Surveying the rejoicing and wreckage of Bracketville today, there is one clear lesson to be learned:
Don't give up on a season.
It's not a new lesson, but this is an opportune moment to relearn it.
March Madness is make-good time. Months of sins against basketball can be forgiven and forgotten if you're peaking at the right time.
Ask Kentucky. The Wildcats plummeted from No. 1 to unranked, losing 10 games and bottoming out in an incomprehensible defeat at 14-20 South Carolina on March 1. But John Calipari didn't give up on the season. He adjusted his approach – tweaked it, if you will – and on Sunday guided his rejuvenated team to one of the most memorable victories of his accomplished five-year tenure at the school. Now the talent-laden Cats storm into the Sweet 16 as precisely the team Rick Pitino and Louisville did notwant to see in Indianapolis on Friday.
Ask Baylor. The Bears were 2-8 in the Big 12 at one point and 14-9 overall. They were routed by Texas Tech, of all teams, and lost at home to West Virginia. But Scott Drew didn't give up on the season. He regrouped, and Baylor has won 12 of its last 14 games to roll into the West Region semifinals as another scary team with a lot of talent and size and momentum.
(Kentucky and Baylor, by the way, were identified right here last week as the two most dangerous teams in the tourney from outside the top seeds.)
Ask Michigan State. The Spartans were so injury-riddled that the last time they won two regular-season games in a row was Jan. 18 and 21. They were 5-7 over their final 12 games heading into the Big Ten tournament. But Tom Izzo didn't give up on the season. He got his players back, and the Spartans have played like a national title contender for the past five games.
Ask Tennessee. On Feb. 22, the Volunteers were beaten for the second time this season by Texas A&M – and Texas A&M is awful. Tennessee was 16-11, 7-7 in the Southeastern Conference, and fans were calling for Cuonzo Martin's head. But Martin didn't give up on the season. Since then the Vols have won eight of nine and bring their big shoulders and thick chests to Indy as a legit threat to Big Ten champion Michigan.
Ask Dayton, which was 1-5 in the Atlantic 10 entering February. Ask Stanford, which was on the bubble for much of the last month of the season. Ask Connecticut, which lost its last regular-season game by 33 points. None of them gave up on the season.
That's the beauty of tournament basketball. The conference tourneys give more than 300 teams a chance to join the field of 68, and from there all things are possible. (Well, except maybe for a No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed.) There is a chance to play one's way into the Sweet 16, and ultimately to be The One.
No matter how messy the preceding weeks had been.
So resilience, patience and belief are the big winners of the NCAA tournament's opening weekend. Some other winners and losers from a wild and wonderful four days of hoops:
Winner: The SEC. The back slap I received on press row just moments after Kentucky beat Wichita State came from associate commissioner Mark Whitworth, the guy in charge of trying to shore up the league's fairly dismal basketball product. This was Whitworth's moment in the sun, and he was going to do some gloating. The league's three NCAA entries are a combined 7-0, and all still dancing.
That showing says two things: Florida is excellent; Kentucky and Tennessee had the talent and underachieved all season before putting it together.
It doesn't say that this was a great basketball league. When 11 of 14 teams miss the NCAAs in a conference with the clout and money of the SEC, there is plenty of work to do.
But the SEC earned its right to swagger this week.
Loser: Tobacco Road. Condolences on your 2-3 record. We're moving on without you all.
Defensively indifferent Duke was dismissed by No. 14 seed Mercer in the tournament's biggest shocker, adding another notable March Madness flop to Mike Krzyzewski's résumé. He's had more success in this tournament than any active coach, but he's had a plethora of huge upset losses in the 21st century: Indiana 2002; LSU 2006; VCU 2007; West Virginia 2008; Arizona 2011; Lehigh 2012; and now this.
North Carolina barely escaped No. 11 seed Providence in its opening game, then caught a break when facing Iowa State without injured forward Georges Niang. The Tar Heels coughed up a late lead, and on the final possession tried to call a timeout well after the game was over, not even taking a shot.
North Carolina State justified its inclusion in the tournament by beating Xavier in a play-in game, but then blew a 14-point lead in the final five minutes against Saint Louis. The only thing worse was VCU fouling a 3-point shooter with a four-point lead in the final five seconds.
Loser: VCU for fouling a 3-point shooter with a four-point lead in the final five seconds.
Winner: West Coast hoops. Overly ignored and underappreciated, the teams from the Pacific Time Zone have showed up this tournament. Twenty-five percent of the Sweet 16 hails from the West: Pac-12 teams Arizona, UCLA and Stanford, plus San Diego State of the Mountain West. Will any of them make the Final Four? We haven't had a West Coast team get that far since UCLA in 2008.
Loser: Teams outside the power conferences. The big boys have claimed 14 of 16 spots, with Dayton of the A-10 and San Diego State of the Mountain West taking the other two – and truth be told, those are pretty strong leagues. For the first time in five years, we have no real mid-major teams in the Sweet 16. No Florida Gulf Coast, no Ohio, no Butler, no St. Mary's, no Northern Iowa. The tournament loses a little charm without at least one Cinderella still in the mix on the second weekend.
Winner: The Big Ten. Still three chances to win the league's first national title since 2000. Michigan has taken care of business with ruthless precision. Michigan State struggled for a while with Harvard but is on track. Wisconsin has played two very bad first halves but two very good second halves to advance.
Loser: Teams with a glaring weakness either offensively or defensively. If you're not a well-rounded team, you're in danger of an early exit. Using Ken Pomeroy's efficiency numbers that would include these teams that couldn't guard well enough: Duke (No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency, No. 115 in defensive efficiency) and Creighton (No. 2 offense; No. 152 defense). And these teams that couldn't score: VCU (No. 109 offense; No. 6 defense); Ohio State (No. 131 offense; No. 4 defense); and Cincinnati (No. 113 offense; No. 9 defense).
Keep an eye on San Diego State (No. 104 offense; No. 7 defense) and Michigan (No. 3 offense; No. 96 defense) to see if they can buck the trend and stay alive.
Winner: The Big 12. Yes, perennial champion Kansas flamed out in a ghastly loss to Stanford. But the league showed it's more than just one program and a bunch of sheep by placing Iowa State and Baylor in the Sweet 16. What it really needs now is someone other than the Jayhawks to make the Final Four for the first time since Oklahoma State in 2004.