GLENDALE, Ariz. – It began on a Tuesday night in Dayton and a one-point game. Afterward, the winning coach from Mount St. Mary’s would make the statement that -- as well as anything -- explained what lay ahead.
“Today, we were able to find a way to be a little bit better,” Jamion Christian said. “In the month of March, that’s all that matters.”
So the 79th NCAA Tournament came and went with the usual assortment of surprises – not loads of upsets, but still a few nobody saw coming – and swinging pendulum of emotions.
There were moments when the winners sounded as enchanted as Florida’s Chris Chiozza, the day after he had beaten Wisconsin at the buzzer. “I heard from everybody that probably I ever met.”
Or as relieved as Chris Collins, after Northwestern slipped by Vanderbilt in its first-ever appearance: “The tournament is about one thing, trying to see another day.”
Or as fulfilled with the sense of achievement as Sindarius Thornwell, after South Carolina had gone from its first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years, directly to its first Final Four: “All we wanted was a bid in the tournament, to see our name on the board . . . all we wanted was a chance.”
But in the end, everyone – everyone, that is, but the North Carolina Tar Heels -- would eventually sound like Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, after the Tigers fell one basket short against Notre Dame: “Right now, this one hurts. When you’re in the locker room afterwards, it’s really hard to say a proper thank you, because it feels like good-bye.”
Or Mike Krzyzewski, discussing his wet-eyed Duke locker room after the loss to South Carolina: “At the end of the season, I want my guys to either be crying because we’ve lost, or crying because we’ve just won. If you’re not doing one of those, that means you never really became a team. It was never really that important. And for these guys, they were really a good team.”
Or Gonzaga’s Mark Few on the last night, “Talking to Coach (Jim) Boeheim, he told me `It will crush you if you don’t win it.’ And I guess I didn’t understand it, but the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you.”
The completed bracket shows but one overtime game; Florida over Wisconsin. Six one-point tight squeezes, eight more decided by one possession. The higher seeds were 48-14.
There was a noticeable shortage of upsets by the little guys in the first round. Seeds Nos. 13-16 were 0-16. No giant went down. But the drama came, all the same.
“To have 20 teams that won regular season conference titles win their (automatic spots in the league tournaments) really put the tournament in a position to have great games throughout,” committee chair Mark Hollis said.
By seeding, the biggest upset in the first round was No. 12 Middle Tennessee over No. 5 Minnesota, but that didn’t feel much like one. Not between Middle Tennessee’s 30-4 record and what the Blue Raiders did to Michigan State in 2016.
A much bigger surprise was Xavier, an 11th-seed whose season nearly crumbled in February because of injuries, disposing of Maryland by 11, and then Florida State by 25, and then No. 2 seed Arizona 73-71. The last one, Sean Miller lost to the school he used to coach, and the man who took his place. That’s the upset of the tournament, right there.
There was Wisconsin, a senior-led team that had been demoted to a No. 8 seed due to a shaky late season, taking out defending champion Villanova.
And there was South Carolina, without an NCAA Tournament victory since 1973, flexing its considerable muscle, scoring 65 points in the second half against Duke, crunching No. 2 seed Baylor by 20, overpowering Florida down the stretch to get to the Final Four.
It was a momentous occasion for the Gamecocks, but coach Frank Martin – who has lived through a lot of hard knocks, including as a high school teacher – was always there to remind the world of perspective.
There were the customary trends to discuss.
What happened to the ACC? Eight of its nine teams were gone by the end of the first weekend, four of them ousted by 20 or more points. But then, the lone survivor from North Carolina stayed around awhile.
Did the Final Four with all its firsts mean a change of landscape? First appearance for Gonzaga, and South Carolina. “We broke that glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over,” said the Zags’ Jordan Mathews. First in 78 years for Oregon. First West Coast team in the championship game in 11 years. Plus the blueblood of North Carolina.
“The moments that I enjoy the most is to watch the teams from the Final Four step on the floor to practice,” Hollis said. “I love that part, just to see their eyes as they’re looking around. Two 1’s (seed) playing in the championship game, so kudos to the committee for that. But you also have teams that were put there for a reason and have battled through. I think that speaks well for the game of college basketball.”
Are the No. 16 seeds getting any closer? They all lost again to go 0-132 against No. 1’s, but Mount St. Mary’s was down one point at half against Villanova. Progress. Maybe.
But most of all, this tournament lived up to its two-faced reputation. One moment, joy. The next, tears. It is a wild and wonderful ride, March and early April, but also perilous.
We saw Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis keep his team alive against Northwestern with 22 points and 14 after halftime, hitting big basket after big basket. Then we watched him lose track of the score and foul the Wildcats in the final seconds with his team ahead by a point. The free throws beat the Commodores, and his teammates flooded to support him afterward.
We watched Oregon’s Jordan Bell be a monster on the boards against North Carolina with 16 rebounds. Then we watched the two missed Tar Heel free throws in the last six seconds go over his head into Carolina arms, which left him sobbing as he left the court.
“Jordan felt terrible,” coach Dana Altman said. “But I told him, `Buddy, you got 16 rebounds, we wouldn’t have been in this position if it hadn’t been for you.”
We watched Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. serve as the heart and soul of Michigan’s storybook ride, from plane mishap, to Big Ten tournament champions, to Sweet 16 team. But when he needed one last shot in the final seconds against Oregon, it wouldn’t fall. The fairy tale was over.
That’s what the month invariably turns into for all but on team; a dirge for the disappointed.
SMU coach Tim Jankovich, after the Mustangs’ last-second shot missed in a one-point loss to USC: :”There used to be a show on TV when I was little talking about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I think it was `Wide World of Sports.’ I can certainly relate to that show right now.”
Kentucky’s Calipari, after the Wildcats tied North Carolina in the frantic final seconds, then were beaten on Luke Maye’s jump shot in the final second: “Someone said, well, what happened? I said I don’t know, and I probably never will know because I won’t watch this tape. I never watch the last tape of the season. Watched enough tapes all year. Watched a thousand tapes. I’m not watching a thousand and one.”
Villanova’s Jay Wright discussing the tournament, after the Wildcats were knocked out by Wisconsin: “I say this every year at Villanova. We can’t take it for granted. It’s so special to be a part of it. Every time you win and you get a chance to advance, cherish it. There’s no dishonor in losing in this tournament, but I do know – and we’ve lived through it – you are judged by how you play in the tournament, and that’s the reality of it. So you have to accept it.”