After the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament because of the Covid-19 outbreak, and a 2021 event that was played in empty arenas, March Madness returned in full frenzy over the weekend.

Action-packed games in packed arenas. Hopping and laughing and crying fans reacted with emotional fervor, and I wonder if those primal screams were more about the joy of having all of this back again: the thrilling amusement-park ride that makes this annual tournament an unforgettable experience.

With the field being whittled from 64 to 32, we were treated to stunning upsets, quirky but fearless underdogs, scintillating individual performances, the knockouts of powerful teams, and the shock of humility that dazed the Big Ten and SEC.

A No. 15 seed (Saint Peters) scooted in a joyride to the Sweet 16 for just the third time ever. Other double-digit seeds – No. 11 Michigan, No. 11 Iowa State and No. 10 Miami – made it through. Those Power Conference programs aren’t true underdogs, but they defeated expectations.

Coach K won two games to make it 2,000 for his career and another trip to the Sweet 16 for Duke. Gonzaga and No. 1 seed, showed championship pedigree by overcoming Memphis, and danger. Another No. 1 seed, Baylor, rallied valiantly from 25 points down only to fall to North Carolina in overtime. Well. 1 seed Arizona needed OT to outlast TCU in an outcome influenced by a non-call on an Arizona foul in the final seconds of regulation. The bedlam cost TCU the chance to win it late in the 40th minute.

Parity is spreading. If you count up the seed total of the surviving 16 teams, you come up with 85. That’s tied for the third-highest in tourney history, standing with 2018 and 2000. And last year’s seed count was 94, the highest ever. The highest seed counts are a reflection on the volume of upsets during the first two rounds, and we’ve witnessed plenty over the last two tournaments.

How are the conferences doing? Here’s dance-card list for next weekend:

  • Three teams from the ACC and Big 12.
  • Two teams from the Big 10, Big East and Pac-12.
  • One team from the SEC, WCC, MAAC, and American.

Here are some winners and losers from a cutdown weekend that left 16 teams with a shot at the Final Four.

LOSERS: The Big Ten. Nine teams went in, and seven were eliminated. Bye-bye to Wisconsin (3 seed), Illinois (4), Iowa (5), Ohio State (7), Michigan State (7), Rutgers (11) and Indiana (12.) That leaves only Purdue and Michigan left to rep the B1G going forward.

Something is wrong here. The latest flop came a year after the conference set the tone with only one of nine teams getting to the Sweet 16 – just like this year.

The Big Ten is the biggest disappointment in the nation in recent NCAA Tournaments, and the losing hasn’t been limited to 2021 and ’22. As Pat Forde of SI noted, none of the 15 combined Big Ten teams in the 2016 and 2017 NCAA tournaments advanced past the Sweet 16, and in 2018 only national runner-up Michigan cracked the code.

Closer to home, the Fighting Angieli was kicked out in the second round for the second consecutive NCAA tournament: felled by Loyola Chicago as a No. 1 seed in 2021, and bounced as a 4-seed by Houston this year. There’s no shame in losing to the Cougars; coach Kelvin Sampson had the better overall team. But to lose by 15?

WINNERS: What a fab weekend for the ACC, a conference that was waved off as overrated on Selection Sunday. The league had five teams in the tournament, which isn’t up to its usual standards. But three representatives remain: Duke (No. 2 seed), North Carolina (8), and Miami (10). Virginia Tech was defeated in the first round, but Notre Dame had a nice run, winning a “First Four” game before losing a close one to Texas Tech in the round of 32. North Carolina and Miami pulled off major upsets over Baylor and Auburn , respectively. The ACC advanced more teams to the Sweet 16 than the Big East (two) and Big Ten (two). And that came after the ACC was rated below those conferences as the tournament got underway.

WINNER: Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski were close to getting punched out by a rugged Michigan State team, finding themselves down by five with 5:10 remaining in the game. Sparty seemingly had all the momentum, and Duke looked frazzled. But the Blue Devils closed it out on a dazzling 20-6 run to win the battle to book a trip to Coach K’s 26th Sweet 16 as coach of the Duke program. His young team grew up in a hurry and refused to lose and send the 75-year-old coach into retirement. People hate Duke, but this is a great story.

WINNER: Houston Cougars. Sampson’s team was comically underrated by mainstream media and the selection committee, which placed Houston into the tournament as a No. 5 seed. The metrics at KenPom gave us a more accurate picture, with the Cougars ranked No. 4 in the nation before the NCAA Tournament. And after victories over UAB and Illinois, Houston is up to No. 2 nationally in the KenPom rankings – and Sampson is taking his team to a third consecutive Sweet 16. All of this despite the injury loss of both leading scorer Marcus Sasser and another important piece of the offense, Tramon Mark, in December. Sampson is a great coach. At KenPom his team is ranked 10th nationally in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency and 3rd in offensive rebounding. No team plays harder or more physically than HOU.

LOSERS: The SEC. Six teams started out, and five are gone. Congrats to Arkansas and coach Eric Musselman for reaching the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year. Well. 2 seed Auburn and No. 3 Tennessee were terrible flops, losing in the second round to Miami (FL) and Michigan, respectively. And next up for Arkansas is the overall No. 1 seed, Gonzaga. Given the money that SEC programs are pumping into their basketball programs, the virtual no-show in this year’s tournament is embarrassing.

WINNERS: Gonzaga and Drew Timme. The Bulldogs were threatened – seriously – a talented Memphis team and found themselves down by 12 in the second half. But Timme, the big man and team leader, stepped forward with an awesome display known as “Get Out The Way, I’m Taking Over The Damn Game” and floored Memphis with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Fired up by Timme’s raging halftime speech, Gonzaga prevailed by four. It was a character win. The Zags didn’t flinch.

LOSER: The most humiliating loss by any SEC team was Kentucky’s dreadful fade against No. 15 seed St. Peters in the opening round. Coach John Calipari didn’t get Kentucky into the NCAA Tournament last year, hasn’t reached a Final Four since 2015, and hasn’t won a national title since 2012.

WINNER: Arkansas coach Eric Musselman. Winner: After failing to make it to the Sweet 16 from 1996 through 2019, Arkansas has advanced there under Musselman in each of the last two tournaments.

WINNER: Saint Peters. Unless the Peacocks eliminated your team or ruined your bracket – who doesn’t love this? This small commuter school in Jersey City walloped Kentucky, then followed with a controlling defeat of fellow mid-major Murray State. They’re the first New York – area team to reach the Sweet 16 since Seton Hall did it in 2000. That team was led by guard Shaheen Holloway, who now coaches St. Peters. He overcame food poisoning to direct the shocking upset of Kentucky.

There are so many more winners and losers I could mention. On the winners side, how about Michigan coach Juwan Howard? From late-season suspension to his second consecutive Sweet 16. Or the smart, fundamentally sharp Villanova squad that’s primed for a run at a third national title since 2016? Or Texas Tech coach Mark Adams and that ridiculously rigid defense?

Thanks for reading…

-Bernie

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington DC

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.

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