The Wildest Weekend in NCAA Tournament History Redeemed a Boring Start to March Madness

The first two rounds of the NCAA tournament had few dramatic upsets and thrilling finishes. But the boring start to March Madness 2019 was well worth it for what ended up being one of the wildest weekends in tournament history.
Author:
Publish date:

Going into the Sweet 16, the 2019 NCAA tournament field had exactly one double-digit seed standing: No. 12 Oregon. But the absence of upsets was a footnote to the real story of this year’s first weekend of games: They were, to put it plainly, largely a bore.

In the tournament’s First Four games, Round of 64 and Round of 32, the average margin of victory was 13.8 points. Only nine of those 52 contests were decided by five or fewer points, making for a weekend of relaxed viewing—for anyone but a Duke fan, at least. (The Blue Devils starred in the weekend’s closest game, beating UCF to advance to the second weekend on a barely missed tip-in by the Knights’ Aubrey Dawkins.)

Heart rates were collectively level, nails intact—and then the Sweet 16 happened. And then the Elite Eight. And now it’s time for college basketball to take a deep breath after one of the wildest weekends in tournament history, more than making up for last weekend’s humdrum set of games. Perhaps it was the lack of Cinderellas—all of the top 12 seeded teams in the tournament were still alive on Thursday morning—that contributed to such an even playing field, or maybe we were just due for some great basketball. Whatever the case, a relatively unsurprising Sweet 16 field yielded three games this weekend that went to overtime, five that were won by a margin of five or fewer points and six in which the lower-seeded team advanced.

Things ramped up gradually on Thursday. Virginia’s defense put on a show against Oregon. Gonzaga dismantled Florida State. Then Purdue and Tennessee turned in the best game to that point, with Ryan Cline’s three-pointer barrage and a controversial foul on a Carsen Edwards three-pointer with 1.7 seconds remaining helped the Boilermakers to a 99–94 overtime win. After that, Texas Tech’s defense sent home a second No. 2 seed, Michigan; the Red Raiders won in a 63–44 blowout.

Friday built off Thursday’s two surprises. Duke won in regulation only because Virgnia Tech’s Ahmed Hill missed a game-tying jumper by a fraction of an inch. Auburn blew out North Carolina, the first No. 1 seed to fall. Michigan State won by a similarly large margin over LSU, and Kentucky used a late flurry to survive Houston. In that game, PJ Washington played through a foot injury to log 16 points, and his blocked shot with 36 seconds remaining helped set up Tyler Herro’s clinching five points in the game’s final 25 seconds.

In the Elite Eight, Texas Tech and the nation’s best defense held the country’s best offensive team, Gonzaga, to 42% shooting in a 75–69 victory that came down to the game’s final seconds. Virginia and Purdue turned in an overtime thriller that somehow topped Purdue-Tennessee, in which the Cavaliers needed a buzzer-beater to tie the game at the end of regulation. Edwards turned in the individual performance of the tournament, hitting 10 threes, one short of a March Madness record, but that wasn’t enough to keep Virginia from its first Final Four since 1984.

Sunday started off with another overtime tussle, in which fifth-seeded Auburn pulled away in the extra session and topped Kentucky to become the second first-time Final Four team in this field. By the time Duke and Michigan State tipped off for the weekend’s final game, a blowout wouldn’t have dampened many spirits apart from the losing team’s—there had been plenty of good basketball already. But then the top-seeded Blue Devils and second-seeded Spartans played neck-in-neck for the good part of 40 minutes, and the game came down to a missed free throw by Duke’s R.J. Barrett. And with that, perhaps the best second weekend of any tournament ever had ended. The No. 1 seed with a reputation for bombing in the tournament was the only No. 1 seed that remained, as did a two-seed that topped a more-talented-on-paper foe, a three-seed whose year was supposed to be last year and a five-seed with no history of tournament success.

And so the field that saw exactly one double-digit seed emerge from the Round of 32 yielded a Final Four of Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn. A first weekend of games that was chalk, chalk and more chalk—most fans’ nightmare—looks better in retrospect for what it produced: a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight that felt completely up for grabs. Sure, there was nothing last weekend to disrupt the natural order of things, but often those early upsets do little more than yield blowouts in the second weekend, where bluebloods prevail without really flexing. This year offered the other side of that coin.

None of the four teams packing for Minneapolis were ranked No. 1 in a single AP poll this season. The best player in the country, Zion Williamson, is out of the tournament. So are the teams with the biggest fan bases and ratings clout: Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky. But what looms next weekend is anything but grim. If you’re not having fun, you haven’t been watching.