Another March, Another Tournament Full of Madness

Here are some of the stories from the 2024 March Madness tournament

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By Carmen Gomez-Villalva

For millions of basketball fans across the country, there is no other time quite like March. The 22 days of March Madness between Selection Sunday and the National Championship game are filled with competition, excitement, anxiety, and a rollercoaster of emotions for fans and players alike. With 68 teams from all over the country participating in this single-elimination tournament, madness is a guarantee. Despite the immense research that many statisticians and sports fans invest into predicting its results, this tournament always creates unpredictable storylines that make it so electric.

Here are some of the stories of this year’s March Madness.

NC State Wolfpack 

Every year there is a Cinderella team: 15-seed Princeton made the Sweet Sixteen last year, 15-seed St. Peters reached the Elite Eight in 2022, and 11-seeds Loyola Chicago, VCU, and George Mason made the Final Four in 2018, 2011, and 2006, respectively. Like those three 11-seeds, this year’s 11-seed NC State has had a miraculous Final Four run so far, especially considering where they started the season. With a disappointing 17-14 record during the regular season, securing a berth in March Madness seemed virtually impossible unless they won the ACC tournament. However, achieving this would be no easy feat, as they would have to beat formidable teams like UNC and Duke, both of whom had beaten the Wolfpack earlier in the season. However, after a surprise upset against Duke, NC State reached the semifinals against Virginia. In the last five seconds, Virginia stood at the free throw line up three points; if Virginia made this free throw, the game would be over. Luckily, Virginia missed this crucial free throw, and NC State flew down the court to put up a miracle three-pointer to send the game into overtime. After this first glimpse of March magic, NC State would not just go on to win the game, but would continue on and upset UNC in the championship to guarantee themselves a spot in March Madness. Their underdog winning streak wouldn’t end there, as they proceeded to beat six-seed Texas Tech and then a red-hot Oakland team to secure a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. Facing increasingly challenging opponents, they confronted two-seed Marquette and, following that win, had to face four-seed division rivals Duke for a spot at the Final Four. Mirroring their performance against Duke in the ACC tournament and maintaining their tournament dominance, they secured their spot in the Final Four. 

With this Cinderella team, there’s a clear Cinderella star. Despite the fact that forward DJ Burns Jr.’s 6’9”, 275-pound frame would probably shatter the glass slippers, his clean footwork and nice hands have allowed him to dominate throughout the tournament, scoring 24 points against Oakland and 29 against Duke. His size, style of play, and personality have also made him a fan favorite. On top of Burns’s performances, everyone else on the team stepped up as well. Guard DJ Horne has been averaging 16 points recently and forwards Mohamed Diarra and Ben Middlebrooks have significantly impacted the game when Burns is off the court. What coach Kevin Keatts and this team are doing is truly historic in how they have turned around their program. NC State was a strong team many years ago, winning the national championship back in ‘74 and ‘83, but they haven’t been to a Final Four since. Initially, this season was looking like more struggles for NC State, and with 14 losses, Coach Keatts’s coaching spot was not safe. But with this run, Keatts has regained some job security and finally brought a winning mentality back to the team. As the team has continued to defy the odds, following their “why not us” mantra, they are not ready to stop now—they want the championship. “We came here to win,” Keatts said.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Despite being a four-seed and having another solid season, this Alabama team faced considerable doubt due to their disappointing loss to SDSU last year, their quarterfinals loss to Florida in the SEC tournament this year, and their weak overall playstyle. The Crimson Tide’s strength lies in their fast-paced offense, currently ranked third best in the country, according to Kenpom. However, their defense is severely trailing at 104th in the country. Historically, in March, defense is what matters, and teams with poor defenses tend to struggle and get upset, as a bad day of shooting is all it takes to end their tournament. Alabama has defied these expectations through their run in this tournament, most notably knocking off the one-seed UNC in the Sweet 16. Guards Mark Sears and Rylan Griffen have played major roles in the team’s success throughout the tournament, but forward Grant Nelson took over the show in their matchup against UNC, delivering an impressive performance with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and major defensive contributions with five blocks. But what allows Alabama to play this aggressive basketball is the collaboration and what the team describes as the Buddhist concept of Mudita. Mudita describes the joy in the success of others, and it is an idea that the team has really embraced during a time when they needed to. This Alabama team had a relatively new coaching staff and transfers from all over the country, so being able to connect has been key. “Just being joyful for others, that’s really how we got here, and that’s really what brought us to our success,” Sears said. 

Golden Grizzlies With the Golden Shooter

Before the tournament began, the notion of Oakland beating Kentucky in the round of 64 seemed implausible. Kentucky, the three-seed, boasted star guards Rob Dillingham and Reed Shepard—potential lottery picks—alongside dominant guards/forwards Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell, thus setting high expectations for a deep run in the tournament. Kentucky was favored to win by a whopping 13.5 points and was given an 89.2 percent chance to beat Oakland by ESPN analysts. Oakland, on the other hand, had almost no support and seemed like a training opponent for Kentucky. Led by forward Trey Townsend and guard Jack Gohlke, the Oakland Golden Grizzlies looked like they were going to be taken care of rather easily in their first-round battle against Kentucky. However, many people overlooked their solid season record of 20-11, only marginally worse than Kentucky’s 21-10. 

When they finally faced off, Oakland and Kentucky were neck-and-neck throughout the whole game. Reeves had a masterclass of a game, scoring 27 points on 61 from the field and 56 percent from behind the arc. Unfortunately for him, he was overshadowed by sharpshooter Gohlke, who hit ten threes on 53 percent shooting from behind the arc. When the final buzzer rang and the scoreboard showed 80-76 in favor of the Golden Grizzlies, the entire world was in shock and Gohlke became an internet sensation within minutes. The way they played, it didn’t seem like Gohkle and the Golden Grizzlies were underdogs, but that they belonged there. “That’s why I was so confident going into it. And that’s why I said we're not a Cinderella because, when we play our A-game, we can be the best team on the floor,” Gohlke said. 

The Top Staying Strong

Besides the few great storylines and upsets, the strongest teams in this tournament have generally stayed strong. Last year, only two first seeds made it to the Sweet 16, with the rest all falling by the Elite Eight. The lone top seed in the Final Four was four-seed UConn. In contrast, all of this year’s one-seeds made it to the Sweet 16, and two of them are still in contention. One-seed Houston fell to Duke after being plagued by injuries, including one to guard Jamal Shead in the first half of the game. For one-seed UNC, their loss to Alabama followed a miserable night for star guard RJ Davis, who shot 4-20 from the field and 0-9 from three. The other two one-seeds though have been utterly dominating, with UConn blowing out every single team they have played and forward Zach Edey easily leading Purdue to the Final Four. In general, the favorites have performed well, with Clemson and NC State being the only teams seeded lower than 5 to make the Sweet 16, compared to the five from last year. The tournament has still been electric and enjoyable to watch, but this year’s competition has not seen nearly as many upsets as last year’s. 

With the tournament coming to a close and millions of brackets busted, NC State is taking on Purdue and Alabama is taking on UConn in Glendale, Arizona in the Final Four. The matchup of Burns Jr. and Edey will be a classic big-man battle and the matchup of the consistent UConn and the aggressive Alabama will be another amazing game. UConn and Purdue are still favorites to come out on top of their Final Four matchups to meet each other in the championship game, but you never know, because in March, anything can happen.