March Madness 2023 breezed in with a lot of excitement and breezed out with heartbreak and elation. Here is what went down.
The Final Four you weren’t looking for
The sorting out was surprising as the Final Four took shape in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.
Plenty of prognosticators will tell you to pick two No. 1 seed teams for your Final Four. Historically, that’s right on the money. Since the NCAA tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there’s been at least, on average, one No. 1 seed team in the Final Four every year.
Just not this year.
In 2023, there were zero No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Instead, we saw one No. 4 seed (the UConn Huskies), which advanced after beating Gonzaga, as well as No. 5 seeds Miami Hurricanes and San Diego State Aztecs, and the No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic University Owls. All but UConn advanced to their first Final Four appearance ever.
So as March ran out, the stage was set to be epic.
The fact that three of the four finalist teams had never before gotten so far was in itself exciting.
Howard’s spectacular rise and devastating fall
Another exciting event was witnessing the Howard University Bison making it into the tourney for the first time in more than 30 years. On March 11, the legendary HBCU beat the Norfolk State Spartans 65-64. That single point was enough to take the Bison to their first tournament championship in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference since 1992.
Jubilation was palpable among Howard’s players in the interviews they gave after the crucial game. Jelani Williams, whose free throws clinched the game and who led his team with 20 points, said he’d waited his whole life for such a moment. A win like that was “why I came to Howard,” he said. Williams, a graduating senior, said he was cognizant of the fact that this was the last opportunity he’d have to go to the NCAA finals.
Bison head coach Kenny Blakeney was in tears when he spoke to his team. “Everything you’ve gone through, the 6 a.m. practices, getting thrown out of the locker room—all of it—was for this.”
But the joy was short-lived. On March 17, Howard lost 96-68 to the defending champion the Kansas Jayhawks. The Bison gave it all they had—in the first half, they took the lead no less than five times.
The wreckage of brackets across the country by March 18 also included the No. 1 seed Purdue Boilermakers’ loss to the No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson Knights.
It wasn’t just Purdue among the highly seeded losses. The No. 4 seed Virginia Cavaliers suffered a big upset at the hands of the Furman (South Carolina) Paladins, a No. 13 seed team that rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half to a 68-67 victory. Virginia’s defeat was Furman’s unanticipated triumph, as the South Carolina team made its way to the tournament for the first time in more than four decades. The Paladins later became one of the teams that San Diego trounced on its way to the Final Four.
No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats, meanwhile, had a harrowing loss to the No. 15 seed Princeton Tigers. It’s safe to say the Tigers hadn’t been on too many brackets for that win, while no fewer than seven experts at ESPN predicted the Wildcats would make it to the Final Four.
Part of history
For the young players on the court, all this was of course more than a bracket and more than a game. It was about family, home, pride, and their future. It was their love and loyalty to their teammates, coaches, and fellow students.
UConn’s strong lineup had Andrew Hurley, son of coach Don Hurley. The younger Hurley grew up watching the “One Shining Moment” portion of the championship, when broadcast networks played the song amid the winner’s celebration. “One of our biggest dreams,” he said, “is . . . to be part of that video. It’s not just a trophy and a ring.”
Nahiem Alleyne, one of UConn’s most formidable players, said for him it’s all about “trying to be a part of history.”
UConn went into the Final Four as the heavy favorite. So let’s also hear from the longshot FAU Owls, a team that only came into being in 1964—and has flown pretty much under the radar ever since.
On the eve of the Final Four, FAU’s Vladislav Goldin was wonderstruck, saying after practice as he looked around the NRG Stadium in Houston, “Wow, I’m going to be here?”
Owls coach Dusty May has a ritual of going around the circle of his players and asking how they would define themselves as a team. For sure, they’re not going to let anyone else define them. “Scrappy” was one of the answers. “Discipline” was another.
Just before the Final Four, Owls first-year guard Nick Boyd said he had no problem with his team being the “underdog,” but they weren’t going to be some “Cinderella.” The team has been working hard to prove itself the whole season and its record “speaks for itself.”
ESPN noted how FAU was focused on staying “poised under pressure,” as the buzz about them kept increasing. Sophomore guard Johnell Davis, whose 29 points moved the Owls into the Sweet Sixteen, said he and his teammates had discussed exactly that. “We can’t just live in a dream right now. You gotta stay poised,” he noted.