March Madness, 2017.
March Madness is, in all seriousness, my favorite time of year. It's more than just a basketball tournament and ads for veteran's insurance. It's also a holiday. Or at least it should be. I literally take vacation days for the Thursday/Friday Round of 64. To pay proper observance.
One day I'll put together a case claiming the Round of 64 as statutory holidays. It could happen.
Like, Christmas is nice. I genuinely enjoy big family dinners, like at Thanksgiving or Easter. I honestly couldn't care less about my birthday. If I had to pick one holiday to celebrate the rest of my life, it would be March Madness.
Obviously I put together a bracket every year (see below). Picks are based on research I do on all teams. Nothing fancy, but I won't be giving anything away here. Trade secrets, AMIRIGHT?
This year? Purdue is the Final Four upset pick. Caleb Swanigan may only be 19, but he is a full grown man - and probably has been for 5 years now. Plus the Boilermakers have Spike Albrecht. Nova and Zaga actually seem to have pretty easy runs, though this is assuming Duke and Arizona trip up in the earlier rounds (they're both legit Final Four picks too). But these 1-seeds are just so good and so consistent (and in VIllanova's case, so experienced) they'll string together some wins. UCLA is going to shoot their way to the top. On the last weekend, bet on NBA players to matter most. And whether we want to admit it or not (cough LaVar cough) this Lonzo Ball kid is the surest thing in the tournament.
I'm also doing daily recaps (see below). Not for each game or anything, that's just crazy. But at least something to justify the time and energy I commit (read: waste) to this sacred event.
DAY 1 | ROUND OF 64 | 03.16.17
- Shit day overall. Was the most exciting part of the day when the CBS website was down right before pool deadlines? Probably.
- No buzzer beaters, no overtime, and BARELY an upset (Xavier over Maryland doesn't count, and Middle Tennessee was actually a betting favorite over Minnesota).
- I had no idea St Mary's was just Australia's national youth basketball program. 7 Aussies on the 15 man roster?! Also definitely not as scary efficient as I was hoping - beginning to regret picking them to upset Zona.
- Speaking of, Zona looks awesome. Markkanen, man. He's nice. 7-footer with a decent first step, legit range, and genuine muscle tone. He'll be an NBA stud, no doubt.
- The defenses of FSU and WVU look SCARY good. Ridiculous length, very few teams shrink the court like they do. Either would be a terrifying match-up.
- Virginia better clean things up next round - they looked way too shaky (even in a 5-12 match-up). And I'd reeeally have liked Purdue to look more dominant. Like really, really. Bracket depends on it.
- Finished 14/16 on the day. Didn't lose any Round of 32 picks. Can't help feeling I got robbed with Princeton and Vanderbilt. But whatever, I'll have more to complain about tomorrow.
DAY 2 | ROUND OF 64 | 03.17.17
- Honestly, still a general lack of "madness". Good games, no doubt, but the Round of 64 really lacked a level of intensity and chaos I'd become so accustomed to year after year.
- Baylor and Michigan are both a TON fun. Wouldn't mind seeing either make deep runs, though Duke and Louisville are pretty tough match-ups respectively.
- Harsh way for Seton Hall to lose. Refs should really do everything in their power to let the players win/lose a game (especially in final minutes), and by extension they should be limiting any calls to let that happen. Is a foul that is technically a flagrant but really isn't "flagrant" that is still called as a flagrant in the final seconds of a game not a flagrant imposition the outcome of that game? I would say yes. But what do I know.
- Pretty pleased to see my Rhode Island pick pan out. Nice shot of irrelevant confidence there.
- Even more pleased to see Wichita St take care of Dayton. Hyper-intense second half; helluva game overall. That said, I'm no longer convinced the Shockers (insert sex joke here) will put a pounding on Kentucky (nevermind, made my own sex joke).
- FUCK. Big Marquette loss knocks out my first Elite 8 team. Really struggled picking this game, eventually falling in love with elite shooting over South Carolina's ridiculous defensive length. Dumb choice. It's like all their guys are holding a pair of brooms. Either way, I have Duke imploding against the winner of this game, and still feel pretty good South Carolina can pull that off.
- After Day 2 the bracket is 27/32, with one Elite 8 spot (Marquette) gone. Poised for a pretty good Round of 32.
The Round of 64 is great for the sheer volume of games. It's overwhelming in the best way. An overindulgence to kick off the weekend. It's perfect. But the Round of 32 is great because you can actually watch some games in earnest.
Thursday/Friday you sample a bunch of hors d'oeuvres. Saturday/Sunday you actually dig into a full course meal.
DAY 3 | ROUND OF 32 | 03.18.17
- West Virginia is amazing with their press and trap defense. Poor Notre Dame never stood a chance. With just 3 points, Nathan Adrian (who I am giving the nickname The Headband & The Hair) was easily the best player on the floor. Barkley was right.
- Wisconsin is maybe the best 8-seed I've ever seen. Can't believe I didn't even consider picking them to upset Nova. Bracket (at least partially) busted.
- More good picks from me in Xavier, Butler, and Purdue. LET'S NOT EVEN TALK ABOUT PURDUE. I'm pretending they held on to their 19-point lead instead of squeaking out a last minute win.
- UGH another big loss. St Mary's got screwed in their loss to Zona, another blown call from the refs. A seemingly obvious call the other way (or at least non-call). See rant above Re: Seton Hall v. Arkansas.
- Wow, Virginia really fell apart. I can't tell if I overrate them every year (more likely) or they really do disappoint every year (less likely). Great team, tough to see them go out like this.
- Another self high-five for Purdue. Phew.
- Overall? Great day for games. Some real humdingers. Picks not so great, as the bracket sits at 31/40. One Final Four (Nova) and two Elite Eights (Marquette and St Mary's) also out. Let's call it a respectable standing, but nothing to write home about.
DAY 4 | ROUND OF 32 | 03.19.17
- Holy. Wagner looked like a real Markkanen out there. And like I said before, Michigan is a ton of fun.
- Reeeally liked my Wichita State pick right up until the end. I swear this happens every year: I pick Kentucky to lose to some veteran well-put-together team because they're "too young" or "too inexperienced" or "too immature". But then they win anyways based on nothing other than pure athleticism and blue-chip level confidence. Maybe next year I'll learn my lesson.
- Kansas/UNC took care of business against MSU/Arkansas, just like they were supposed to.
- Oregon, you sure cut it close! Rhode Island put on a hell of a show, but even without Boucher the Ducks should have been able to control this game. If Dorsey doesn't catch on fire (a little Duck Flambe anyone?) we might have had a real Cinderella on our hands.
- Admittedly, I didn't watch most of the Baylor/USC game. Entertaining finish though.
- HA! I knew Duke wouldn't win two games. Granted I picked Marquette in the bracket, but I would have picked either Marquette/South Carolina to beat Duke. I swear - scroll up. Anyway I'm taking partial credit for calling this Duke upset.
- UCLA continues to roll. A little too close for comfort, but hey, it's March.
- Honestly a ton of good games today, after a slow start the tourney has turned a corner. Bracket now sitting at 37/48. Missing one Final Four and 4 Elite Eights. Not amazing. Picked 10/16 in the Sweet Sixteen. Also not amazing. Still realistic shots at winning all my pools though.
WOW. Well whatever complaints I had about the first weekend no longer hold up. My apologies, oh Mad Lords of March. Three absolute barn burners (there's no way that's a positive expression in Amish country) and an absolute shellacking of Purdue, my Final Four darling.
DAY 5 | SWEET SIXTEEN | 03.23.17
- Oregon actually looks pretty good. Every round I am a little more surprised slash impressed. Just so balanced (even without Boucher) and they can always get a good shot off. Cannot believe they let Walton Jr. take an open look for a chance to win WITH MULTIPLE FOULS TO GIVE. Close call, Ducks.
- Goddamnit, Purdue. Granted, the Boilermakers got off to an alright start. They even led by 8 points early on. Then I go put some laundry in the machine, and BLAMMO they're trailing by 20 to a Jayhawks team that looked like they'd all eaten one of those Super Mario stars. Swannigan Just absolute devastation. Bye-bye bracket.
- Gonzaga/West Virginia was an absolute GRIND. Did you guys see the stat of 51 total fouls? Cause I sure did. That's over 1.25 fouls per minute. College basketball really does need a fix. Anywho, congrats to the Zags for surviving Press Virginia at their best.
- ANOTHER SENIOR HERO. Buddy in 2016. Bluiett in 2017. Genuinely surprised Xavier pulled this one off, I truly thought Zona was an Elite Eight lock going into this game. Shows what I know.
DAY 6 | SWEET SIXTEEN | 03.24.17
- Butler didn't stand a chance. You know how Purdue fell apart to Kansas after a competitive start? None of that here.
- I have to say, I am glad that one of the South Carolina and West Virginia defenses is still alive. They are SO much fun to watch. I'm also glad Baylor is out so I can stop confusing them with Oregon every time I half zone out.
- UGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGH. Never trust a LaVar Ball. I don't wanna talk about it.
- Not even going to comment on Florida/Wisconsin. If you haven't already seen the highlights, you obviously don't care enough.
- Yes. Still sour about UCLA.
The Sweet Sixteen are perennially the best days of the tournament. Here's the theory. They find the perfect blend between quantity (two games at a time, staggered so you get both second halves) AND quality (teams that actually won two games).
Though you have to love the chaos you get in the first weekend, it's actually nice to watch a full game or two. This goes for double at the Elite Eight, when you HAVE to watch a full game.
DAY 7 | ELITE EIGHT | 03.24.17
- This is what I mean by balance. One day, Gonzaga faces a brutal, slogging WVU team. The game absolutely plays the style WVU wants, and the Zags STILL pull off the win thanks to some gritty defense of their own. Less than two days later they're shooting the lights out as they torch Xavier, including 12 threes at a 50% clip. These Bulldogs aren't your daddy's Bulldogs. These guys have a real shot at the whole thing. Good finals pick by me too, by the way.
- Again, another balanced team shows their stuff. Just like the Michigan game, against Kansas this Oregon team showed a TON on both sides of the ball. Hanging with Kansas offensively is a feat unto itself - especially after they lit the whole stadium on fire against Purdue. But just as impressive is their defense. I head one analyst today (apologies, I can't remember who) talk about how the Ducks switch from zone to man to zone and back. It's so fluid, with seemingly no transition point. It's hard to even call it two separate defensive systems - I'm all but convinced it's just different principles depending on situation. Regardless, a work of art.
DAY 8 | ELITE EIGHT | 03.25.17
- Admittedly I missed most of the Florida/South Carolina game BUT I was lucky enough to catch the finale. And what a treat. This South Carolina run is absolutely incredible. And each game I fall in love with Coach Frank Martin a little more. Did you read his piece on The Players' Tribune? Cause you should.
- DAYUMN the UNC/Kentucky match-up did not disappoint. Lower scoring than I'd have hoped maybe, but still. This is what I thought the Kentucky/UCLA game was going to look like, but UCLA never got their shit together. UNC didn't really either (16 turnovers, 20% from three) but showed enough defense (9 blocks) and controlled the ball enough to pull this game out.
Bring on the Final Four.
DAY 9 | FINAL FOUR | 04.01.17
And thus, the Final Four was brung. (And yes, I know it's actually "brought").
- Zaga/South Carolina was admittedly a little underwhelming. The entire Gamecocks team looked sluggish (where did that Sweet Sixteen defense go???) but it was really Thornwell that mattered. That team was ride-or-die by Thornwell, and we all knew it. But so did the Zags. Thornwell was all but neutralized (still finishing with 15 points). Meanwhile the Bulldogs should 49% from the floor (shout-out to Nigel Williams-Goss with a 23-6-5 line on 56% shooting). I was most impressed with Zach Collins though. 14 points, 13 rebounds, mobility AND tenacity AND range as a 7-footer. This guy is a real prospect.
- WHOA BABY. Oregon/UNC was a real Final Four game. Full disclosure, I was outright cheering for Oregon to win. Partly because of the Canadiana connection (Brooks, Ennis, and Boucher (RIP)), but mostly not a fan of that Tarheel baby blue. And you know, Oregon really did look like the better team for the bulk of this game. Which sounds crazy considering Brooks (2/11) and Doresy (3/11) simply couldn't get buckets. Obviously big credit to Kennedy Meeks who had a career night with 25 points, 14 boards, 3 stocks (credit: Bill Simmons) and shot 11/13 from the field! Would have been a great way to finish a career... And though I WOULD like to give big credit to Jordan Bell too (13 points, 16 boards, 5 stocks) those last two box-outs just... didn't... happen...
UNC/Zaga for the ship. Storied success vs. up-start mid-major. Pretty good premise.
DAY 10 | CHAMPIONSHIP | 04.03.17
- You know, I remember last year saying "You know, I really wish these refs would get more involved. What's a national championship game without a flurry of tweets, hand signals, and replay reviews?!". And boy oh boy, did the NCAA ever deliver! (SARCASM). Because if you liked refs, you would have LOVED this game. But if you were like the rest of us, THIS GAME WAS ABSOLUTELY BRUTAL. Gonzaga was DEFINITELY the better team. But basketball is a game of rhythm. And for whatever reason, the refs refused to let the Bulldogs find theirs. Their three main bigs (Karnowski, Collins, and Williams) were all in foul trouble before the end of the first half. And yes, Collins was the only one to foul out. But the change in play style from Karnowski and Williams, doing everything they could NOT to foul out, was the deciding factor. And despite all this, Gonzaga was STILL up 2 points with under 2:00 to play. But UNC strung together a couple of baskets (the Pinson feed to Justin Jackson underneath was admittedly gorgeous) and the Bulldogs couldn't answer back in time. Again, I'm not exactly a UNC fan (the baby blue is only part of that) but this 'ship has to come with a big, black-and-white striped asterisk.
And with that, it's a wrap. Sour taste from the final game aside, this was an all around good tournament. Maybe not enough buzzer beaters (definitely not enough). And maybe not enough overtimes (again, definitely not enough). But still a ton of good games, some new faces, a couple crazy highlights, and over 100 hours of basketball.
Hard to complain.
Finally, before I forget (I would never forget) a quick recap of the bracket. Ended up picking 41/63 (65%) which is at least respectable. Notable moral victories include going 11/16 in the first two days, and picking the Gonzaga finals run (obviously). Didn't win any of my pools though (goddamn refs giving the win to UNC made sure of that). And let's ignore that my cousin, literally zero basketball insight, picked 40/63 (63%) AND had a Gonzaga/UNC finals. But she went with Gonzaga over UNC cause "she liked the name". Talk about amateur-hour.