UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – After March Mayhem comes March Madness

Based on what happened last week, the prelude to March Madness ’24 merits a catchy name of its own.

Let’s call it March Mayhem.

Those 32 post-season conference tournaments didn’t come close to following regular-season form. Instead, they offered a precursor of what’s likely to come. More mayhem.

Consider these upsets:

Of the five teams projected most often to be the four No. 1 seeds in the Madness regionals—UConn,  Houston, Purdue, Tennessee and North Carolina—only Connecticut won its conference tournament.  Mississippi State knocked off Tennessee; Wisconsin upset Purdue; Iowa State surprised Houston; and upstart North Carolina State beat their instate rivals. (Nevertheless, Houston, Purdue and North Carolina join the defending national champs, UConn, as regional top seeds.)

Regular-season league champs won only 12 tournament titles. Among the 20 losers were North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference, South Florida in the American Athletic, Chicago Loyola in the Atlantic 10, Houston in the Big 12, Purdue in the Big Ten, Indiana State in the Missouri Valley, Utah State in the Mountain West, Arizona in the Pac-12 and Tennessee in the SEC. The only major conference winners were UConn in the Big East and St. Mary’s in the West Coast (dominated by Gonzaga for almost a decade).

Exactly 80% of the teams in both the writers’ and coaches’ final regular-season polls—that’s 20 of 25—were defeated last week. The only survivors were Connecticut, Iowa State, Auburn, Illinois and Saint Mary’s.

Bluebloods Kentucky (to Texas A&M) and Kansas (to Cincinnati)—the two winningest programs in college basketball—were early-round losers, joining Duke and North Carolina ( fourth and third, respectively, in total wins, who both fell to NC State.

Last Sunday—Selection Sunday, as host CBS has branded it—the intrepid Tournament Committee announced the 68 universities it chose to play in this year’s Madness. 

After Tournament Week’s bloodbath, there were plenty of surprises. And much jubilation among those who survived the bubble or otherwise crashed the party, as usual.

Unspoken, though, was this stark reality:  52 of those teams will have been eliminated by this Sunday—one week later.

Which ones will have survived?

As March Mayhem strongly suggests, it’s anybody’s guess.

In fact, whoever fills out the winning bracket in any given group will have wasted their moment of greatest luck.

Better to have loaded up on lottery tickets or invested in PowerBall.

On the other hand, isn’t this why we watch? Isn’t the unpredictability what makes this first weekend of Madness so compelling?

Isn’t this why the whole three weeks are so much fun?

Who didn’t enjoy the heck out of these examples of mayhem in March Madness in just the last 10 years?

Dunk City, aka Florida Gulf Coast—so-called for their 148 dunks that season, reaching the Sweet 16 in only its sixth season of Big School basketball—as the first 15th seed ever to make it to the second weekend—by upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State.

Five years later, Maryland Baltimore County stunning overall No. 1 seed Virginia by 21 points, 75-54, to become the only No. 16 seed ever to beat a top seed. The Cavaliers were 31-2, including 20-1 against teams from the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

That same year, Sister Jean, Chicago Loyola’s 98-year-old chaplain, bursting on the scene and cheering the Ramblers all the way to the Final Four. (She’s still going strong at 104.)

Pesky St. Peter’s, another 15 seed, embarrassing Kentucky, one of the favorites to win that year’s national title in overtime, 85-79, in 2022 and thus winning a Madness game as well as reaching the Round of 32 for the first time in school history.  

In case you’re wondering, winning 20-plus games is not enough in and of itself. In the season just completed, 128 teams won that many games, but only 63 of them made the 68-team bracket (including Colorado and Colorado State).

Michigan State got in for the 26th year in a row—despite a 19-14 record and sixth-place finish in the Big Ten. 

Why? Because the Spartans have reached the Final Four 10 times and won two national titles during Tom Izzo’s 29 years as head coach.

And what about Montana State (17-17), Wagner (16-15), Howard 18-16 and giant-killer St. Peter’s (19-13)?

They were among March Mayhem’s conference tournament victors.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 16 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at denny
dressman@comcast.net.