The Virginia Cavaliers defeated the Texas Tech Red Raiders 85-77 in overtime Monday night in Minneapolis to secure the 2019 NCAA men's basketball title, but more than just one winner and one loser emerged from this glorious tournament.
Perhaps the biggest losers of the past three weeks were all the defense-loathing troglodytes on social media who said the national championship was going to be hopelessly boring. Aside from the instant all-timer between Villanova and North Carolina in 2016, this was easily the most entertaining title game in at least a decade.
The opening weekend lacked its usual supply of buzzer-beating drama, but the last game was a fitting capstone to an amazing final four rounds of the tournament.
There were phenomenal individual performances by the likes of Ja Morant and Carsen Edwards, as well as much less impressive showings from No. 8 seeds, the Big East and the season-long favorites to win it all. Some coaches were big winners; others fell into the opposite category.
Read on for the rest of the biggest winners and losers of the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Winner: Ja Morant, Murray State
Not many players were better than Ja Morant during the 2018-19 season.
Zion Williamson was. You could maybe make a case for Cassius Winston and/or RJ Barrett. That's it, though. Murray State's magic man was much more than just a minor-conference hero. He averaged 24.5 points, 10.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals and rocketed all the way up to a no-brainer top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
But unless you live in Kentucky or shell out $5 per month for an ESPN+ subscription, you barely got to see Morant. Prior to the OVC tournament, the Racers only played four nationally televised games —and "nationally" probably isn't the appropriate word since two of those four contests were on the SEC Network. He even hurt his ankle two minutes into the Belmont game on ESPNU.
Folks had no doubt heard of Morant and probably saw more than a handful of his ridiculous athleticism displays on House of Highlights or Twitter, but the NCAA tournament was the first time a lot of people watched the majority of a Murray State game.
To put it lightly, Morant lived up to the hype.
In the opener against Marquette, he recorded the ninth official triple-double in NCAA men's tournament history—his third of the season—finishing with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds. It was supposed to be an amazing battle between Morant and Markus Howard, but Howard's 26 points were completely overshadowed by what Morant did while leading Murray State to an 83-64 win.
Even in the blowout loss to Florida State in the second round, Morant was impressive early and finished with 28 points. Murray State just had no answer for FSU's height, depth and sheer athleticism.
Morant had already proved early in the season against Auburn (25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and Alabama (38 points, nine rebounds, five assists) that he could put up numbers against real competition. This was just further evidence that the runner-up in the Zion Sweepstakes is still going to get a standout.
Loser: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Only six programs have participated in each of the past nine NCAA tournaments: Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Cincinnati. Credit where it is due to head coach Mick Cronin for getting the Bearcats back to the status they enjoyed were under Bob Huggins: an annual staple in the Big Dance.
Excluding the NCAA tournament games, Cincinnati is 229-70 dating back to the start of the 2010-11 season. That's a .766 winning percentage, and it's better than what Michigan State (225-77) has accomplished during that same period.
But Tom Izzo has steered the Spartans to five Sweet 16s and a pair of Final Fours. Cronin has a not-so-nice 6-9 record in the tournament with the Bearcats and has not been to the Sweet 16 since 2012.
Most of those years, they had a valid excuse for not getting far. In 2011, Cincinnati ran into Kemba Walker in the second round. In 2013, 2015 and 2016, it was a No. 10, No. 8 and No. 9 seed, respectively, and wasn't expected to win multiple games. In fact, last year was the only time the Bearcats had a seed that is supposed to get to the Sweet 16, and they fell victim to one of Nevada's amazing come-from-behind victories.
This year's immediate exit has led to questions about whether Cronin's style is built for March—especially now that people can no longer wonder that about Tony Bennett at Virginia.
Playing what might as well have been a home game in Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati's normally excellent defense gave up 79 points in a loss to Iowa. That's tied for the fourth-most points the Bearcats have allowed in any game in the past three seasons. The Hawkeyes shot 11-of-22 from three-point range.
However, the real problem—as it has been for most of the past decade—was Cincinnati's offense. It scored at will in the paint early against Iowa's dreadful defense, then inexplicably fell in love with the deep ball, missed the vast majority of those shots and lost the game. That lack of discipline on both ends of the floor falls on Cronin.
Winner: Wofford Terriers
The way Wofford bowed out of the tournament was hard to watch. Fletcher Magee set the NCAA record for career three-pointers in the first-round win over Seton Hall, but the sniper couldn't find his mark against Kentucky and missed all 12 of his attempts. Excellent work by the Wildcats to shadow him as much as possible and make every shot difficult, but that's just awful luck for a guy who had made at least four triples in 15 of his previous 16 games.
Wofford is still one of the biggest winners of the 2019 NCAA tournament, though, because these little Terriers proved they belonged on the court with the big dogs.
They jumped out to an early 34-18 lead over Seton Hall, watched the Pirates claw all the way back to take the lead with less than eight minutes to go and then mercilessly buried Myles Powell and Co. with a 17-0 run. Most upset-minded minor-conference teams would've collapsed after that big comeback from the Big East team, but the Terriers basically didn't miss a shot in the final seven minutes.
Then to hang tough with Kentucky in spite of the aforementioned off day from Magee was perhaps even more impressive.
Sure, the Wildcats didn't have PJ Washington, but they still had five former McDonald's All-Americans—Reid Travis, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley—and a pair of excellent freshman guards in Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans. With that much talent, they should have obliterated a small school whose star player couldn't buy a bucket.
They didn't, and it showed the KenPom (No. 18) and NET (No. 13) rankings were on the mark with the Terriers. This was a top-20 team that probably would have at least made it to the Sweet 16 if the selection committee had seeded it appropriately.
Loser: No. 8 Seeds
Speaking on behalf of everyone who dabbles in bracketology, separating the No. 8 seeds from the No. 9 seeds is nearly impossible.
My current spot in the Bracket Matrix rankings is embarrassing, and it's largely because I end up just throwing darts at the No. 8-10 seeds and constantly miss them by at least one line. This year, I had Oklahoma and UCF projected as No. 8 seeds and Syracuse, Ole Miss and Utah State as No. 9 seeds. The committee had the opposite.
But the No. 8s went 0-4 in the first round for the first time since 2001, so you can decide who got the seeding wrong.
Not only did the No. 9 seeds get the sweep, but they also wiped the floor with the "favorites."
I was in Columbia for the UCF-VCU and Oklahoma-Ole Miss games, and they were neither competitive nor entertaining. Oklahoma jumped out to a 12-0 lead and never looked back. VCU simply had no answer for Tacko Fall (13 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks).
At least Washington-Utah State and Baylor-Syracuse were close contests midway through the second half. However, the Huskies destroyed the Aggies over the final 10 minutes, and the Bears gradually pulled away from the Orange.
The average margin of victory ended up being 16 points.
Aside from UCF's heartbreaking loss to Duke, none of those No. 9 seeds put up much fight in the second round. Either a No. 8 or No. 9 had reached the Sweet 16 in five of the previous six tournaments, but that wasn't the case this year. Still, the No. 8 seeds were the big loser.
Winner: Oregon Ducks
For most of the regular season, we lamented the atrocity known as the Pac-12. When we published the "Worst Major Conference Ever" article in early January, the Pac-12 had a KenPom rating of 7.47. Coincidentally, that's where it finished the season, too—well behind the other five power conferences and almost a full point behind the AAC. Thus, we can now confirm that it was the worst season by a major conference in at least 18 years.
And yet, three Pac-12 teams earned a spot in the NCAA tournament and made more of a splash than anyone expected.
Arizona State snuck into the field as the next-to-last at-large team and defeated St. John's in the First Four. Washington got in as a No. 9 seed and smoked Utah State in the first round.
The big winner was the one that least deserved to be there, though.
Even after finishing the regular season on a four-game winning streak, Oregon had to win the conference tournament to get into the Big Dance. It did just that, surviving an overtime battle with Arizona State in the semifinals and trouncing Washington in the championship game to earn a No. 12 seed.
At that point, the Ducks were red-hot and playing incredible defense led by Kenny Wooten (blocks) and Ehab Amin (steals). They shut down No. 5 Wisconsin for a 72-54 win in the first round and then beat UC Irvine by a nearly identical 73-54 score in the second round.
They were the only team seeded lower than No. 5 to reach the Sweet 16, and they came to play. Oregon gave Virginia all it could handle in a 53-49 nail-biter, darn near crashing the Elite Eight in Nike glass slippers.
Head coach Dana Altman is now 13-6 in the NCAA tournament over the past seven seasons, and the Ducks should be a factor again in 2020 if Louis King sticks around for a second season.
One year ago, the first two rounds of the tournament were beautiful chaos. In addition to UMBC stunning Virginia, we ended up with two No. 7 seeds, two No. 9 seeds and two No. 11 seeds in the Sweet 16. Sum up the seeds of all 16 teams and the total number was 85—the highest mark since 2000.
But if you filled out your bracket this year expecting similar results, you were sorely disappointed.
This year's Sweet 16 seed total was 49, tied with the 2009 tournament for the lowest number in NCAA history. Oregon (No. 12) was the only team worse than a No. 5 seed to reach the second weekend, and the Ducks don't even remotely qualify as a Cinderella story.
(Interestingly enough, the 2009 tournament had the exact same Sweet 16 seeding construction: all the No. 1-3 seeds, two No. 4 seeds, a No. 5 seed and a No. 12 seed. And even that year's No. 12 seed, Arizona, came from the same conference as this year's.)
At least a couple of short-lived Cinderella stories popped up, though.
No. 12 seeds Liberty and Murray State pulled off first-round upsets, as did No. 13 UC Irvine. And though the Racers were destroyed by Florida State in the second round, both the Flames and the Anteaters played well for the first 25 minutes before falling apart against their major-conference foes.
Even Wofford and Buffalo were sort of Cinderella stories, albeit from a better starting position. They beat up on Seton Hall and Arizona State, respectively, in the first round, and Wofford almost made it past Kentucky, too.
However, it was unfortunate not to have a Loyola-Chicago, a Florida Gulf Coast or a George Mason to rally behind. If UC Irvine had beaten Oregon in the second round, it would have been the ideal Sweet 16 formula of 15 great teams and one little-known wild card who the rest of the country wants to see win.
Winner: Every Elite Eight Game
A lack of early upsets made the first two rounds feel boring to a lot of fans, but the payoff was worth it because the Elite Eight games were outstanding theater.
The least entertaining regional final was probably the first one between Gonzaga and Texas Tech, and that's a harsh description for a back-and-forth affair in which neither team led by more than five points until the final two minutes. All three projected first-round draft picks (Jarrett Culver, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke) scored at least 18 points. Texas Tech's elite defense narrowly won the war against Gonzaga's elite offense, thanks in large part to a pair of clutch Davide Moretti three-pointers.
Next on the entertainment ladder was the overtime SEC showdown between Auburn and Kentucky. The Wildcats built an early double-digit lead, but a four-point play late in the first half and a five-point possession soon after intermission sparked a Tigers rally. Neither team could buy a three-point bucket for most of the afternoon, but Auburn somehow prevailed.
Then there's Virginia vs. Purdue, otherwise known as "The Carsen Edwards Show." Purdue's star finished with 42 points, but Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite got the last laugh. After struggling for the first 3.5 games, Guy caught fire in the second half and exchanged haymakers with Edwards. And it was Diakite who hit the shot of the tournament, forcing overtime at the buzzer after Kihei Clark chased down a missed free throw.
But the best game was Michigan State vs. Duke. Massive swings in the first half were followed by a tense second half of back-and-forth bounces. The game featured acrobatic plays on both sides, a game-winning bucket from an unlikely source (Kenny Goins) and a major upset that broke most of the brackets not already in shambles. It was everything you could possibly want from an Elite Eight game—unless you're a Duke fan, of course.
Loser: The Big East
Everyone expected the Pac-12 to be the disappointing conference in the NCAA tournament, but the Big East was the biggest disaster—and there wasn't even a close runner-up.
Only four Big East teams made the tourney, which was a disappointment even before it began. And you can make a strong case just three squads deserved to dance, considering St. John's was the last at-large team invited.
However, the Johnnies didn't last long, losing a hideous, turnover-filled brick-fest against Arizona State in the First Four. They fell behind 33-15 in the first half and never had much chance to fight all the way back.
Early on, the story was similar for Seton Hall, which trailed Wofford 34-18 roughly 15 minutes into the first-round matchup. The Pirates did storm back to take the lead temporarily, but they went ice cold while the Terriers caught fire in the final seven minutes and ended up losing by 16.
Marquette also got blown out, but its loss was much more embarrassing. Seton Hall was a No. 10 seed and supposed to lose. Marquette was a No. 5 seed and got pummeled by No. 12 Murray State. One of the better three-point-shooting teams during the regular season, the Golden Eagles went 8-of-31 from deep and got run out of the gym in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Villanova was the only Big East team to win a game, but even the reigning national champions had a disappointing showing. The Wildcats barely survived Saint Mary's in the opener, then they got thrashed by the Purdue in the second round.
All told, the league produced a 1-4 record. It beat a No. 11 seed by four points and lost the other four games by a combined margin of 70. Yikes.
For what it's worth, the Big East also pooped the bed in the NIT. Five teams went to the "consolation" tournament, and they went 3-5 without a single win over a major-conference foe. It was a rough year for what used to be the best conference in college basketball.
Winner: Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Aside from Ja Morant, Carsen Edwards might have been the biggest winner of the entire 2018-19 season.
Edwards was excellent as a sophomore last year, but he was overshadowed in a starting lineup otherwise full of seniors. KenPom knew Edwards was a stud, rating him the ninth-best player in the country, but Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas were the more familiar names who also played quite well for one of the nation's best teams.
This year, Purdue entered the season looking like "Edwards and the Question Marks." We knew Ryan Cline could shoot, and we knew Matt Haarms could stand tall and flip his hair. Aside from that, the Boilermakers figured to be Edwards or bust.
He thrived as one of the most heavily used players in major-conference history.
According to KenPom, Edwards took 37.5 percent of Purdue's shots while on the floor, good for the sixth-highest rate in the nation. But those spots are usually reserved for minor-conference heroes such as Chris Clemons and Mike Daum. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, the only major-conference players with a higher rate were Maryland's Terrell Stoglin (37.8) in 2011-12 and Creighton's Doug McDermott (38.6) in 2013-14.
During the tournament, Edwards converted those shots at a remarkable rate. He shot 28-of-61 (45.9 percent) from three-point range and averaged 34.8 points, scoring 42 against both Virginia and Villanova. At that pace, he would have finished with approximately 209 points and destroyed Glen Rice's single-tournament record of 184 had Purdue made it to the national championship game.
In four games, Edwards (139 points) almost finished with more points than Kemba Walker (141 points) had over six games in 2011. He did finish well ahead of what Stephen Curry (128 points) produced while leading Davidson to the 2008 Elite Eight.
Before the tournament, The Athletic's Sam Vecenie had Edwards projected as the 44th pick of the 2019 NBA draft. In his pre-Final Four update, Edwards jumped all the way to No. 25.
We'll have to wait and see where he's picked after reportedly declaring for the draft on Sunday, but he may have earned himself a few million dollars with this run.
Loser: The First Four
Every year since the field expanded to 68 teams for the 2011 NCAA tournament, one (and only one) of the at-large "play-in" teams had gone on to win a game in the round of 64. In four of those eight years—2011 VCU, 2013 La Salle, 2014 Tennessee, 2018 Syracuse—said play-in team even made it to the Sweet 16. And who can forget VCU going from First Four to Final Four in the inaugural year of this new era?
It has been one of the greatest idiosyncracies of the tournament in recent seasons: A team that arguably doesn't deserve to be in the field annually wins a game against a top-24 outfit. It's an immediate reminder anything is possible in this glorious single-elimination behemoth.
But the streak ended this year.
Arizona State beat St. John's, and Belmont defeated Temple in Dayton to get into the first round. But that was evidently all the Sun Devils had left in their tank. They trailed Buffalo by as many as 25 points in the second half before succumbing with a 91-74 loss.
Belmont put up a much stiffer fight against Maryland and really should have won that game. The Bruins led by a dozen in the first half and were ahead for most of the proceedings. They had the ball with a chance to win in the closing seconds, but a turnover cost them the upset.
This was probably an anomaly rather than a shift in what to expect moving forward, though.
A seismic gap separated the top 28 teams (i.e. No. 7 seeds or better) and the rest of the field, and then there was another drop-off from the No. 10 seeds down to the bubble. Usually the No. 6 seeds aren't that much better than the No. 11 seeds, but they were this year.
Who knows? Maybe both at-large teams from the First Four make it to the second round next season.
Winner: Auburn Tigers
The ending was painful, but what an incredible run by Auburn to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history.
That quest almost never got started because the Tigers were pushed to the limit in the first round against New Mexico State. In the final 65 seconds of that game, Auburn committed three turnovers, missed two free throws, committed possibly the dumbest foul of the entire tournament and failed to secure what would have been the game-clinching rebound. Bruce Pearl's guys looked like they didn't even belong in the First Four, let alone the Final Four, but they somehow won by one and advanced.
After that initial scare, the Tigers began to dominate.
They jumped all over Kansas from the outset, leading by 26 at halftime. Propelled by Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke, their threes-and-steals approach was on point. Even though it was a disappointing season for the Jayhawks by their lofty standards, that first half is when it began to feel like the Tigers were destined to reach the Final Four.
In the subsequent 17-point win over North Carolina, Auburn felt incapable of missing. Eight different Tigers combined for 17 three-pointers. Even more impressive was their ability to hang with the Tar Heels on the glass. UNC had destroyed its first two opponents in that department and was one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, but the Tigers made sure that wouldn't be what ended their season.
The story was similar in the Elite Eight win over Kentucky. Despite the loss of Okeke, the team's leading rebounder, to a torn ACL in the UNC game, Auburn held its own in rebound margin against a team with a penchant for destroying opponents on the boards. The Tigers didn't even shoot well (7-of-23 from deep) in the overtime win, but they had 10 steals and seven blocks to gut that one out for Okeke.
It was a fitting result for March 31, because the Tigers absolutely owned the month. They went 11-0 with a pair of wins over Tennessee and that ridiculous stretch of consecutive victories against the three winningest programs in NCAA history.
Loser: Competition in the West Region
Three of the four regions featured a healthy dose of late-game drama.
In the East, Duke played three games decided at the buzzer. Maryland and LSU both barely survived the first round, and the Tigers defeated the Terrapins on a Tremont Waters layup with less than two seconds remaining. Plus, Liberty narrowly upset Mississippi State.
That's seven out of 15 games decided by five points or fewer. March Madness at its finest.
Things weren't quite as hectic in the Midwest, but that opener between Auburn and New Mexico State had more than enough last-minute calamity to spare. Iowa State and Ohio State also came right down to the wire, and Kentucky had two nail-biting wins and an overtime loss.
Speaking of overtime, the South had three such games: Tennessee over Iowa, Purdue over Tennessee and Virginia over Purdue. The Sweet 16 battle between Virginia and Oregon was close throughout, as was Villanova's opening win over Saint Mary's. Even the Virginia vs. Gardner-Webb and Tennessee vs. Colgate games were interesting longer than anyone expected.
And then there's the West.
The regional final between Gonzaga and Texas Tech was excellent, but we had to endure a ton of blowouts to reach that point. Only three of the eight first-round games were decided by a margin of fewer than 15 points, the closest of which was Florida State's 76-69 win over Vermont. Between the second round and the Sweet 16, all six games had a final margin of at least a dozen points.
Frankly, the only entertaining contest in the West's first three rounds was Murray State's 83-64 win over Marquette—and only because we were enthralled by Ja Morant's chase for a triple-double.
Winner: Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
Was any dynamic duo in this year's dance better than Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman?
Correct answer: No, none were.
If prior to the start of the tournament, you had to pick just one two-headed force to propel its team into the Final Four, the obvious choices would have been Duke's Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke or Tennessee's Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Instead, none of those teams made it, while Winston and Tillman were directly responsible for the elimination of the Blue Devils.
We already knew Winston was special. The man is a career 43 percent three-point shooter who has also ranked among the top three in the nation for assist rate each of the last three seasons. He became a much more assertive driver this year and has become one of the most unguardable players in the nation even though he's 6'1" and often seems to be "running" through molasses. If he comes back for his senior year, Michigan State would be your no-brainer favorite to win the 2020 national championship.
However, the question remained for the final month of the regular season: Who else would rise to the moment for Michigan State?
Joshua Langford was a great second fiddle until his season-ending injury in late December. Nick Ward was also a critical contributor until he broke his hand in mid-February. He never came close to regaining his form.
In the absence of those junior leaders, a sophomore forward rose from the ashes.
Once placed into the starting lineup in late February, Tillman became a force of nature on both ends of the floor. Buckets, rebounds, blocks, post-up defense. You name it; he provided it. He averaged 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in Michigan State's first four tournament games, and it was his defense on Williamson (and his 19 points) in the Elite Eight that propelled the Spartans to their eighth Final Four in 21 years.
Loser: Halftime Margins in Tennessee's Games
For all three of Tennessee's games, the first 20 minutes didn't seem to matter.
The Volunteers led 36-20 late in the first half during their opener against Colgate, but the Raiders stormed back to take a 52-50 lead midway through the second half. Tennessee got back on track when Admiral Schofield scored 11 of its last 14 points in the final 4:05, but that game went from a blowout to a close call in a heartbeat.
Two days later, Tennessee led Iowa 49-28 at halftime and seemed headed for an easy victory. But a Volunteers offense that had 20 points a little over five minutes into the game went ice cold and scored just 16 points in the first 17 minutes of the second half. Iowa was able to fight all the way back to force overtime before Tennessee prevailed by the skin of its teeth.
Since a big lead didn't do Tennessee much good in the first two rounds, it flipped the script and trailed Purdue 40-28 at halftime of the Sweet 16 showdown. The Boilermakers pushed that lead to 51-33 early in the second half, but the Vols caught fire and tied it up at 65 less than 10 minutes later.
Tennessee would have won the game in regulation if it hadn't fouled Carsen Edwards on a three-point attempt with two seconds remaining. (More on that shortly.) Purdue was able to pull off the minor upset in overtime.
In the end, the team that led by double digits at halftime got the win in all three games, but the process wasn't as simple as it should have been. Tennessee blew a 16-point lead and a 25-point lead in the first two rounds and erased an 18-point deficit in the third.
Winner: Chris Beard, Texas Tech
Texas Tech fell just one win shy of securing the national championship, but don't let that heartbreaking finish distract you from the unbelievable job head coach Chris Beard has done with this program over the past several years.
Prior to last season's 27-10 record, it had been over a decade since Texas Tech last won 20 games in a campaign. The Red Raiders lost most of the leaders from the team that reached last year's Elite Eight, but they somehow got better, going 31-7 this year.
In the era of one-and-done superstars, Beard and Co. did it with a much different, defensive-minded formula.
Half the primary eight-man rotation consisted of former transfers. Tariq Owens (St. John's) and Matt Mooney (South Dakota) were graduate transfers this past offseason. Brandone Francis came over from Florida three years ago. Deshawn Corprew was a JUCO transfer from South Plains College.
Beard brought Davide Moretti over from Italy. And not one of the other three guys—Jarrett Culver, Kyler Edwards and Norense Odiase—was a consensus top-150 recruit in his respective class.
Hand that roster to most coaches, and you're looking at a .500 season, at best. But Beard turned that unusual conglomeration into a near-champion and one of the best defenses in NCAA history.
Texas Tech held four of its first five tournament opponents below 60 points. The lone exception was a 75-69 win against the most efficient offense in the country (Gonzaga).
As UCLA continues its never-ending search to find its next head coach, get ready to hear Beard's name come up a lot in however many more days it takes the Bruins to figure it out. The man has only been a D-I coach for four years, but he is clearly one of the best in the business.
Loser: Fouling Three-Point Shooters at the Buzzer
Virginia's Final Four victory over Auburn will forever be remembered for ending in controversy.
But let's not talk about the missed double dribble. (The referees easily could have called a foul on Bryce Brown on that play, too. Two wrongs don't make a right, but it's a testament to the difficulty of making that call that no one on either team even reacted strangely to the double dribble.)
Let's instead talk about Samir Doughty fouling Kyle Guy on the game-winning three-point attempt, because this happened way too many times during the tournament.
First of all, it was absolutely a foul. Save your "Swallow the whistle" and "Let the players decide the outcome" cries for someone who cares. You can't undercut a shooter like that on a closeout. It doesn't matter if 15 minutes or 1.5 seconds remain in the game.
Same goes for Lamonte Turner's foul on Carsen Edwards at the end of regulation between Tennessee and Purdue, as well as Bryce Brown's foul on Terrell Brown in Auburn's opener. When you contest a shot that aggressively, you run the risk of making contact and letting the game be decided at the free-throw line.
In all three situations, the shooting team was down by two points. Auburn survived the first mistake when New Mexico State was only able to make one of its three attempts, but Guy eliminated the Tigers by sinking all three of the high-pressure freebies. In the other instance, Edwards made two of the free throws and led the Boilermakers to victory in overtime.
Perhaps those fouls happened because those defenders were the furthest thing from shot blockers. Doughty, Brown and Turner blocked a combined total of eight shots this entire season. It's one thing to close out on a shooter during the normal flow of the game, but actually contesting shots while controlling your body against a shooter who is—at least somewhat—trying to draw the foul is a different challenge altogether.
Winner: Tony Bennett, Virginia
The monkey is finally off Tony Bennett's back.
Long before the UMBC loss, Bennett's slow-paced, pack-line defense had already been labeled by many as a style that simply isn't built for success in March. The Cavaliers had been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in four of the previous five NCAA tournaments, but all they had to show for it was one trip to the Elite Eight.
Moreover, before this year's Elite Eight game against Purdue, Bennett's tenure at Virginia consisted of one win in five tries against a team seeded No. 7 or better—the 2016 Sweet 16 victory over No. 4 Iowa State.
But years of bad luck finally regressed to the mean in one unbelievable three-game sequence.
Purdue's Carsen Edwards poured in 42 points against Virginia, but Mamadi Diakite forced overtime on a frantic buzzer-beating shot. The Cavaliers got the win in the extra session despite trailing by two with less than a second remaining.
They were also down two with less than a second on the clock against Auburn in the Final Four when the controversial foul happened. Kyle Guy calmly drained all three free throws to send Virginia to the first national championship game in program history.
And the Wahoos once again needed a late comeback to win it all. De'Andre Hunter canned a game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left, Braxton Key provided the overtime-forcing block and they got the eight-point win in overtime.
It just goes to show how thin the line is between greatness and sadness in this tournament. If Diakite doesn't hit that shot, we're doomed to another year hearing about Bennett's inability to win the big one.
Instead, it's officially time to start debating whether Bennett is one of the five best coaches in the game today.
Loser: Duke Blue Devils
Sixty-seven teams failed to win the national championship, but one in particular felt like a colossal disappointment.
From the moment Duke started kicking Kentucky's teeth in at the Champions Classic in early November, the Blue Devils were the overwhelming favorite to win it all. Because of how special Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were, we spent nearly five months entertaining debates about whether Duke or the field was the smarter bet for this tournament.
However, the No. 1 overall seed never much looked the part of a favorite.
Even in the 23-point win over North Dakota State in the first round, the Blue Devils came out slow, trailing for a good chunk of the first half and only leading by four at intermission.
In the two subsequent games against UCF and Virginia Tech, Duke's normally excellent three-point defense was nowhere to be found. It struggled to score in the paint against UCF's Tacko Fall, and it had no answer for Virginia Tech's Kerry Blackshear Jr. on the glass, allowing the Hokies' lone big man to corral 11 offensive rebounds. In both games, the Blue Devils tested the limits of "survive and advance" when the opposing team missed multiple game-winning or game-tying shots in the final five seconds.
And in the loss to Michigan State, Duke got destroyed in turnover margin while its season-long struggles with both threes and free throws proved problematic.
We've seen plenty of incredible teams suffer a tough loss in the NCAA tournament. In 2010 (Kansas), 2011 (Ohio State) and 2017 (Villanova), the No. 1 overall seed didn't even reach the Elite Eight. In 2014 (Florida), 2015 (Kentucky) and 2016 (Kansas), the No. 1 overall seed lost in the Elite Eight or Final Four. Who will ever forget last year's No. 1 overall seed (Virginia) losing to UMBC?
But those teams each had one bad game, which can happen to anyone. With Duke, it felt like the alleged best team in the country lost three consecutive games.
The Blue Devils' 2018-19 legacy would have been better off if they had just lost to UCF in the second round. We could've chalked it up to the combination of Aubrey Dawkins catching fire and Fall causing problems in the paint no other team could—the wrong place at the wrong time for Williamson and Co.
Instead, three nail-biters leave us to question whether this team was actually that good in the first place.