This is why I love March Madness.
VCU just destroyed my bracket and I have a smile on my face. I had Kansas winning the national championship. Most people thought they’d cruise into the Final Four when No.2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Purdue fell last weekend. Shoot, most people thought they’d sail right through till Monday Night. The Jayhawks’ domination of Richmond on Friday night only reinforced this notion.
They were the clear favorite. Their triumph seemed inevitable.
But nothing is inevitable in March. Single elimination ups the stakes. When the Rams jumped all over KU early Sunday, you began to see just how wacky and unpredictable the tournament is.
None of the four No. 1 seeds made it to Houston. Pitt was the first to go. They couldn’t get out of the first weekend. Duke bowed out in the Sweet 16. Ohio State, the top ranked team throughout most of this season, went down on Saturday night and Kansas fell on Sunday afternoon.
This turned things upside down and busted brackets across the country. It was a complete 180 from the first weekend of the tournament. Chalk dominated the first two rounds. Seven of the top eight teams made it to the Sweet 16. Then the fun began. An unheralded Arizona team dominated the defending national champion Blue Devils while the inexperienced, but talented Kentucky team knocked off the Buckeyes. But this was just the appetizer. The real fun took place in the Elite 8.
All four games on Saturday and Sunday were memorable. Butler and Florida played a classic, back-and-forth overtime nail biter. The Bulldogs pulled it out and made their second consecutive Final Four appearance. Arizona and UCONN played a thriller as well. The Huskies came out on top, continuing their marvelous run (nine wins in nineteen days) and giving Jim Calhoun another trip to the Final Four. The Saturday games were decided by a combined five points.
Sunday’s games weren’t as close, but just as memorable. VCU started things off with their improbable win against Kansas. This wasn’t a fluke game decided by a desperation shot. No, it was a beat down. VCU jumped out early on the Jayhawks and took a commanding lead into halftime. Kansas came roaring back in the second half. They pulled within shouting distance several times, but each time it looked like they’d tie it up, VCU drained another three-pointer. They made 48% (12/25) of their shots behind the arc Sunday.
The Rams become the second No. 11 seed in the last five years to make the Final Four. In 2006, George Mason shocked the basketball world when they upset UCONN (also destroying my bracket!!!) and made it to the big dance. VCU might be a bigger shock, though. They were one of the last teams the tournament committee selected and had to win a play-in (one of four) game, just to be in the field of sixty-four. Then they proceeded to kick ass: running Georgetown out of the gym in round one and torching Purdue in the second. Florida State played them tough in the Sweet 16, but the Rams pulled that one out late Friday night. Sunday was Cinderella’s triumph.
There was no Cinderella in Newark. No, the East Regional Final pitted two national powers against one another. Kentucky and North Carolina squared off in a match-up that had the feeling of a heavyweight fight. It certainly had a Final Four atmosphere (certainly befitting the last game of the weekend). Both sides have plenty of history (Kentucky has seven national championships; Carolina has five). Both have big name coaches (John Calipari for the Wildcats; Roy Williams for the Heels). The Wildcats took care of business on this day and are now within two games of adding another championship banner to the ceiling of Rupp Arena. John Calipari will cement his legacy if he can cut down the net eight days hence. He’s done everything else in his coaching career, having now taken three teams (UMASS, Memphis, and Kentucky) to the Final Four.
The Road to Houston is now complete. Improbable underdogs VCU and Belmont will square off in the first national semifinal while perennial powers Kentucky and UCONN will do battle in the second.
We’ll see how it plays out. One thing’s for sure: never count the underdog out in March. Put a smile on your face when the improbable happens. Recognize the tournament is full of surprises and makes its prognosticators look like fools. No one had VCU in the Final Four. But that’s why we love March Madness. Anything can happen in single-elimination tournament. These three weeks offer plenty of drama, intrigue, and athletic skill. It’s sport at its finest. Expect the unexpected.