In the minds of fans of every school that finds itself in the Sweet 16, this is the year that their team will go all the way and win the 2019 NCAA Tournament.To paraphrase Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises, isn’t it at least pretty to think so?
Two teams from the Northwest are still standing—Oregon and Gonzaga—and what are the chances that their fans and players get to realize a championship that is more fact than fiction? And what of the Washington Huskies, who, like many characters throughout Hemingway’s work, died a death more metaphorical than literal in the first weekend of the tournament?
Let’s start with Gonzaga (32-3), the behemoth, the forest of towering trees, the omnipresent mid-major that is going to the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight year, the longest such stretch in Division 1 men’s basketball. Last weekend, Gonzaga looked like it had something to prove as it absolutely handled 16 seed, play-in Fairleigh Dickinson, 87-49, in the first round of the tournament. In the second round, the Bulldogs beat 9 seed Baylorm 83-71, though the score makes the game look closer than it actually was.
Now Gonzaga faces 4 seed Florida State in a Sweet 16 matchup for the second straight year. Last year, the Seminoles dispatched the Bulldogs, 75-60, though it’s hard to see that happening again. Gonzaga was not at full strength last year, but it is this year, and it’s hard to imagine the team won’t have revenge—the sweetest kind, served cold—on its mind for this year’s tilt.
Let’s just go ahead and assume that the Bulldogs do to Florida State what Papa’s matadors regularly did to surly steer in the cities of Spain—aka send them to the slaughterhouse. That puts them into the Elite 8, where they will face the winner of the Michigan-Texas Tech game.
Though Michigan and Texas Tech are ranked numbers one and two in KenPom for defense, respectively, the past two national championships have been won by the 69th (Villanova) and 49th (UNC) ranked teams in Defensive Rating. The year before that a very strong Nova team won with the No. 15 DefRtg in the country, but the season prior it was No. 67 Duke taking home the title.
Contrary to the cliche, offense can win championships, and that’s what Gonzaga is loaded with. So yes, upstart city of Spokane, it’s what I call believin’ time. Go ahead and clear your calendars. Anything less than an appearance in the national championship game on Monday, April 8th, will be something of a disappointment.
And what of the Oregon Ducks (25-12), who flew past 5 seed Wisconsin in the first round and 13 seed, wannabe-Cinderella UC Irvine in the second? They’ve also made the Sweet 16, and should we expect them to push ahead to the Final Four, as they did in 2017?
It’s all very possible, especially with shot blocking, “jet pack” Kenny Wooten, who looks capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. But they’ve got a date with Virginia first, on Friday, who are looking to dispel some demons of their own.
Should Oregon manage to slay the dragon from the Old Dominion state, it would face either Purdue or Tennessee in the Elite Eight, both of whom seem like very beatable teams. That would likely set them up against North Carolina in the Final Four, which seems like more of a stretch for the team from Eugene.
How about the Huskies? Will they fade back into irrelevance for another almost-decade? Hardly. The big news from the past week should not be that Washington was trounced by the Tar Heels in Round Two of the tournament, but that they announced a contract extension for coach Mike Hopkins, which will keep him on Montlake pounding away at Hec Ed until at least 2025.
Hopkins has put the Huskies back on the map, and not making it out of the first weekend of this year’s tournament is not occasion for a pity party, but something closer to a celebration. Not only did Washington win the Pac-12 this year, but the Huskies made it back to the tournament. And though they lose several of their starters from this season’s team to graduation, that happens at every school. What’s important is that a foundation has been poured, a culture created. It will pay dividends down the line.
In Ernest Hemingway’s time, there were things like bullfights and European wars and big-game fishing and hunting. In our time, we have college basketball and hot wings and beer that tastes like hops.
There’s no question that mankind has advanced greatly. Which is all to say, enjoy this exciting time in the fashion that most suits you. Battles will be won and lost, certainly, but it’s in the doing and the watching that our lives take on additional meaning.