Every year, the NCAA brands its men’s basketball tournament as “March Madness,” confident that the field of 64 teams will deliver on what the promotion promises. The first two rounds of this year’s tournament did just that, as improbabilities seemed to materialize at every turn.
The madness was inaugurated with an early Thursday afternoon matchup between the University of Virginia and Furman University. Virginia, national champions in 2019 and conference champions this season, led for nearly the entirety of the game—as a successful power-five program would be expected to. Leading by 2 and just one pass past half court away from advancing, Virginia’s season unraveled as Furman intercepted what could have been the game-sealing pass near mid court and calmly transitioned into a three-point attempt so difficult that opponents will usually gladly concede it. But it’s March. And less than five seconds were left in the game. So, of course, the shot was pure and the upset was on. Furman, seeded nine spots lower than Virginia, by a point.
But before the afternoon was over, 15-seed Princeton University stole the spotlight as the day’s Cinderella with a victory over the University of Arizona, a 2-seed and a National Championship favorite for many. Princeton had not won a tournament game since 1998, and 15 seeds had a 10-138 all-time record against 2 seeds heading into this year’s tournament, according to The Daily Princetonian. Led by Head Coach Mitch Henderson, a player on the ’98 team that sent powerhouse UCLA home, Princeton would not go away, maintaining striking distance every time Arizona made a push. As the second-half continued on, Princeton found a push of its own, one Arizona had no answer for. Two days later in the round of 32, Princeton proved itself to be no fluke with a wire-to-wire victory against the University of Missouri, a 7 seed in this year’s tournament, to become only the fourth 15 seed to ever advance to the tournament’s second weekend. The Sweet Sixteen bid is also Princeton’s first since 1967.
Many saw shades of St. Peter’s University run to the Elite Eight as a 15 seed last year in Princeton. But that was before a third New Jersey-based underdog captured the landscape’s attention: 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Only once before had a 16 seed beaten a 1 seed when FDU’s Friday night game against Purdue University tipped off. The matchup was supposed to be unfair, a given for a Purdue team that had been excellent all year. With FDU’s tallest player standing at 6-foot-6, Purdue’s 7-foot-4 All-American Zach Edey was supposed to dominate. Purdue was the Big Ten conference tournament champion; FDU had not even won its conference tournament and only earned an NCAA tournament berth because the team that beat FDU in its conference championship was ineligible for the tournament. In every way, FDU was outmatched, incapable of giving Purdue any kind of trouble. But when the game began, roles reversed. FDU’s feisty full court press and defensive strategy rattled Purdue. Even Edey, the man FDU could not guard without looking up at, struggled to operate. It was everything March Madness is meant to be and more as FDU Head Coach Tobin Anderson, who was coaching Division II only a year prior, masterminded a performance that is simply never supposed to happen. The historic victory earned FDU a matchup against Florida Atlantic University on Sunday, which FDU lost, meaning the wait for a 16 seed to advance to the second weekend continues, but not without FDU reminding everybody why we tune into the tournament every March.
Along with these upsets, the tournament has also been a platform for the tremendous parity that the Division I basketball landscape has seemed to enjoy more every year. For the most dominant and storied programs, playing on the second weekend of competition is no longer a given. Neither Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina nor Duke advanced to the Sweet 16, marking only the second time since 1980 that the round will not include any of them, according to CBS Sports. The east region included Purdue, Duke, Memphis and Marquette—all major conference tournament champions. None advanced past the Round of 32. And of the 16 teams still in the tournament, only five made it this far last year, so what this weekend holds is anybody’s guess. Notable matchups will include top-ranked Alabama against San Diego State, UCLA against Gonzaga, Xavier against Texas and UConn against Arkansas.
Here’s to more madness this week!