“Tourney Talk” is a column by Michael Fiumefreddo about the men’s basketball NCAA tournament.
Wow. Just. Wow.
Over the course of this column, I continued to stress how strange this season in college basketball has been. Of the 9.2 quintillion possible outcomes, never in a million years did I see a Final Four of Florida Atlantic, San Diego State, Miami and UConn.
I talked with Annenberg Media columnist Kamyar Moradi on Tuesday. One thing he said to me has been a dark cloud over my head ever since.
“If you say you are a college basketball expert, no, you’re not. You know nothing.”
As an analyst and columnist on college ball myself, I hate to say it, but he’s right. No matter how much research I put into this column each week, the exact opposite of my predictions would occur days later.
I swear, I thought I was a jinx.
When my bracket was completely busted by the Sweet 16, I could only think how I’d be better off flipping a coin next year and hoping for the best. But upon further examination, this is a once-in-a-lifetime tournament. The Cinderella stories, massive upsets and this unlikely Final Four will never be replicated again — no matter how chaotic future tournaments get.
Let’s start with the obvious. For just the second time in tournament history, a No. 16 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed. Even though UMBC was the first, what Fairleigh Dickinson did this year was much more impressive when looking at the details.
There’s the fact that FDU shouldn’t have even been here. The Knights lost their conference championship game to Merrimack, who was ineligible for the Big Dance because it’s their first season in D1 (a stupid rule if you ask me, but what a butterfly effect it had). FDU traveled to Dayton, Ohio, as the lowest-ranked team in the 68-team field but ran through Texas Southern to set up a date with the Boilermakers in Columbus.
Speaking of Dayton, the Dayton University band played the FDU fight song. Fairleigh Dickinson doesn’t even have a school band, but Dayton’s stepped up, and the honorary Knights witnessed history. The broadcasts during their games only made the small school even smaller. Anyone tuned into FDU’s games learned they have a junior at the university running media relations for the athletic department and players have to shower in their jerseys to clean them.
On the court, the small school from Teaneck, New Jersey, also fielded the smallest roster size-wise out of the entire field. Head coach Tobin Anderson, who was in his first season coaching at the D1 level, had to figure out how to defend 7′3″ Zach Edey. But Anderson called his shot, famously saying, “The more I watch [Purdue], the more I think we can beat them.”
Anderson will take on a new role as head coach for Iona, succeeding Rick Pitino. He — or any coach for that matter — might never have the chance to pull off an upset of this magnitude ever again.
Moving on to the less absurd but just as impressive upsets, No. 13 Furman’s victory over No. 4 Virginia will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Virginia graduate guard Kihei Clark got trapped in a corner with seven seconds to go, the Cavaliers up one with a timeout. Instead of calling time, Clark blindly shot put the ball to half court. Furman junior forward Garrett Hien intercepted the heave, and passed it to sophomore guard JP Pegues, who knocked down a three to take a two-point lead and the win.
Talk about how to throw away a win, literally. Every few years, we get one of these games, which live on in history. Hopefully Clark’s 2019 national championship ring and 2023′s overall chaos help soften the blow.
Yet Furman was overshadowed by another Cinderella in the same region. Ivy League schools are known for their prestigious histories and academic excellence, not basketball programs. No. 15 seed Princeton snatched the conference’s tourney bid from Yale in the Ivy League championship game, quite an accomplishment in itself. But the magic continued. The Tigers took down No. 2 Arizona and a surging No. 7 Missouri team to reach the Sweet 16. A TikTok video surfaced of players in the hotel doing calculus homework the night before their matchup against Creighton, so in their honor, let’s do some math of our own: After winning two games, the 2023 Princeton Tigers now own one-third of all Ivy League March Madness wins since 1978, and one-half of the conference’s Sweet 16 appearances in that same span.
While Cinderellas are fun for the first weekend, the clock usually strikes midnight around the start of the second weekend; third time’s not the charm for some lower seeds, and the top seeds bring the bracket back to normal. Not this year. For the first time since 1979, All four No. 1 seeds failed to reach the Final Four. In fact, for the first time EVER, all were eliminated before the Elite Eight. After a five-year run of No. 1 seeds winning the title, none will even get the chance to take home the hardware.
But no glory should be taken away from the Final Four teams, who, against all odds, have a shot to have their ‘One Shining Moment.’ Three teams — FAU, SDSU and Miami — are in their first Final Four, and UConn’s back after seven straight first round losses since their 2014 championship.
Most USC people know FAU as Lane Kiffin’s return to glory. I only know them as the school across the street from the restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, where my family celebrates Easter Sunday (I’ll be there again next week, might have to move my flight up if they win). But this No. 9 seed took down two Power 5 teams to get here, so the Mountain West team they’ll face tomorrow shouldn’t scare them.
However, the way the San Diego State Aztecs have been playing, you would think Kawhi Leonard has been suiting up for his alma mater. SDSU is a top-25 defensive unit in all of college basketball and one of two teams in this Final Four to take down a No. 1 seed.
The other is Miami, who I did say in an earlier column was a sleeper title contender. It looked like all hope was lost when the Canes faced a 64-51 deficit with 13 minutes to play against Texas, but by the end, the ‘U’ emerged as the Midwest champions and have been a betting favorite heading into this weekend.
The smart money is on UConn, though. The Huskies have won all four of their tournament games by double digits, and they’re the highest remaining seed. Readers of my column from the very beginning might recall they were in the Week 6 AP Poll top 12, which featured the eventual champion in every year but one since 1988. But this should scare the Huskies more than assure them victory because this tournament is defying all historical data as we know it.
Since this March Madness has been such an anomaly, I’m not even going to ATTEMPT to predict a winner. However, the handwritten bracket sitting next to me at my desk just needs Miami to beat SDSU in the championship to stay perfect. I sure hope that happens because I’m all out of erasers.
‘Tourney Talk’ runs every Friday.