Every Final Four season has its hiccups—those moments where the entire production feels scattered, broken, fated to fail.
On March 2nd, Wichita State lost to Creighton, 91-79. It was the Shockers' second consecutive defeat, and it dropped their season record to 24-7.
On March 9th, Syracuse lost to Georgetown, 61-39. It was the Orange's fourth loss in their last five, and it dropped their season record to 23-8.
Since then, Syracuse and Wichita State have lost two games combined. And next week in Atlanta, each will play for a shot at the national title.
It happens every year. And it's why we keep watching.
Long live college basketball.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com
We all love to hate on Syracuse's 2-3 zone
It's too simple. Too static. Too intellectually unsatisfying.
The 2-3 is the defense you teach your sixth-graders if you're too lazy to impart any actual defensive principles. It's the alignment that says: "I once read the first chapter of a book about basketball strategy."
And, yes, it's dull.
But it also works, especially when a headstrong coach like Jim Boeheim plugs it with his preferred type of recruit—long, springy, quick—and has the fortitude (and job security) to ignore those who would call him hidebound.
Every single year, while other coaches are busy reconstituting their defensive tactics on a per-game basis, Syracuse commits to its principles, building the kind of instinctive continuity and confidence one rarely finds among modern college defenses.
Perhaps the Orange don't adjust to their opposition as well as other teams, but they know what they want to do. And oftentimes, clarity trumps nuance—especially when 20-year-olds are involved.
The NCAA tournament so far has been a stunning testimony to Boeheim's steadfast approach.
The Syracuse defense has now held four straight opponents—two of whom ranked among the top 20 in offensive efficiency—to less than 0.90 points per possession. Against Marquette on Saturday, the Orange limited the Golden Eagles to 12-of-53 shooting (22.6 percent).
Syracuse didn't win because Marquette couldn't crack the 2-3. Syracuse won because its physiological and intellectual understanding of the 2-3 was better than any wrinkle the Golden Eagles might devise to attack it.
If you're a Georgetown basketball fan, this is what hell looks like.
First, your favorite team becomes just the seventh No. 2 seed ever to lose its opening-round game.
Two weeks later, Syracuse, your most hated rival, clinches its first Final Four bid in a decade on your home floor.
Oh, and the conference that nurtured your rise from abject obscurity to national relevance is being dissolved.
Have a great summer!
The two Big East teams left standing in this year's NCAA tournament—Syracuse and Louisville—are the same two teams that faced off in this year's tournament championship and the same two teams that split last year's conference title.
Normally, that kind of sustained dominance would be a point of pride for the Big East, but this year, more than anything, it feels like an epic bummer.
Next year, the Orange will be off to the ACC. The Cardinals are set to follow in 2014.
Along with Pittsburgh, that duo figures to tilt the ACC's balance of power and turn a conference that was once "Tobacco Road and everyone else" into one of the deepest, most competitive basketball leagues in recent memory.
The (New) Big East has ensured its continued relevance by siphoning off the Catholic 7 and adding respected mid-majors like Butler, Xavier and Creighton.
But losing Syracuse and Louisville is still a mighty blow. And the results of this year's tournament make that painfully apparent.
This slide could really go to any Marquette player not named Davante Gardner.
Subtract the junior forward's output, and the Golden Eagles went 6-for-44 from the field and 2-for-23 from three.
Blue, who to this point had been Marquette's best offensive player, was the most conspicuous offender, shooting 3-of-15, committing four turnovers and missing all but two of his nine three-point attempts.
It should be no surprise that the Golden Eagles shot a miserable percentage from beyond. For the year, Buzz Williams' team had the nation's 310th-best success rate from beyond.
But the 25 attempts is a real head-scratcher.
Part of that was dictated by the game situation. At a certain point during the second half, Marquette had to start chucking in an attempt to save its season.
That said, the Golden Eagles took more first-half threes against Syracuse (nine) than they took all game against Miami (six). And as the game wore on, they seemed to settle on a "let's-shoot-our-way-out-of-this-mess" offensive mindset.
When you're a bad shooting team, that's rarely the best mode of attack.
Shockers forward Carl Hall didn't set the scoreboard afire—he finished with eight points on 3-of-8 shooting—but his fearless interior play established an early high ground for Wichita State, and Ohio State never quite recovered.
Hall's signature moment came early in the second half, when he planted himself in front of a charging Deshaun Thomas (6'7", 225 lbs) and drew an offense foul while taking a Thomas forearm to the chin.
The encounter left Hall looking dazed and drew a loud groan from the Staples Center crowd when replayed on the jumbo-tron.
Hall reentered the game moments later and quickly attempted a similar ploy against Ohio State's Sam Thompson. Again he tumbled to the deck. Again the crowd groaned.
This time, the referees signaled a block, but I guarantee Hall's street cred has never been higher.
And he did all of it in rec specs.
The first three rounds of March Madness are like a choose-your-own-adventure television special.
Don't want to watch a Big Ten team and its Big East foe punch each other in the mouth for 40 minutes?
No problem. Hop on over to TBS and catch Little Saint Tiny take out Goliath Tech. Or take in the track meet airing live on truTV.
Whatever kind of game suits your aesthetics, it's only a channel change away.
But once the Elite Eight starts, there's nowhere for the bad games to hide. And Saturday, unfortunately, gave us two relatively hideous affairs.
None of the four teams competing shot better than 38 percent, and a collective sense of ineptitude permeated the day's proceedings. It was, to be frank, kind of lame.
We've known for a while that scoring is down in college basketball. The reasons why remain something of a mystery, but the gross outcome isn't: Lots of boring basketball.
Given the choice, most of us would choose a fluid, open-court game that emphasizes skill and speed over a bitter half-court turf war played in the low 50s.
And when we're forced to watch the latter, college basketball's stylistic shortcomings grow all the more acute.
The transitive property never spared anyone's feelings or saved anyone's job, but, at the very least, Gonzaga can take some heart in the fact that it lost to a pretty damn good basketball team.
In fact, the Bulldogs came closer to beating Wichita State than any of the other three teams that ran up against Gregg Marshall team this March.
It's not great, but it's something. And maybe it saves a reeling Gonzaga program some small bit of embarrassment in the long run.
Similarly consolatory sentiments apply to Evansville, a team that finished middle-of-the-pack in the Missouri Valley Conference and missed the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive season, but did manage to top the Shockers twice this season.
Wichita State was so beset with injury this year that it'd be easier to name the Shockers that didn't miss time rather than those that did.
In fact, here they are:
Cleanthony Early, Malcolm Armstead, Demetric Williams, Tekele Cotton and Fred Van Vleet.
Those are the only five Wichita State players to appear in all 38 games. The only five.
That coach Gregg Marshall managed to navigate all that misfortune is both a tribute to his tactical acumen and his recruiting prowess.
Marshall has been with the Shockers for six seasons now, and in that time he's turned down higher-profile jobs like North Carolina State to stay in Wichita.
But even better offers are no doubt in his future, and you wonder how much longer one of America's most sought-after coaches will remain in the Missouri Valley.
Aaron Craft is a remarkable on-ball defender, but his offensive limitations were on full display during Ohio State's 70-66 loss to Wichita State on Saturday.
The Shockers gave Craft ample airspace on the perimeter, daring him to shoot and sealing his driving lanes at every turn.
Craft responded with a 2-of-12 shooting performance that was as miserable as the box score suggests.
Of course, Craft's teammates didn't shoot much better, but some of that circles back to a point guard whose inability to knock down jumpers allowed Wichita State to crowd the lane.
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse: Played superior perimeter defense and tallied eight rebounds.
Davante Gardner, Marquette: The only Golden Eagles player who did anything of note on offense. Shot 6-of-9 from the floor.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: Came into the tournament facing questions about his future. Will leave it with another Final Four appearance on his ever-growing resume.
Junior Cadougan, Marquette: Didn't play particularly well for Marquette, but did manage to finish the game upright after C.J. Fair fell on his neck midway through the first half.
LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State: His nine free throws were the reason Ohio State made a game of it in the second half.
Tekele Cotton, Wichita State: Hit a monster three-point shot and grabbed an even bigger offensive rebound to seal the win for Wichita State.
The Triche Family: Twenty seven years after uncle Howard made the Final Four with Jim Boeheim's 1987 Syracuse team, Brandon Triche is taking the family name back to college basketball's biggest stage.
The Missouri Valley Conference: Wichita State is the conference's first Final Four representative since 1979.
Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: Scored 12 points off the bench, including an off-balance two in the game's waning moments.
The Big Ten: Could America's best conference miss out on the Final Four altogether? Michigan is the conference's last hope.
Todd Mayo, Marquette: Missed all five of his shots, four of which came from beyond the arc.
Jamil Wilson, Marquette: Missed all five of his three-point shots and went 1-of-9 from the field.
Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State: Said he liked his matchup with Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft and responded by shooting 6-of-21 while failing to draw a single free-throw attempt.
Lenzelle Smith Jr., Ohio State: Ohio State's third-leading scorer fouled out in the second half with just five points to his name.