All we wanted going into this weekend was for the 12-month wait and the four-month struggle to get to this point to be worth it.
Was it worth it in the broadest of terms? That’s not for me to say. Was it worth it in strictly basketball terms? No question about it.
With a full day of second round action still to go, the 2021 NCAA tournament has already set the record for March Madness upsets.
We define an upset as a team seeded five spots or more lower than their opponent. We've already set the record with 11 such occurrences. We're midway through the second round.— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) March 22, 2021
The four and-a-half rounds ahead have an awfully high bar to clear.
But before we turn our focus to that, let’s pay our proper respects to all the madness we were gifted on Sunday.
3 Best Games
1. (15) Oral Roberts 81, (7) Florida 78 (South)
For just the second time in NCAA tournament history, a 15-seed is headed to the second weekend.
Oral Roberts overcame an 11-point deficit with less than 10 minutes to go to stun seventh-seeded Florida and earn a spot in the Sweet 16. The Golden Eagles closed the game on a 25-11 run thanks primarily to the dynamic duo of Max Abams and Kevin Obanor. The pair finished with 26 and 28 points, respectively.
The Gators had plenty of chances in game’s waning moments, but turned the ball over on two of their final three possessions. Still, they found themselves with one final shot to send the game to overtime. Tre Mann, who has been clutch all season long for Mike White, misfired on a fairly clean look, and then Scottie Lewis’ desperation try also went wanting.
If you had told Florida fans before the start of the tournament that in the second round they would shoot 55.2 percent from the field, out-rebound their opponents by 13, and be going up against a 15-seed, their thoughts would have probably immediately shifted to who their Sweet 16 opponent was going to be. But the Gators were done in by 20 turnovers, their inability to make more than three shots over the game’s final 10 minutes, and a made free-throws deficit of 12.
Oral Roberts has already faced their Sweet 16 opponent, Arkansas, once this season. The Golden Eagles held a lead deep into the second before a furious rally by the Razorbacks allowed them to walk away a with an 11-point win.
If ORU can handle Arkansas a bit better in round two, they’ll do what no 15-seed in the history of this tournament has ever done.
2. (3) Arkansas 68, (6) Texas Tech 66 (South)
When the dust settled after an extremely physical game played by a host of incredible athletes, Arkansas had secured a trip to its first Sweet 16 since 1996.
The Razorbacks led by as many as 13 points in the second half, only to see Texas Tech twice claw its way back to within a single point. The Red Raiders ultimately found themselves down by a bucket with just seconds to play. Kyler Edwards made a nice move to get around Arkansas’ Justin Smith and appeared to have a clear path to the basket, but his attempt to tie the game didn’t even touch iron.
After that, the celebration (more on that to come) was on for Arkansas, whose fans have been patiently waiting for a return to prominence since the late ‘90s.
From 1990-96, the Razorbacks went to six Sweet 16s, played in four regional finals, three Final Fours, two national title games, and cut down the nets once. From 1997-2020, they managed to win multiple games in the NCAA tournament a grand total of zero times.
Go crazy, kids. You’ve earned it.
3. (2) Houston 63, (10) Rutgers 60 (Midwest)
For almost of the entirety of this one, it looked like we were destined to have a final Midwest Region quartet consisting of an 8-seed, a 10-seed, an 11-seed and (if Oregon State was going to pull the upset later that night) a 12-seed.
Instead, Houston went on a 14-2 run over the game’s final 4:33 to somehow escape with a three-point win over a crushed group from Rutgers.
No one seemed more surprised that Rutgers was owning a double-digit lead with less than five minutes to go than the Scarlet Knights themselves. Perhaps that explains why RU puzzlingly went away from everything that had previously created their advantage. They stopped running offense, they wound up getting nothing but desperation heaves at the end of shot clocks, and they committed two of their 13 turnovers in the game’s final minute.
All of this opened the door for second-seeded Houston, which took the lead for good on a three-point play from freshman Tramon Mark with 24 seconds left.
Rutgers had a chance to send the game to overtime in the closing seconds, but Ron Harper Jr’s three-pointer was off the mark.
Houston is now headed back to the Sweet 16 for the second straight tournament, while Rutgers was deprived of its first trip to the second weekend since 1979.
3 Teams That Won It The Best
1. Loyola Chicago
It was surprising to see 8th-seeded Loyola Chicago knock off top-seed Illinois in the second round on Sunday. It was shocking to see the Ramblers appear to be so superior to the popular national title pick from opening tip to final buzzer.
Porter Moser’s game plan was apparent right away: Ayo Dosunmu was not going to beat Loyola off the bounce, and Kofi Cockburn was not going to beat them inside. Whenever Dosunmu looked to drive, there were three Ramblers there ready to cut him off. Whenever Cockburn got a touch in the paint, there were three Ramblers there ready to swarm him.
Loyola also made sure that the Illini couldn’t kill them with transition opportunities by limiting live ball turnovers and having everyone other than Cameron Krutwig sprint back on shot attempts. In halfcourt situations, Moser bet hard on Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and company not being able to light his team up from the outside. He bet correctly.
Loyola was LOCKED in from first minute. First poss on O was indicative of rest of game: iso Krutwig on Kofi away from hoop, backside off-ball screen exchanges— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) March 21, 2021
Then on D next poss., I think I counted six switches, two great X-outs in help, a perfect double, and a deflection pic.twitter.com/nI48a9YvuG
This was an absolute clinic from Moser and Loyola. They came out with the a pristine game plan, executed it to near perfection, and then benefitted from Illinois not being able to change anything successfully on the fly.
The debate on whether or not this team — which is now up to No. 7 on KenPom — was under-seeded has become totally irrelevant. The Ramblers proved to everyone on Sunday that they are the genuine artifact. No one should be shocked to see this team crash the Final Four for the second time in four years, and no one should be shocked if they wind up winning more games in the Big Dance than that 2018 squad did.
Few single digit seeds appeared to be more vulnerable coming into this tournament than Villanova, which had lost its last two games and was still reeling from the news that starting point guard Collin Gillespie was done for the year.
So naturally, it stands to reason that the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 with more ease than any of their fellow travelers on the right side of the bracket.
After a workmanlike 10-point win over Winthrop on Friday, ‘Nova went back to its roots on Sunday, burying 15 three-pointers in an 84-61 rout of upset-minded North Texas. The Wildcats shot 55.4 percent from the field, 15-of-30 from three, and assisted on 19 of their 31 made field goals while turning the ball over just six times.
In the past, Jay Wright’s teams have either flamed out in the first round or played all the way to the Final Four (winning the national title in 2016 and 2018). It’s hard to see that trend holding in 2021, but if they can get past top-seeded Baylor in week, hey, who knows?
3. Oral Roberts
There were a couple of worthy candidates for this final spot — Syracuse was brilliant against West Virginia, Oregon State remained a red-hot 12-seed, and Baylor mostly dominated Wisconsin — but ultimately, you’ve gotta go with the second 15-seed in history to taste March Madness victory more than once.
We said on Friday that, while it may sound odd, Oral Roberts was probably going to have to play better to beat 7th-seeded Florida than it did to beat second-seeded Ohio State. All the Golden Eagles did was shoot a better percentage from the field, a better percentage from three, a better percentage from the free-throw line, commit fewer turnovers, and record a whopping 12 steals.
The only other 15-seed to make a second weekend, Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, looked physically and mentally exhausted in their 62-50 Sweet 16 loss to Florida. Perhaps the bubble life and fewer media obligations will help Oral Roberts avoid a similar fate on Saturday against Arkansas.
3 Biggest Disappointments
Heading into the tournament, it sure seemed like around 85 percent of the expert brackets that were shared publicly had Gonzaga and Illinois squaring off for the national title. More had the Bulldogs cutting down the nets than had the Illini, but not by much.
That’s a big part of the reason why it was so shocking to see the most successful Illinois basketball season since 2005 end just three days into the madness. Not only that, but the Illini’s 13-point margin of defeat on Sunday was the largest for an 8/1 upset since since Auburn knocked off St. John’s by 16 all the way back in 1986.
For every person praising Loyola’s Porter Moser on Saturday, there was one criticizing Brad Underwood. It’s not difficult to understand why.
Moser came out with a tremendous game plan, but Underwood never offered up a counter-punch. “Sticking with what got you here” is an understandable philosophy when you’re a 1-seed that has won 15 of its last 16 and you’re going up against an 8-seed in round two, but it was pretty apparent early in the second half that the way the game was going wasn’t going to change unless Illinois switched something up. They didn’t, so it didn’t.
I watched Drake press Loyola into severe distress. Illinois is showing pressure on the inbounds and then bailing out. Don't understand.— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) March 21, 2021
Illinois had superior size and superior athletes, but they never played in a manner that accentuated either of those advantages. As a result, their season is over before the Sweet 16 for a 16th straight year.
2. Oklahoma State
With the Midwest Region in shambles, everything seemed to be falling into place for Oklahoma State and star freshman Cade Cunningham to go on a dream run to the Final Four.
That’s not going to happen. Not after the Cowboys shot 27.7 percent from the field, 27.6 percent from three, and allowed Oregon State to score 32 points from the free-throw line.
3. West Virginia
We’re going to tell West Virginia the same thing we told San Diego State two days ago: You’re on this list because you didn’t look like anything resembling your best selves, and as a result, you got beat by a double-digit seed.
But the truth of the matter is you never had a shot here, and what happened on Sunday wasn’t really your fault. You were an innocent victim unknowingly set on an unavoidable crash course with an unrelenting monster.
Which brings us to ...
5 Day 3 Cheers
1. Zombie Syracuse
We’ve touched on Zombie Syracuse multiple times already this week, so I’m not going to regurgitate all the things that have already been stated. But I will say this: If you still somehow didn’t see this coming, that’s on you.
These numbers are just absurd:
Syracuse is now 9-2 all-time as a double-digit NCAA Tournament seed. All three times Syracuse has been a 10 or 11 seed, it has advanced to the Sweet 16.— Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) March 21, 2021
It also bears mentioning that in all three of these instances, the general consensus on Selection Sunday has been that the Orange had no business being included in the field.
At this point, if I’m Jim Boeheim, I’m starting every season with a well-produced fake Selection Show where Syracuse is a surprising at-large selection. I am then showing every member of my team fake news stories about how pissed off it made everybody (I am willing to write these for an appropriate fee).
2. March Buddy Boeheim
Buddy Boeheim’s reputation has long since made the transition from “would he really be playing high-level college basketball if it wasn’t for his dad?” to “ok yeah, he’s an elite college shooter.” Over the last month, though, Boeheim has made the leap from appropriately respected to “is this guy actually Klay Thompson?”
The numbers don’t lie:
Buddy Boeheim in four 2021 postseason games:— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 21, 2021
- 27 points, 6-12 3PT
- 31 points, 5-8 3PT
- 30 points, 7-10 3PT
- 25 points, 6-13 3PT
28.3 PPG, 55.8 3PT%
And it’s not like Boeheim is putting up these numbers because he’s being left all alone while opposing defenses pay superior attention to more potent Syracuse threats. Boeheim is the focal point of every opposing scouting report, and yet, no one has been able to slow him down in March.
It’s hard to do that when he’s pulling from outer space.
Buddy Boeheim is ON FIRE— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 20, 2021
28 PTS | 7-10 3PM pic.twitter.com/WIfc3GKuNB
Boeheim’s feats this week have made him just the second player in Syracuse history to score 25 points or more in each of his first two NCAA tournament games.
I’m now fully prepared to be watching a 101-year-old Jim Boeheim taking a 15-win, 11-seed Syracuse team led by his grandson into the second weekend of the 2046 NCAA tournament.
3. The Houston Redemption
No team has suffered more heartbreak in the last two tournaments than Houston.
In 2018, the Coogs seemed poised to take down third-seeded Michigan and head to the Sweet 16, but a handful of late missed free-throws and an improbable buzzer-beater from the Wolverines’ Jordan Poole ended all that. A year later, UH was a minute away from a win over Kentucky that would have sent them to their first regional final since 1984. That dream was crushed by Tyler Herro’s three-point dagger in the closing moments.
On Sunday, Houston was on the other end of the equation. Their improbable 14-2 run to end the game — aided by a healthy dose of Rutgers mistakes — allowed them to walk away with a 63-60 victory in a game it sure felt like they the Cougars had no business winning.
Under Kelvin Sampson, Houston is now a perfect 5-0 in the NCAA tournament against lower-seeded teams. Next up is an 11th-seeded Syracuse team that is 9-2 as a double-digit seed under Jim Boeheim.
Unstoppable force. Immovable object.
4. The long-awaited Arkansas celebration
I have a soft spot for passionate college basketball fan bases that remain passionate during prolonged stretches of mediocrity. It’s easy to be a diehard when your team is playing for a conference title or when it just pulled an upset in the Sweet 16. It’s a different animal when the chances of your team even participating in March Madness have been slim for years and don’t seem to be getting better any time soon.
College basketball on the whole is better when these programs are successful.
Arkansas is one of those programs with one of those fan bases. After getting a taste of the highest level of success from 1990-96, the program abruptly fell off the face of the earth. Over the 25 years that followed, Razorback fans kept Arkansas in the nation’s top 25 for home attendance, and maintained the home court advantage inside Bud Walton Arena that had always served as one of the program’s most significant assets.
On Sunday, their loyalty was rewarded.
Not only did Hogs fans get to watch their team win a second round game for the first time in 25 years, but they got to experience a peak March Musselman celebration.
When you’re chanting “take your shirt off” at a 56-year-old man showing all the signs of a first-time cocaine user, that’s when you know it was all worth it.
5. Cameron Krutwig
It’s real simple: The man should be named Emperor of the Midwest and his reign should last forever.
It will never cease to amaze me that a person who looks like that can play like that.
He shall be served free gas station pizza for all his days.
BONUS CHEER: Cade Cunningham
The likely No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft could have easily bounced for the G-League or another team when it was initially announced that Oklahoma State would be banned from the postseason. Instead, he stuck it out and carried his team to the Big 12 championship game and to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Cade Cunningham ended his press conference by thanking the media for covering him this season. And then he shouted out Oklahoma State's women's team for their NCAA win over Wake Forest. Pure class from Cade, tonight and all year.— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) March 22, 2021
This college basketball season and this NCAA tournament would have been less fun if they hadn’t included Cade Cunningham.
Thanks for playing, man.
5 Day 3 Jeers
1. The Illinois floor slapping
Honestly, this was the most disappointing thing that has happened during the tournament’s opening week so far.
By my count, Illinois slapped the floor as a collective unit three times on Sunday afternoon.
Loyola scored on all three possessions.
You would have thought the first two times would have been more than enough evidence for the message to get across, but then again, Illinois wasn’t big on changing things that weren’t working on Sunday.
I think my guy, and Chicago’s favorite son, Ricky O’Donnell put it best:
I’m sorry but the power conference state school can’t be slapping the floor against the mid-major from two hours away. It’s illegal.— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) March 21, 2021
It was all over the moment the decision to do this was made.
Ayo is not Wojo. He didn’t deserve to go out like this.
2. The second round Sunday schedule
I don’t understand it. I’ll never understand it.
Just two games back-to-back for the first five hours of the day. No games going on at the same time. Even the first half of the third game is alone on an island. And then BAM, we’ve got six games hurled at us during the evening session.
There’s no reason to have second round games wrapping up after midnight on the East Coast. It’s an easy fix, and it blows my mind that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s especially unforgivable given the unusual circumstances of this year’s tournament.
Right this wrong or at least explain yourselves, NCAA/Turner.
3. Loyola fan dancing
I don’t know what’s happening here other than it being the worst thing about Loyola’s upset win over Illinois.
Loyola Chicago continues to dance! pic.twitter.com/pvmKMH0pIQ— /r/CollegeBasketball (@redditCBB) March 21, 2021
You leave that right here in the opening weekend. That shit has no place at the Sweet 16.
4. Game-tying buzzer-beater failure
Texas Tech, Florida, Rutgers and West Virginia all had chances to hit shots right before the buzzer that would have sent their respective games to overtime. The Gators and Scarlet Knights clanked three-pointers, the Red Raiders air-balled a layup, and the Mountaineers turned the ball over.
For as incredible as the first three days of this tournament have been, the one thing it has been missing is a true buzzer-beater. We haven’t had one to tie a game, and we haven’t one to win a game. Maybe Monday is the day that changes.
5. Whatever that weird on set dancing was
We are all Greg Gumbel.
Great Moments In Sports Television: pic.twitter.com/nen3N5RSdZ— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 22, 2021
What are you doing, Wally?
I don’t understand the animated dancers at all.
Whatever, at least the tournament’s happening. Do anything you want, Turner.
All-Day 3 Team
Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse
Boeheim’s unbelievable March continued with a 25-point performance where he drilled six threes.
Kevin Obannor, Oral Roberts
While Max Abmas gets most of the national attention, it’s actually Obannor who has (narrowly) led Oral Roberts in scoring in each of its tournament wins. He put up 28 points and 11 rebounds in Sunday’s upset of Florida.
Ethan Thompson, Oregon State
The Beavers are off to their first Sweet 16 since 1982 and making a little history of their own thanks in large part to Thompson’s 26 points and seven rebounds against Oklahoma State.
Through 20 games this season, @BeaverMBB had a 10-10 record. Now they're in the Sweet 16.— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) March 22, 2021
They're the first team to be at or below .500 at the 20-game mark and yet still reach the Sweet 16 that season since Temple did it in 1992-93.
Quentin Grimes, Houston
The Cougar star led Houston’s comeback charge by going 5-of-9 from three, scoring a game-high 22 points, and hauling down a game-high nine rebounds.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola Chicago
The Midwest’s new emperor did a little bit of everything for the Ramblers, scoring 19 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing out five assists.
3 Best Day 3 Dunks
1. Mark Vital, Baylor
I scared the baby with my yell after this one.
"IT ALMOST LOOKED LIKE VITAL WAS IN SLOW MOTION...He was in the air so long" pic.twitter.com/Upq1vrseNJ— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 21, 2021
I’m gonna need to see another angle.
2. Osayi Osifo, Florida
Second straight Florida game where a Gator big man has put someone on a poster. Unfortunately for UF, we know now that streak will definitely end at two.
3. Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua
Setting the tone.
5 Best Day 3 Images
1. Muss Bus rolls to the Sweet 16
Eric Musselman celebrations are some of March’s sweetest treats.
2. Zombie Syracuse will not be silenced
Let ‘em know, Joe.
3. Justin Moore is back
So, it seems, is Villanova.
The only question now is can Oral Roberts be the most successful 15-seed ever.
5. March gives, March takes
For every player jumping for joy, there’s another in tears.
5 Notable Quotes From Day 3:
1. “I think it’s great for Illinois basketball. I mean you got two ranked teams going at it. It’s been a basketball-passionate state. I know the city of Chicago is, and I know Champaign is, and to see that, going for a ticket for the Sweet 16. I know there’ll be a lot of eyes in basketball at the forefront, not only in the state but in the country.” —Loyola Chicago head coach Porter Moser
2. “I don’t know if I’ll ever really forget this or get over it. There’s better days ahead. I’ve always wanted my legacy here to be a winner and I don’t know where that stands right now.” —Rutgers senior guard Geo Baker
3. “We took the lead, but then we kept switching when we shouldn’t of been switching. We kept saying ‘stop switching,’ but we still kept switching.” —West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins
4. “There is no book, there is no guarantee how you’re going to come back, when you’re going to come back and if you’re going to be able to make it far enough to where it can pay off. Right now, I think defensively the last two games we’re a lot better than we were prior to them.” —Baylor head coach Scott Drew
5. “I can’t even tell you how bad I wanted it. It’s just a will to win, will not to go home. I’ve been through so much, with myself and with this team, with this crazy year we been through with COVID, not having fans, with all the pauses. Man, just everything. My hip hurt so bad. I just ain’t want to go home. I told Coach Sampson to put me back in. I just did what I had to do to try to help my team get this win.” —Houston senior guard DeJon Jarreau
Full Monday Schedule
Maybe it’s the day late start, but it feels like this tournament’s opening weekend has lasted three weeks. No complaints. Let’s finish this thing out in style.