The 2016 NCAA Tournament — literally — merited the following adjective: half-bad.
The first two rounds were spectacular. The Sweet 16 and the Final Four national semifinals were total busts. The Elite Eight was okay, but the most memorable game was an all-time gack attack by a Virginia team which had been the portrait of poise all season. So in the end, that round gained more of a thumbs-down than a thumbs-up.
The sixth and final round? Definitely not a thumbs-down.
Good 3, Bad 3 — The Big Dance gave us a clean split of inspiring and uninspiring rounds. The mixture of amazing and average occurrences — the abrupt turns from mediocrity to magnificence and back — were fully in tune with a college basketball season which, since November, could never really make up its mind on what it wanted to become.
Happily, though, the end notes of this perhaps-jumbled new-age composition were clean, resonant, and entirely beautiful. The sport offered a perfect send-off to its fans until November, when SMU and Louisville will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament again… and North Carolina might not be. (Who knows?)
As we contain the memory of an epic national championship game in the mind’s eye, let’s review the top 10 moments of an NCAA Tournament which had a little bit of everything.
One last note before we begin:
Of course, there were more than 10 especially memorable moments from this tournament, so if one event makes the list, we’ll try to mention other related occurrences. To offer a perfect example of that plan, let’s break in our list to give you an idea of how that dynamic works:
10. TAUREAN PRINCE’S PERFECT POSTGAME RESPONSE
Here at The Comeback, we told you about the first great press-conference smackdown of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
On First-Round Thursday, Baylor lost to a Yale team which won its first-ever NCAA Tournament game. That’s a huge story, as was Hawaii’s ability to also win its first-ever Big Dance battle. (See? We bundled two other events into this one.)
Yet, the moment which went viral after this 12-over-5 upset in Providence was from the Baylor side of the aisle.
BU’s Taurean Prince was asked a stupid question. He gave the question the answer it deserved. Coaches will be snarky on a semi-regular (if not regular) basis. It was refreshing to see a collegiate athlete find the ability to expose a question for what it was: horrible.
9. IRISH ESCAPES
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish didn’t make the Final Four, but they did make the Elite Eight for the second straight season, marking a pronounced upward trajectory for the program and veteran coach Mike Brey.
Notre Dame in many ways epitomized this always-on-the-edge college basketball season, which was chaotic and cluttered not just in March, but from November to these early-springtime weeks.
The No. 6 seed in the East Region rallied late to fend off Michigan in the round of 64. That was an immensely entertaining game in its own right. Yet that was just an appetizer compared to what Notre Dame did in the next two rounds of the Dance.
Here’s how Notre Dame eliminated tournament darling Stephen F. Austin and one of the stars of this tournament, Thomas Walkup:
Game winner for Notre Dame against Stephen F. Austin. Stone Cold. Irish win. #MarchMa… (Vine by @ArnaudGelb) https://t.co/NlnOirNyIz
— le bris arnaud (@koubayo) March 21, 2016
In the Sweet 16 against Wisconsin, here’s how Notre Dame escaped death on — you can’t make this stuff up, folks — Good Friday:
Notre Dame steals ball and takes the lead! https://t.co/cUW8tyr8o5
— Kevin Causey (@CFBZ) March 26, 2016
SPEAKING OF WISCONSIN…
Yes, that’s called a segue:
8. X MARKS THE AWFUL SPOT FOR BILL MURRAY
One of the vintage images of the tournament — the 2016 answer to Villanova’s (now-national-championship-celebrating) Piccolo Girl in 2015 — was Bill Murray on the wrong side of March Madness.
Murray’s son is an assistant coach with Xavier, so the legendary actor was all-in for the Musketeers, a No. 2 seed in the East with legitimate Final Four aspirations.
Then came Wisconsin, which had struggled in the round of 64 against Pittsburgh but managed to get through. The Badgers were emboldened against Xavier in the round of 32, and Bronson Koenig — who was terrible against Pitt — was not terrible against the Musketeers, especially in the final seconds:
In this piece on unforgettable NCAA tournament collapses (more on this in a bit), Matt Yoder showed us this image of Bill Murray in a very different NCAA tournament light:
Murray was cheering on Illinois in the 2005 Elite Eight against Arizona. The Fighting Illini — down by eight with roughly one minute left — rallied for an incredible win which propelled them to the national championship game.
One time, you’re laughing, the next, you’re sad. Bill Murray knows this. So does Wisconsin, which shouted with glee after beating Xavier and then was gut-punched against Notre Dame.
This is March.
Postscript: The little girl behind Bill Murray is even harder to look at, yes?
7. ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK: BIG STONES AGAINST PURDUE
The first and second rounds were so good that Arkansas-Little Rock almost (almost…) faded into the background behind other events yet to be mentioned on this list.
The Trojans pulled off a remarkable comeback against Purdue on First-Round Thursday.
This was the signature moment of UALR’s win:
Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/KY8t35tsGm
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 17, 2016
Little Rock’s coach was pretty excited, to say the least.
Weeks later, he became the new head coach at UNLV.
Just another ordinary March, right?
6. BUDDY: BALLER
The Oklahoma-Oregon game as a whole did not sizzle, but Buddy Hield’s majestic 37-point performance — 13 of 20 from the field, 8 of 13 on 3-pointers — was the best of the Elite Eight. Hield’s display was an emphatic declaration that he, not Denzel Valentine of Michigan State, was the best college basketball player of 2016. Buddy also took Oklahoma and Lon Kruger back to the Final Four. The Sooners hadn’t been there since 2002, their coach not since 1994 with Florida.
Here are all eight Buddy threes against the top-seeded Ducks:
Buddy Hield made 8 threes today. That's a lot. #MarchMadness https://t.co/l021v91hCI
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 27, 2016
5. SYRACUSE: FRESH-PRESSED ORANGE JUICE
The Syracuse run to the Final Four — the first by a No. 10 seed — rates as an all-timer on multiple levels. The Orange were viewed by most to be out of the field of 68 after losing to Pittsburgh in the second round of the ACC Tournament. They were more deserving of being in the field than Tulsa, but Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, and Saint Bonaventure all felt jobbed when the Orange leapfrogged them on Selection Sunday.
This team made the Final Four? That’s remarkable enough in its own right.
However, the way Syracuse got to Jim Boeheim’s fifth Final Four was just as incredible, if not more so.
At both ends.
Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/8d8S3MrEln
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 27, 2016
Another telltale 2-way sequence capturing this stunning Syracuse rally.
Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/eZNprBDbmA
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 28, 2016
The incredible stat about Syracuse in the NCAA tournament:
In the final six minutes against Gonzaga (Sweet 16) and the final 7:30 against Virginia (Elite Eight) — 13:30 of game play — the Orange allowed a combined total of seven points (three to Gonzaga, four to Virginia). That’s preposterous… like everything else about a 10 seed’s first-ever journey to the Final Four in 38 seasons.
4. NORTHERN IOWA’S AGONY AND ECSTASY
Remember what we said above when discussing Bill Murray and then Wisconsin: One time, you’re on the sunshine side of March Madness; the next, you’re in the shadows of March Sadness.
No team felt this more acutely in the 2016 NCAA Tournament than Northern Iowa.
This was the sunshine side against Texas on First-Round Friday:
Then came the shadows and an all-time collapse against Texas A&M on Second-Round Sunday:
The rally. Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/yqS16MPqz1
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 21, 2016
The rally, part 2… in overtime.
Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/4Ej2P1iUVW
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) March 21, 2016
This is the poignant, beautiful, terrible truth about sports: Knowing what it feels like to score an improbable win is precisely what enables us to appreciate and live with an unfathomable loss… and vice-versa.
This truth — knowing what it’s like to live on both sides of human experience — enables us to grow if we’re open to the lesson contained inside the truth.
As Rudyard Kipling put it, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…”
Tom Izzo can relate to that, as our next item shows:
3. MIDDLE TENNESSEE MOVES TO THE TOP, WHILE MICHIGAN STATE ENDURES ROCK-BOTTOM PAIN
It is clearly the greatest upset in the shot-clock era of the NCAA tournament, and Michael Grant of The Comeback agreed in his story on the biggest 15-2 upset in the history of the Big Dance.
This is not a debate: No matter what the analytics crowd might say about Norfolk State-Missouri, that was Frank frickin’ HAITH on the Mizzou bench. This was Tom Izzo in charge of the 2 seed. He’s the second-best coach of this generation behind only Mike Krzyzewski. Izzo is a certified March maestro who had never presided over a loss such as this one… until 2016, when Middle Tennessee played fearlessly and flawlessly on offense for 40 minutes. Coach Kermit Davis and his team played at an exalted level, and Michigan State couldn’t match it.
This wasn’t just an upset; it was an upset attained much more on the strength of the winning team’s excellence than on the losing team’s failures, even though Michigan State’s defensive energy was never where it could have been or should have been.
Bravo, Blue Raiders. Your moment was the biggest and best from this whole tournament… except for the final two shots, which need not one word of added commentary: