A look back at the historic 2021 March Madness

A look back at the historic 2021 March Madness

Just over 365 days since the global COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020, the first NCAA tournament game in nearly two years tipped off. Displaying glimmers of normalcy, arguably the biggest stage in the sports world picked off right where it had left off in 2019. A memorable, unforgettable 2021 season paved the way for a return to the brightest of lights: March Madness. Scheduled to take place throughout the state of Indiana, the NCAA’s “bubble” did not fail to capture the beauty behind this particular tournament.

As if the build-up could not have been more anticipating, the First Four matchups provided a blueprint for the intensity and grit illustrated by the 68 participating teams. UCLA snuck past Michigan State in a blue-blood faceoff, sparking a historic run for the eleven seed. On the first day of games, the average margin of victory was a measly four points. Underdogs Drake and Norfolk State both triumphed in one-point victories, keeping their respective seasons alive.

With the exception of UCLA, each survivor from the First Four ran into a brick wall in the first official round. Texas Southern and Norfolk State were both defeated handily, and a Drexel and Hartford loss eliminated all sixteen seeds from the bracket in the round of 64. The reigning national champions also went down in the opening round, falling to the Ohio Bobcats on the back of a near triple-double from Jason Preston. Despite winning the Big East, Georgetown allowed 96 points against the Colorado Buffaloes and halted the Hoyas’ storybook season. 

In the same region, two of the top teams fell simultaneously. A defensive battle between Texas and Abilene Christian saw the Wildcats topple the three-seeded Longhorns by just a point. Additionally, BYU could not keep up with high-powered UCLA, as the Bruins elongated their improbable run. The story of the first round, however, was the Ohio State Buckeyes. After nearly winning the Big Ten, the two seed struggled heavily against Oral Roberts. In overtime, the Golden Eagles shocked OSU in an upset for the ages. This game served as a reminder that anything can happen in March. 

Entering the first weekend of the tournament, the upsets began to rain. The Oregon Ducks cruised their way to a win over heavily-favored Iowa, as the Hawkeyes could not pull it together on the defensive end. Similarly, the rock-solid Kansas Jayhawks fell apart in a gruesome 30-point defeat to USC. Shockingly, Oral Roberts knocked off the Florida Gators to advance as just the second fifteen-seeded team to reach the Sweet 16. The unbelievable route to the third round for ORU showcased the nature behind what it takes to win games in March Madness.

In the midwest region, three out of four second-round games were upsets. Most notably Illinois’ defeat to Loyola Chicago, the number one-seeded Illini fell to Sister Jean and the Ramblers. 12 seed Oregon State knocked out Oklahoma State, a fan-favorite across the country. To finish off the weekend of upsets, Jim Boeheim watched his son Buddy post 55 points over two games in order to send 11-seeded Syracuse to the third round. 

Despite facing a red-hot LSU team, the Wolverines of Michigan pulled out an eight-point win over the Tigers. In a matchup that nobody expected, UCLA sent Abilene Christian home for the season while advancing to the Sweet 16. In the round of 32, top seeds such as Gonzaga, Baylor, Alabama, Houston, and Arkansas all etched their names into the following weekend with victories.

As it usually does, this year’s March Madness presented a wide variety of matchups in the later rounds. In the case of the Sweet 16, multiple championship contenders entering the tournament had already been booted. Among favorites to win it all, number one seeds Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan cruised to double-digit point victory margins. Likewise, underdogs such as the USC Trojans and Oregon State Beavers advanced to the next round with convincing victories. 

Anxious to see an extremely low seed reach the Elite Eight, the college basketball tuned in to a matchup between Oral Roberts and Arkansas. In an ultra-competitive battle, ORU came up just two points short of the highly-touted Razorbacks. To much surprise; however, the two-seeded Alabama also lost to UCLA in a high-scoring affair. The Bruins, still not done, had proven their skill to the league with star players Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr, and Tyger Campbell. 

In the Elite Eight, a fight for the four remaining spots gave way to an incredible round of basketball. Houston cruised past Oregon State after a dominating first half, along with USC’s 19-point drubbing to Gonzaga on the back of 23 points from Drew Timme. Baylor, a dark horse title contender, elevated over Arkansas in an 81-72 win to advance to its first Final Four in quite some time. With Michigan heavily favored over UCLA, the Bruins kept pace with the Wolverines thanks to outstanding shooting from Johnny Juzang. The Kentucky transfer scored 28 points in 38 minutes to shock the college basketball world in a 51-49 victory for coach Mick Cronin and a Final Four birth. UCLA is the first team to ever make the Final Four from the play-in game.

With the Final Four matchups set, the talent in Lucas Oil Stadium could not be undervalued. In Saturday’s first game, the Baylor Bears jumped to life from the early stages. A 25-point scoring differential in the first half paved the way for an easy win for Baylor. The 19-point margin of victory was made possible by a team-high 17 points from Jared Butler and incredible contributions from Davion Mitchell.

The second game was certainly a subject of much more interest. Rather than playing the high-octane Michigan Wolverines, the undefeated, number one overall Gonzaga Bulldogs matched up with the red-hot UCLA Bruins. In a true back-and-forth game, UCLA showed its competitiveness by hanging with the Zags for the duration of the game. On top of a 29-point performance from Johnny Juzang, the game dragged into overtime. In the final seconds of overtime, Juzang scored five straight points to tie the game at 90 apiece. As nobody could have predicted, freshmen phenom Jalen Suggs for Gonzaga nailed a near-half court shot as the buzzer sounded. The remarkable game-winner will serve as one of the more memorable March Madness moments in history. 

In efforts to become just the eighth undefeated national champion ever, the Bulldogs strutted into the season’s final game with the utmost confidence. Meeting Gonzaga was fellow one seed Baylor, who had seemingly breezed its way to the championship game. As possibly the one team in the country capable of slowing down and keep up with the Zags, the Bears proved how valuable it was to play solid, firm defense. The team boasted three players with over 15 points and outlasted the Bulldogs all night long. When it was all said and done, The Baylor Bears from Wayco, Texas stood as the lone team remaining in this year’s dazzling tournament.

Capped off by Baylor’s national title, the 2021 NCAA Tournament continued its storied success by putting on yet another show for sports fans across the globe. Even without fans, the magnitude and significance of this year’s tournament in light of everything have provided these fans with a sense of comfort and normalcy. As March Madness in 2022 is currently on the clock, there is no doubt that the cherished competition will showcase the elegance of college basketball.