Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2015 NCAA Basketball Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 7, 2015

Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2015 NCAA Basketball Tournament

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    The Duke Blue Devils are your 2015 national champions after beating Wisconsin by a score of 68-63 on Monday night in Indianapolis, but those two teams are far from the only winners and losers of the NCAA Tournament.

    The Blue Devils’ freshmen all played huge roles in their title-winning effort with Jahlil Okafor starring all season long, Justise Winslow raising his game in a big way in March and Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen delivering incredible performances to key the team’s final win over the Badgers.

    Aside from participants in the title game, fans of the sport were the biggest winners. Whether this was the best NCAA tournament of all time is a debate we'll postpone until a little further into the offseason, but it's definitely in the conversation. Perhaps the only thing better than the Final Four was all of the incredible bench celebrations we got to watch along the way.

    Among the things on the loser side of the fence are lofty predictions gone terribly wrong, years worth of tournament trends that failed to continue, a goaltending call that probably ruined a player's psyche for life and an undefeated team that couldn't finish the job.

    The 2015 tournament had everything we could possibly want. Let's take a stroll down memory lane for the highlights and low points of the past few weeks.

Winner: Bench Celebrations

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    What we all love so much about the NCAA tournament is the passion its participants exhibit. Players and coaches in hystericsout of both joy and sorrowendears us to them. Star players and student managers celebrate and mourn with the same passion we feel as fans.

    As such, bench celebrations might as well be the first winner of every NCAA tournament from here to eternity.

    We were treated to some real gems this year, beginning with the very first game of the tournament. With 12 seconds remaining in a 10-point game, Hampton's bench took a page out of the Major League playbook to celebrate a made free throw.

    Two nights later, Harvard's bench went absolutely bonkers when a Siyani Chambers four-point play gave the Crimson the lead in the final minutes. The double three goggles gesture was easily the best part.

    The following day, it was UC Irvine's turn to celebrate a late lead against a No. 4 seed from the ACC. It's tough to say what we should call this dance that a member of the Anteaters' bench broke out when they took a 51-50 lead over the Cardinals, but we're going to go with "Lassoing King Kong."

    The best celebration from a player arguably came during Gonzaga's Sweet 16 win over UCLA. After Przemek Karnowski delivered an unbelievable behind-the-back bounce pass to Domantas Sabonis, one of the Zags on the bench busted out a shimmy shake that puts Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's free-throw routine to shame.

    But nothing compares to perhaps the most memorable bench celebration in tournament history: Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter falling off his stool after his son, R.J., hit a go-ahead three-pointer to knock off No. 3 seed Baylor in the round of 64.

    Please remember to call off work for the first Thursday and Friday of next year's tournament, because it took all of three hours on Thursday afternoon for Georgia State to give us the best moment of the tournament and for everyone's bracket to get covered in whatever color highlighter ink you use to represent a loss.

Loser: Villanova Wildcats

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    Jay Wright is one of the best college basketball coaches in the country.

    Since losing Rande Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray after the 2005-06 season, Villanova has produced precisely one NBA draft pickDante Cunningham was a second-rounder in 2009. Yet, the Wildcats have averaged 23.9 wins per season over the past nine years, including two Big East titles, one Final Four appearance and only one dud of a season (13-19 in 2011-12).

    What Wright has accomplished with the talent available to him is pretty incredible.

    Excluding the tournament, that is.

    Since making that Final Four in 2009, Villanova has a 3-5 record in the tournament. Two of those five losses were as a No. 9 seed in close games against No. 8 seeds. No harm done there, but the other three are less forgivable. In 2010, the Wildcats were a No. 2 seed and lost to No. 10 Saint Mary's. Last year, they were the No. 2 seed that lost to No. 7 Connecticut.

    This year may have been their magnum opus of tournament failure, though, falling to No. 8 North Carolina State after earning the No. 2 overall seed. It's hard to believe, but it has now been six years since Villanova competed in the Sweet 16.

    Adding to the pain of being knocked out in the round of 32, Villanova had to watch as each of the other three No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four.

Winner: Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    While Villanova continued its streak of early exits, Gonzaga finally made it past the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.

    It was an incredible Cinderella story 16 years ago, but this time around, it was just pure domination by the Bulldogs. As the favorites, they beat North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA each by a double-digit margin. Kyle Wiltjer was unstoppable, averaging 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the three wins.

    Karnowski and Sabonis were pretty doggone impressive, too, averaging a combined 25.0 points and 15.7 rebounds through the Sweet 16.

    The Zags are losing Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to graduation, but each of the three aforementioned big men has at least one year of eligibility left. Assuming they all come back for another shot at that elusive Final Four appearance, 2015-16 Gonzaga could be eerily similar to 2014-15 Wisconsin: an efficient offense with outstanding big men that only get better with another season together.

    So, don't feel bad for Gonzaga's failed attempt at reaching the national semifinals. Feel good about the fact that America's favorite Cinderella finally danced into a regional final again.

    If you insist on feeling bad for someone, do so for whichever teams stand in Gonzaga's way of the 2016 Final Four.

Loser: No. 9, 12 and 13 Seeds

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    Flip a coin enough times and you'll eventually get heads 12 times in a row.

    That's effectively what happened in the round of 64 this year, with all of the No. 4, 5 and 8 seeds winning their opening games.

    As every responsible bracket-filler knows, at least one No. 12 seed almost always upsets a No. 5 seed. Only twice from 1989-2014 did all the No. 5 seeds advance. But make it thrice, as Arkansas, Northern Iowa, Utah and West Virginia all prevailed.

    No. 13 seeds beating No. 4 seeds isn't quite as prevalent as the 12-5 upset, but we did get at least one in each tournament from 2008-13. Not this year, though. There were four No. 4 vs. No. 5 games for the first time since 2007.

    But the really bizarre thing is that not a single No. 9 seed won a game.

    We had to go back to 2002 to find the last time that the No. 8 seeds went undefeated in the round of 64. From 2003-14, No. 9 seeds went 22-26 against No. 8 seeds. Three of themUAB in 2004, Northern Iowa in 2010 and Wichita State in 2013even went on to upset the No. 1 seed in their respective region.

    However, it was all chalk in the top half of each region this year.

    Despite the lack of upsets, though, there was plenty of drama. Nine of the 12 games were decided by seven points or fewer. Six came right down to the final possession.

    At least there was some chaos in the bottom halves of the regions. Two No. 11 seeds and a pair of No. 14 seeds kept the round of 32 from being too top-heavy.

Winner: Jakob Poeltl

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    There has been no word yet on whether Utah freshman center Jakob Poeltl will take his talents to the NBA, but it's tough to think of another player who did more for his draft stock in the NCAA tournament than him.

    He only played three games, but he was pretty masterful in each of them.

    In the round of 64 against a Stephen F. Austin team that was among the best in the nation at two-point field-goal percentage, Poeltl was 7-of-7 from the field with eight rebounds and five blocks. Considering the final score was 57-50, his overall impact was nothing short of massive.

    In the following game against Georgetown, both he and Hoyas center Joshua Smith had trouble staying on the court because of foul trouble, but Poeltl got the best of the battle with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting.

    And against Duke and the supposedly unstoppable Jahlil Okafor, Poeltl had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks while Okafor scored just six points in between his four turnovers and three fouls.

    Prior to the start of the tournament, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had Poeltl projected as the 24th overall pick. But at the start of the Final Four, Poeltl had improved to No. 13 in Wasserman's mock draft. DraftExpress currently has him at No. 11.

    Even Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune is imploring the big man to jump to the NBA while his stock is about as high as can be.

    Not too shabby for a guy who wasn't even mentioned as one of the "key bench players" in SB Nation's preview of Utah in October. (That's not a knock on SB Nation. Even in Kevin Pelton's 1,000-word preview of Utah's season for ESPN, Poeltl's name only appeared once as a guy "who could command playing time.")

Loser: Rule 9, Section 17, Article 3

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    According to the letter of the law in the NCAA men's basketball rulebook:

    Goaltending occurs when a defensive player touches the ball during a field-goal try and each of the following conditions is met:

    1. The ball is on its downward flight; and
    2. The ball is above the level of the ring and has the possibility, while in flight, of entering the basket and is not touching the cylinder.

    Unless, of course, SMU is clinging to a late lead against UCLA.

    In case it has slipped your mind over the past few weeks, here's a Vine of the play in question.

    SMU went on a 19-0 run in the second half, turning a 10-point deficit into a nine-point lead. But it was all for naught when Yanick Moreira rose up to grab an errant Bryce Alford three-point attempt and was whistled for goaltending. It gave UCLA a one-point lead with 13 seconds remaining.

    Whether it was a bad call or the proper application of a bad rule, we can all agree there was no chance whatsoever of that ball going through the hoop. There was still enough time on the clock for the Mustangs to go down and take another two shots, but the prevailing narrative after the game was that SMU got jobbed by the refs.

    Had it happened to a team that makes the tournament on a pretty regular basis, maybe we forget about it in a hurry. But what a shame for SMU's first tournament appearance since 1993 to end like that.

    Considering UCLA went on to comfortably beat UAB in the round of 32, it's not hard to argue that one goaltending call cost SMU at least two wins.

Winner: The Atlantic Coast Conference

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    If you're the type to use the NCAA tournament as a barometer for how successful (or unsuccessful) a conference was in a given season, you can't possibly say that any conference was better than the ACC this year.

    Of the six ACC teams that made the tournament, five advanced to the Sweet 16. While other power conferences had a whale of a time surviving the first weekend, the ACC went 11-1 with the one loss coming against a team that went on to reach the Final Four (Michigan State).

    North Carolina State pulled off a huge upset over top-seeded Villanova in the round of 32. Louisville advanced to the Elite Eight. Notre Dame darn near upset Kentucky in the Elite Eight, too. And, of course, Duke won the national championship.

    It was a bit of a surprise that the ACC only sent six teams to the tournament. Before the season began, Bleacher Report's college basketball brain trust was asked whether this could be the best conference ever. Jason King said yes. Scott Henry said "nine bids are very attainable."

    Though the conference failed to meet that preseason hype, the top dogs from the ACC were solid all season long and had a pretty outstanding tournament.

Loser: Big 12

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    If the ACC had the best tournament among the power conferences, there's no question the Big 12 had the worst one.

    Hailed as the best conference in the country for the vast majority of the season, things derailed in a hurry for America's breadbasket.

    In what was supposed to be a chalky start to the tournament, there were three No. 3 seeds and a No. 2 seed tipping off in the first wave of games on Thursday afternoon. Notre Dame started things off by struggling to beat Northeastern, but Iowa State and Baylor followed up with losses to UAB and Georgia State, respectively.

    Not long after R.J. Hunter hit the shot that ended Baylor's season, Texas lost to Butler, giving the Big 12 three losers in the first five games of the day.

    Oklahoma State lost to Oregon the following day. Kansas lost to Wichita State in the round of 32. Michigan State upset Oklahoma in the Sweet 16. And Kentucky annihilated West Virginia in the Sweet 16, too.

    Just like that, the Big 12 was denied access to the Elite Eight for a third consecutive year, despite sending 19 teams to the tournament during that stretch.

    It's hard to believe, but the conference has only sent one team to the Final Four in the past seven years. Even the Horizon League has done better than that.

Winner: Dayton Flyers

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    Home-court advantage or not, Dayton was one of the best Cinderella stories for the second consecutive March.

    Last year, the No. 11 seed Flyers knocked off Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford en route to an Elite Eight appearance. Despite being a low seed, they were structured nicely for a deep run. They had a handful of three-point assassins, Devin Oliver at power forward and a three-headed unit at center made up of Matt Kavanaugh, Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson.

    But Oliver and Kavanaugh graduated, Scott and Robinson were dismissed from the team and suddenly Archie Miller was working with a roster devoid of anyone taller than 6'6".

    He made it work.

    Given their size disadvantage against every team they faced, Kendall Pollard and Dyshawn Pierre played extraordinarily in the frontcourt. In Dayton's two tournament wins, they combined for 50 points and 25 rebounds, and had another 23 and 10 in the loss to Oklahoma.

    Scoochie Smith evolved from just a fun name to say to a legitimate point guard who averaged 3.8 assists and shot 38.0 percent from three-point range.

    Many griped when Dayton literally got to play a home game in the First Four before subsequently having a distinct geographical advantage in Columbus against Providence and Oklahoma, but the Flyers still had to win the games. They played great defense and nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 for a second straight year.

Loser: Daxter Miles Jr.

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    In the Final Four postgame presser, Kentucky's Andrew Harrison uttered a double expletive under his breath about Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, but it was West Virginia's freshman Daxter Miles Jr. who had the most regrettable soundbite of the tournament.

    "I give [Kentucky] their props," he told reporters before the Mountaineers' clash with the Wildcats in the Sweet 16. "Salute them to getting to 36-0. But tomorrow they're gonna be 36-1. ... They should be more intimidated, because they're the ones who have the high standard and we're coming for them."

    On the one hand, good for him. You have no chance of beating the best team of the regular season without believing wholeheartedly that you can do it.

    Unfortunately for him, it went viral. In the span of a couple days, Miles went from a player that 98 percent of fans had never heard of to someone that everyone now knows simply as that kid who made a terrible prediction.

    If West Virginia had beaten Kentucky, we would have forgotten all about it. Heck, if it had even been a close game, we might have suggested that Miles was onto something.

    But that was never an option as Kentucky absolutely slaughtered the Mountaineers, 78-39. It was then time for one of Kentucky's freshmen to go viral, as Devin Booker's postgame "36 and won" tweet got more than 20,000 retweets.

    West Virginia will be back. So will Miles. He was actually having a pretty nice finish to his freshman season, averaging 13.4 points per game over his previous seven games heading into the Sweet 16. However, he put up a goose egg against the team he was so confident the Mountaineers could beat, adding insult to injury.

Winner: The Final Four

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    We always find a way to get super excited about the Final Four, but it was exceptionally easy this year, given the programs, coaches and players taking part in it.

    We had an undefeated team (Kentucky), a lovable team searching for redemption (Wisconsin), a March staple in the unfamiliar position of underdog (Michigan State) and perhaps the most polarizing team in the country (Duke).

    The four head coaches of those programs have more than 2,500 career wins combined. The first round of the NBA draft is likely to include up to nine players who participated in the Final Four. The championship game featured Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor—by all accounts the favorites to finish first and second when the Wooden Award is announced on Friday.

    But it was more than just the hype, because one of the two national semifinals actually lived up to our lofty expectations.

    Duke versus Michigan State was quite the dud for those who weren't passionately rooting for the Blue Devils, but Kentucky versus Wisconsin was one of the most anticipated and most thrilling games of the entire season. The only way it could have been better is if it rivaled the six overtimes between Syracuse and Connecticut in the 2009 Big East tournament.

    The best part: It was a 58-possession game. Remember that one the next 100 times you hear about the slowed pace of play stifling the joy of college basketball.

Loser: VCU Rams

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    The Rams had a nice run over the past several years, but it all came to a screeching halt in the last month.

    First, the on-court side of things.

    Annually renowned for their insatiable defensive intensity dating back to 2011, "Havoc" was nowhere to be found in VCU's opener against Ohio State. The Rams even got an extra five minutes to force turnovers in the overtime loss, but finished the game with just four steals.

    Don't blame it on Briante Weber's season-ending knee injury, either. VCU manufactured plenty of steals even after losing one of the best on-ball defenders in recent history. The Rams just couldn't seem to bother D'Angelo Russell or Shannon Scott before their second consecutive early exit from the Big Dance.

    But the real blow came two weeks later when head coach Shaka Smart (understandably) accepted the Texas job.

    VCU won at least 26 games in each of Smart's six seasons at the helm, but we shall see if he bred enough of a winning culture in Richmond for that type of success to continue on without him. No palpable rumors have surfaced yet about who will be replacing Smart, but the person who accepts the job will have some big shoes to fill.

Winner: Maryland Terrapins

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    Less than one year ago, Maryland was a mess.

    On the verge of the transition from the ACC to the Big Ten, players were transferring out left and right, leaving the Terrapins chock-full of question marks. Throw in early injuries to Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz and head coach Mark Turgeon had no choice but to give significant playing time to graduate-transfer Richaud Pack and freshmen Melo Trimble, Jared Nickens, Dion Wiley and Michal Cekovsky.

    This was supposed to be a transitional year. Prior to the late-November wins over Arizona State and Iowa State, no one gave Maryland a puncher's chance of making the NCAA tournament.

    Lo and behold, the Terrapins not only made the tournament but finished the season ranked No. 12 in the AP poll.

    Yes, they had a disappointing game against West Virginia in the round of 32, but those frowns turned into smiles in a hurry when 5-star center Diamond Stone committed to Maryland. A few days later, Trimble announced his intention to come back for another year.

    Compared to where the Terrapins were in October, it was a pretty big surprise that they earned a No. 4 seed in this year's tournament.

    Don't be surprised if they're slotted for a No. 1 seed when 2016 projected brackets start popping up.

Loser: Monster Performances

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    Before the field of 68 had even been reduced to 64, the best individual scoring effort of the tournament was already in the books. BYU's Tyler Haws scored 33 points in the First Four against Ole Miss, but no one scored more than 30 after that.

    Oh, there were strong showings. Oregon's Joseph Young averaged 28.5 in his two games. UCLA's Tony Parker exploded for 28 points and 12 rebounds against UAB in the round of 32. Louisville's Wayne Blackshear had 28 points in the Elite Eight against Michigan State. D'Angelo Russell was fantastic in Ohio State's opener against VCU.

    Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky turned in one of the best tournaments for a frontcourt duo in NCAA history.

    But where were the monster performances?

    Where was Stephen Curry bursting onto everyone's radar by scoring 40 points in Davidson's first game in 2008? Where was Dwyane Wade's unreal 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and four blocks against Kentucky in 2003, or Carmelo Anthony's 33-point, 14-rebound game against Texas in the same season?

    Remember when Jimmer Fredette scored at least 32 points in three straight tournament games in 2011?

    Perhaps we were simply spoiled by what Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier did in recent years for Connecticut, but it really felt like we missed out on that one element of the tournament.

    If only Murray State and Cameron Payne had been invited...

Winner: Redemption

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    Frank Kaminsky could have moved onto the NBA after last season. Sam Dekker could have, too.

    But they both chose to come back. They wanted one more shot at a national championship. They didn't want to end their careers with the knife from Aaron Harrison's dagger still stuck in their backs.

    They wanted redemption.

    And, boy, did they get it.

    On a payback path that typically only happens in the movies, Wisconsin went through Oregon to reach the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive season. The Badgers beat Arizona to win the West regional once again. And like 2014, they drew John Calipari's Wildcats in the national semifinals.

    This time, however, Wisconsin was the team celebrating at the end of the night.

    Kaminsky had 20 points and 11 rebounds. Dekker had 16 of his own while Nigel Hayes scored 12. Against supposedly the best frontcourt ever assembled, Wisconsin's bigs went to town and advanced to the national championship game.

    They didn't quite finish the job against the Blue Devils in the title game, but they'll forever be remembered as the team that ended Kentucky's quest for a perfect season. Not a bad consolation prize.

Loser: Perfection

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    On the night before the Final Four, Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, "We're not perfect. We're undefeated."

    Now they're neither.

    From the moment the Wildcats won at Louisville on Dec. 27, every other college basketball conversation paled in comparison to Kentucky's quest to go undefeated. With every scare in conference play, the debate raged even hotter.

    By the time the NCAA tournament began, every major sports outlet had its own version of the blueprint for beating Kentuckymost of which included scoring a ton in transition and shooting 110 percent from three-point range.

    In the end, the Wildcats weren't nearly as big and bad as we were led to believe. Both Notre Dame and Wisconsin beat them on the offensive glass and shot better than 50 percent inside the arc.

    Lauded all season long for its shutdown defense and team-oriented offense, Kentucky had just 15 assists on 51 made field goals in those final two games.

    What plagued the Wildcats in near-losses to Ole Miss and Texas A&M reared its ugly head on the grandest stage, as the Harrison twins combined for 21 field-goal attempts and the entire frontcourtthe strength and depth of this team that we gushed about for 12 consecutive monthstook just 23 combined shots. Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee barely saw the court as the platoon system devolved into a seven-man rotation.

    Wisconsin played a fantastic game. We're not trying to take anything away from the Badgers. But the Wildcats finally lost a game by getting away from so many of the things that enabled them to win 38 in a row.

    As a result, those of us under the age of 40 are left to wonder if we'll ever see an undefeated men's basketball team in our lifetime.

Winner: Duke's "Fab Four"

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    At different stages in Duke’s tournament run, each of its four freshmen played a gigantic role.

    Jahlil Okafor was the one everyone talked about all season long. He was the unstoppable big man for several months and had huge games against Robert Morris, San Diego State and Michigan State.

    Justise Winslow basically was the entire offense in his hometown of Houston in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. He had 21 points in a close battle with Utah and another 16 two nights later against Gonzaga.

    Tyus Jones paced the team throughout the whole tournament. While averaging nearly 37 minutes per game, Jones had 27 assists and 10 steals against just eight turnovers. He hit a ton of clutch buckets throughout the season, but especially in the national championship game. Jones scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half as Duke fought back from a nine-point deficit to give Mike Krzyzewski a fifth national title.

    But it wouldn’t have been possible without Grayson Allen.

    Prior to Monday night, Allen had not played more than 11 minutes in a game decided by less than 20 points. Only once in the previous 37 games did he score more than 11 points. So, naturally, he played 21 minutes, scored 16 points and did so at such crucial moments.

    When the Blue Devils fell behind by nine, Allen scored the team’s next eight points. And it was his layup with 5:29 remaining that gave Duke its first lead since late in the first half.

    Prior to the game, I wrote about Allen as a potential X-factor in the game: “He's going to be a massive piece of Duke's puzzle next season, and he could get off to a nice start with a bucket or two on Monday night.”

    I was wrong. He had five buckets, and he was an indispensable piece of this year's championship.