like most people’s brackets. They stumbled into the tournament having lost five of their last six game and they went 4-5 during a stretch this season with coach Jim Boeheim suspended by the NCAA, following an investigation into the program that found academic fraud with players, impermissible benefits and drug-test violations.
So the thought they could upset No. 1 Virginia was unthinkable. But the Orange were able to do the same thing as Oklahoma and Villanova did in their upsets and successfully shut down the opposing team’s star. After the Sooners limited Oregon’s Dillon Brooks to seven points and the Wildcats held Kansas’ Perry Ellis to only four, Syracuse relentlessly hounded Malcolm Brogdon, who finished 2 of 14 from the field.
“They really bottled up Malcolm with that zone,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We got some good looks and just didn’t convert, and that happens.”
What makes this Final Four such a fascinating mess is how each team reached this point with completely disparate styles. Syracuse likes to grind games to a halt and punish teams with its zone defense. North Carolina, its Final Four opponent, overcomes defensive deficiencies by trying to outscore all of its opponents.
The offensive approaches vary wildly too. The Tar Heels have built one of the country’s most efficient offenses while doing most of their scoring inside the paint, acting like the floor outside the 3-point arc is covered in lava. Oklahoma, on the other side of the bracket, is the polar opposite: The Sooners score 39% of their points from beyond the arc, the second most of any team that made the tournament.
This is how Oklahoma upset the No. 1 Ducks, draining 12-of-24 from beyond the arc. Eight of those came from Bahamian sensation Buddy Hield, college basketball’s pre-eminent star, who scored 37 points in the upset. Hield, who is averaging 25.4 points per game on the season and 29.3 in the tournament, not only makes the Sooners dangerous but also the best show college basketball has to offer.
Villanova, their Final Four opponent, cares little about this. They offer neither stars, nor beauty. And that’s OK by them. In fact, it’s a point of pride and how they upset No. 1 Kansas. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono has repeatedly called their style “ugly,” saying that their goal against the Jayhawks was to turn the game into a “street fight.”
“Making the game ugly and a street fight was to our advantage because that’s what we preach every day in practice,” his teammate Daniel Ochefu added.
When the dust settled Sunday after Syracuse’s shocker, a Notre Dame upset seemed like it was destiny. And the game had all the tell-tale signs that a fourth upset of a No. 1 would come to be. After falling behind 51-40 in the second half, the Fighting Irish went on a 12-0 run and took the lead. The Tar Heels were losing their cool—Brice Johnson, their star forward, was whistled for a technical foul and people who had taken the 5-to-1 odds before the tournament that a No. 1 seed wouldn’t reach the Final Four were starting to plan beach vacations.
That’s when something weird happened: North Carolina still won.