We have arrived at the final best/worst recap of the 2022 NCAA tournament. If it has to end, it might as well end with a day where multiple double-digit seeds win Sweet 16 games for just the fourth time ever, and where one of them does something that had never been done before.
Let’s hit it.
(8) North Carolina 73, (4) UCLA 66 (East)
The Saint Peter’s upset of Purdue was certainly Friday’s most notable and talked about game, but if we’re talking quality of play, none of the other regional semifinals held a candle to North Carolina-UCLA.
Despite trailing for most of the evening, the Tar Heels continued their miraculous March surge thanks to some late-game heroics from the outside-inside duo of Caleb Love and Armando Bacot.
UNC trailed by three with 1:40 to play when Love, who was out of his mind in the second half (more on that later in the recap), misfired on a deep three-point attempt. With UCLA seeming to be on the verge of seizing total control, Bacot used his elite combination of size and athleticism to keep the Heels’ possession alive. Love’s second attempt to tie the game was pure.
Here’s the Bacot save. Looks like he somehow stayed in pic.twitter.com/lwQFV3p5RT— Stuckey (@Stuckey2) March 26, 2022
After Jaime Jaquez misfired on a three on the other end, Love buried yet another triple to put the Heels in front for good. A tip-in from Bacot and a pair of free-throws from Love then made it official: North Carolina was headed to the Elite Eight for the 27th time in program history.
The only thing standing between UNC and a (potential) Final Four showdown against arch-rival Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season (contractually obligated to say that): The Saint Peter’s Peacocks in what will be the first meeting between an 8-seed and a 15-seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Team that won it best
On National Peacock Day (and Elton John’s birthday!), Shaheen Holloway’s team put on yet another show. His team forced Purdue into an uncharacteristically high 15 turnovers and became the first 15-seed in the history of the tournament to earn a spot in a regional final by eliminating the third-seeded Boilermakers, 67-64.
Any 15-seed coming getting to within a single victory of a trip to the Final Four was going to be a story laced with implausibility. This team accomplishing the feat feels nothing short of miraculous.
Saint Peter’s lost six games during the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season and finished a full three games behind regular season champion Iona in the league standings. There’s certainly a case to be made that none of this March magic happens if Rick Pitino’s Gaels aren’t stunned by Rider in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals.
The Peacocks played just six non-conference games against D-I opponents. They lost five of them. St. John’s blasted them by 21 and Providence cruised by them by 14. They lost to a bad Stony Brook team on the road by 1, and to an even worse St. Francis of NY squad at home by 11.
Four months ago, at Saint Peter's home opener vs. LIU, the attendance was 434 (four hundred and thirty-four). The game was not televised.— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) March 25, 2022
Tonight, the eyes of the nation are on the Peacocks.
Only in college basketball.
Even after their run to the MAAC title, the Peacocks entered the Big Dance as a 19-11 squad from a bottom tier conference with an abysmal offensive profile. Oh, and they also happened to draw the tournament’s strongest 2-seed, a Kentucky program that had never lost a first round game under head coach John Calipari, and which hadn’t been beaten by any double-digit seed since an Elite Eight loss to LSU (the first 11-seed to ever crash a Final Four) all the way back in 1986.
The story of toppling the Wildcats should have been enough. Instead, Saint Peter’s turned around two days later and handed 7th-seeded Murray State just its third loss of the season with a 70-60 triumph that wasn’t the least-bit fluky. In the process, the Peacocks snapped the nation’s longest active winning streak at 21 games.
Nothing about this has been unauthentic or lucky in any way, shape or form. When Saint Peter’s faces North Carolina in the East Regional Final on Sunday (still just an outrageous thing to type), it will be the first time in the tournament that they haven’t faced the best possible seed they could face.
They will once again be heavy underdogs (8-points at the moment). The greatest Cinderella in the history of March Madness will once again be prepared for the moment.
Team that was the biggest disappointment
I thought about straying from the obvious choice and going with Iowa State here, but let’s be real, this spot has to belong to the Boilermakers.
It’s been 42 years since Purdue has played in a Final Four. In the years between then and now, the Boilermakers have won 10 Big Ten championships, played in 30 NCAA tournaments, advanced to the tournament’s second weekend 11 times, and lost in a regional final three times.
All of that is little consolation to a fan base that is desperate to see their team back on the sport’s biggest stage, and which has to recognize how golden the opportunity that was squandered on Friday night truly was.
The No. 1 team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency category, Purdue picked the worst possible time to play one of its worst offensive games of the season. The Boilermakers turned the ball over 15 times (just two shy of their season-high), went just 5-of-21 from three, and got outscored by six at the free-throw line by the worst free-throw shooting team in the tournament.
Star guard Jaden Ivey had a particularly tough night. The Second Team AP All-American went just 4-of-12 from the field, 1-of-6 from three, and turned the ball over six times. He had an opportunity to erase all of that by sending the game to overtime with a 30-foot buzzer-beater, but his attempt at a March Madness forever moment came up just short.
SAINT PETER’S HAS DONE IT!!! TEH FIRST 13+ Seed to EVER Reach the Elite 8!!! THE PEACOCKS KEEP STRUTTING!!!— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 26, 2022
Between this loss and Virginia’s miraculous comeback win in the 2019 Elite Eight, Purdue has to be wondering when it gets its turn as the team of destiny.
Matt Painter has done some wonderful things in West Lafayette, but there’s no guarantee that he’s going to see another five-year run with the type of talent that he’s had in the program since 2017. Over that span in the tournament they have lost in the Sweet 16 by 13 to a worse-seeded Texas Tech team, been blown out by 32 by Kansas in the Sweet 16, lost a regional final to Virginia in a near unbelievable fashion, been upset by 13th-seeded North Texas in the first round, and now lost to Saint Peter’s when their remaining path to the Final Four involved wins over a 15-seed and an 8-seed.
None of that is easy to stomach, especially at the present moment.
Three Friday cheers
1. Saint Peter’s getting the Sunday primetime slot
After Saint Peter’s stunning upset of Purdue, the fine folks at Turner wasted little time letting us know that the Peacocks would be playing in the primetime regional final on Sunday.
Now it's official: Kansas will play the winner of Iowa State and Miami at 2:20 ET, followed by Saint Peter's versus North Carolina or UCLA, Sunday on CBS.— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) March 26, 2022
Bear in mind that this tweet was sent just minutes after the start of the second East Regional semifinal.
UCLA? North Carolina? Doesn’t bleeping matter. If we already know that Saint Peter’s is playing in the game, then we already know the game’s getting top billing.
2. Miami’s long road back to prominence
When it comes to the FBI’s now infamous “probe into college basketball,” the main topic of discussion over the last five (55?) years has been how badly the schools involved deserve to be punished and when those days of reckoning are finally coming.
Much, much less discussed has been the program that has already paid a steep price because of the probe, and just how unfair that payment has been.
When the FBI’s original complaint took the sports world by storm in September of 2017, Miami and Jim Larranaga — AKA “University 7” and “Coach 3” — were all over it. The complaint alleged that Larranaga and Miami had actively worked with Adidas officials to funnel $150,000 to recruit Nassir Little. After the fallout from the FBI scandal, Little would ultimately sign with North Carolina.
As it turns out, the travel basketball coach named in the original indictment — Brad Augustine — was simply taking the money he was being given by Adidas and pocketing it for himself. Any talk of him working with Larranaga or any other coaches to try and get Little paid was all made up.
Larranaga — who immediately and consistently denied any sort of wrongdoing — was removed from the superseding indictment the FBI released in April of 2018. Miami as a program was also cleared of any wrongdoing.
Basically, the FBI gave The U an “our bad” and moved right along.
The “our bad” was little consolation to a Miami program that saw its positive momentum completely stalled by the negative headlines.
Recruiting bottomed out, and a program that had gone to the Sweet 16 in 2016 as part of a run of three straight NCAA tournament appearances was suddenly 14-18 and near the bottom of the ACC standings at the end of the 2018-19 season. It got worse before it got better, as the Hurricanes finished with losing records in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Miami was picked to finish 12th in the ACC media poll before the start of the 2021-22 season, and there was more than a little buzz that the campaign might be Larranaga’s last in Coral Gables if his team wasn’t able to dramatically overachieve.
Five months later, the Hurricanes are in the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
WE’RE GOING TO THE ELITE EIGHT FOR THE FIRST TIME IN PROGRAM HISTORY!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/HSUo7VbgoF— Canes Hoops (@CanesHoops) March 26, 2022
In the process, Larranaga also became the first coach in the history of the NCAA tournament to lead two different double-digit seeds (George Mason in 2006) to the Elite Eight.
I’m sure that apology from the FBI is coming any day now.
3. Doug Edert going full Kobe
The Saint Peter’s postgame press conference was predictably giddy and enjoyable, but this was easily the best moment:
The combination of Holloway and these Peacocks has been phenomenal all month long.
BONUS CHEER: The ACC
NCAA tournament performance should never be the sole barometer of a conference’s strength or weakness relative to the rest of the country. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start.
It’s impossible to gloss over the fact that after the league’s worst regular season in recent memory, the ACC now has three of the last eight teams standing. Two of those teams will be favored in their regional final matchups. If both win, well, there’s going to be a whole lot more talk about the ACC in the days ahead.
Three Friday jeers
1. The Big Ten/West Coast championship droughts soldiering on
With Purdue losing to Saint Peter’s and UCLA falling to North Carolina on Friday, two of the most well-known active streaks of futility in college basketball are guaranteed to last into 2023.
No team from the West Coast has won the national championship since Arizona did it 25 years ago in 1997. Almost as brutal, the Big Ten has failed to produce a national champion since Michigan State cut down the nets in 2000.
Seven of the top 16 teams in this year’s tournament were either from the Big Ten or from the West Coast. While it’d be a stretch to say that it’s shocking that none of these teams will be wearing the crown on the first Monday in April, it’s certainly surprising that none of them (or any of the lower-seeded teams from the Big Ten or the West Coast) could even make it to a regional final.
2. Caleb Love’s first half shoes
You may have noticed that North Carolina point guard Caleb Love’s shoes went from black to Carolina Blue after halftime on Friday night. If you didn’t, that’s fine, here’s some visual evidence:
The reason was simple. Love connected on just one of his eight field goal attempts in the game’s opening 20 minutes, and went into the locker room at halftime with only three points to his name.
During the break, UNC Director of Operations, Eric Hoots, went to Love and reminded him that he, apparently, never plays well in black shoes. So Love changed.
“I’m going to give him a raise,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said of Hoots after the game.
Love was a completely different player in the blue shoes. He hit 10-of-16 shots after the break, buried six three-pointers, and dished out four assists against just one turnover. When the dust settled, he had become the first North Carolina player since J.R. Reid in 1987 to score at least 30 points in a Sweet 16 game.
“I didn’t even know he switched shoes,” Davis said. “I don’t think it was the shoes. One of the things that I said is that in any game, but specifically in big time games like this it has nothing to do with coaches, it’s about players just stepping up and making plays. Everybody that played made plays and Caleb made a lot.”
Counterpoint: It was the shoes.
Kentucky entered Friday night as college basketball’s all-time leader in both overall wins and NCAA tournament wins.
Then Kansas took down Providence.
And then North Carolina beat UCLA.
North Carolina has tied Kentucky for the most NCAA Tournament game wins in history.— Bryan Ives (@awaytoworthy) March 26, 2022
North Carolina (129)
On the plus side, with every Saint Peter’s win that 15/2 upset becomes more about the Peacocks and less about the Wildcats. So there’s that.
BONUS JEER: Sad Ed Cooley
I adore the man and I do not like seeing him this upset.
An emotional Ed Cooley joined me in the hallway after Providence’s season came to an end tonight. The 1-on-1: pic.twitter.com/RJERoM9KeE— John Fanta (@John_Fanta) March 26, 2022
Hell of a season for the Friars.
All-Sweet 16 Friday team
Caleb Love, North Carolina
Whether it was the shoe switch or night, Love was about as good as he could possibly be in the second half of North Carolina’s win over UCLA. He became the first Tar Heel since J.R. Reid in 1987 to score 30 points in a Sweet 16 game.
Kameron McGusty, Miami
As he has been all month, McGusty was once again phenomenal for the ‘Canes on Friday. He scored 27 points, grabbed six rebounds and recorded four steals as Miami beat Iowa State to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
Remy Martin, Kansas
Martin’s monster March continued with a game-high 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists in Kansas’ 66-61 win over Providence.
Armando Bacot, North Carolina
The Tar Heel’s force in the paint did what he does against UCLA, finishing with 14 points, 15 rebounds, and one monster late-game save that might have been the difference between winning and losing.
Al Durham, Providence
The Friar star did all he could to keep his team’s season alive, finishing with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Best Friday dunk
George Conditt, Iowa State
The Hawkeyes would have had a much better time on offense Friday night if they had simply done this on every possession.
George Conditt with the transition slam! pic.twitter.com/dQDVsrFdfu— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) March 26, 2022
Best Friday image
Best Friday quote
“Just looking at the stats, we had 21 assists today. We did have 14 turnovers, and you guys will probably have to run suicides tomorrow for turning the ball over too much. Oh my God. That was a joke. No one laughed. Does the media not have any sense of humor?” —Miami head coach Jim Larranaga
Full Elite Eight schedule
Let’s make some memories.