Special Briefing: What to Know About the Men’s and Women’s Final Four
After two weeks of upsets and historic streaks, the Final Four is set. OZY’s diving in to break down both the men’s and women’s tournaments so that you know what to watch.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Madness ends in April.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
Sifting Through the Rubble: One of the most unpredictable tournaments in men’s college basketball history has finally reached its final weekend. This year’s Sweet 16 boasted the third-highest seed total of all time thanks to all the upsets. After 13-seed Buffalo dominated popular national championship pick Arizona on opening night, the madness was loose. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County made history the following night, trouncing No. 1 Virginia to become the first 16-seed to ever win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Cinderella and the Big Dogs: And while Buffalo and UMBC lost in the second round, 11-seed Loyola-Chicago continues to carry the torch. Elsewhere, Xavier became the second 1-seed to bow out in the opening weekend, losing to No. 9 Florida State in the second round. Ultimately, 3-seed Michigan and the two remaining 1-seeds, Villanova and Kansas, round out the field.
Talent Wins Out: All four No. 1 seeds advanced to the women’s Final Four in Columbus, Ohio. The story here is whether anyone can stop the UConn Huskies. Connecticut (36–0) are winners of four of the last five national championships. After starting the tournament with a 140–52 rout of 16-seed St. Francis College, the Huskies’ biggest test came in a 13-point victory over Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. But a UConn title is no guarantee. Mississippi State (36–1), which would meet UConn in the national championship should they both advance, ended Connecticut’s 111-game win streak (and quest for a fifth straight title) in the Final Four last season.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
The Making of a Major? Ever since Gonzaga’s emergence as a national powerhouse in the early 2000s, followed by the subsequent rise of Butler and Wichita State, a mid-major program seems to capture lightning in a bottle. This year, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers make the school’s first Final Four appearance since 1963. These deep NCAA Tournament runs can elevate a program to national prominence and shift the fortunes of an entire university. With no other successful program currently competing for championships in Chicago, Ramblers coach Porter Moser has a chance to entice the city’s best talent to stay home. That is, of course, if he declines the major job offers that are surely coming.
Well, Actually: The most common critique of women’s college basketball focuses on the apparent talent disparity between the game’s best programs and the rest of the field. And as Geno Auriemma’s UConn squad has rattled off six championships in the last nine years, public criticism grows louder. But what the haters are missing is that UConn is elevating what the women’s game can be. Saying that women’s college basketball is bad — and that UConn’s dominance is proof of a diluted product — is incorrect and only harms the sport. Teams are playing faster than ever and developing huge, highly skilled future professionals just to keep up.
The Chalk Remains Strong: Yes, this was only the fourth time ever that two 1-seeds were eliminated prior to the Sweet 16, but three top-rated teams — Villanova, Kansas and Michigan — still made it to the Final Four. Villanova and Kansas will be an epic battle, while the Final Four matchup between Michigan and Loyola is a classic chess match between similarly styled teams. Many network talking heads worried that too many upsets might bastardize the tournament’s ultimate product, but this won’t be the case.
Uncertainty Is Certain: After the first round, none of the 17.3 million public men’s brackets on ESPN were perfect, and that was before Florida State beat Gonzaga and Loyola-Chicago continued its run. The four remaining teams are playing high-level hoops so no outcome will come as a shock, but defense and tempo could dictate the ultimate victor. Loyola and Michigan both prefer to control the ball and play slow-tempo offense, while Kansas and Villanova like to speed the game up. Defense, then, is key. Michigan is the top defensive team remaining, followed by Villanova, Loyola and Kansas, in that order.
Size Matters: Only two opponents — Notre Dame and Texas — have come within single digits of the UConn women this season. That’s a bad sign for their remaining opponents, but a blueprint for beating Connecticut exists. Mississippi State only needs to look in the mirror. UConn can run and score better than anyone, so taking down Goliath requires ball control and rebounding. Notre Dame has the size and tenacity to give UConn trouble on the glass, but Mississippi State is the best bet here. The Bulldogs outrebounded Connecticut 37–31 last season. Led by 6-foot-7-inch Teaira McCowan, they can do it again.
WHAT TO READ
The Men’s Final Four Will Look an Awful Lot Like the NBA Playoffs, by Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer
“More traditional blue bloods may try to copy Jay Wright’s formula at Villanova, where he runs one of the most prolific offenses in college history because he emphasizes shooting in recruiting as opposed to NBA measurables.”
UConn Bad for Women’s Basketball? Not by a Long Shot, by Natalie Weiner at Bleacher Report
“The sexism of ‘UConn is bad for women’s basketball’ goes much deeper than the fact that the claim is inaccurate. One of the reasons the team repeatedly inspires this same conversation is it continues to buck the cliche that women are bad at sports.”
WHAT TO WATCH
The Weird History of Women’s Basketball, by OZY
“They used to think that women would get too tired if they were running full court.”
Watch on OZY on YouTube:
Miraculous: The Austin Hatch Story, ESPN
“Till the day that we die, I will never doubt anything with Austin Hatch.”
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Ramble On: Before this Final Four run, Loyola hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1985. The last time the Ramblers made the Final Four? 1963, when they defeated Duke and Cincinnati to win the NCAA title. Team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, then a mere 43 years old, was still teaching at Mundelein College.