“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” When Alfred, Lord Tennyson penned this first line of a couplet in the poem Locksley Hall, he was finishing a stanza on the finer parts of spring. Lord Tennyson can be forgiven for including love, because he had never seen a basketball game. So gifted a writer could surely have spun many a line had he witnessed the majesty that is March Madness in full swing.
This March started with Xavier still in contention for the NCAA tournament. Much like last March, the Musketeers controlled their own fate in terms of basketball. Much like last March, they faltered. Xavier finished February by beating Creighton in a game that left them likely needing only two wins in the three guaranteed games they had left. The Musketeers lost all three.
By the time Selection Sunday rolled around it was clear that Xavier needed a miracle to make the field. Syracuse, Drake, and Wichita State all got in with similar resumes and made it abundantly clear that just one win in Xavier’s last three games likely would have been enough to see them dancing. Instead, they watched on as teams that surround them in the KenPom played off for the right to get pummeled by USC. Coach Travis Steele at least had the decency to not make the fanbase pretend to care about the NIT.
With team loyalty not a concern, Xavier fans were free to just drink in an extravaganza of basketball. The play-in games all took place on the same day and featured four games decided by a total of 16 points. The story of the day came in the final game, as UCLA stormed back from down 14 to win after Tom Izzo physically accosted one of his players and had to be restrained in the tunnel.
The next day the tournament proper started with a bang. The very first game of the first round featured a buzzer beater and overtime as Florida snuck past Virginia Tech. That was shoved to the back burner less than two hours later as Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor led 15th seeded Oral Roberts to a divinely inspired win over the two seed, Ohio State. OSU’s Duane Washington spent the last 4:04 of regular time and most of overtime taking every shot for his team. His attempt at turning himself into a hero instead saw him shoot his team right out of the tournament.
That would have been enough of a story to get everyone talking, but the tournament was embarking on a historical run of upsets. In fact, no NCAA tournament in recorded history has featured as many upsets as this one has. Oregon State didn’t just beat five seeded Tennessee, they trounced them by 14 in a game that wasn’t actually that close. North Texas, a 13 seed, upped the ante by knocking off Purdue and giving us a shining moment for sure as Javion Hamlet celebrated with his dad.
By the time the night ended with Syracuse obliterating SDSU, six lower seeded teams had won in the 16 games played. UCSB very nearly made it seven on Saturday, but they and Eastern Washington both fell just short in upset bids. It was a chalky day until the afternoon when Ohio took down defending champion Virginia behind 11/13/8 from Jason Preston. UCLA then continued their run by thumping a BYU team that has surely inherited Gonzaga’s former mantle as most overrated WCC team. At the end of the night came an absolutely wild game in which Abilene Christian forced Texas to turn the ball over on 37% of their possessions and won despite shooting 29.9% from the floor and 16.7% behind the arc.
Things didn’t let up as the weekend wore on. The best part about the opening weekend of March Madness is the relentless stream of games. No narrative can last too long because every Cinderella has to do it all again in 48 hours and every favorite has to keep standing in an taking punches. Illinois couldn’t take the punches and fell to Loyola as the Porter Moser to Xavier takes flooded Twitter. (Our editorial position is no, thank you.) Baylor held serve but it was Abmas and Obanor scoring another win for the little guy as ORU earned their way into the Sweet 16, becoming only the second ever 15 seed to make it that far. The third night finished with Cade Cunningham demonstrating that even first round talent is no guarantee of anything in March. Oregon State had hit the Pac 12 tournament at 14-12 before casually knocking off #15, #16, #8, #27, and #34 on the KenPom. They would add #10 before their run finally ended.
Monday felt strange. Usually that is a regrouping day as the basketball world comes to terms with what happened over the first weekend. This year it was the day that Oregon destroyed Iowa and Luka Garza entrenched himself as a starter on the tournament’s All-Soft team. That was the end of the lunacy for the day, unless you count the USC-Kansas nightcap in which shot probability and analytics for the game said it should have ended dead even... but USC won by 34.
There are dozens of other stories. It turns out that Mick Cronin, freed of the shackles of a trash program, can actually advance in the tournament. Gonzaga is well past the point of being a team that just beats up on a weak conference and then folds. The Bulldogs haven’t even been challenged. Abmas and Obanor had a shot in the air to send ORU to the Elite Eight, but the entire college basketball world couldn’t quite lean it in. Jim Boeheim annoyingly won again before losing in a game where his team couldn’t even manage 50 and Hunter Dickinson demonstrated that if you want to win big games you may need more than once move.
Even with all that, Xavier still made news. Heralded signing Kyky Tandy left the program after a disappointing season and without ever making much of a mark. Nate Johnson returned to give the Musketeers the shooting they so clearly missed without him, but that meant CJ Wilcher was out the door as well. Danny Ramsey also packed his things and hit the transfer portal. Only the most callous of fans would wish him anything but the best. Finally, Ben Johnson and Matthew Graves left the coaching staff and have yet to be replaced. Xavier is in a time of flux right now, and Travis Steele will feel some warmth coming from his seat.
March was back this year, and it didn’t disappoint. Perhaps Alfred, Lord Tennyson simply meant that spring brings the type of love that leaves you feeling a bit happier about the world you live in. If that was the case, there’s no doubt that March Madness was on his mind.