Everyone complaining about a boring NCAA Tournament can shut up for good now.
This is what you invariably get after upsets run dry in the first round: tense, turbulent second-round stupefiers from capable lower-seeded major-conference teams who barely pass the eye test for traditional underdog. The recent historical pattern of No. 1 seeds falling in dramatic ways kept going, as No. 8, under-seeded Wisconsin edged past Villanova, one of the best teams/stories in college hoops.
College basketball has thrived off Villanova’s rocket boosters for almost 12 months. And in a snap, that story flicks away. The sport trades a repeat-champion narrative for another year of top-seeded stunners. The tournament wins either way: That’s the thing.
Perspective: Every year since 2010, at least one No. 1 seed has taken the fall in the second round. Wisconsin is the latest slayer. The Badgers did what some predicted right after the release of the bracket. It wasn’t hard to see why a team like this could beat a squad like that. And Nigel Hayes’ winning bucket, , will go down in Badgers lore.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you this tournament is not interesting. It has long been and should always be the best event in American sports. It never fails to deliver. Wisconsin induced Villanova into a rugged game. Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart (19 points) failed to even get a shot off to pull Villanova even in the final seconds, as Vitto Brown made a daring but defining defensive play. Brown’s long limbs dipped in on Hart’s running attempt toward the hoop and stymied Villanova’s chance at another NCAA Tournament hallmark.
In that moment, Villanova fans remembered Scottie Reynolds. I have no doubt about it.
Hart has played his last game in college, as has Kris Jenkins, the hero of last year’s national title game. For Jenkins, it’s a sour end, as he had six points on 2-of-9 shooting. But he’ll always have 2016. So will Villanova. This team loses out on a title this year but will always be connected with an immortal shot.
And yes, we can harp on Villanova being dropped by a team that had no business being seeded so low. Even in the aftermath of a bracket-rattling outcome, I think that’s fair. The committee did Villanova no favors here, but you eventually have to earn it anyway. That said, the Badgers fell to an indefensible 28th in the overall seed ranking, behind the likes of Minnesota, Maryland and Creighton, none of which were logical choices.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more formidable eighth seed in the past three decades of college basketball. In each of the past four years, Hayes and Bronson Koenig have helped push Wisconsin to at least the Sweet 16. It’s the only program to do so.
Wisconsin is now responsible for booting the No. 1 overall team in two of the past three seasons. Remember that epic takedown of undefeated Kentucky two years ago in the Final Four? “Make ’em believe” was the slogan of that team. It applies to this year’s group as well. We should believe that the Big Ten’s second-best team is capable of getting back to the Final Four. Koenig, Hayes and Brown have done that twice already, too.
But let’s also acknowledge that this — Saturday’s upset, the regrettable matchup for Villanova — is why the tournament is great. The committee mis-seeds three, four, five teams every year. You have to overcome that. You have to win. Jay Wright and Villanova offer no excuses, nor should they. The Wildcats had their chances. Ironically, to expect VU to get even to the Sweet 16 was a tough proposition beyond the nature of its opponent. Florida in 2007, which of course won the title in back-to-back years, is the last reigning national champion to reach the Sweet 16. Going beyond that, the reigning champs have reached the Elite Eight only once in 16 years.
Getting the No. 1 overall seed is a reward for being college basketball’s best team, yet it now comes with a hex. This tournament doesn’t give a damn about you being the best or most accomplished. The No. 1 overall seed has been around since 2004, and only three times has it won the title. Wisconsin’s win over Villanova shocked life and chaos into the bracket. That matters more than Wisconsin being placed a seed line too low.
This was the upset the NCAA Tournament needed, even at the expense of the most enticing opportunity to see a repeat champion in a decade. From here, the ripples will continue. The weekend will birth more upsets, the tournament will go on, and Villanova will be far from the worst victim. But it was the first, and the first always feels like March has crash-landed in earnest. Welcome to the carnage. Isn’t it beautiful?