Winners and Losers of the First Round of March Madness

Who shined the most in the opening round of March Madness? Who fell short? Let’s dive into a special edition of Winners and Losers.

Winner: A Perfect March Madness Upset

On the night before each NCAA tournament, after I’m done making my picks, part of me always gets scared: What if everything goes chalk? What if the tournament I’ve waited 11 months to watch simply doesn’t deliver? What if there are no upsets or buzzer-beaters? What if March isn’t Mad?

And then, within 24 hours, that doubt is gone. This year, it evaporated when a team with a silly mascot from one of the smallest Division I schools in one of the country’s least successful conferences took down one of the sport’s perennial juggernauts—with an extra serving of onions.

When Kentucky plays Saint Peter’s, Kentucky should always win. Kentucky is one of the most storied programs in the nation. It is routinely stocked with five-star recruits and some of the best players in the country. This season, the Wildcats went 9-0 in regular-season games against opponents from non–power conferences—and most of those were blowouts.

Saint Peter’s has no storied history and no five-star recruits. This season, it lost six games in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play and lost all three of its matchups against power-conference schools. When I filmed a video predicting that Saint Peter’s would beat Kentucky, most of my reasons for doing so were jokes. The Peacocks entered this game as 17.5-point underdogs, and deservedly so.

On Thursday, Kentucky was physically dominant: It racked up 14 offensive rebounds, forced 15 turnovers, and got to the line for 35 free throws. Star forward Oscar Tshiebwe played a phenomenal game, finishing with 30 points and 16 boards. You could tell that Kentucky was the better team.

But Saint Peter’s made magic. The Peacocks outshot Kentucky on 2-pointers, 3-pointers, and free throws. When the Kentucky offense ran into trouble, it looked like it didn’t know what it was supposed to do. When the Saint Peter’s offense ran into trouble, it hoisted a shot that was destined to go in. Daryl Banks, a junior, dropped a career-high 27 points. Doug Edert, the sixth man, scored the Peacocks’ final five points to force overtime. That should have been the end—an extra five minutes for the better team to sort things out. But Kentucky looked disjointed, and Saint Peter’s couldn’t miss.

It was a perfect March Madness upset. Saint Peter’s has an undergraduate student enrollment of 2,672. Kentucky has a basketball stadium with a seating capacity of 20,500. Kentucky coach John Calipari makes $8.5 million per year; Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway makes about $250,000, and got food poisoning at a McDonald’s this week. Saint Peter’s has made the men’s NCAA tournament four times. Kentucky has won the national championship eight times. Kentucky lives for Wildcats basketball. I live about 10 miles from Saint Peter’s and don’t know anyone who’s ever been to a Saint Peter’s game. When CBS showed a video of Saint Peter’s fans celebrating, I think it might have been the whole student body:

Even if you watched the game, even if you pore over the box score, it still doesn’t make sense. I even made a video about how Saint Peter’s could win—you’re welcome, by the way—and I’m still confused about how this happened. This game, and this tournament, shouldn’t happen this way, and yet I’m so glad that it does.

Loser: John Calipari

There’s nothing more embarrassing for a great college head coach than an upset loss in the NCAA tournament. Great coaches are supposed to help players outperform their talent; when a team like Kentucky goes out in the first round, it’s one of the clearest examples possible of a team losing in spite of a massive talent advantage. Of course, this has happened to so many of the great ones: Mike Krzyzewski lost to Mercer and Lehigh; Tom Izzo lost to Middle Tennessee; Jim Boeheim lost to Vermont. But it hadn’t really happened to Calipari, who entered this year with a 19-1 record in the first round of the NCAA tournament. His only prior loss came in 2003, his second season at Memphis, when the Tigers were a no. 10 seed.

Then came the Saint Peter’s game, a result that has left Kentucky fans wondering what’s become of their beloved program. After all, what’s going on with Kentucky feels like more than a blip on the radar. It has now been three seasons since the Wildcats won a men’s NCAA tournament game. The team just lost in the first round for the first time since 2008, when Billy Gillespie was in his first season as the head coach. Last year, the Wildcats finished 8-9 in SEC play and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, Billy Gillespie’s second season on the job. Gillespie didn’t get a third year, because if you go two years without winning an NCAA tournament game at Kentucky, you’re doing a pretty bad job.

In Calipari’s first six seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats made the Elite Eight five times, with three Final Four appearances, two trips to the national title game, and a championship. In the seven seasons since then, Kentucky has made the Elite Eight twice and gone no further. With the loss on Thursday, Kentucky has now gone back-to-back years without a men’s NCAA tourney win for the first time since 1990-91, when the Wildcats were ineligible to compete. This marks the first time the Wildcats have been eligible and gone consecutive years without a tourney win since 1946-47, when the Wildcats went to the NIT instead.

When Calipari’s Kentucky teams have thrived, he’s landed the most sought-after recruits in the sport: players like John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns, all of whom dominated as freshmen before going no. 1 in the NBA draft. While the Wildcats are still getting five-star recruits, they have not produced a top-five draft pick since De’Aaron Fox in 2017. And this team’s best players were transfers: Tshiebwe from West Virginia and Kellan Grady from Davidson. Cal simply doesn’t get the best talent in the world anymore.

So what should Kentucky do? I mean, probably nothing: Firing Calipari would be unreasonable and wouldn’t solve anything. With Coach K retiring, Calipari will head into next season with the second-most wins of any active men’s coach, behind only Boeheim. There’s nobody more successful out there whom Kentucky could hire. What the program needs, I suppose, is for Calipari to get better at coaching. That’s a tough ask of a 63-year-old with an NCAA championship to his name.

Winner: Improbable 3-Point Legend Tyrese Hunter

If Friday’s matchup with LSU was the first Iowa State basketball game you watched this year, you probably think Tyrese Hunter is a Steph Curry clone. He kept pulling up from deep:

And deeper:

nd deeper. Below is a clip of his seventh 3 of the night, a cold-blooded shot that sealed a 59-54 win after Hunter stared down his defender. Iowa State didn’t even need a 3—he just decided to drill one anyway.

Hunter, a freshman, has been a critical part of Iowa State’s preposterous one-year turnaround. Last season the Cyclones finished 2-22, losing all 18 of their Big 12 games. Needless to say, they fired head coach Steve Prohm, and they brought in former UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger to replace him. Otzelberger landed a ton of transfers and exactly one recruit: Hunter, a four-star prospect out of Otzelberger’s home state of Wisconsin. (Maybe he was motivated by the success of a prior point guard from Wisconsin named “Tyrese H.” at Iowa State.) Hunter won Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors, running the point for the Cyclones as they jumped from 2-22 to 20-12.

But the weird thing is … Hunter is not Steph Curry. In fact, he’s kind of a bad shooter. He shot 24.8 percent from beyond the arc this season; Iowa State was 253rd in made 3-pointers per game, and Hunter was fifth on the team in that category. His season high in 3s was three. Until Friday, that is, when he more than doubled that. Hunter dropped a career-high 23 points on LSU—seven 3s, one 2—and carried Iowa State to the win. He became the second player in men’s tournament history to have seven 3s and five steals in a March Madness game. The other was, well, Steph Curry.

It’s only right that Hunter played a big part in Iowa State’s win. It mirrors his role in one of the best college basketball stories in the sport. The way he did it made no sense, but who cares? Nobody will ever remember Tyrese Hunter’s freshman 3-point percentage. We’ll just remember the guy who drilled seven increasingly ridiculous 3s in the biggest game of his season.

Loser: Arachnophobes

Even though spiders are small, we have good reason to fear them. They don’t overpower their prey—they trap it in webs, or poison it, incapacitating it before eating it alive. As spiders hide in dark corners, we know they are up to something sinister.

Iowa found this out the hard way. On Thursday, the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes were ensnared and eaten by 12th-seeded Richmond, losing 67-63. They couldn’t stop 5-foot-9 guard Jacob Gilyard, the all-time Division I steals leader, who paced all scorers with 24 points.

While the Spiders didn’t turn as many heads as the Peacocks, this was still a pretty remarkable upset. Iowa entered March Madness as a trendy Final Four pick: It was the 13th-most popular national champion pick in ESPN’s men’s bracket challenge, and college hoops analytics legend Ken Pomeroy emerged from his cocoon earlier this week to advise readers to take the Hawkeyes. (I may have also advised people to do this.) Iowa had one of the best offenses in college basketball, and came into this matchup fresh off its triumph in the Big Ten tournament. Richmond, meanwhile, had an unimpressive résumé and few people in its corner. The Spiders crawled into the field by the skin of their exoskeleton, only qualifying after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and stealing an automatic bid.

But the Spiders have done this before. Miraculously, this is Richmond’s ninth men’s NCAA tournament win as a no. 12 seed or lower. The Spiders won two games as a no. 12 seed in 1984, made the Sweet 16 as a no. 12 seed in 2011 and as a no. 13 seed in 1988, downed South Carolina as a no. 14 seed in 1998, and upset Syracuse as a no. 15 seed in 1991. This is by far the most wins any program has while being seeded 12th or lower in men’s tournament history—according to ESPN, no other program has won more than four such games. The Spiders are twice as good at tourney upsets as any of the other 360 Division I teams.

How is this possible? Is there something innate to programs that makes them capable of pulling these upsets? And if so, why Richmond? Before this season, the Spiders hadn’t played in the men’s tournament since that 2011 Sweet 16 run. Richmond is inarguably the second-best program in its own city, as crosstown VCU comfortably owns the head-to-head rivalry and has had more recent and historical success. The Spiders have produced just one player who went on to have a significant NBA career (Johnny Newman), and they’ve only made the tourney 10 times—but have managed to win a game in six of those appearances.

Most of the time, Richmond basketball isn’t especially notable. But you can’t pull upsets if you’re good; otherwise, they aren’t upsets. The Spiders lie in wait, building traps in the unseen corners of college basketball—and big-time teams keep walking right into them.

Winner: Defensively Dominant No. 1 Seeds

The women’s NCAA tournament started on Friday, highlighted by a thrilling 12-5 upset in which Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley dropped 42 points but couldn’t keep up with Florida Gulf Coast’s 15 made 3-pointers. (Dunk City has become Three City.) However, the most shocking performances came in a pair of games in which the outcome was never in question. Top seeds South Carolina and Stanford won their first-round contests by a combined total of 109 points.

South Carolina, the bracket’s no. 1 overall seed, carried a 44-4 lead into halftime of its game against Howard, setting an NCAA record for the fewest points allowed in one half. The Gamecocks went on to win 79-21, breaking the record for fewest points allowed in a women’s NCAA tournament game.

Defending national champion Stanford likewise set a defensive record. The Cardinal led Montana State 20-0 after the first quarter, which is the fewest points any team has allowed in a quarter at any level—a mark that will hold until basketball starts including fractional points. With the team ahead 29-6, Fran Belibi turned defense into offense and threw down the third dunk in women’s tournament history, joining Candace Parker and Brittney Griner. The Cardinal rolled, 78-37.

We’re used to seeing dominant teams run up the score in first-round games, but South Carolina and Stanford decided to shut down the score. It’s a different type of dominance, but it sends a message to the rest of the field just as clearly.

Loser: Tall People

My greatest joy in life comes when somebody asks me to get something off a high shelf. It’s easily the best part of being 6-foot-1. (Do not believe any medical records from doctors who have measured me at 5-foot-11—these allegations are spurious at best.) I let the person I am helping know that they are not inconveniencing me, and that I am eager to use my height for public good. “Wow,” they always think. “6-foot-1 and incredibly generous.” It’s true. I’m also humble, although if someone plays the Superman theme song while I’m fetching an item off a shelf I don’t stop them. Who am I to get in the way of their dreams?

However, Thursday’s NCAA tournament game between Indiana and St. Mary’s brought a dispiriting moment for my fellow Semi-Talls. Early in the second half, a ball got stuck high atop the basket support. This problem is typically solved by having the tallest player on the court poke the ball with a long pole, like the handle of one of the mops used to clean off the court in between possessions. But this time the ball was too high. A referee tried poking the ball from atop a stool, but this didn’t work. It seems like the players could have stood upon the stool and poked the ball, but I imagine they were advised against it to avoid a potential fall.

And then a hero came to the rescue: An Indiana cheerleader, 5-foot-4 at most, hopped up on the shoulders of another (short) cheerleader, as cheerleaders often do in cheerleading. She rose to glory:

While this moment went viral—especially thanks to the announcers commentating on the ball retrieval like a buzzer-beating shot—it represents a dark moment for people like me. For those of us who aren’t quite tall enough to play college or pro basketball, thing-fetching is the only tangible benefit of being semi-tall. But this moment proved that even legitimately tall people can be replaced by teamwork from shorter people. What is the point of being 6-foot-1 (6-foot-3 on dating apps) if the Shorts can band together to accomplish things traditionally done by the Talls?

Winner: Chet Holmgren

This year’s NCAA tournament is made for people who love the NBA draft. While recent drafts have seen teams use top picks on players who skipped college for pro opportunities (Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, LaMelo Ball) or players whose teams simply weren’t good enough to get into the men’s field (Anthony Edwards, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons), the top 10 players in Kevin O’Connor’s 2022 NBA draft Big Board all qualified for this tourney.

And this year’s NCAA tournament is made for people who love the draft specifically because of Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga’s 7-foot superstar who has the handles of a guard and the frame of a hatstand. The likely no. 1 overall pick is a member of the bracket’s no. 1 seed. If Gonzaga wins it all, Holmgren would become the first men’s NCAA champion to go first in the draft since Anthony Davis in 2012. Before Davis, the last player to do it was Magic Johnson in 1979.

Holmgren got his run started on Thursday in a 93-72 win over Georgia State. The Zags struggled with the 16th-seeded Panthers for a while—the score was 59-57 with under 12 minutes remaining in the second half—but eventually pulled away for a comfortable victory. Holmgren keyed that late surge, putting up a ridiculous stat line of 19 points, 17 rebounds, 7 blocks, and 5 assists with no turnovers. It’s just the second time this season that a player had at least 15 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 5 assists in one game. The other performance was also Holmgren, in last month’s 90-57 rout of BYU.

Holmgren looked like a different species from the Panthers—taller than their tallest player, more athletic than their best athletes, and smoother than their smoothest ballhandlers. He led both teams in points and rebounds, had more assists than any Georgia State player, and had more blocks than the entire Georgia State team.

I’m sure NBA scouts will pay the most attention to the later rounds of the tournament, when Holmgren will likely go up against the types of players he’ll have to face in the NBA. He’ll be matched up against Memphis center Jalen Duren in the second round, he could draw Duke’s Paolo Banchero in the Elite Eight, and he could face off with any number of top players in the Final Four or national championship. These games could tell evaluators how Holmgren’s unique body and skill set will hold up against elite talent.

But I find it most entertaining to watch Holmgren in games like this one, where it’s tremendously clear that he’s unlike anybody else in the sport. Maybe this string bean will go on to become an NBA superstar—but we absolutely know he’s doing things nobody else can in the 16-1 game.

Loser: Mid-major Haters

The best thing about March Madness is watching small schools we’ve never heard of take down the biggest names in the sport—but the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t seem to agree. In recent years, it has selected fewer and fewer teams from outside the power conferences, a trend I wrote about in 2018. And in those rare instances when two teams from non–power leagues have gotten strong seeds, the committee has somehow found a way to pit them against each other, as happened when Murray State was matched up against San Francisco.

Murray State went 31-2 this regular season, entering the tourney on a 20-game winning streak. The Racers were ranked 20th in the final AP poll, indicating that voters believed they deserved to be about a no. 5 seed. San Francisco finished the regular season ranked 22nd on KenPom, which should have put the Dons around the no. 6 seed line. But because the committee values strength of schedule more than “being good at basketball,” this was a 7-10 showdown.

On Thursday, the Racers and the Dons proved their mettle by playing the best game of the first round. San Francisco trailed by 73-65 with two minutes to go, but then Jamaree Bouyea scored the final six points of regulation, including this game-tying 3 with the clock running out:

That sent the game to overtime, where the teams scored 33 points in five minutes of action. During one three-minute stretch, they combined to score on 10 consecutive possessions—here’s how the play-by-play looks:

But both teams couldn’t win. Murray State stayed hot; San Francisco couldn’t keep up. The Racers won, 92-87. The NCAA ensured that one of these exceptional teams would be eliminated, but they both deserved to advance to the second round.

The Murray State–San Francisco game showed us that mid-majors can play at an incredibly high level and bring us the most entertaining action of March. The good news is that if the selection committee did try to eliminate quality mid-majors as quickly as possible, it failed: Thanks to the Saint Peter’s win over Kentucky, either the Racers or Peacocks will reach the Sweet 16.

Leave a Comment