The NCAA Tournament is always unpredictable, but this year’s edition of March Madness has been nothing short of preposterous and seemingly impossible.
Brackets across the nation, including my own, were obliterated along with the hopes of 52 teams as the field was whittled to 16. Texas A&M stayed alive with a shocking, 20-point victory over the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels on Sunday after barely escaping Providence. Texas Tech survived two tight games over Stephen F. Austin and Florida to advance as well.
The well-publicized roller coaster ride that has been A&M’s season likely culminated with their best performance yet over a sputtering North Carolina squad, who seemed incapable of making a single shot let alone a run. On top of that, the Aggies obviously played well and Freshman guard T.J. Starks led A&M in scoring with 21. This was tied for the game’s most points along with Joel Berry, who finished his remarkable Tar Heel career 13th on the prestigious program’s all-time scoring list.
On top of Carolina miscues, Tyler Davis was as important as any Aggie while they built a commanding lead in the first half. Davis scored 18 points, blocked three shots and frustrated undersized opponents down low.
The Aggies need to match their performance if they hope to slide past the Michigan Wolverines in the Sweet 16. Despite a second round scare against Houston that required a miraculous buzzer beater, Michigan hasn't lost since Feb. 6 and have a favorable path to San Antonio with the Tar Heels out of the equation.
Keenan Evans silenced any questions about his health with 23 and 22 points against Stephen F. Austin and Florida to propel the Red Raiders into the second weekend. Tech will take on the Purdue Boilmakers on Friday with a trip to the Elite 8 on the line.
As expected, a Red Raider Final Four bid seems to live and die with Evans. But Freshman Zhaire Smith posted a key 18 points of his own on Saturday to scrape by the Gators and made headlines on Thursday with a breathtaking 360 alley-oop against the Lumberjacks. Smith’s highlight was the best I saw of countless heart stopping plays from the opening rounds.
The biggest news from the tournament, and perhaps the entire year in sports, came on Friday night in Charlotte when 16-seeded UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) historically toppled the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. This was the first time a 16-seed has ever won a game in the men’s NCAA tournament (not counting play-in matchups, of course).
This was a moment many die-hard sports fans never thought they’d witness, even though it was bound to happen eventually in a tournament so unpredictable. It was a feat on par with the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series in 2016 after 108 losing campaigns or the city of Cleveland bringing home a major sports title. We’re getting closer and closer to seeing it all.
Not only did UMBC pull off the the upset of all upsets, they did it against the number one overall team in the country and won by 20 points. Virginia’s 30-2 record was right up there with Kentucky’s undefeated campaign in 2014 as one of the most impressive single seasons of all time. Arguably, it was more impressive considering the depth of the ACC this year and Virginia’s lack of “one-and-done” talent. But however successful the Cavaliers were, this will be the final memory.
It’s worth mentioning that Virginia coach Tony Bennett, noticeably shocked and heartbroken along with his players, displayed class and grace on the wrong side of history. In an interview after the defeat, Bennett repeated the message he gave his team, which was to never let one defeat define them as human beings.
Meanwhile, the Retrievers of UMBC’s epic conquest of Virginia will now be mentioned in the same breathe as the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union or Super Bowl 42, when the New York Giants knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots. They fell in the second round to Kansas State in fighting fashion, but who cares? Their story belongs to the ages.
March also claimed other unsuspecting victims, and in surprising numbers. Final Four hopefuls Arizona, Miami, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Xavier, Wichita State and Michigan State were all sent home in the opening two rounds.
The Sweet 16 matchups are as follows along with the team’s seed: Kansas State (9) vs. Kentucky (5), Loyola-Chicago (11) vs. Nevada (7), Florida State (9) vs. Gonzaga (4), Michigan (3) vs. Texas A&M (7), Villanova (1) vs. West Virginia (5), Texas Tech (3) vs. Purdue (2), Kansas (1) vs. Clemson (5) and Syracuse (11) vs. Duke (2).