Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2018 NCAA Basketball Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 3, 2018

Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2018 NCAA Basketball Tournament

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Villanova Wildcats are the national champions in men's college basketball for the second time in three years.

    It was a topsy-turvy tournament filled with upsets and last-second drama, but the No. 1 seed out of the Big East was immune to the chaos and the close calls. Villanova won all six of its games by at least a 12-point margin, including a 79-62 cruise-control victory over Michigan in the title game.

    It goes without saying that the Wildcats were the biggest winners of this Big Dance, but they weren't the only onesnor were the Michigan Wolverines the only losers.

    The One Shining Moment montage was a nice walk down memory lane of the past three weeks, but that only scraped the surface of everything that transpired in this edition of March Madness.

    Here's the full list of the biggest winners and losers from the 2018 men's NCAA tournament.

Winner: UMBC Retrievers

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    Jairus Lyles (10) and KJ Maura (11)
    Jairus Lyles (10) and KJ Maura (11)Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Loyola-Chicago's run was an unbelievable story, but we've seen No. 11 seeds reach the Final Four before. In due time, the Ramblers will be interchangeable with 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU on the list of the unlikeliest national semifinalists.

    But a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed?

    That's what the 2018 NCAA tournament will always be remembered for.

    UMBC didn't just beat No. 1 overall seed Virginia, either. The Retrievers made history by stomping the heavily favored Cavaliers. No team this season had scored more than 68 points against Tony Bennett's vaunted pack-line defense, but UMBC scored 53 just in the second half of the 74-54 beatdown.

    Jairus Lyles battled through leg cramps for most of the second half to finish with 28 points on a scant 11 field-goal attempts. As a team, the Retrieverswho mustered up a mere 39 points in a blowout loss to Albany in late Januaryshot 54.2 percent from the field and 12-of-24 (50 percent) from three-point range.

    A No. 16 seed was bound to win one sooner or later, but that inevitability didn't make UMBC's victory any less mind-blowing.

Loser: The Pac-12

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    Generally speaking, using NCAA tournament results to make overarching statements about the strength or weakness of a conference is a silly exercise.

    People who don't like a certain conferenceusually the ACC or Big 12, since those have been the top leagues for the past few years—will point to the league's .500 or worse record after the first weekend and say, "See! They aren't that good!" It's dumb to disregard hundreds of regular-season games and instead focus on a couple of results in an unpredictable tournament, but what are sports without hot takes?

    That said, the Pac-12 was clearly the worst power conference during the regular season, and it didn't do much to refute that stance by getting completely eliminated from the tournament by the end of the first full day.

    Only three Pac-12 teams received an invitation to the Big Dance. Arizona was a No. 4 seed and a strong candidate to win the title. UCLA and Arizona State were sent to Dayton for First Four games.

    Both the Bruins and the Sun Devils were downright dreadful in their immediate exits. UCLA scored just 58 points against St. Bonaventure, but that's better than Arizona State's 56 points against Syracuse. As a result of those duds, the Pac-12 only had one team in the round of 64.

    Buffalo promptly blew out Arizona 89-68, ensuring that many brackets across the nation were busted about 12 hours after the first round began.

    To make matters worse, both the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga) and Mountain West Conference (Nevada) reached the Sweet 16, so those leagues have temporary bragging rights over the Pac-12 as the best of the West.

Winner: Syracuse's Zone D

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    As was the case in 2016, we can argue about whether Syracuse belonged in the NCAA tournament in the first place, but there's no denying how well the Orange (and their defense) did with the gift they were given by the selection committee.

    To get things started, they held Arizona State to 56 points in the First Four. It was just the third time all season the Sun Devils failed to score 70 points and the first time they were held below 64despite making 11 three-pointers in the game.

    After that, Syracuse shut down TCU and Michigan State, allowing 52 and 53 points, respectively. Both the Horned Frogs and Spartans are still ranked in the top 20 in the nation in three-point percentage, but neither squad could get anything to fall against the 2-3 zone from hell. They were collectively 11-of-54 (20.4 percent) from downtown.

    Even in the Sweet 16 loss to Duke, Syracuse's defense was fierce. The Blue Devils averaged 85.7 points in their other three tournament games, but they could only manage 69 points against the Orange.

    Here's the scary news for the rest of the country: Syracuse's entire starting lineup has at least one more year of eligibility remaining, so that stingy zone isn't going anywhere anytime soon. If the Orange can just figure out something on offense next season, there shouldn't be anything controversial about their invitation to the 2019 NCAA tournament.

Loser: No. 12 Seeds

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    Mike Daum
    Mike DaumKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It was a rough year for seed-based axioms.

    "A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed."

    So much for that.

    "At least one No. 12 seed almost always beats a No. 5 seed."

    Looks like that one belongs in the garbage, too.

    However, there were a couple of close calls for the underdogs in the sexiest annual upset pick.

    Davidson gave Kentucky one heck of a run for its money, storming back from an early 13-point deficit to tie things up in the final 10 minutes. It wasn't meant to be, though, as the Wildcats from Lexington edged out the Wildcats from the Charlotte area.

    South Dakota State had Ohio State on the ropes, as well. The Jackrabbits were tied with the Buckeyes in the final two minutes prior to fouling Kam Williams on back-to-back three-point attempts to blow the game.

    In the end, No. 12 seeds went 0-4.

    No. 13 seeds, on the other hand, went 2-2 in the first round, and each of those losses came by just a four-point margin. Meanwhile, No. 9 seeds had a combined total of seven wins with both Kansas State and Florida State reaching the Elite Eight. In the previous four tournaments combined, No. 9 seeds had just five wins and zero Sweet 16 appearances.

Winner: Hairstyles

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    Rob Gray Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr.
    Rob Gray Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Houston's Rob Gray Jr. and Purdue's Matt Haarms were two of the most popular players of the early rounds of the tournament.

    Yes, both guys are excellent players. Gray was unbelievable in the first round, scoring 39 of Houston's 67 points in a win over San Diego State. And at 7'3", it should come as no surprise that Haarms is a fine shot-blocker. In fact, he rejected multiple shots in each of Purdue's three games.

    However, it wasn't the play that had social media buzzing about them so much as it was their (drastically different) hairstyles.

    Gray has been rocking a top knot all season. (Yes, it's a top knot. It's not a man bun. Nor was Kyle Guy's situation a man bun last year. Learn the difference.) And what we all found out in March is that his 10-year-old brother, Jackson, has the same hairstyle. Reporters in Wichita really dropped the ball by not asking Rob how much hair product he uses to keep that hair tied up so neatly all game.

    Then there's Haarms, with his comically unkempt hair. Haarms readjusts his hair so often within the game that the NCAA March Madness Twitter account made a mixtape of nothing else. And during Purdue's Sweet 16 game against Texas Tech, TBS even flashed up a graphic of how many hair adjustments Haarms had already made at an early point in the game.

    Unfortunately, this was the last we'll see of Gray at the collegiate level, since he's a senior. Haarms is only a redshirt freshman, though, so we've got up to three more years of #HaarmsHair.

    It's a shame Miami was eliminated just a few hours into the first round. Given our infatuation with unique hairdos in this year's tournament, there's no question Lonnie Walker IV's pineapple style would have gotten a fair amount of attention if the Hurricanes had been able to hang around for a couple of games.

Loser: State of Ohio

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    J.P. Macura
    J.P. MacuraMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    This was supposed to be an incredible tournament for the Buckeye State.

    Xavier earned a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. Cincinnati (No. 2) was a top-three seed for the first time since 2002. Ohio State surprised everyone this year by not only making the Big Dance but doing so as a No. 5 seed. And even No. 14 seed Wright State had legitimate first-round upset potential.

    By the end of the second round, though, the state had been wiped off the tournament map.

    Tennessee smashed Wright State 73-47 in the first round. At no point was that game even remotely in doubt. The other three teams survived their openers, but both Ohio State and Cincinnati were pushed to the limit, while Xavier gave up 83 points in an ugly game against Texas Southern.

    All three teams proceeded to blow second-half leads in their second games.

    Ohio State's letdown was the most forgivable, as it never led Gonzaga by more than five points and only held the lead for a couple of minutes. Plus, the Zags were the favorites, so things went about as expected.

    Xavier, however, blew a 12-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining against No. 9 seed Florida State, outscored 18-4 in the final few minutes. And even that wasn't the most embarrassing meltdown, as Cincinnati led Nevada 65-43 with 11 minutes to go, only for the Wolf Pack to finish the game on a 32-8 run.

    Because of all those blown leads, Ohio was unrepresented in the Sweet 16 for just the second time in the last 12 years. (It also happened in 2016.)

Winner: Last-Second Drama

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    Jordan Poole (2) and Moritz Wagner (13)
    Jordan Poole (2) and Moritz Wagner (13)Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    It's important to note up front that close basketball games are not necessarily good basketball games. There are certainly plenty which are both.

    Duke vs. Kansas in the Elite Eight might have been the most riveting game of the season. And you're not much of a fan if you weren't on the edge of your seat for first-round gems like Wichita State vs. Marshall, Nevada vs. Texas and Houston vs. San Diego State.

    For every one of those exciting battles, though, it seems like there are several ugly games like Auburn vs. College of Charleston, Kentucky vs. Kansas State and pick a Syracuse or Loyola-Chicago game that just happened to be close at the end because neither team could score with any regularity.

    Having said that, there sure was a lot of last-second drama this year.

    In total, there were 26 games decided by five points or fewer, including a trio of overtime affairs. In 11 of those games, the final margin was just one possession.

    Save for Villanova, every team in the Final Four had multiple nail-biters.

    Loyola-Chicago's first three games were decided by a combined total of just four points, and all three featured a clutch bucket by a (different) Rambler in the final seven seconds.

    Michigan had the only true buzzer-beater of the tournament when Jordan Poole's game-winner against Houston went in with no time left on the clock, but the Wolverines also had a close call (58-54) against Florida State in the Elite Eight.

    Kansas won three consecutive games by exactly a four-point margin, the last of which was only possible when Grayson Allen's attempted buzzer-beater rolled around the rim twice before falling out and resulting in overtime.

    Both of Houston's games came right down to the final shot. Nevada played one overtime game and two others decided by a combined margin of three points in regulation. And who can forget Gonzaga's Zach Norvell Jr. draining a huge three-pointer in the final minute in each of its first two games?

    But, please, keep putting quotation marks around the word "experts" when our predictions for this wild tournament aren't 100 percent accurate. There's a reason no one has ever filled out a perfect bracket, and it's not from lack of research.

Loser: Auburn Tigers

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Auburn was never the same after losing Anfernee McLemore to a nasty leg injury in mid-February.

    Prior to that, the Tigers were 23-3 and flirting with a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. After the injury, however, they lost four of their final six games and were a shell of their former selves, particularly on the defensive end without the elite shot-blocker.

    And Auburn was nothing short of awful in its brief stay in the NCAA tournament.

    In the first round, the Tigers survived a hideous game against College of Charleston. They shot 20.8 percent from three-point range, missed 17 free throws and just generally looked like they had no business being in the tournament. Somehow, the Cougars were even worse, committing 21 turnovers and struggling just as miserably from the three-point and free-throw lines in the 62-58 game that was anything but an instant classic.

    In the following game against Clemson, Auburn was mercilessly obliterated.

    It was 70-29 midway through the second half before Clemson finally called off the dogs. Even with some late scoring to make the final score a not-quite-as-depressing 84-53, Auburn shot just 29.4 percent from inside the arc, managing to average just 0.75 points per possession in a game where it only committed six turnovers.

    This wasn't the biggest blowout in NCAA tournament history. Heck, just last year, No. 4 seed Purdue lost to Kansas by 32 in the Sweet 16. But it felt like one of the most embarrassing showings from a top-four seed.

Winner: Bruce Weber

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    In the 13 years since reaching the 2005 national championship game with Illinois, Bruce Weber's resume was nothing special.

    Weber entered this year's Big Dance with a combined NCAA tournament record of 3-7 dating back to 2006. None of those wins came against a team seeded better than No. 8, and two of the losses were to a No. 12 seed and a No. 13 seed.

    His teams missed the tournament five times in the span of nine years, which resulted in his termination from the Illini job. And excluding his first season at Kansas State with Frank Martin's players, Weber has a 41-49 record in Big 12 play.

    Save for maybe Sean Miller, no one needed a critics-silencing run in the tournament more than Weber.

    Despite being forced to carry on without star big man Dean Wade, Weber did exactly that, winning as many games in this tourney as he did in the last 12 combined.

    Kansas State got some serious help from UMBC upsetting Virginia, but it's not like the Wildcats had a cake walk to the Elite Eight. They had to dig in their heels on defense both against Creighton and Kentucky, somehow holding those teams to season lows in scoring.

    If the wins didn't shut up the critics, Weber can now afford to pay to silence them. Per Sean Isabella of Woodward News, Weber got a $430,000 bonus for reaching the Elite Eight.

Loser: Tony Bennett

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    With the exception of Jay Wright at Villanova, no coach has had a more impressive five-year run than Virginia's Tony Bennett.

    Excluding the NCAA tournaments, the Cavaliers are 136-28 (82.9 percent) since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time, they have three outright ACC regular-season championships and two conference tournament titles. They earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2016, and they were the overall No. 1 seed this year.

    Bennett was named the AP National Coach of the Year for this season.

    But even before this season, that success was not translating to the Big Dance. The Cavaliers were eliminated by a No. 5 seed in 2014, a No. 7 seed in 2015 and a No. 10 seed in 2016. In all three seasons, they failed to live up to the expectation of their seed line. Over the previous four years, the Cavaliers cobbled together a combined record of 7-4 with only one Elite Eight appearance and two Sweet 16s.

    Losing to a No. 5 seed sounds a heck of a lot better than what happened this year, though, as Bennett and Virginia ended up on the wrong side of history with the first-round loss to No. 16 seed UMBC.

    Bennett was already battling the stigma of a coach who can't win when it matters most, but this year is going to follow him for the rest of his career. Even if Virginia wins the national championship next season, we will still be reminded every single March of how risky it is to trust this coach, regardless of how successful he is during the regular season.

Winner: Malik Newman and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    For the most part, the NCAA tournament has minimal impact on NBA draft stock. At any rate, failing to qualify for the Big Dance didn't stop Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz from being selected with the No. 1 overall picks in the last two years.

    But there are always a few guys who make a big impression on NBA scouts with their play in March.

    Two of those players this year were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Malik Newman.

    The former had been the MVP for Kentucky for most of the year, despite coming off the bench for 13 of the first 15 games and in spite of the fact that everyone thought either Kevin Knox or Hamidou Diallo would fill that role.

    The 6'6" point guard had at least 15 points, five assists and five rebounds in each of his three appearances in the NCAA tournament. Over his final 10 games, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds. Before that stretch, there was at least a chance he'd be back for another year. That's no longer the case.

    Likewise, Newman's run in the NCAA tournament piggybacked on what was already a strong finish to the season. Kansas' sophomore wing averaged 24.0 points per game in the Big 12 tournament before exploding for 28 points in the second round against Seton Hall and 32 in the Elite Eight against Duke. His previous career high was 27 points, but he scored more than 27 three times in the span of seven games in March.

    Newman was a complete afterthought in NBA draft discussions one month ago, but with his recent play and leadership for the Jayhawks, he just might be a first-round pick if he decides to make the leap.

Loser: Big Leads Against Nevada

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    Caleb and Cody Martin
    Caleb and Cody MartinRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    One could just about sum up the 2017-18 season with two words: Ebbs and flows. An absurd number of teams—many of them in the SEC, for some reason—looked like potential national champions in one game and likely first-round flameouts in the next.

    Nevada was a great example. The Wolf Pack bounced in and out of the AP Top 25 during the regular season, largely because they went 0-4 in their first four games as a ranked team. It was as if they were more comfortable when they weren't the heavy favorite.

    It's only fitting, then, that Nevada was the king of comebacks in the NCAA tournament.

    In the first round against Texas, the Wolf Pack trailed by 14 early in the second half and did not have the lead at any point in the final 38 minutes of regulation. But they battled back and forced overtime, where they scored on each and every possession to win the game.

    That was nothing compared to the second comeback, though. Nevada was down by 22 with less than 11 minutes remaining against Cincinnatia team which had one of the best defenses in the nation. The Wolf Pack went on a 22-6 run over their next 10 possessions to close the gap. They finally took their first lead with less than 10 seconds remaining, sealing the victory.

    Even though Nevada didn't win the Sweet 16 game against Loyola-Chicago, it still had a nice comeback. Down by as many as a dozen points early in the second half and still trailing by 10 with less than eight minutes to go, Cody Martin and Co. went on a 12-2 run to tie things up.

    All told, the Wolf Pack trailed by a combined margin of 48 points in the second halves of their tournament games, and it resulted in two wins and a one-point loss. No lead was safe against these guys.

Winner: Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt

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    Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt
    Sister Jean Dolores-SchmidtKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    We'll eventually forget the individual players who helped carry Loyola-Chicago to the Final Four. If you need proof, try to remember the leading scorers for VCU in 2011 or Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.

    Maybe 2 percent of you can come up with those players (Jamie Skeen and Sherwood Brown) off the top of your head, but most of you probably recall "HAVOC" and "Dunk City."

    Well, you'll always remember the 2018 Ramblers for Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt.

    All other entities in this year's tournament paled in comparison to the popularity of Loyola-Chicago's 98-year-old team chaplain. Normally, my wife could not care less about brackets or basketball, but she was obsessed with the sweet old lady she dubbed "Grandma Gryffindor."

    Sister Jean had a press conference during media week at the Final Four, and there were so many attendees that they were lined up out the door just to catch a glimpse of the tournament's biggest celebrity.

    The funny thing is she has been the team's chaplain since 1994longer than every current head coach in D-I basketball except for Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Greg Kampe and Bob McKillop. She was already so popular on campus that the Ramblers had a Sister Jean bobblehead giveaway in February 2011. We had plenty of time to turn this woman into a national phenomenon, but hardly anyone outside of Chicago knew about her until Donte Ingram, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes started draining clutch shots at the end of games.

    And now, there are rebooted bobbleheads that are selling like hotcakes. Per Marisa Marcellino of NBC Sports, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum started a presale for Sister Jean bobbleheads on March 23, and they received more than 13,000 orders (at $25 apiece) in less than a week. Some of the original collectibles have been selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

Loser: Conventional Big Men

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    Udoka Azubuike
    Udoka AzubuikeEric Gay/Associated Press

    When Michigan and Villanova squared off in the national championship game, it was impossible not to notice something.

    Both of the starting centers were leading their teams in three-point percentage for the season.

    That growing trend hit a tipping point this year, particularly in the tournament.

    Duke made it to the Elite Eight with its two big men (Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.) serving as two of the most accurate perimeter shooters on the roster. Gonzaga was one of the top candidates to reach the Final Four and might have gotten there if not for an injury suffered by its three-point-shooting center (Killian Tillie) before the Sweet 16. And then there's Nevada, where most of the time was spent with five 6'7" players with three-point range on the floor.

    Who needs a stretch 4 when you can have a stretch 5?

    Even with the increase in three-point rate, recent national champions always had conventional big men patrolling the paint. In fact, you have to go all the way back through Kennedy Meeks, Daniel Ochefu, Jahlil Okafor and Amida Brimah to find the last time the starting center of a national champion had actually made a three-pointer in his career, and Louisville's Gorgui Dieng only made one triple in three seasons.

    Are these runs fueled by Moritz Wagner and Omari Spellman the sign of the impending extinction of the back-to-the-basket big man?

Winner: Donte DiVincenzo

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    Donte DiVincenzo
    Donte DiVincenzoEric Gay/Associated Press

    There have been some phenomenal unexpected performances in the national championship over the years. Villanova's Phil Booth came out of nowhere for 20 points in the 2016 title game. The year before that, Grayson Allen came off the bench for 16 points. And though the NCAA wants us to believe the game never happened, who can ever forget Luke Hancock vs. Spike Albrecht in 2013?

    Those guys are now all footnotes behind Donte DiVincenzo.

    It was a tough night against Michigan for Villanova's starters. Mikal Bridges ended up scoring a bunch after the intermission, but it was sixth man or bust in the first half. DiVincenzo scored 18 of the Wildcats' 37 points in the first half, and he just about single-handedly carried them on a 23-7 run over the final 11 minutes of the half.

    He finished with 31 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.

    This wasn't the only time he carried Villanova's offense through a slow start in this tournament, though. In the second-round win over Alabama, "Donte's Inferno" scored all 18 of his points in the first half while the rest of the Wildcats combined for just 14.

    DiVincenzo averaged 15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the tournament. Not too shabby for a reserve.

Loser: The 'One-and-Dones Can't Win a Title' Narrative

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    When Kentucky won the national championship in 2012, three of its five leading scorers were freshmen who were drafted in the first round.

    When Duke won it all in 2015, three of its four leading scorers were freshmen who were drafted in the first round.

    But that didn't stop peoplemost notably Jon Rothsteinfrom responding to Duke's Elite Eight loss to Kansas with selective memory and recent results to say that you can't win a title with a team made up primarily of one-and-done freshmen.

    First of all, John Calipari has been to the Sweet 16 in 11 of the past 13 years, as well as five of the last 11 Final Fours, playing in three national championship games. Does it result in a title every year? Of course not. But it's more effective than any other strategy, as Roy Williams (four) is the only other coach with more than three appearances in the national semifinals during that time.

    And if it weren't for P.J. Washington shooting 8-of-20 from the free-throw line against Kansas State, there's a good chance Kentucky's five-freshman starting lineup would have made the Final Four this year.

    Moreover, the only reason Duke didn't reach the Final Four is because of a brutal roll on a last-second shot by its only senior (Grayson Allen). If that shot falls or if Kansas doesn't make more three-pointers (13) than any opponent made against the Blue Devils in January, February or March, that's another Final Four team loaded with one-and-done stars.

    Heck, with a little bit better luck, it reasonably could have been Duke against Kentucky in the national championship, boasting nine of the top 18 recruits in this past year's class.

    It'd be one thing if these one-and-done squads were getting hammered in the first weekend of the tournament year after year. But they are right there among the title contenders every season and have won two of the last seven tournaments. To say it can't be done is just plain dumb.

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