Winners, losers from an incredible NCAA Tournament
The 2021 NCAA Tournament made up for last year's cancellation with an incredible few weeks of action.
With the first title in program history, Baylor was clearly the big winner this year in college basketball. Removing the Bears from the equation, here's who is walking away from the tournament as a winner, and who leaves with a sour taste in their mouth.
Entering the tournament, there was the potential for one conference to stand above the rest as the top group in college basketball. But no one expected it to be the Pac-12.
The conference of champions started off hot, with each of its five representatives making the Round of 32, and the momentum carried from there. All told, Pac-12 squads went 13-5 in the tournament, and three teams made it to the Elite Eight.
Shockingly, No. 5 Colorado - the Pac-12's highest seed - was the first school eliminated. Oregon State, which qualified for March Madness with an improbable conference tournament run, was the only No. 12 seed or higher in the Elite Eight. Most impressive, though, was No. 11 UCLA's Cinderella run from the First Four to a Jalen Suggs buzzer-beater away from the championship game.
The Pac-12 earned the respect of college basketball fans this March.
Two No. 1 seeds ended up playing for the title, but one of the biggest stories of the tournament was the success of those teams at the lower end of the spectrum. For the first time ever, four teams ranked No. 13 or worse got through the opening round of play: No. 15 Oral Roberts, No. 14 Abilene Christian, No. 13 Ohio, and No. 13 North Texas.
The double-digit seeds weren't interested in being one-and-done, either, as four ended up in the Sweet 16, with Pac-12 headliners Oregon State and UCLA highlighting that group.
We lost last year's tournament due to COVID-19, but the 2021 version more than made up for it with a number of memorable underdog runs.
Cronin's hiring wasn't initially considered a home run by most UCLA fans. Several candidates declined the gig before Cronin signed on to mesh his defensive brand of basketball with the high-scoring Bruins teams of years past. The 49-year-old's squad put any doubts to rest, as it came within the aforementioned all-time clutch basket of taking down undefeated Gonzaga.
UCLA became just the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four, beating both the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the region. The Bruins advanced through the tourney with the same style of play that defined Cronin's rock-solid Cincinnati teams for 13 years, and they were without arguably their best player (Chris Smith) for the entire run.
Former top-35 recruit Johnny Juzang was almost an afterthought following a rough freshman year at Kentucky, but he re-established himself as an NBA prospect under Cronin's tutelage. Expect a return to prominence next year, as well, with UCLA returning a majority of the team and adding five-star prospect Peyton Watson.
From nine teams in the field of 68 to just one in the Elite Eight, it's impossible to sugarcoat it: this year's NCAA Tournament was a disaster for the Big Ten. The conference that many viewed as the best in the country was college basketball's biggest disappointment in March.
It started immediately with No. 2 Ohio State falling to No. 15 Oral Roberts and continued with No. 1 Illinois, No. 2 Iowa, and No. 4 Purdue all crashing out before the Sweet 16. The Fighting Illini might have been the biggest shocker, as the high-flying Big Ten tourney champs had the clamps put on them by in-state No. 8 Loyola Chicago.
The lone Big Ten school in the Elite Eight was No. 1 Michigan, and the Wolverines failed to score 50 points in a narrow loss to UCLA. The Big Ten certainly features some prolific programs, but the committee should probably think twice before rewarding it with nine teams in the tournament field again.
Though No. 3 Texas wasn't the highest seed to lose in the Round of 64, it might have suffered the worst defeat of the entire tournament. The Longhorns' 53-52 loss to No. 14 Abilene Christian wasn't just shocking, but it was horrendous on multiple fronts.
First, Texas - one of the biggest names in all of college basketball - lost to not only a tiny private school, but one which has been playing Division I basketball for just seven seasons and is from the same state.
To make matters worse, the Longhorns committed 23 turnovers and allowed 18 offensive rebounds to the Southland squad that ranked 339th nationally in height. For a team that was once as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll, it was a true disaster.
The loss didn't come without greater consequence, either. Head coach Shaka Smart jumped ship to Marquette just weeks after the loss, evading an inevitable firing after another disappointing season in Austin.
There's no doubt Gonzaga had one of the best seasons in college basketball history, but the mighty Bulldogs once again fell short of the ultimate goal. This season featured arguably the best roster Mark Few has had during his 22-year head coaching tenure in Spokane, and it showed that throughout the year before a disappointing performance on Monday.
Corey Kispert and Drew Timme were recognized as the top players at their positions, while Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi finished as finalists for the Bob Cousy Award and Jerry West Award, respectively. The Zags were an unstoppable offensive force throughout the season, averaging a nation-leading 91.6 points per contest. They breezed through one of the toughest non-conference schedules and set an NCAA Division I record with 27 straight double-digit wins.
But it was all for naught, as another great Gonzaga team fell short of the title. One win shy of the perfect season is something that deserves a ton of praise, but the questions will persist until the Bulldogs win that elusive national championship. It could be as soon as next year, especially if they secure the services of No. 1 recruit Chet Holmgren. Still, Few may never have a more complete team than the one he had this season.