The second round of the 2021 Men’s NCAA Tournament came to a close Monday with USC ripping Kansas to shreds, a fitting way for a blowout-filled day. That was a far cry from how most of the first weekend of March Madness went, though, as we were treated to banger after banger of outstanding contests.
The field has shrunk from 68 to 16 teams, and we will be offered our first Sweet 16 in two years this weekend. So, what lessons did we learn through the first two rounds (plus the First Four)?
Men’s March Madness First Weekend Lessons
Big Ten & Big 12 Have Some ‘Splainin’ To Do
The Big Ten and Big 12, but especially the Big Ten, were hyped as the best leagues in the country. Some billed the Big Ten as one of the best conferences ever.
Well, after the first weekend of March Madness, only one Big Ten team and one Big 12 team remain standing. The Big Ten is 6-7 with eight of its nine teams eliminated, including huge first round upsets of No. 2 seed Ohio State falling to No. 15 seed Oral Roberts and No. 4 seed Purdue capitulating to No. 13 seed North Texas. In the second round, No. 2 Iowa fell victim to No. 7 seed Oregon, and No. 1 seed Illinois couldn’t survive No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago. No. 1 seed Michigan is now the Big Ten’s only hope.
The Big 12 had seven teams in the field, all of which were given top-eight seeds. No. 1 Baylor is only one still alive for the second weekend after No. 3 Kansas got worked by No. 6 seed USC, No. 4 seed Oklahoma State was taken out by No. 12 seed Oregon State, No. 3 seed West Virginia couldn’t get by No. 11 seed Syracuse, and No. 3 seed Texas was eliminated in the first round to No. 14 seed Abilene Christian. The league’s other representatives lost to teams seeded higher than them.
Now, this should all be taken with some grain of salt. Firstly, this is a single-elimination tournament where matchups are everything, so it can’t be considered the end-all, be-all for a conference’s (or team’s) overall strength. Iowa was presented with an unfortunate second-round matchup with the now-healthy Ducks, Loyola Chicago is much better than a normal No. 8 seed, and Syracuse has proven to be very difficult to prepare for in a tournament setting. Second, this was a very strange year by every measure, from everything to limited non-conference schedules to COVID pauses to having to play all of March Madness in one location. Plenty of factors that have nothing to do with basketball could have impacted these tournament results.
But these are excuses. The reality is, neither of these leagues have lived up to the expectations, and they’ve been collective letdowns. What does it mean? Nothing really. This has no bearing on what will happen next season, and these leagues will still be good in the future. But it’s an interesting storyline given what we saw all regular season long. Also, plenty of people look silly (myself included, to some degree), and that’s fun in its own way.
Most of the Games Felt Like 50/50s
The NCAA Tournament is known as March Madness because of the upsets and insane happenings, so it’s not as if double-digit seeds going on runs and high seeds losing early is out of the ordinary. But what isn’t normal is for so many first weekend March Madness matchups to feel like toss ups.
Some of these upsets didn’t even feel like upsets – they felt like 50/50 games played by two even teams. During the Houston-Rutgers game, did either team feel much better than the other? When Oral Roberts took out Ohio State, did it feel like an unforgettable upset, or an insanely even contest between two capable teams? How many people were even all that surprised when ORU took out Florida in the next round?
The college basketball playing field is getting more and more even, which is contrary to what many believed would happen with the growth of transfers and resources growing for the biggest programs. Sure, major conference teams and the biggest names will generally work their way to the top, but it used to be a huge thing when a No. 15 seed or No. 14 seed won in the first round. Even though the 12-5 upset has been a thing for a long time, it’s become a matchup that’s borderline even every first weekend.
In the last 10 years, 30 percent of Final Fours have included a double-digit seed, and it could happen again in 2021. A No. 15 seed has won nine games over No. 2 seeds ever, and five of them have been since 2012. One First Four team is seemingly always in the Sweet 16.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and we’ve seeing it in modern March Madness results. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.
Defense Is Required in March
A few years ago, we looked in-depth at how important defense is to making a run in March. You probably won’t be shocked to learn that it matters a good deal. But apparently some teams are, though.
Iowa learned the hard way, as it has for years now, that guarding your opposition is a requirement to doing damage in March – the Hawkeyes scored 80 points and still lost by 15. LSU put up 78 on Michigan, one of the best defensive teams in the country, and was on the wrong side of the game. Ohio State is No. 4 in offensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom, and became the ninth No. 2 seed ever to lose in the first round, in large part because of its 81st-ranked defense.
Is it a guarantee that the strongest defensive teams will win and the offense-heavy teams will lose? No. For example, the approach worked for LSU in the first round against St. Bonaventure, a defense-first team. But if you are incapable of guarding at a high level and locking up, at least to some degree, you will not stick around in March Madness for long.