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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Kolakowski: Welcome to March — madness not included

A missed free throw by the jewel of college basketball allowed one of the game’s biggest juggernauts to collect an offensive rebound and force home a game-winning layup to steal a victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

When Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson’s free throw attempt fell short, hitting the front edge of the rim, there was a brief image of No. 1-overall Duke falling to an underdog ninth-seeded Central Florida squad. Heartbreaking losses and Cinderella stories are normally welcomed in the ridiculous tournament of 64 teams that is affectionately referred to as March Madness.

This year, however, viewers have been gifted a March tournament that is lacking in madness.

UCF provided a spark that nearly set the tournament — and every bracket in the country — ablaze Sunday night. Led by junior guard Aubrey Dawkins and senior center Tacko Fall, Central Florida pushed ACC champion and tournament favorite Duke to the brink of elimination. Dawkins posted 32 points while playing all 40 minutes, and Fall, the otherworldly center who is listed at 7-foot-6, poured in another 15 points in only 25 minutes of work.

In the end, though, UCF’s efforts were not enough. The Golden Knights, known primarily for a football program that has produced back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, nearly gave us an electric storyline in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Instead, Duke freshman forward RJ Barrett knocked down the game-winning layup and Central Florida had two shots roll off the rim from point-blank range as time expired.

Duke escaped. Brackets remain intact. Chalk prevails.

The 2019 edition of March Madness now enters the third round of play, its Sweet Sixteen. Among the remaining competitors, only one — No. 12 Oregon — is a double-digit seed. Even the Ducks, though, won a major conference tournament. Oregon easily disposed of No. 5 Wisconsin in the south region before taking down No. 13 UC Irvine in the round of 32. Oregon is a hot team that rode an easy path to a date with No. 1 Virginia.

Oregon was not the only team to ride to an easy victory in the second round of play. No. 3 Purdue stomped defending champion No. 6 Villanova. No. 5 Auburn stormed to a big lead and coasted to a 14-point victory over No. 4 Kansas. Sophomore guard Ja Morant excited spectators for No. 12 Murray State against No. 4 Florida State, but the Racers’ lack of depth was exposed in a 28-point loss to the Seminoles. In a tournament that is known for madness, most matchups were snoozers.

In 16 games between Saturday and Sunday, 15 matchups were won by the higher seed, with Auburn over Kansas being the lone exception. All 16 favorites in Vegas won their games.

Welcome to the tournament where chalk rules and all the games make sense. We had some chaos in the opening weekend, but 14 of the 16 remaining teams were expected to be here if you strictly look at seeding. Auburn is a mild surprise, and Oregon hardly looks like a major underdog despite its double-digit seeding.

Perhaps the lack of chaos is a good thing. The teams that excelled all season remain major players deep in the national tournament. Blue-blood programs like North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky are poised to clash on men’s college basketball’s biggest stage. Fans can relax and watch top programs compete for a championship.

This whole thing would still be better with a Cinderella story. Hope for more chaos in 2020.