From the Bleachers: After a year without March Madness, the 2021 tournament did not disappoint
Baily Deeter ’22 returns with his column “From the Bleachers,” sharing his thoughts on the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The sports world looks very different since I wrote my last column in mid-November. As vaccination rollout continues across the country, fans begin to file back into seats, and the world inches toward normalcy, we’ve been able to enjoy a spectacular few weeks in the sports world. Last year, COVID-19 hit just as March Madness was about to begin, forcing the cancellation of the 2020 tournament and depriving us of buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories. Fortunately, the 2021 tournament has provided two years worth of excitement.
I’m usually not a huge college basketball fan due to slow pace of play, low-scoring games and lack of regular-season excitement, but this tournament has absolutely captivated me.
I’m still buzzing with excitement following the UCLA-Gonzaga semifinal, probably the best basketball game in my lifetime. Sure, the UNC-Villanova final sequence was legendary. Trey Burke’s 30-foot game-tying triple against Kansas was unforgettable. So was Ray Allen’s season-saving three-pointer against the Spurs in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron’s block during the 2016 Finals and Kobe Byrant’s 60-point performance in his final game. But UCLA-Gonzaga had everything you could ever look for in an all-time classic.
The game was high-scoring because everything was falling. Gonzaga shot an impressive 59% from the field, with UCLA lagging behind only slightly at 58%. It was fast-paced. It had star power — Johnny Juzang scored 29 points including a game-tying layup and multiple crunch-time buckets. Drew Timme scored 25 points, six of which came in overtime. Corey Kispert scored a key go-ahead basket with less than a minute left in regulation. And, of course, there was Jalen Suggs — but we’ll get to him in a minute.
The game also featured a controversial charge on UCLA’s final possession in regulation — which was probably the correct call by the referee, preventing the game from going down in infamy. It had overtime, which saw Gonzaga pull out in front by five points before surrendering the lead thanks to two clutch shots from the Bruins. And right after Juzang got his own rebound to tie the game with three seconds left, Suggs raced down the court to hit one of the greatest shots in college basketball history.
My only complaint about the game is that Suggs didn’t call bank.
Regardless, the best team in college basketball advanced to the championship game — but then squandered its opportunity to complete an undefeated season in a championship game loss at the hands of Baylor. Had Gonzaga emerged, it would have been the first perfect season in 45 years.
Even still, it was UCLA, an 11-seed that appeared to be headed for an embarrassing First Four exit, that made this tournament fun. The team’s overtime thriller against Alabama and their gritty victory over Michigan were both particularly noteworthy games that cemented this Bruins squad’s legacy as one of the greatest Cinderella stories of all time.
While the Bruins were the only double-digit seed to make the Final Four, they were far from the only squad to make a splash. Many of this year’s standout teams, in fact, also came from the Pac-12, which is not generally known for being a powerhouse basketball conference — before this year’s run by UCLA, just one Pac-12 team had made the Final Four in the previous 11 tournaments.
In 2021, however, three teams from the conference, all seeded sixth or lower, made the Elite Eight. Before Gonzaga interrupted their run, sixth-seeded USC decimated Drake, Kansas and Oregon behind soon-to-be NBA Draft pick Evan Mobley. No. 12 Oregon State impressively beat Tennessee, Oklahoma State and Loyola Chicago before falling just short against Houston. The Beavers were picked to finish last in the conference’s preseason poll, so their voyage to the Elite Eight was especially exciting and unexpected. Seventh-seeded Oregon even dominated No. 2 Iowa before falling short against the Trojans, with fifth-seeded Colorado winning a game as well.
In other words, the text I sent to as many people as possible to “fade the Pac-12 at all costs” did not pan out.
But these Pac-12 squads were far from being the only teams to deliver upsets this March. Loyola Chicago also made headlines by eliminating top-seeded Illinois, which many thought would be facing Gonzaga in the championship game. The eighth-seeded Ramblers, who made a Final Four appearance in 2018, almost returned in 2021, passing their hardest test before falling short against the mighty Beavers.
Even more impressive was Oral Roberts University, who became just the second No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16 and over the course of their run took down Ohio State in overtime and rallied to beat Florida. The Golden Eagles showed poise throughout the tournament, hitting free throws and late-game shots when they counted. They also came within inches of beating Arkansas and making the Elite Eight when the nation’s top scorer, Max Abmas, barely missed what would have been the game-winning shot and one of the greatest moments in college basketball history. Still, considering their status as a 15 seed, their run was one for the ages.
I had third-seeded Texas winning it all in one of my brackets, but as it turned out, the Longhorns were swiftly eliminated by No. 14 Abilene Christian. No. 4 seeds Purdue and Virginia — the defending champion — both fell short in the first round. No. 2 Iowa lost in the Round of 32. It was a tough year to be a top seed — in March, it appears, anyone can beat anyone.
While it wasn’t the best year for most brackets, it’s safe to say that the tournament exceeded all expectations. Now, we’ll turn our attention to the NBA, as we wait for Lebron and Anthony Davis to return to action and eagerly anticipate watching a stacked Brooklyn Nets team compete in this year’s playoffs.