An upset-filled Friday night in the men’s NCAA tournament has set the stage for a wide-open race for the national championship.
No. 1 overall seed Alabama and championship betting favorite Houston were both shockingly bounced from the Big Dance on Friday. For the first time in tournament history, all four No. 1 seeds have been eliminated before the Elite Eight: Purdue in the first round, Kansas in the second, and now the Crimson Tide and Cougars in the Sweet 16.
Alabama was always somewhat vulnerable to an upset because of its reliance on the three-point shot, and the Crimson Tide shot a miserable 3-for-27 from deep in this one. But to blame the loss just on cold shooting wouldn’t be telling the full story: A physically imposing San Diego State team just bullied the younger Tide, with 17 offensive rebounds and eight blocked shots the clearest illustration. And once Alabama was confronted with game pressure for the first time all tournament, it folded quickly, its late rally not enough after a miserable middle of the second half.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, Miami was working on an upset of its own. Traditionally stingy on the defensive end, Houston got torched by an undersized but highly skilled Hurricanes team. The Cougars hadn’t given up 80 points in a game all season before giving up 89 Friday. And this wasn’t a track meet: Miami scored a blistering 1.35 points per possession, by far the worst defensive performance by Houston this season. A Houston team with experience in big games also quickly looked shellshocked once things didn’t go its way; no play epitomized that more than when Marcus Sasser (a starter on the 2021 Final Four team) simply threw an inbounds pass out of bounds amid light pressure with 6:26 to go. The Cougars, with all the pressure of a chance to play in the Final Four in its home city, wilted well before they could get to that point.
Perhaps there were warning signs: Houston played poorly in the AAC tournament final against Memphis, poorly in the round of 64 against Northern Kentucky and dug itself a hole against Auburn before rallying late, And Miami came in hot after blowing out Indiana in the second round, dominating the boards against a bigger Hoosiers team. Still, how Miami dismantled Houston is quite the shock, and it illustrates just how wide open this tournament now feels.
In the South, San Diego State will draw Princeton or Creighton for a spot in the Final Four. The East’s winner will be either Florida Atlantic (which had never won an NCAA tournament game before this run) or a Kansas State team picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll. Without Houston, the Midwest either runs through a Texas team with an interim coach, a Xavier team with a first-year coach or the aforementioned Hurricanes, who less than a month ago lost to a Florida State squad ranked No. 210 in KenPom.
All that increases the hype surrounding Saturday’s West regional final between UConn and Gonzaga. While a 4-vs-3 matchup isn’t chalk, these two teams at least felt like prime title contenders when the bracket came out and have generally looked the part thus far in the tournament. The Huskies have arguably been the Big Dance’s most impressive team, the only squad in the competition that has won all its games by double digits. And the Bulldogs’ hopes of finally winning it all suddenly feel very much alive: This is a battle-tested March team with one of the tournament’s best all-time performers in Drew Timme leading the way.
There’s also the looming storyline of Rodney Terry’s path to a championship as Texas’s interim coach. Terry inherited a rocket ship of a team when Chris Beard was suspended and later fired after his domestic violence arrest early in the season, but positioned the Longhorns to remain in the hunt for the title and now coaches the highest-seeded team left in the field. A Final Four appearance alone might be enough for Terry to see his interim tag removed, but a clear path to a championship and immortality in Austin is now here.
If there was a year for a truly chaotic March Madness, it was this one. No true dominant team ever asserted itself: No. 1 overall seed Alabama lost by 24 against sub-.500 Oklahoma, Houston was consistent, but still lost at home to mediocre Temple. Purdue at one point lost four of six, UConn six of eight, Creighton six in a row. Coming into Selection Sunday, it was far easier to justify why any given team wouldn’t win it all than why it would. Still, all four top seeds being out this early is unprecedented, and in all, seven of the top eight teams on the seed list have been eliminated before the Elite Eight.
What we’re left with: A truly wide-open tournament, one ripe for an unorthodox (and potential first-time) winner. March Madness is no stranger to chaos, but we’re in for a wild ride to crowning a champion in Houston.