It's funny how after spending two weeks being proven consistently wrong, we all still always think we've got the Final Four figured out. North Carolina's definitely going to roll over Syracuse, and then they're probably going to take care of business Monday night against either Villanova or Oklahoma.
The deep, dark truth is that we still don't know anything, and that fact will probably rear its head at least one more time before this tournament comes to a close. But before diving any more deeply into what we think will or will not happen this weekend in Houston, let's take a quick look back at just how wrong we've already been and just how fun it was to see it all play out.
Here's the best and worst of the two weeks that led us to this place.
Five Best Games
1. (11) Northern Iowa 75, (6) Texas 72 (West, First Round)
It's always special when you see an event live and know instantly that what just happened is something you're going to be seeing replays of for, pretty much, the rest of your existence.
Just before midnight on the first Friday of the tournament, Paul Jesperson became a March Madness immortal.
Yes I was that idiot. Do it for the vine Northern Iowa https://t.co/mr0SEZaeHV— Sam Duren (@Sam_Duren) March 19, 2016
The radio call from the Northern Iowa announcers was almost as glorious as the shot itself.
Often times, especially during this particular part of the year, a buzzer-beater puts a pretty mask on an otherwise poorly played, ugly game. This wasn't one of those instances.
Northern Iowa built a 16-point lead in the first half, but Shaka Smart's trademark up-tempo style allowed the Longhorns to get back into the game before halftime and then seize a two-point lead with 14:05 to play. The teams then exchanged body blows for the rest of the evening, with neither side ever leading by more than four.
Texas star Isaiah Taylor scored 22 points and did everything he could to get the Longhorns into the second round, including tying the score at 72 on a beautiful floater with three seconds to play. That merely set the stage for Jesperson who, despite playing in the same city where Bryce Drew beat Ole Miss at the buzzer and in the same building where Steph Curry stunned the Thunder last month, may have hit the most incredible shot that Oklahoma City has ever seen.
The win also moved Northern Iowa, which only made the tournament because of a buzzer-beater in the Missouri Valley championship game, to 3-0 in NCAA Tournament games played in Oklahoma City. It's a mark that fell to 3-1 in the most brutal fashion imaginable just two days later.
2. (12) Arkansas-Little Rock 85, (5) Purdue 83 (2 OT) (Midwest, First Round)
For almost 36 minutes, nothing happened in Purdue-Little Rock to warrant mention on this list, let alone inclusion in the top two. The Boilermakers had been, and remained, in complete control, holding a 14-point lead with 4:06 to play that was making certain writers who had all-but-guaranteed a UALR victory feel more than a little foolish.
Then, everything went wrong for Purdue. Like, everything. Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it was bad luck and some of it was simply the Little Rock players making plays you had to tip your cap towards, but none of it was in accordance with the previous 35 minutes or the Boilermakers' overall plans.
A furious Trojan really ended up with Purdue electing not to foul with a three-point lead, and allowing Josh Hagins to hit one of the tournament's most memorable shots.
That shot came after a previous three-pointer from Lis Shoshi that took as odd a bounce on a corner three as you're ever going to see before falling straight down and through the hoop. Shoshi also did some sort of Jedi mind trick to get his right foot safely behind the three-point line.
Purdue then bafflingly failed to advance the ball up the court to take a final shot in regulation, neglected its future NBA big man (A.J. Hammons) for two overtimes and had an atrocious final possession when they still had a shot at snatching a victory in the final seconds.
3. (2) Villanova 64, (1) Kansas 59 (South, Elite 8)
It wasn't quite as aesthetically pleasing a regional final showdown as we'd all hoped for, but the intensity and the competitive finish were both certainly there. There was even a controversial call in the game's closing seconds for good measure.
4. (3) Texas A&M 92, (11) Northern Iowa 88 (2 OT) (West, Second Round)
It's now been almost two weeks since this went down, and I still have no idea how it happened.
This is unreal... https://t.co/zorqJu083X— HoopMixtape (@HoopMixOnly) March 21, 2016
Rodger Sherman has a terrific misstep by misstep look at Northern Iowa's final half-minute of regulation, but the brutal reality is that the Panthers did something that no other team in the history of college basketball had done before.
So what happened to UNI had literally never happened in the entire history of college basketball. Incredible. https://t.co/SDR1JPzlBu— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) March 21, 2016
Here it is. 99.99%. This is an all-time sports collapse. Bar none. pic.twitter.com/A3f1iUlkXW— numberFire (@numberFire) March 21, 2016
Texas A&M certainly deserves its fair share of credit for the comeback -- the Aggies made six field goals in the final 34 seconds of regulation, the same number they made in the entire first half -- but fairly or unfairly, this is always going to be associated most directly with Northern Iowa. The failed inbounds attempts, the unwise and poorly executed attempts at throwing the ball off opponents, the strange decision to just completely stop playing defense; that reel is going to be brought up and played every time some team is even threatening to pull off a similar miracle in March.
What is destined to be forgotten in all of this is that UNI pulled itself together and had a great chance at winning in the first overtime. When that didn't happen, and when two senior starters fouled out, the writing was on the wall in the second extra frame. Not that anyone will remember. How could they?
5. (6) Notre Dame 76, (14) Stephen F. Austin (75) (East, Second Round)
Stephen F. Austin, which entered the second round of the tournament with the nation's longest winning streak at 21 games, shot 51.5 percent from the field, assisted on 19-of-29 made field goals, committed a season-low six turnovers and still lost for the first time since Dec. 29. That's because their opponents shot 55.6 percent, scored the game's final six points and made this tip-in with 1.4 seconds to go.
That was the only bucket of the game for Notre Dame freshman Rex Pflueger, who is averaging 2.5 ppg and hadn't made a field goal in a game since the Fighting Irish's regular season finale against NC State on March 5.
The brutal defeat ended the Cinderella run of Stephen F. Austin, which has gone 59-1 in Southland Conference play over the past three seasons. It also left Lumberjack coach Brad Underwood one victory shy of breaking Brad Stevens' Division-I record for the most victories by a head coach in the first three seasons of his career.
The Three Best Storylines
1. The first Friday
I'll say it: The first Friday of the 2016 tournament was the best day of first-round NCAA Tournament basketball ever. You might immediately want to chalk that statement up as hyperbole or the product of a recency bias, but here's my evidence in support of it:
--It was the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seed have lost first-round games on the same day. It was also, as you might have guessed, the first time a No. 13, No. 14 and No. 15 seed have won a tournament game on the same way.
--For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, 10 double-digit seeds won a first-round game.
--Eight teams seeded No. 11 or worse advanced into the second round, the highest such number in NCAA Tournament history.
--The worse-seeded team won six times on that Friday and seven times on Thursday. In 2015, that happened five times on the tournament's opening Thursday and Friday combined. The 13 first-round wins for lower-seeded teams ties the NCAA Tournament record set in 2001.
--The first Friday gave us one buzzer-beater around the rim, one buzzer-beater from half court, one near buzzer-beater that was waved off by the narrowest of margins, six games that were decided by five points or fewer and arguably the single greatest upset in the history of March Madness.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic yet again, that day was pretty much everything that we love about this time of year packed into one 13-hour span. The expectations for the tournament seem to grow more and more gargantuan every year, so it was pretty special to see a day that not only met, but exceeded the mammoth standards of both the casual fan and college hoops diehards.
2. Taurean Prince's press conference answer
He may have drawn some negative press for his in-game confrontation with teammate Rico Gathers, but Taurean Prince's response to a bad postgame press conference question was an all-time classic.
For the sake of getting the full story, here's the complete exchange (via ASAP Sports):
Q. You said you got out-rebounded and I checked the stats; you did, 36-32. How does Baylor get out-rebounded by Yale? How does that happen?
TAUREAN PRINCE: They had more rebounds than us.
Q. You said you got out-rebounded, you did, 36-32. How does Yale out-rebound Baylor?
TAUREAN PRINCE: You go up and grab the ball off the rim when it comes off, and then you grab it with two hands, then you come down with it, and that's considered a rebound. So they got more of those than we did.
Yale, for what it's worth, outrebounded its opponents by an average of 11.1 rebounds per game this season, the second-best margin in college basketball. They also out-rebounded Duke by 14 two days after this exchange.
3. The locker room celebration videos
You expect buzzer-beaters and you expect upsets (and we've gotten plenty of both in this tournament), but the additional access that we've gotten to the scene in the locker room after huge victories has been one of the better March developments in recent years.
The Three Worst Storylines
1. The Pac-12
The conference got a lot of love from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and nearly saw all seven of its participants bounced before the second weekend of the Big Dance. The only squad to advance to the Sweet 16 was top-seeded Oregon, which lost by double-digits to Oklahoma in the West Regional final.
2. The no-call on Adam Woodbury's shove
If you want to toss out the "let them play in the final seconds" or "one call doesn't win or lose a game" stances here, that's fine, but the fact of the matter is that Adam Woodbury clearly pushed off to establish position for his game-winning putback, and it should have been called a foul.
The push-off that ended Temple's season. https://t.co/s0YcvEDrSr— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) March 18, 2016
That gets called at any other point in the game. I don't know why the final second has to be different.
3. The second weekend
If it was simply laying the foundation for a terrific Final Four then so be it, but the second weekend of the Big Dance featured just four games out of 12 that were decided by fewer than 12 points. While there were a handful of signature moments from the four days of play, there's no question that it was at least something of a letdown after one of the more memorable opening weekends in tournament history.
Three Best Images
1. Purdue's synchronized pain
2. A game-winner hangs on the rim
3. The agony/ecstasy of Northern Iowa/Texas A&M
Pre-Final Four All-Tournament Team
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
The potential National Player of the Year is averaging a tournament-best 29.3 points per game for the Sooners. He's the first player to bring a scoring average of 25.0 ppg or more to the Final Four since Dennis Scott did it for Georgia Tech all the way back in 1990.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
The man they call "Arch" has shot 50 percent or better from the field in all four of Villanova's tournament games, and has connected on 11 of his 19 attempts from beyond the arc. Arcidiacono's eFG% on jump shots in the Big Dance is a sparkling 77%, way up from 48% in regular season.
Brice Johnson, North Carolina
Johnson, who comes to Houston averaging 21.0 ppg in the tournament, is the only player in the Final Four besides Hield averaging 20.0 ppg or better. He has notched double-doubles in three of North Carolina's four wins, and was held below 20 points and 10 rebounds just once: the first-round game against 16th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast, when he went for 18 and seven.
Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
While freshman Malachi Richardson has had his moments (especially in the regional final upset of Virginia), it's been the senior Gbinije who has been Jim Boeheim's rock. He's hit double figures in all four tournament games, and has dished out a total of 16 assists.
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
This final spot could have just as easily gone to North Carolina's Marcus Paige, but we'll go with Jenkins, who had been scorching hot in the tournament before a 1-for-7 effort from beyond the arc in the regional final game against Kansas. He still connected on all six of his free throw attempts and finished with 13 points.
Three Best Dunks
1. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Killed a couple guys on Stephen F. Austin, killed a guy on his own bench.
2. Wayne Selden, Kansas
SEND IT IN SELDEN! https://t.co/oQS8ZhelqB— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 20, 2016
3. Jalen Reynolds, Xavier
He dunked so aggressively that the aftermath made it look like he was the one who got dunked on.
Three Best Quotes
1. "You're supposed to coach every team and every game the same way. But let's face it, there are some guys and some teams that just do more for you. They resurrected me, for whatever length I coach, whatever number of years it's going to be, I'll owe them that. They brought the fun back into it. Not a lot of bad days at practice for the 120-some we had. Never a bad trip. Never a concern. I can look everybody in the eye and say I'll probably never have a team like this. I'll probably never have guys like this, but we'll shoot for it. But this is a special group. And that's why there's all the emotion. And that's why it's a tough time." --Michigan State coach Tom Izzo on his team's shocking loss to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State
2. "I think I was in Africa then. I didn't know anything about basketball, period." -- Iowa's Peter Jok on his memories from Iowa's 1999 Sweet 16 run
3. "I don't know why anybody would waste energy pressing us. We'll throw it to you regardless. That would be a waste of energy really. We're very charitable. We're one of the most charitable groups in college basketball. The second straight game we've turned it over 20 times." --West Virginia coach Bob Huggins
Let's make some more memories on Saturday.