NCAA Tournament Takeaways: What we learned from men’s first round

The greatest time of year on the sports calendar is finally here. We have all waited a very long time to enjoy March Madness. At long last, our full days of meaningful basketball games have returned! The men’s NCAA tournament is off to a thrilling start and there is still plenty to come with the second round of action on Sunday and the women’s tournament getting underway. With the first 36 games in the books on the men’s side, let’s take a look at what we learned.

We really missed March Madness

Whether it was Oral Roberts stunning Ohio State, Ohio knocking out the defending champs, or complaining about our brackets being busted, it was so good to have the NCAA tournament back. Friday really spoiled us with tons of upsets and three overtime games. Saturday was a bit more tame early on, but we still had plenty to talk about with Virginia losing its first NCAA tournament game since the biggest upset ever against UMBC in 2018, VCU bowing out due to COVID-19 positive tests and Abilene Christian shocking Texas. To put it in perspective, my friend Akshat offers a very sobering comparison.

Needless to say, we all needed March Madness back in our lives. The second round of the men’s tournament starts Sunday, as does the first round of the women’s tournament. There are going to be an absurd number of basketball games on. Savor these moments. As we learned last year, we can’t take it for granted and before we know it, the season will be over and we will be without college basketball once again.

The NCAA still has a long way to go on gender equity

This should come as no surprise, but the women competing in San Antonio were not given the same treatment as their male counterparts in Indianapolis. While the men had a full weight room, the women had one weight rack with a few dumbbells. Thankfully, Oregon’s Sedona Prince was unwilling to stand for this.

The NCAA botched the whole situation. They issued all kinds of excuses and apologies, but that does not erase the very apparent issue. The NCAA does not have the best interests of women’s college sports at heart. I get that the men’s game makes more revenue, but for the governing body of college sports to not only allow, but play a hand in increasing the gap between men’s and women’s sports is disgusting. All signs point to Mark Emmert being unqualified to hold his position. Thankfully, athletes from the NBA, WNBA and men’s college hoops spoke up on social media and Prince’s tweet went viral. It made national news broadcasts across the country and reignited the conversation surrounding a lack of funding and respect for female college athletes. I won’t pretend that this fixes everything, but it is good to put the spotlight on the issue. And, as a result, the NCAA fixed the situation.

It is nice to see that these athletes can use their platform to advocate for themselves, but it is way past time for these things to stop happening. Hopefully, the NCAA actually learns something from this incident and addresses how they prioritize their athletes. I won’t be holding my breath though.

Cinderella is alive and well

Four teams seeded 13 or higher reached the Round of 32 for the first time in tournament history. No. 13 North Texas, No. 13 Ohio, No. 14 Abilene Christian and No. 15 Oral Roberts all booked spots in the second round in stunning fashion. In total, nine double-digit seeds made it through the first round. With Abilene Christian set to face No. 11 UCLA, we are guaranteed to have a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. In a year unlike any other, there was bound to be upsets. I expected that. This level of chaos was not something I saw coming.

Could one of these teams truly be Cinderella and reach the Final Four? Recent history suggests that it is likely. From 2013 to 2018, a team seeded 7th or higher made it to the Final Four. No. 11 Loyola Chicago did in 2018. No. 7 South Carolina made it to the final weekend in 2017. No. 10 Syracuse stunned everyone with a semifinal appearance in 2016. No. 7 Michigan State reached the Final Four in 2015. No. 7 UConn beat No. 8 Kentucky in the National Championship game in 2014. What a wild year that was. No. 9 Wichita State made a semifinal run in 2013. It is far from a guarantee, but all signs point to another unforeseen team making a deep run.

If I had to pick one team from this year’s group, I am looking at UCLA. Michigan is not at full strength without Isaiah Livers. Alabama looked plenty mortal against Iona. Florida State and Colorado have high ceilings, but low floors. Mick Cronin’s group is my pick to play Cinderella this year after watching the first round.

Pac-12 came to play

Only one conference in men’s college hoops emerges from the first round undefeated. The Pac-12 went 5-0 as Colorado, USC, Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State all advanced to the round of 32. Now, that record has an asterisk because Oregon advanced without actually playing, but this is still incredibly impressive. Georgetown was a very trendy upset pick over Colorado, but the Buffaloes blew out the Hoyas by 23. In fact, all four teams that actually played won by double digits, which is just unheard of. None of these teams were seeded a five seed.

Now, the task gets much harder going forward. Florida State, Kansas, Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma State await, but after what we have seen so far, it would be a mistake to count this conference out. Remember this next year when you are making your bracket. It’s important to eliminate that East Coast bias.

ACC was as bad as we thought

Speaking of teams on the East Coast, the ACC was downright terrible. And this should not come as a shock. Despite having seven teams in the tournament field, this was a down year for the conference. Virginia and Florida State were the highest-seeded teams, landing on the four-seed line. Much has been made of Duke’s struggles, but they were far from the only blue blood to miss a step this year. UNC was incredibly inconsistent. Georgia Tech was too. Virginia Tech and Clemson faded down the stretch. Louisville, who arguably should’ve been in the field, had some ugly losses. The bottom of the conference was really bad as well. Miami, Notre Dame, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest all finished with losing records. A 2-5 showing in the first round feels like a fair reflection. Syracuse and Florida State advance, but their opponents, West Virginia and Colorado respectively, could very well keep the ACC out of the Sweet 16 all together.

What home state advantage?

Purdue was the only school from the state of Indiana to go dancing his year. The Boilermakers earned a top-four seed and seemed poised for a potential Sweet 16 run playing in front of a largely pro-Purdue crowd. North Texas had other ideas. Until arenas are back to full capacity, it might be hard to count on location making much of a difference in the outcome of games. These limited capacity crowds are really fun. Grand Canyon students gave us some memorable moments, but it is clear crowd noise and energy is still not too much of a factor.

All or nothing for Virginia

This time around, it is a bit more understandable why the Cavaliers were upset. The team was not able to practice all week due to COVID-19 protocols and the rust was clear on offense. UVa scored its fewest points of the season as they shot 35 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from behind the arc. 

It is easy to forget, but Virginia was actually the defending champion, having won the tournament in 2019. That means UVa’s last loss in the NCAA tournament came in 2018, which just so happens to be the infamous UMBC game. Looking at how this all played out over the past three tournaments, I think the Cavaliers would do it all again if given the chance. Those first-round upsets sting, but those national championship banners hang in the rafters forever. (Well most of the time. Sorry, Louisville.)

Buddy Buckets is for real

For those wondering, Buddy Boeheim is more than just the coach’s son. In the month of March, Boeheim is averaging 26.7 points per game. He went off for 30 in Syracuse’s first-round win against San Diego State, including a torrid stretch where he scored 16 straight points. He is joined by Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts and Miles McBride from West Virginia as the only players to reach the 30-point mark in the Round of 64 this year. Boeheim and McBride will face off on Sunday as well, so prepare for some major fireworks. As a Syracuse alum, I don’t think I could have written this column without mentioning Jim Boeheim’s youngest son.

Making a perfect bracket is impossible

We didn’t even get through the first round before everyone’s brackets were busted. ESPN and Bleacher Report both announced that no users on their site had a perfect bracket after Ohio upset Virginia and Maryland knocked off UConn. I didn’t even come close to making it that far. I had UNC facing Ohio State in the Elite Eight with the Buckeyes advancing to the Final Four. That didn’t quite pan out, with both teams suffering first-round losses. Texas was also in my Final Four. Trying to predict the outcome of 63 games is inherently difficult as it is. Add in the wild range of possible outcomes from college athletes and you have what makes the tournament so entertaining. The single-elimination format makes it truly unpredictable. So while your bracket may not be perfect, you can take solace in knowing that no one else managed to predict all these results either. And maybe now there is still hope you could win your bracket pool.

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What if Chip had stayed at Oregon?

The Eagles have been the most scrutinized team in the NFL since Chip Kelly arrived in Philly from the Pacific Northwest. He brought with him a college style of coaching and a new offense that many assumed could not work at the professional level. He has burned more than his fair share of bridges as well with many of his now former players.

Chip_Kelly
Kelly had a 46-7 record in his five years at Oregon before leaving for Philly.

For better or worse, Chip has completely changed the landscape of the NFL in his three years as head coach. But what if he had never left? What if Kelly had decided to stay out at Oregon and run his fast-paced offense? That is exactly what we are going to talk about right now.

Well first thing is first, the Eagles need a new coach when Andy Reid is fired following the 2012 season. So Philly brings in current Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer was tabbed by Minnesota in 2014 but because he is still a coordinator in Cincy in 2013, the Eagles snap him up instead.

The team approach for Philly completely changes. Zimmer brings in a defensive presence to an Eagles team that desperately needed it. Philadelphia had ranked tied for 29th in the league in 2012 for scoring defense. Needless to say, Zimmer would look to bring in some fresh faces. Needing a solid defensive end, Philly targets Michael Bennett from the Bengals in offseason and avoids letting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie walk away.

Michael_Bennett
Bennett won a ring in 2013 with the Seattle Seahawks.

Already the defense looks better and some very important things happen for the Eagles offense. Zimmer never isolates DeSean Jackson so he stays and there is no push a year later for Jeremy Maclin or LeSean McCoy to leave. Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis never feel unwelcome either. Philly keeps together their core together instead.

2013 proves to be an excellent year for Philly as they once again capture the NFC East crown, but this time, Zimmer gets a playoff win against New Orleans, as his defense finds a way to limit Drew Brees on the road. The Eagles travel to Carolina the following week and pick up a big victory against the favored Panthers. Philly runs into a buzz saw in the form of Seattle in the NFC Championship game though and sit at home as the Seahawks blow out the Broncos. Overall though, it is a very positive start to the Zimmer era in Philly.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the Ducks enter the season as a team with major National Title aspirations again but have a legitimate chance of getting the job done with Kelly at the helm. He and sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota manage to go the whole season with just one loss, a blowout defeat against Arizona. Kelly calling the shots proves to be enough for Oregon to beat Stanford and hold onto their title aspirations much longer. Instead of finishing 10th in the standings, the Ducks finish fifth and earn a spot in the 2014 Rose Bowl in place of Stanford.

Zimmer continue to prepare his team for a very important 2014 campaign though over in Philadelphia. His core of McCoy, Jackson, Maclin and rookie Jordan Matthews pace the offense and make life easy on Nick Foles. The defense, led by Michael Bennett, Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and rookie Bradley Roby, proves to do enough for Philly to make the playoffs in 2014 instead of just missing out. The team moves forward mainly due to avoiding a late season loss to Washington.

The Eagles enter the postseason with a matchup against Dallas on the horizon. The Cowboys split the regular season series with Philly but they lost at home then and they do again here. That mean Philly travels to Seattle for the divisional round and for the second straight year, the Eagles fall against the Seahawks in the playoffs.

Marcus_Mariota
Mariota was the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Checking back in on the West Coast, Marcus Mariota is tipped to be the Heismann winner with Kelly at the helm. Oregon is coming off a Rose Bowl win and looks to be a lock for the College Football playoff. They finish the season with just one loss for the second consecutive year under Kelly, the loss once again coming against rival Arizona. Mariota bolsters his draft stock in his junior season and takes home the Heismann Trophy by a landslide. Oregon still ends up in the National Title game, still against Ohio State. The game ends a lot closer this time around but still in an Ohio State win.

The 2015 NFL draft rolls around and after his transcendent performance under Kelly at Oregon, Mariota leapfrogs Jameis Winston in the predraft build up. Mariota goes number one overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee is left to take Winston second.

Damarious_Randall
The Packers selected Randall with the 30th pick in the draft.

Later on in the first round, selecting after the would’ve this year, the Eagles instead take Arizona State safety Damarious Randall to bolster the secondary then draft the troubled Randy Gregory in the second round. Now, Zimmer has all of the pieces he wants to play with on defense and Philly enters the season as an early season favorite to win the NFC instead of a team with dozens of questions surrounding it.

McCoy never winds up in Buffalo, Maclin never joins Andy Reid in Kansas City. DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews never join during the offseason. Instead, Mathews heads to Tennesee to help the rebuilding Titans. Murray takes his talent (or lack there of) to Baltimore.

Who would’ve thought that the NFL would change this much just because Chip Kelly decided to stay at Oregon.

National Championship preview

It may be the first of many to come but this College Football Playoff has been exciting from the very beginning and is definitely an improvement to the old system. Now, we will see who wins the ultimate prize of a National Championship when Oregon clashes with Ohio States. The battle of the Ducks and the Bucks will be a heated one and I am here to break down what you need to know for the game.

This marks the first meeting between the Buckeyes and Ducks since 2009, when Ohio State defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl. In the previous eight meetings between these teams, Oregon has never managed to win a game. History is not going to matter too much in this matchup but it is definitely not in the Ducks’ favor. In that 2009 Rose Bowl loss, Oregon’s signal caller was Jeremiah Masoli, who ended up transferring to Ole Miss following the season. This year the Ducks have Heisman winner Marcus Mariota under center, which is certainly a major upgrade over Masoli. Mariota might not be the only reason the Ducks are in the title game but he is definitely a key component to this championship run. The Hawaiian-born quarterback has been nothing short of excellent this year amassing 4121 passing yards and 56 total touchdowns, 40 through the air, 15 on the ground and even 1 receiving. He has a quarterback rating of 184.3, ranking as one of the best single season marks in history. Mariota was also one of the best avoiding turnovers throwing only 3 interceptions on 408 attempts. That means that Mariota threw an interception on less than 1 percent of his throws. He accomplished all of this while completing a career high 68.6 percent of his passes as well. He will be the focal point of this Oregon squad.

Mariota struggled a bit more than we are used to seeing at the beginning of the Florida State game but settled down and had a stellar second half. It will be largely up to the Ohio State defense to keep the Buckeyes in this game. The offense can score, as we saw when it racked up 42 points against a top defense in Alabama on New Year’s Day, but the defense will need to keep Mariota and this high flying Duck’s attack in check. This group will be up to the task. The Buckeye’s secondary came up with three interceptions of Blake Sims last week and the defensive line limited the big plays from Bama’s tailback duo of Xavier Henry and T.J. Yeldon. This pass rush also registered 43 sacks on the season, which ranks ninth in FBS. This defense is explosive and can make Mariota uncomfortable. Ohio State is also the type of team that could really do a lot of damage to the Duck’s offense but not in the way you would think. The Buckeyes’ grounded out 281 yards rushing against the nation’s second best run defense in the Sugar Bowl. Oregon ranks all the way down at fiftieth in terms of run defense and that could spell trouble for the Ducks. If Ohio State can run the ball effectively with Ezekiel Elliot, they will not only wear out Oregon, they will also limit the number of chances Mariota gets to make plays on offense. Usually, Oregon’s fast paced offense has tired out defenses by the end of games, making it easy to score, but if the Ducks are getting fewer drives then Ohio State’s defense should be able to hold up for the entirety of the game. That should be Ohio States game plan going into this game: run the ball and keep the Heisman winning quarterback for the Ducks on the sideline. Elliot will be the center of the Buckeye’s attack, and if he gets rolling, it could spell the end for Oregon’s title hopes.

Oregon’s defense might have a slight edge though as they will get to face Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones in only his third career start. The Buckeye’s are rolling right now and changing quarterbacks for the second time this season has not seemed to affect them but Jones is still young and learning. The sophomore from Cleveland struggled against Alabama’s defense, particularly when the Buckeye’s were in passing downs. He completed only 51.4 percent of his passes and definitely seemed like he was not fully ready to handle throwing more than twice as many passes in the Sugar Bowl than he did in the Big Ten Championship game. Oregon’s pass rush is talented as well registering 36 sacks on the year. If Oregon can find a way to slow down the Ohio State running game and force the Buckeyes into third and long situations, we could see some the Buckeyes’ offense stalling quite a bit. I would not be surprised if the Ducks defense crowds the box and forces Jones to beat them using his arm. It is risky but the kid is still fairly young and is liable to make some costly mistakes.

The players might be on the field, but the coaches control the game. These two coaches come from very different backgrounds. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has two national titles to his name from his time with the Florida Gators. Mark Helfrich spent a few years as the offensive coordinator in Oregon following his time at Colorado as the offensive coordinator. Meyer has eight years of head coaching experience; Helfrich is just completing his second season as the lead man in Pacific Northwest. Both have been extremely successful in their respective coaching careers. Meyer and Helfrich are a combined 49-6 over the past two years. Neither one of them is going to back down and both know what this would mean to their respective programs. For Meyer, it would be validating that Ohio State is back and that the Big 10 can be a premier conference. For Helfrich, it will be the school’s first national title and completely pull Helfrich out of Chip Kelly’s shadow. These two are both great coaches and should have many more years of running top programs but only one will be the first ever college football playoff champion.

As for which of them it will be raising that trophy while soaked in Gatorade, it is a tough call. Oregon’s offense is second to none but the suspension of freshman wide receiver Darren Carrington is a big blow. He was a big play machine against Florida State accounting for 165 yards and two touchdowns. At the same time, Ohio State is still trying to find their way offensively with a quarterback in his third ever start on the biggest stage possible. The first half will be full of experimentation by both teams as we see what these coaches have cooked up over the past week and half for this game. I really like Ohio State’s chances in this game, but I cannot go against the Heisman winner in Mariota. He won the award for his continually incredible play and I think, in the end, he will be the difference maker. This game will absolutely be high scoring and Ohio State will be competitive but Oregon wins 47-38.