The lights have been shut off at Caesars Superdome. The fans are gone. The celebration may still rage in the streets of New Orleans and Lawrence, Kansas, but inside the arena, it’s quiet. There is, however, a soft glow on the wood floor remaining in the cavernous space. Purple cracks glow between the floor sections. In an instant, the arena is filled with light once again.
We are in the grand age of multiversal storytelling. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Everything Everywhere All at Once have broadened the scope of storytelling. In a month, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness pushes it once again. But movies are not the only area where people can imagine all the realms of possibilities.
The Multiverse of March Madness has erupted open.
We can now see all of the possibilities that the men’s NCAA tournament presents. All 64 teams–68 if you count the teams in the First Four–can imagine their names forming that lightning bolt path through the bracket.
In our prime reality, only Kansas cut down the nets, and yet, every decision, shot, block, and substitution could have flapped the butterfly wings of chaos, rewriting history.
St. Peter’s might be the most obvious example. There are two paths the Peacocks players and coaches might take going forward. Will they cherish the magical run they had, going farther than any 15 seed before them? Or will they rue the fact that they came out flat, missed a couple of early shots, and couldn’t dig their way out of a deep hole against North Carolina? I hope the former.
Gonzaga, Baylor, and Arizona might also be pining for their alternate reality as three of the four number 1 seeds were all out before the Elite Eight. The fact that Kansas was the only number one seed alive must’ve felt like their own divergent universe. Kansas was not seen as a number 1 seed until the last month of the season. Although they also benefited from the easiest bracket, they get credit for vanquishing all, including wiping out a pretty good Villanova team.
New Mexico State and the Richmond Spiders continued the trend of 12 seeds upsetting 5 seeds. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get out of that first weekend.
I had the impression that the Sweet Sixteen contained a surprising number of higher seeds, further proving to me that the multiverse might be bleeding together. I actually used a calculator to figure out if it truly was of historical significance. The seeds of this year’s Sweet Sixteen teams added up to 85. That felt significant. I started to work my way backward… and stopped at last year. In 2021, the 16 teams added up to 94. Further research showed that was the highest of all time.
There are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 possible outcomes of March Madness. That’s nine quintillions. Still, the final four teams were Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Villanova. Despite seeding, that’s four of the top five blue bloodiest blue bloods imaginable. CBS should have followed the Final Four with an episode of Tom Selleck’s Blue Bloods.
While they have the pedigree, it’s not like the path was easy for those four teams. UNC had to weather a furious comeback from Baylor, eventually surviving in overtime. There is nothing more multiversal than an overtime game. Especially when one takes into account that UNC was up by 25 earlier in that game and very easily could have blown it. One foul shot and it’s a whole different game. Last year’s champion, the Bears, could have been on their own path to the Final Four.
Individual players certainly saw their legacies, and possible legacies, flash before their eyes. Chet Holmgren was supposed to lead Gonzaga back to the title game, where they lost last year. Instead, he fouled out on a few questionable calls in their loss to Arkansas. Now he’ll have to settle for being a top-five pick in the NBA draft. During the time he was on the court, he showed exactly why he is seen as a tantalizing prospect with his mobility, length, and intelligence, and at the same time there remain some questions about the fact that he’s just so damn skinny.
Fellow star Jabari Smith of Auburn was stunned by 10 seeded Miami. The Tigers’ guards appeared to collude to make sure Jabari didn’t touch the ball too much. They wanted it to be fair. Smith will be fine as he will step into the NBA and average 15 points a game.
Doug Edert has to examine the multiverse to figure out whether to shave his mustache. At this point he probably has to keep it, right? Maybe even use it in the logo of his future insurance agency? He is the closest we’ve had to a true breakout star. Usually, we get one in the tournament. Similarly, there were no real true buzzer-beaters this year. There were close games, but none were settled by shocking final moment shots. What are the odds of that?
Paolo Banchero did not throw that last game, but he may have been tempted to. He was the last of the consensus top-five NBA prospects left playing. In the last decade, however, that was not necessarily a positive. Only four players have won a title and then been selected in the first handful of names called in the draft, and their results are mixed: De’Andre Hunter in 2019, Jahlil Okafor in 2015, and Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012. So do you want to win the title or be a highly drafted superstar? Only AD gets to be both. Banchero can rest easy knowing he can still be a star.
The fact that Coach K met his primary rival, UNC, in the Final Four does prove there is some poetic justice in the world. The energy at the start of that game was truly electric. Said energy also led to several early mistakes by both teams, whether that was making passes a hair late, stepping out of bounds, or early fouls. Once everyone settled down, it was an absolute classic.
Every time either team grabbed any momentum, the team in the other shade of blue snatched it back. There was a stretch in the second half when North Carolina went on a big run. Then Duke locked them up. Then Banchero picked up two quick fouls. Then Bacot got hurt. Then Bacot came back. Then UNC missed five straight shots on one possession. Both teams decided they should blow some clutch foul shots to make it interesting. It was a tense game for every minute.
Now Coach K is left wondering what universe he must hop into where they don’t lose what was easily the biggest Final Four game ever, for people who live in North Carolina.
There may be one sliver of reality where the national consciousness cares about the women’s college national championship as much as the men’s. In that more just world, more people would have watched South Carolina run over UConn for the title.
The Gamecocks have been a dominant team for years and were two missed layups away from making the finals last year. After Aliyah Boston hit back rim on her last shot, I guess she decided she was not going to do that anymore? She and the other Gamecocks rampaged to a wire-to-wire finish as the AP’s top-ranked team, while Boston won the National Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards.
Boston had 16 rebounds on Sunday night and South Carolina doubled up UConn on the glass. That’s the type of game discrepancy that can demoralize an opponent. South Carolina kept the pressure on all game and, despite a few runs by the Huskies, the game had a feeling of inevitability behind it from the very start. It was 17-4 after the first 7 minutes and 8 seconds. In the end, Boston got her redemption, and coach Dawn Staley won her second national title.
The men’s championship was both fascinating and poorly played at the same time. I think this year will be like the 1992 tournament where everyone remembers the Laettner shot when Duke beat Kentucky, but that wasn’t the championship. This tournament may be remembered for UNC beating Duke instead of the title game.
Still, the game was not without its storylines. The 2020 Kansas team was a favorite to win it all. On March 10th, their odds stood at +500, leading the field. On March 12th, the tournament was canceled. It has been a theme of the tournament that this Jayhawks squad is playing to both redeem that team and prove their own.
The Tar Heels had been a decent, but not truly good, team until late in the season. They obviously went on a wild ride, the likes of which is exactly how the tournament got its nickname.
Ahead of the game, my main question revolved around the big men involved. David McCormack vs Armando Bacot was the matchup that I felt mattered the most. Both had great Final Four games. If Bacot’s ankle injury was limiting, I was worried about North Carolina’s chances. Spoiler alert– it ended up being a big deal.
When March Madness turns to April, it is so often about who can keep their poise and process the surging emotions. The team that can do that will generally win. It seems silly in a time filled with analytical data to distill a game down to such a basic element and yet I believe it matters.
Kansas jumped out to an early lead while UNC looked flat, which tracks. UNC had to beat Baylor, the number one seed, as I covered earlier, and then St. Peter’s, the national darling, and then their hated rival Duke. It makes sense that they would be tired.
To their credit, they rallied and rallied big. They held Kansas to 25 first-half points. Bacot had a 12 and 10 at halftime. He was clearly not 100% and yet he was getting it done.
Caleb Love, one of the rising stars of the tournament, had a quiet night. He shot 5 of 24 from the field including 1-8 from three. He is a dynamic guard with swooping grace in the lane and he was able to finish enough of those to keep Kansas at bay. UNC kept attacking and Kansas appeared lost. The Tar Heels had 18 second-chance points at halftime.
This is where that energy I mentioned comes into play in these types of games. It makes sense that North Carolina came in jacked up from their run of success. But adrenaline can only take you so far. I am not a kinesthesiologist, and I don’t know what a kinesthesiologist does, but the wear and tear of the journey caught up to them. Nothing kills adrenaline like a halftime break, even if you do have a 15 point lead. Not to mention, Hubert Davis only played essentially six guys for the whole tournament.
North Carolina could only muster 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Love rolled his ankle on a simple jog through the lane. Bacot reinjured his ankle on a non-contact move–and also one of the most critical moments of the game. Puff Johnson could barely breathe running down the court at one point. He collapsed and had to be helped off. Brady Manek stumbled on the final play.
All of those moments are the hallmark of a tired team. Our bodies, our balance, our dexterity, and our concentration all diminish when we’re tired. This is why I think that sharpness is vital.
Kansas, meanwhile, appeared to get stronger as the game went on. Their energy picked up, particularly once they saw that their opponent was sputtering. They were also helped by the fact that Hubert Davis fell asleep. What, he wasn’t asleep? Then why didn’t he call a timeout during the 20-4 run that the Jayhawks went on? I do not think Davis did a good job.
Kansas definitely earned this title. They proved that they could play stretches of excellent defense and score in a variety of ways as they orchestrated the largest NCAA title comeback ever. They had guys step up in important and surprising ways, like Christian Braun snatching 12 rebounds. Remy Martin came off the bench to nail four tough 3s when the rest of Kansas only hit two. David McCormack closed the game with two short hooks. Kansas won 72-69.
The Jayhawks looked across the court at the team-of-destiny staring back at them and they calmly explained that this was their universe. They were writing their own destiny on the timeline.
So as the shattered reality in the Superdome floor resealed, the Kansas Jayhawks were the one team not looking to change a thing.