Round of 64: After weeks of anticipation and countless office bracket pools, the wait for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament’s first round was finally over. On March 21, millions of Americans across the country put down their work and diverted their attention to their screens to enjoy two full days of amateur hoops. Duke, the consensus top team, was picked by over 40 percent of brackets to win the tournament. Led by top NBA prospects, players such as Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish lived up to their hype in the first round. After squeaking by in a play-in game against NC Central, 16-seeded North Dakota State didn’t stand a chance, losing by 23 points in a game that looked lopsided from the gun.
In last year’s tournament, 1-seeded Virginia lost to 16-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the first 16-1 upset ever, after 79 years and 135 matchups. While there were no upsets of last year’s calibur, 2019’s tournament brought some unexpected first round results, with just 0.25% of brackets perfect after the first day of action. 13-seeded UC Irvine beat 4-seeded Kansas State to become the only school in California to make it to the second round. And Eugene’s own University of Oregon scored 47 points in the second half to beat Wisconsin 72-54, resulting in a classic 12-5 upset. Payton Pritchard, who graduated from local West Linn High School in 2017, scored 19 points and dished eight assists in the victory.
Another important first-round storyline was the success of Ja Morant and Murray State. A sophomore, Morant made a huge leap in production between his first and second years of competition, going from 12.7 points per game and 6.3 assists per game in 2017-18 to 24.5 and 10 this season. This new success has made him a constant topic of discussion in the sports world, reaching a level of publicity that was previously reserved for Duke’s superstar, Zion Williamson. In the Round of 64, Morant did not disappoint, contributing 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds to upset Marquette. Come the NBA draft in June, it will be interesting to see where Morant lands, and whether the lucky team that secures the No. 1 overall pick will consider Morant over a Williamson or a Barrett.
Teams Eliminated: Louisville, Yale, New Mexico State, Vermont, Bradley, Belmont, Northeastern, Marquette, Nevada, Abilene Christian, Saint Mary’s, Fairleigh Dickinson, Montana, Old Dominion, Seton Hall, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Mississippi, Northern Kentucky, Kansas State, Colgate, Gardner-Webb, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Utah State, North Dakota State, Georgia State, Mississippi State, Iona, VCU, Iowa State, Saint Louis
Teams Still Alive: Minnesota, LSU, Auburn, Florida State, Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Murray State, Florida, Kentucky, Villanova, Gonzaga, Michigan, Wofford, Purdue, Baylor, Iowa, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, UC Irvine, Tennessee, Virginia, Buffalo, Oregon, Washington, Duke, Houston, Liberty, North Carolina, UCF, Ohio State, Virginia Tech
Round of 32: The second round of 2019’s tournament was one of the least exciting ever. Every game resulted in the higher-seeded team winning, save 5-seed Auburn taking down No. 4 Kansas. Possibly the biggest story was Murray State’s loss to defensive stopper Florida State. It should have come as no shock, but there was an expectancy that an explosive performance by Morant would propel Murray State to victory. And while Morant scored at will, tallying 28 points over the course of the match, Florida State was able to shut down everyone else. “[Morant is] a tremendous player, but it’s Florida State’s defensive schemes against Murray State’s offensive schemes,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton told the Orlando Sentinel.
Oregon continued their run to beat UC Irvine, a team fresh off an upset of their own against No. 4 Kansas State. With that victory, the Ducks, at No. 12, were the lowest seed left standing in the tournament. “I wasn’t surprised at [Oregon’s] success,” says Steven Trang (11), owner and editor of Steven’s News, an enlightening sports blog. “Oregon’s been an uprising program for some time.”
Teams Eliminated: Maryland, Wofford, Florida, Murray State, Baylor, Minnesota, Villanova, Kansas, Iowa, Washington, UCF, Buffalo, Liberty, Oklahoma, Ohio State, UC Irvine
Teams Still Alive: LSU, Kentucky, Michigan, Florida State, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Purdue, Auburn, Tennessee, North Carolina, Duke, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Houston, Oregon
Sweet 16: After some exciting contests, every regional championship matchup was determined. In the highest scoring contest of the tournament, Purdue outlasted Tennessee in overtime to advance. After trailing by 18, Tennessee’s Volunteers made a comeback to take a two point lead, until a controversial call landed Purdue’s Carsen Edwards at the free throw line. Edwards would make two out of three shots, leading to Purdue’s eventual win. This victory means that, for the first time since 2000, the Boilermakers advanced to the Elite 8, vying for a South Regional Championship in an anticipated game against Virginia.
Another close finish came in a matchup that many thought would be a rout. Duke, after narrowly escaping the University of Central Florida in the second round, found the same competition against Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. The Hokies held a four point lead going into the second half, but Williamson, Barrett, and Duke swingman Tre Jones provided just enough production to take the lead with 1.1 seconds remaining. Virginia Tech had one final chance to send the game to overtime, but fell just short, sending the Blue Devils to the next round.
Teams Eliminated: Florida State, Tennessee, Michigan, Oregon, LSU, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Houston
Teams Still Alive: Gonzaga, Purdue, Texas Tech, Virginia, Michigan State, Auburn, Duke, Kentucky
Elite 8: One of, if not the, highlights of the tournament was Auburn’s unprecedented run. After only making the tournament nine times in the program’s history, it appeared that they would be the victim of a first round upset, allowing New Mexico State to come within inches of victory. After squeaking by with a 78-77 victory, Auburn looked like an entirely new team, handily beating Kansas and North Carolina in the rounds leading up to the quarterfinal. The Tigers had never made a Final Four, and after star forward Chuma Okeke went down with a torn ACL in the final minutes of the North Carolina game, their chances were again called into question. From the opening tip, though, Auburn fought, taking out Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball, in an overtime thriller. “We wanted to make history,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told Turner Sports. “You have to understand, at Auburn athletics, we’re not Cinderellas in anything. We’re really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. [It has] been a long time since men’s basketball has been good.” Auburn, who was slated to play top-seeded Virginia, providing them the opportunity to bring another championship back home to Alabama, this time in a basketball.
Teams Eliminated: Kentucky, Duke, Gonzaga, Purdue
Teams Still Alive: Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia
Final Four: Four teams entered action on April 5, two of them playing in the Final Four for the first time. Alongside Auburn, Texas Tech made their semifinal debut. Thanks to a modernized defensive scheme, the Red Raiders not only made it to the Final Four, but beat Michigan State by 10, looking in control from the gun. On the other side of the bracket, a far more exciting game came down to a controversial foul call that put Virginia star Kyle Guy at the free throw line, where he would sink three straight to beat the Auburn Tigers. With Monday’s action set, two schools with rich athletic histories were given a chance to put their name in the history books. No matter which way the final went, it would be the first time since 2006 that the winner of the tournament was a first-time champion.
Teams Eliminated: Auburn, Michigan State
Teams Still Alive: Texas Tech, Virginia
National Championship: Virginia completed one of the most impressive comeback stories in all of sports. After being the first ever 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed last March, the basketball powerhouse finally won its first NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. “In sports, anything can happen,” says Trang. “Anyone that has the talent and coaching that the Virginia program has could make the turnaround.” Completing that turnaround, however, did not come easily; the last tournament game lived up to the hype, remaining close right until Virginia pulled away from Texas Tech in the beginning minutes of overtime. Dick Bennett, a legendary coach in college basketball, watched his son, former NBA player and current Virginia coach, Tony Bennett hoist the trophy just twelve months after standing in disbelief after the UMBC loss. The elder Bennett would often skip Virginia games due to his anxiety about the outcome, but making the trip, Dick was able to be a part of the moment. “I had to be here,” he told CBS after the win. “Just had to be here…[Tony] didn’t need me here. But I feel like I needed to be.”