March delivers again

<p>Justin Jackson and North Carolina are in the Final Four for a second straight year.&nbsp;</p>

Justin Jackson and North Carolina are in the Final Four for a second straight year. 

This March has been, understandably, a rocky one for Blue Devil fans.

It started on a high note, as an unprecedented four-day run to the ACC tournament title in Brooklyn inspired hope that Duke could make a similar run toward the Final Four in Phoenix. America agreed, and 39 percent of ESPN brackets had the Blue Devils emerging as the champions of the East region, with 12 percent predicting that Mike Krzyzewski would bring home the program’s sixth national title next week.

But, as we learn every year, brackets are anything but predictable, and this time, Duke was one of the upset victims snatched by March Madness.

To make matters worse, the Blue Devil faithful had to watch their rivals from down the road clinch another ticket to the Final Four in an instant classic against Kentucky—the other team Duke fans hate rooting for. North Carolina is now in the Final Four for the second straight year and NCAA record 20th time overall as the Blue Devils are just trying to make sure their whole roster doesn’t flee before next season begins.

So it’s been a tough week and a half for the Cameron Crazies, to say the least. But for most other college basketball fans, this has been another perfect example of what makes the NCAA tournament the greatest spectacle in collegiate sports.

Surprisingly, the first two days of this year’s tournament were almost painfully dull. There were no dramatic overtimes, thrilling buzzer-beaters or significant upsets of any kind. No teams seeded 13th or lower pulled off a Round of 64 victory, and the one 12-seed that did, Middle Tennessee State, was actually favored against a criminally over-seeded Minnesota squad.

But then, the East region imploded. Wisconsin upended top-seeded Villanova, seemingly opening up the path for Duke to cruise to the Final Four. Except South Carolina had other intentions, and suddenly upsets were contagious.

From the Blue Devils’ perspective, it was a heartbreaking weekend. But it also felt like a return to normalcy—March Madness was in full swing.

After the opening round left fans desperate for some classic March magic, this tournament has delivered in just about every way. The Round of 32 produced a seemingly endless string of games that came down to the wire and kept you glued to your TV all day. Oregon, Kentucky and North Carolina nearly had their national title hopes dashed before the second weekend began, and the entire ACC minus the Tar Heels bowed out before the supposedly-inferior SEC secured three teams in the Elite Eight.

In the Sweet 16, Wisconsin and Florida—two teams that don’t exactly play entertaining, fast-paced basketball—treated fans to the tournament’s only overtime contest. With a regulation buzzer-beater, another one in overtime and a miraculous chase-down, game-saving block, this game had all of the makings to be the “game of the tournament.”

And it very well deserved to be, but the Tar Heels and the Wildcats may have stolen that honor themselves. Two of the country’s blue-blood programs came out for an encore of their 103-100 regular-season thriller, and an ironic twist of fate that effectively mirrored last year’s national championship game ending sent Kentucky home in tears.

A great March Madness requires at least one Cinderella that advances way further than it has any right to expect, and this year, 11th-seeded Xavier and seventh-seeded South Carolina have stepped up as tournament darlings.

Only Gonzaga’s suffocating defense prevented a 7-11 Final Four matchup, and now the Bulldogs are also making their first Final Four appearance in program history. As a team that spent a good chunk of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation but hails from a notoriously weak conference, Gonzaga somehow manages to feel like both a favorite and an underdog at the same time—which makes the Bulldogs, if nothing else, fascinating.

Now, we have a Final Four with a team everyone thought should be here in the Tar Heels, and another team that nobody ever dreamed would make it—just .06 percent of people on ESPN had the Gamecocks in the national semifinals.

Oregon, making its first trip to the final weekend in 78 years, rounds out the quartet after coming up just short in the Elite Eight last year. The Ducks eked out wins against Rhode Island and Michigan by the skin of their teeth, then soundly defeated a Kansas team that looked like an unstoppable scoring machine barreling toward the Final Four.

And there are still so many storylines that haven’t been touched here—the incredibly fun style and antics of Michigan and John Beilein, the De’Aaron Fox-Lonzo Ball point guard matchup we were treated to in the Sweet 16 and Northwestern making the tournament for the first time ever and nearly staging a 20-point comeback against Gonzaga, just to name a few.

Some Duke fans may have buried their heads after their team lost to South Carolina, vowing not to watch any more college basketball for quite some time. If they’ve sworn off the sport in the past 10 days, they’ve been missing quite a show—and there are still three games left to go.


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