The 75th annual NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship went just about according to script.
Which is to say that it was everything we couldn't have anticipated.
Heroes rose. Arenas shook. The acronym "FGCU" entered our public vernacular. And, as always, we left March vastly more entertained than we entered it.
Ahead we'll look back at the people, places, things and Enfields that captured our attention over the past three weeks.
With the exception of FGCU's Andy Enfield, I can't think of a head coach who did better for himself this March than Wichita State's Gregg Marshall.
Not only did he take his Shockers within minutes of the national championship game, he did so with a team that lost its five leading scorers from a year ago and battled an endless barrage of injuries.
Marshall filled the void with a combination high-major castoffs and JUCO transfers, revealing an eye for both talent and team dynamics rarely seen among the head-coaching set.
What's most fascinating about Wichita State's surprising Final Four run is that it debunked many of the commonly held myths regarding mid-major success over the past decade.
The Shockers weren't a spunky group of seniors who used their collective intuition to outfox younger, less cohesive high-major foes. Nor were they undersized. Nor were they perimeter-oriented. Nor did they rely on some sort of gimmicky tactical wrinkle.
Marshall's team was burly, athletic and mean, with a roster cobbled together not over a series of years, but a series of months. The Shockers didn't try to trick people, and they sure as heck didn't shy from confrontation.
They were a prototypical high-major team. It just so happened that they don't belong to a high-major conference.
The Mountain West Conference sent five of its nine teams for the 2013 NCAA tournament.
None survived the first weekend.
The carnage was such that it'd be hard to identify a single team that performed admirably.
Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico each lost their opening game. Colorado State looked like a JV team against Louisville in the Round of 32.
San Diego State was the only MWC team that even came within sniffing distance of the Sweet 16, and even the Aztecs lost their third-round game by double digits—to 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.
It was the latest in a series of disappointing March performances from a conference many have long touted as the best mid-major league in America.
For one week in late March, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles were the best thing in sports.
A 15 seed out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, FGCU strutted into the national limelight with wins over Georgetown and San Diego State, both by exactly 10 points and both coming thanks to a relentlessly positive game strategy that emphasized speed, improvisation and, most conspicuously, dunking.
Lots and lots of dunking.
So much, in fact, that the school's hometown of Fort Myers, Fla., took on the moniker "Dunk City." And of course we all bought in, smitten as we were with this team of nobodies and the funny-sounding school they represented.
In becoming the first-ever No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, the Eagles not only made basketball history, they elevated their once-anonymous off-branch university—founded in 1991—to a level of notoriety usually reserved for celebrities run amok.
It was, in a word, awesome.
At base, college athletics is a form of feudal exploitation masquerading as morality. It is unfair. It is indecent. It is totally unbecoming of a society that claims to value scholarship, hard work and due compensation.
Then some dude from a school you've never head of dunks a basketball, and you remember why you can't stop loving the damn thing.
Long live college basketball.
Andy Enfield is the head men's basketball coach at USC.
One month ago, he was the head men's basketball coach at a university that had never before qualified for the NCAA tournament, and indeed had only been eligible for the postseason since 2011.
Behold, the power of March.
The primary reason for Enfield's promotion is that his Florida Gulf Coast Eagles became the first No. 15 seed in tournament history to make the Sweet 16. But I'd wager it was the way Enfield handled the surge of attention that ultimately landed him in L.A.
The former Johns Hopkins standout, shooting guru and business tycoon was smooth without sounding slick, modest without sounding coy, relateable without sounding simple.
Deadpan lines like "we don't take ourselves too seriously" cast him as a sort of gap-toothed antidote to the modern college coach, further augmenting his team's already sky-high likability.
And I suppose it didn't hurt that his wife is a former model. Not that it ever would.
Last year, Kentucky blindsided college basketball with a barrage of talented frosh.
This year, it was the frosh who got the worst of it.
None of Rivals' top 10 freshmen from the class of 2012 played in the 2013 Elite Eight, and only one, Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski, even made it as far as the Sweet 16.
Venture a bit further down the list, and you will find a few newcomers that left an impression on this year's field of 68. Glenn Robinson III (No. 11), Mitch McGary (No. 30) and Nik Stauskas (No. 71) all played major roles for Michigan.
And Syracuse's DaJuan Coleman (No. 26) at least got to take in the sites and sounds of the final weekend, even if he didn't play in any of the Orange's last four tournament games.
All in all, though, it was a tournament (and season) where experience trumped talent.
Next year may well tell a different story.
The rate of transfers in college basketball has accelerated over the past decade, creating a secondary market for talent acquisition that now rivals high school recruiting in terms of scope and importance
Take the 2013 NCAA tournament as your Exhibit A.
All of the following March standouts transferred at some point during their collegiate careers.
Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State: Named West region's most outstanding player.
Luke Hancock, Louisville: Named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Led all players in points and rebounds in Final Four matchup with Louisville.
Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon: Tournament leader in rebounds per game guided Oregon to the Sweet 16.
Carl Hall, Wichita State: Leading rebounder and second-leading scorer for national semifinalists.
Tyrone Garland, La Salle: Hit game-winning floater to lift La Salle past Ole Miss in the round of 32.
Jamil Wilson, Marquette: Scored 16 points and added eight rebounds in Marquette's Sweet 16 upset of Miami.
Kenny Kadji, Miami: Key player on Miami's first Sweet 16 team since 2000.
Evan Ravenel, Ohio State: Senior specialist led Buckeyes in defensive rebounding percentage.
Trent Lockett, Marquette: Grabbed 11 boards apiece in tournament wins over Davidson and Miami.
Mike Rosario, Florida: Broke out with 25 points in round of 32 win over Minnesota.
Seth Curry, Duke: Averaged 21 points in Duke's four-game tournament run.
It is indisputably the dumbest defensive tactic in basketball.
Offensive Player A (usually of the smaller variety) beats his man off the dribble and accelerates toward the basket. Defensive Player B (usually of the bigger variety) sees this, and instead of actually trying to defend the rim, spreads his limbs like a starfish and lets Player A plow through his ribs.
Player A gets slapped with a charge call. Player B, meanwhile, is rewarded for what amounts to standing in place.
How is this basketball? How is this even sport?
B/R's Kerry Miller did a better job then I ever could explaining why the charge/block call is so frustratingly common in college basketball. He also proposed a couple of solutions for curbing their frequency and getting us back to the business of actually doing athletic things.
On all this, I defer to Kerry.
All I know is that the distinction between a block and a charge distinction is damn near impossible to discern in real time, and it may well have cost two teams a chance to advance further in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Iowa State and Syracuse were both assessed critical—and rather dubious—offensive fouls in games they would go on to lose.
Partisans on both sides will argue ad nauseum over the accuracy of those calls. Honestly, I don't care.
All I care about is seeing the game decided by the players. Do that, and I'm a happy man.
You won't find a bigger name in college coaching today than "Pitino."
With his team's win on Monday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino became the first man ever to win national championships at two different schools. Mere days earlier, it was confirmed that he'll be inducted later this year into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. His horse, Goldencents, also won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday and secured a place in this year's Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, his son Rich, a former Louisville assistant, took Florida International to within one game of the NCAA tournament during his first year as a head coach, and quickly parlayed that into a gig at Minnesota.
And how's this for serendipity?
The elder Pitino heard about his son's new job at the very same moment he received the Hall of Fame news.
We spend all night trying to identify the tournament's best round.
But the worst?
That's easy: the Elite Eight.
The only somewhat-compelling game of the quartet was Ohio State's near-comeback against Wichita State in the West region. None of the other three were even remotely close, and Marquette's 39-point showing against Syracuse will probably go down as one of the worst offensive performances in second weekend history.
Posterity will likely remember the 2013 Elite Eight as the round in which Louisville's Kevin Ware broke his right leg.
But when your one shining moment is someone suffering a brutal injury, it probably wasn't the best two days of basketball.
With his team down three to No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16, Michigan point guard Trey Burke sprinted up court and sank a 30-foot jump shot with five seconds left to cap a 10-point Michigan comeback and send the game to overtime.
I'd argue that Trey Burke became National Player of the Year Trey Burke over the course of those handful of seconds.
Burke then scored his team's first five points in the extra session to seal an unlikely win over the top-seeded Jayhawks.
It was perhaps the greatest shot in Michigan history. It was without question the greatest shot of this 2013 NCAA tournament.
Since video evidence is unavailable, I'll instead direct you to this GIF of Saint Mary's junior Beau Levesque air-balling three consecutive three-point attempts in his team's 64-62 round of 64 loss to Memphis.
Though I'm not sure "air-balling" suffices in this particular case, seeing as Levesque—who hit a sterling 44.7 percent of his threes for the season—was at least a half-foot short of the rim on all three his three attempts.
Maybe could call it Levesque-ing? Too French?
I'll work on it.
It is a credit, however, to Levesque's teammates that a couple of them actually rose from the bench in anticipation on his third and final misfire. I acknowledge your optimism, gentlemen.
I also acknowledge Levesque's teammate Matthew Dellavedova, who had the decency to air ball his last-second, go-ahead three-point attempt in solidarity.
The Gaels are 4-8 all time in the NCAA tournament.
World, meet Mitch.
Mitch is a 6'10" forward from Chesterton, Indiana who averaged 7.5 points per game during his freshman year at Michigan.
Mitch is also an athletic freak show who can boogie in the open court, destroy backboards with a single flush and single-handedly shred opposing defenses with his rare combination of upper-body strength and offensive savvy.
The first Mitch is the one Michigan fans saw for the majority of the regular season.
The second Mitch is the one who came to Ann Arbor as one of America's most highly touted recruits and has subsequently rampaged through the NCAA tournament field to the tune of 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest.
It's hard to know how much of McGary's sudden emergence is due to natural development, how much is due to random variation and how much is due to coach John Beilein's cautious deployment of his talents during the regular season.
But we know the kid can play, and he might not being do it for free much longer.
Can a game really be a loser?
Yes, it can. Because I make the rules/there are no actual rules/rules suck.
Anyway, UCLA and Minnesota met in the round of 64, a game the 11th-seeded Gophers won easily, 83-63.
Two days later, Minnesota lost badly to Florida in the round of 32.
Three days later, the Bruins fired head coach Ben Howland.
Four days later, Minnesota fired head coach Tubby Smith.
One game. Two losers.
Final Four ratings are still forthcoming, but early evidence suggests that March Madness television viewership is on the rise.
According to a release from Turner Sports (via Awful Announcing), the tournament averaged a 6.2 Nielsen rating through the Elite Eight—its best return since 2005.
In other words, business is good.
But what seems like an encouraging sign for the sport, is likely to be met with ambivalence by its most ardent fans.
There's always been a massive disconnect between the base popularity of college basketball and the popularity of its postseason. And these latest television figures are evidence that the disconnect is growing larger.
So while it's good to see folks watching college basketball, the most recent ratings data raises the question: Why aren't more of these folks interested in the regular season?
And perhaps more ominously: What happens to a sport when its postseason threatens to drive its regular season into obsolescence?
Of the 67 games in the 2013 NCAA tournament, only one—one!—went to overtime.
It's not a trend. It's not indicative of anything. It isn't cause for alarm.
But it is kind of weird.
By contrast, 10 games were decided by three points or less.
Louisville guard Russ Smith—listed at 6'1" and 165 pounds—should not be a basketball player.
He's too short. Too skinny. Too weak.
His arms aren't long. His hands aren't big. His vertical leap isn't anything special.
He has one verifiable basketball skill: quickness. And he has it in abundance.
Smith is one of the fastest open-court players in recent college basketball history, even drawing comparisons to former Georgetown great Allen Iverson.
It's that quickness—combined with a relentless, fearless style of play—that allowed Smith to dominate college competition this season and ambush the NCAA tournament field.
Smith averaged 9.2 free-throw attempts per postseason game, and his 134 points scored were a tournament high.
Even an underwhelming Final Four couldn't take away from the fact that "Russdiculous" was the best amateur basketball player of the past three weeks.
And for that, a championship shall be his reward.
We've long known that scoring is down in college basketball.
All the 2013 NCAA tourney did was give us new ways to quantify that trend.
Only one team, Ohio State, eclipsed the 90-point barrier, and the Buckeyes only managed that feat once. No one broke the century mark.
The chart below compares today's high-scoring tournament outputs to the run-n'-gun days of the early '90s.
|Year||High Score||Number of 100-Point Performances|
The ACC was down. The Pac-12 was worse.
The result? An NCAA tournament dominated by flyover states.
Major coastal media markets like Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and the Bay Area all went unrepresented in the Elite Eight. In their stead we saw schools from Louisville, Ann Arbor, Syracuse and Wichita.
None of that is exactly surprising, but it does help drive home the appeal of college sports. In a pro landscape dominated by big-market riches, there's still a place in the amateur ranks for small-town success stories.
Louisville reserve Kevin Ware can't be considered an outright "winner" for a number of reasons.
1) His right leg broke in the worst way possible on national television.
2) In ways both obvious and implied, scads of people made money off of his misfortune. Kevin Ware made none.
But there comes a point where we must—or, perhaps, ought to—shed our the cynicism and acknowledge the human triumph contained in Ware's unlikely rise to national prominence.
After sustaining one of the most horrifying injures in the history of televised sports, Ware was a paragon of selflessness and grace. Not only was he astonishingly composed in the moment of crisis, but he handled the aftermath about as well as a 20-year-old can handle overnight fame.
He was brave. He was gracious.
And we hope he gets better soon.
I'm having difficulty forming cogent thoughts about the national championship game that just transpired between Louisville and Michigan.
Instead I'm just going to list a bunch of incredible things I saw.
Spike Albrecht scoring 17 first-half points.
Luke Hancock making three consecutive three-point shots over the course of one minute and six seconds.
Montrezl Harrell’s dunk.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s dunk.
Peyton Siva’s dunk-like thing.
All of Glenn Robinson III’s dunks.
Trey Burke’s insanely deep three-point makes.
The arc on Gorgui Dieng’s elbow jumper.
Chane Behanan working the offensive glass like he was fury incarnate.
The most exhilarating, manic, messy, beautiful college basketball game I’ve seen this season...
Can’t wait till next year.