Every athlete’s dream is to win a championship and nothing gives a better feeling than winning one at the collegiate level. In the United States, there is no better way to achieve that than by conquering the US NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I Basketball Tournament, which is popularly known as March Madness.
Unlike the UAAP or the NCAA in the Philippines, which awards the top-two seeds a twice-to-beat advantage, March Madness uses a single elimination format, meaning every game for every team is a win-or-go-home scenario. It helps them accommodate more teams in the postseason, removes perceived advantages teams may have, and ensures high quality games all throughout the tournament.
March Madness has the swept into American pop culture as its popularity has gripped those who try to follow their alma mater throughout the tourney, as well as those who fill out tournament brackets in order to cash in on prizes for correctly guessing all the outcomes of the games. Even former US president Barack Obama joined in the fun, as he usually filled out brackets every year during his term in office, accurately predicting the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels’ run to the title in 2009.
How it works
The national competition consists of 68 teams, 32 of which secured direct tickets in their respective conference championships. The remaining 36 are selected by an NCAA selection committee based on the conference they belong to and the level of competition within, the number of the wins they had over the course of the year, and the quality of their wins and losses.
That same committee divides the pool of teams into four regions (East, West, Midwest, and South), with each region having teams seeded from 1 to 16 playing for the right to enter the national semifinal, otherwise known as the “Final Four”. Before the tournament officially begins, eight teams figure in a playoff stage which is known as the “First Four.” The four winners book the last tickets to the main portion of the competition.
Each region also has its own semifinal and championship rounds, more popularly known as the “Sweet Sixteen” and “Elite Eight”, respectively. The winners of the latter earn a spot in the national semifinal.
This year’s first four was held on March 14 and 15, and it pit eight teams fighting for the 11th seeds in the East and South regions, and the 16th seeds in the East and Midwest regions. Mt. St. Mary’s slipped past the University of New Orleans, 67-66, to earn the right to face the defending national champions, Villanova. Meanwhile, the UC Davis Aggies won their first NCAA tournament game after handing North Carolina Central a 67-63 loss.
The first round of the tournament proper, the Round of 64 ran through March 16 and 17 and it gave a few upsets early on as some of the lower seeded teams reigned over their higher seeded counterparts. In the East division, all of the higher seeds went on to the next round except for Southern Methodist University (SMU). SMU was seeded sixth and battled the 11th-seeded University of Southern California, who completed a 66-65 upset behind Elijah Stewart’s 22 points and a three-pointer that clinched the game with 36 seconds left to play. Defending champions and top seed Villanova cruised into the next round with a dominating 76-56 win over the 16th-seed Mt. St. Mary’s.
The Midwest division saw two of the higher-seeded teams crashing out early as University of Miami and Creighton lost to Michigan State and Rhode Island, respectively. Eighth-seed Miami was overwhelmed by the ninth-seed Michigan State, whose three freshman starters Nick Ward, Miles Bridges, and Josh Langford combined for 50 points. Rhode Island won a wire-to-wire game against Creighton, which featured Filipino Kobe Paras. Rhode Island went on to take an 84-72 win.
In the West division, 11th-seed Xavier pulled off an upset against sixth-seeded Maryland, while top-seed Gonzaga easily advanced to the next round with a 66-46 win over South Dakota State.
The South division also featured two lower-seeded teams pulling off upsets. 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee played giant slayer for the second consecutive year as they dispatched number five Minnesota with an 81-72 win. 10th-seed Wichita State pulled off the second upset in the South division when they beat seventh-seed Dayton, 64-58.
The second round of the tournament, the Round of 32, ran through March 18 and 19 and it also gave the audience some shocking results. The defending champions’ journey came to an early halt as Villanova was upset by Wisconsin, 65-62. Seeded second in the Midwest division, Louisville suffered an upset against Michigan, 73-69. After beating Maryland in the first round, Xavier continued its run in the tournament by beating the third seeded Florida State, 91-66, behind Trevon Bluiett’s 29 points. In the South division, higher seeded teams North Carolina, Butler, UCLA, and Kentucky all advanced to the next round by beating Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, Cincinnati, and Wichita State, correspondingly.
Sweet 16 (Regional Semifinals)
Major upsets continued in the Sweet 16 as second-seed Duke bowed to South Carolina, 88-81. In the Midwest division, Oregon squeaked past Michigan, 69-68. Xavier’s fairytale story continued in the West division as it took down number two seed Arizona, 73-71. Sean O’Mara made a go-ahead layup with 44 seconds left to seal another win. In the battle of the top four seeded teams in the South division, the top-two teams in North Carolina and Kentucky both emerged victorious.
Elite Eight (Regional Finals)
With spots in the national semifinal on the line, the fixtures in the Elite Eight were expected to be tightly contested. However, the four games produced mixed results, with the latter two set of games producing instant classics.
Last March 26, West region top seed Gonzaga advanced to its first Final Four in school history after crushing 11th-seed Xavier, 83-59, behind Nigel Williams-Goss’ 23 points and eight rebounds. Midwest region third-seed Oregon also blew out top seed Kansas, 74-60, to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 78 years.
The following day, seventh-seed South Carolina continued its Cinderella run in the tournament after overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit and to beat Florida, 77-70. The last Elite Eight matchup between UNC and powerhouse Kentucky proved to be a classic as both teams made heroic baskets in the dying seconds of the game. In the end, it was UNC’s Luke Maye who proved to be a hero for the Tar Heels as he made a jump shot with 0.3 seconds left to hand UNC a 75-73 victory over Kentucky.
Final Four (National Semifinals)
March Madness would eventually reach April as the national semifinals were played on April 1. Seventh-seed South Carolina could not seal its first national championship game as top-seed Gonzaga clinched a 77-73 victory. Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points, while Gonzaga’s frontline combined for 18 rebounds and six blocks.
In a matchup between two teams pegged as Final Four contenders prior to the tournament, UNC outmuscled its way past Oregon, 77-76, despite missing crucial free throws. Kennedy Meeks, who finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, pulled down the crucial offensive rebound that sealed the game for the Tar Heels and broke the collective hearts of the Ducks.
National Championship Game
The last time number one seeded teams faced off in the finals was in 2015, when Duke and its freshman quartet of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, and Grayson Allen edged the Wisconsin Badgers led by Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes.
This year, the UNC Tar Heels and Gonzaga Bulldogs entered the national title game with different storylines. The Tar Heels sought to atone for their heartbreaking loss to Villanova last year while the Bulldogs entered their first championship game in school history.
The Tar Heels struggled with their field goal shooting early on, but balanced scoring from Joel Berry II and Kennedy Meeks allowed them to stay with the Bulldogs, who led 35-32 at halftime behind Josh Perkins’ 13 points. Both teams continued to trade points in the second half until a three-point play from Justin Jackson gave the Tar heels the lead for good, with UNC prevailing, 71-65. Berry was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after he finished the title game with 22 points, six assists, and two steals.
Every year, players from every school come and go. Regardless of who leads the teams in the NCAA tournament, the drama, the thrills, and the school spirit will always be present, intangibles that separate college basketball from the professional level.