HOUSTON – There was no sugar coating, this title game was bad.
Watching the cars spin their wheels in the mud was even more exciting than the 76-59 pennant fest that ended with Connecticut winning its fifth national title. If you’re not a UConn or San Diego State fan and have a feeling, I turned off the TV at halftime Monday night so your retinas wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the ugly display of basketball — if you can name what they were playing basketball.
It was the lowest-scoring game ever since 2015, and UConn wouldn’t have cracked 70 without this flurry of free throws in the last 90 seconds. San Diego State barely managed above 32% on shooting, and the Aztecs finished with more errors (20) than field goals (19).
Although the game was unpleasant, that doesn’t mean this was a bad men’s NCAA tournament. Quite the contrary. The first 62 matches offered all kinds of fun and this, rather than these atrocities, should be the lasting memory of this year’s men’s tournament.
“The state of basketball is in good shape now,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said after the championship game. “You don’t have to have millions of dollars in NIL and you don’t have to make every kid in the gate a success. You just have to have kids who understand the right things, and want to win more than anything.”
Remember Fairleigh Dickinson? Most people had not heard of the small private school in New Jersey until last month. Now she has earned a permanent place in national lore, only the second 16th seed in men’s tournament history to drop a top seed when she stunned Purdue.
We should have known then that this was going to be the year of upheavals and upstarts. The four first-place finishers each went ahead of the Elite Eight, the first time in the men’s tournament that occurred, and the ninth-ranked Final Four (Florida Atlantic) and two fifth-ranked Final Four appearances at Miami and San Diego State.
FAU was two seconds away from becoming the lowest seed in the NCAA game. And to make the Owls’ run even more impressive, they hadn’t won a championship game before this year!
“We’ve taken it to a new level,” Nick Boyd said Saturday night. “All I can do is smile and be thankful for the run we’ve had and know next year you’ll be hearing from FAU again.”
Twenty-seven years after Princeton defeated defending champion UCLA in the first round, a player from that team has coached the 15th-ranked Tigers to not one title but two tournament wins. We all learned what a paladin is – a legendary knight in 8th century France – thanks to Foreman’s first-round win over fourth seed Virginia.
What about individual shows?
There was perhaps no better moment than watching Kansas State’s Marquis Noel, a proud New Yorker, light up the Spartans at Madison Square Garden in what is arguably the best game of the entire tournament. Noel had an NCAA-high 19 assists in a game, the best of which was Loeb not looking at Keyontae Johnson in an alley with less than a minute left in regulation.
Noel also scored 20 points despite spraining his ankle in the first half.
“Today was a special event,” he said after the match. “I can’t even explain how I feel right now. I just know I’m lucky and I’m grateful.”
Drew Timmy scored 36 points as Gonzaga came from 13 points down to defeat UCLA. San Diego State’s Darion Trammell had a monster game to send Alabama home, for which an entire country is grateful, then fouled with just over a second left and made a free throw to beat Creighton in the Elite Eight.
Not to be outdone, Trammell teammate Lamont Butler hit the buzzer against FAU to send the Aztecs to the title game Monday night.
The coaches had their moments, too.
Tom Izzo invoked his old magic in March, leading Michigan State to a second-round win over Marquette, who entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. Dutcher, who served as an assistant for 28 years before becoming the head coach at San Diego State six years ago, earned his first NCAA championship win. Then he won four more.
And no one will ever forget the joy and dance moves of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga. The 73-year-old coach has been bobbing and crooning in the Hurricanes’ locker room after every win.
“My players said you’re too stiff, you have to relax. Well I can’t. I don’t have that flexibility anymore,” Larrañaga said on Friday. “You can evaluate him or the players can evaluate him. I just know my wife loves it.”
be seen? There are so many good memories from this year’s tournament. The title game wouldn’t be one of them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @rrarmour.
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