relive the greatest march madness tournament in recent history

Jeremey Young '24

The phrase “like no other” is thrown around often, but it is hard to describe this year's NCAA March Madness tournament as anything but like no other. Every game had the feeling that anything could happen; upsets became commonplace, more Cinderella stories than could be counted, and an emotional end to one of the greatest coaching careers in basketball history for Coach K. From top to bottom, this year’s bracket was stacked with talent and future NBA stars as well as unheard of names stepping up to the opportunity to make their names known at the Big Dance. Hearts were broken, brackets were broken, and depending on how big a fan you might have been, TVs may have been broken in what might go down as the most unpredictable tournament of all time. 

 

 

Seniors Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels were emotional after the Final Four loss to Kansas in what will likely be their last game at Villanova. 

 

As soon as Michigan and Colorado State tipped off and the tournament began, seeding went out the window. In fact, an average March Madness tournament features 13 upsets according to the NCAA, but this year shattered that with 19. Four double digit seeds made it to the Sweet Sixteen and for the first time ever, a 15th seed made it to the Elite Eight in the form of Saint Peter’s. According to Wikipedia, on average 3 of the 4 one seeds make it to the Elite Eight each year. This year, Kansas was the sole one seed surviving by the Elite Eight, as Baylor fell in the Round of 32 and both Gonzaga and Arizona went down in the Sweet Sixteen and perennial blue blood Kentucky lost in the first round to Saint Peter’s. 

 

Kentucky fans in disbelief after being shocked in the first round by Saint Peter’s.

 

As far as performances by power conferences, the ACC stepped up in a big way, sending two teams to the Final Four and an unlikely Miami to the Elite Eight. The Big 12 likewise lived up to expectations in large part because of Kansas winning the tournament, but Iowa State surprisingly made it to the Sweet Sixteen and Texas Tech performed well. Baylor was the obvious underperformer, as their late-game comeback to force overtime against a Final Four winning North Carolina was not enough. After an eye-opening performance last year, expectations were high for the Pac-12 especially for Arizona and UCLA. Both teams had respectable runs to the Sweet Sixteen, but were beaten by lower seeded opponents. Teams from the Big East were all over the place as some had dismal performances while some far outlived expectations. UCONN, Seton Hall, and Marquette were all knocked off in the first round; the latter two beaten quite easily for eighth and ninth seeds, and fifth seeded UCONN was upset by twelfth seed New Mexico State. With that being said, out of Villanova, Providence, and Creighton who survived to the second round, Providence made it to the Sweet Sixteen and Villanova surprised many by making it all the way to the Final Four. The Big Ten had an underwhelming tournament, especially for the conference who is arguably known for basketball. While they sent nine teams to the tournament (the most of any conference), only two reached the Sweet Sixteen; Purdue and Michigan. Purdue lost to Saint Peter’s and Michigan’s miraculous run after a bad regular season was put to an end by Villanova. While the SEC is not known for basketball, they had some of the strongest teams in recent memory and sent six teams to the tournament, all of which were top six seeds including a two seed Auburn, two seed Kentucky, three seed Tennessee, and four seed Arkansas. Only Arkansas, Tennessee, and Auburn made it to the second round, however; and Auburn and Tennessee were both upset by double digits. Save for an Elite Eight run for Arkansas capped off with a win over Gonzaga, it was an incredibly disappointing tournament for a conference that hasn’t had a team win the national championship since Kentucky in 2015. The team from the SEC that played the farthest into March was Texas A&M, but not many people saw that because it was in the NIT. 

 

As far as Cinderella stories this March, there were plenty. Of course the one that was most talked about was Saint Peter’s. A once completely unknown school became America’s favorite team within the span of a week, and Doug Edert’s name will go down in March Madness history forever. In fact, Saint Peter’s run was so unlikely, they have been called the greatest Cinderella story in March Madness history and landed former head coach Shaheen Holloway a job at Seton Hall. It’s certain that no one will be forgetting this legendary run from the Peacocks anytime soon. While Saint Peter's were definitely the most intriguing Cinderella story, they weren’t the only one. Michigan, an eleventh seed, who barely even snuck into the tournament with just a 17-14 record, somehow made it to the Sweet Sixteen, defeating Tennessee in the process. Miami took it a step further making it to the Elite Eight as a ten seed for the first time in school history. 

 

Doug Edert and Saint Peter’s celebrate after knocking off Kentucky in the first round. 

The tournament included countless classics, but none more famous than the Final Four matchup of Duke vs North Carolina. Anytime rivals UNC and Duke square off, you know that it will be an incredible game, but this game took it to a whole new level. There was so much riding on this game; potentially Coach K’s last game after 41 years of coaching at Duke, a chance for revenge after a humiliating 13 point defeat to UNC in Coach K’s final home game, and surprisingly the first time these historic programs had faced off in March Madness. It was a back-and-forth game featuring 18 lead changes and 12 ties. The climax was when UNC guard Caleb Love sealed the deal, draining a clutch 3-pointer with 24.8 seconds to go, giving the Tarheels a 78-74 lead. North Carolina would go on to win the game 81-77 and advance to the Championship game, ending Coach K’s historic 101 tournament games won career. On the other side, Kansas defeated Villanova in decisive fashion 81-65 to earn their spot in the Championship in most part because of a hot start. Kansas had somewhat gone under the radar en route to making the Championship, defeating Texas Southern, Creighton, Providence, Miami, and Villanova. In a tournament filled with upsets, Kansas was the one expected story that made them almost predictable on paper, as they were a 1 seed. Meanwhile, UNC was the intriguing story; first-year head coach Hubert Davis emerged from Roy Williams' shadow, leading a team that hadn’t emerged as a competitor until late in the year to the Finals, and defeating Marquette, Baylor, UCLA, Saint Peter’s, and Duke to punch their ticket to the finals. 

 

Coach K walks off the court for the final time after falling to North Carolina in the Final Four. 

 

North Carolina was known to be a very inconsistent team throughout the season. There were flashes of this throughout the tournament as they were carried through the Sweet Sixteen thanks to 28 second-half points from Caleb Love and in the second round, where they came dangerously close to throwing away a 25-point lead against Baylor and ending up winning in overtime. Kansas was dominant throughout the entire tournament; leading up to the championship, they had never been down by more than 7 points in any game. 


 

 

North Carolina celebrates after punching their ticket to the Finals. 


 

North Carolina picked up right where they left off against Duke, leading by 16 at one point and ending the first half up by 15. However, the game was far from over and legendary Kansas coach Bill Self was able to get his team back in the game, outscoring UNC 31-10 to start the second half. The cracks began to show as the North Carolina’s lineup started to get banged up. Armando Bacot, Brady Manek, and Puff Johnson all took shots throughout the game and had to take time off the court, which was especially devastating for a team that only played seven players. With 54 seconds to go, down 50-69, Bacot drove into the paint, but his right foot gave out and he turned the ball over. It was a heartbreaking moment as Bacot suffered a similar injury against Duke. Despite his injury, he was able to hobble his way back on defense, before play was stopped and being subbed out. Armando Bacot had an incredible season and was a key part of North Carolina’s championship run. Against Duke, he collected 21 rebounds despite missing time from an injury. In the finals, he played 38.5 minutes despite playing on an injured ankle and still had 15 points and 15 rebounds. He truly was the heart of North Carolina and his effort was noticed as Coach K told him after the Final Four game that “he was the best player in the tournament,” and that “you were my player of the year.” according to Tar Heels Wire. North Carolina had a chance to tie the game as Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. stepped on the line with 4.3 seconds to go and up by 3. Caleb Love had a chance to be the hero again, but his shot came up short and Kansas completed the largest comeback in March Madness finals history. 

 

 

Kansas celebrates after winning the National Championship for the first time since 2008.

 

Last year’s tournament featured a classic between Gonzaga and UCLA in the Final Four, but the tournament finals between Baylor and Gonzaga were somewhat underwhelming as Baylor won the game handily. This was not the case this year as the Finals not only lived up to expectations but far exceeded them. Looking back at this tournament years later, the game that will be remembered the most is UNC vs Duke, but also people will remember the legend of Saint Peter’s, a school no one had ever heard of before, Coach K’s final run, and the eventual winner Kansas winning for the first time since 2008. The future of college basketball is bright as this year's tournament showed just how even the playing field is. It doesn’t matter how many 5 stars a team has, when the game starts, anything can happen.