When Texas Tech and Virginia squared off Monday night in the national championship game, it was the first time since 1979 that both teams in a championship game were making their debuts in a game for the title. That year was the Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird matchup of Michigan State against Indiana State. Johnson and MSU captured their first title, and this year it was Tony Bennett and Virginia taking their first title, the first new champion since 2006 when Florida won their first title and then became the last team to repeat when they won it again in 2007. I’m not saying Virginia is going to repeat, but that’s an interesting historical note that says they could. Every year something happens in the NCAA tournament that either has never happened before or hasn’t happened in a while. 2019 was no different, and here are some of the most unusual things that this year’s March Madness saw.
9 seeds swept 8 seeds
For only the 7th time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and the first time since 2001, a lower seed swept the higher seed in the first round. All 4 9 seeds then lost to 1 seeds in the second round, but the more interesting note is that 9 seeds have now completed 5 sweeps. All other lower seeds combined have 2 (10 seeds, 1999, 11 seeds, 1989). It also put 9 seeds above .500 in the first round since 1985, the only lower seed to be even close to better than their counterpart since expansion (10 seeds have a .393 win percentage).
12 higher seeds won
Falling right in line with the 9 seed sweep, 3 each of 10 and 12 seeds won their first round games, along with one 11 seed and a 13 seed. These 12 total upsets in round one were the highest total since 2016, when 13 higher seeds won (including a 15 and a 14). It was only the fifth time since 1985 that more than 10 higher seeds won their first round game, and the 4 previous times it happened it was followed by a year with no more than 7. Better hope for more later round upsets next year.
7 of 8 Big Ten teams won
The Big Ten sending 7 teams to the second round matched the highest output ever from a conference, a feat only matched by the Big East in 2008 and 2011, when the Big East had 16 schools playing men’s basketball. Interestingly, this included wins by 10 seeds Iowa and Minnesota and 11 seed Ohio State, while the one team to lose was 5th seeded Wisconsin. All of those teams would lose in the second round, Minnesota losing to Michigan State, and Maryland’s defeat at the hands of LSU meant they would only get 3 teams in the Sweet 16, a much more normal output.
No teams from the A-10 or MVC won
The A-10 and MVC aren’t power conferences, by any means. But for the A-10, this was the first time since 2005 that they didn’t send a team at least to the second round, and in the years in between they’ve sent multiple teams to the round of 32 6 times, including 5 teams(!) in 2013. The MVC hasn’t been quite that good, but they had carried at least one victory every year since 2011, with 3 years in that span seeing two teams go to the round of 32.
A team from the Southern Conference won
Wofford became the first SoCon team since Stephen Curry and Davidson went to the Elite 8 in 2008 to win a game in March Madness. To be fair, the Terriers were the highest seed ever for a team from the SoCon (7), but a conference that had just one year with a team winning since 2000 having a team advance is a rare feat.
Only one higher seeded team won
The second round is where this year’s tournament got chalky. Every 1, 2, and 3 seed made the sweet 16, along with 2 4 seeds. Oregon made it to the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed, but they beat 13 seed UC-Irvine, meaning that wasn’t the second round upset. That belonged to Auburn, the 5 seed who knocked off 4th seeded Kansas, and would go on to beat top seed North Carolina and 2 seed Kentucky to make the Final 4. To only have one upset in 16 games is stunning. The only other post-expansion tournament to feature just one team higher than a 5 seed in the Sweet 16: 2009, which also saw exactly 4 1, 2, and 3 seeds, 2 4 seeds, and one 5 and 12 seed. ’09 was the third year in a 3-year run that saw 8 one seeds, 3 two seeds, and one 3 seed make the Final 4, with 5 one seeds and a 2 seed making the title game. That was easily the most favorable stretch in tournament history to top seeds.
3-way tie for most Sweet 16s for a conference broken
With the ACC sending 5 teams to the Sweet 16, the Big Ten sending 3 and the Big East sending none, the 3-way tie for most Sweet 16 appearances by a conference since 2000 was broken. They were all at 45 coming into 2019, averaging 2.4 teams per year, but now the ACC has sole possession of the lead with 50 or 2.5 per year since 2000. The ACC remained in a tie for second place among conferences for sending teams to the round of 32, but went from being tied with the Big Ten to tied with the Big East as the Big Ten took the lead from the Big East this year.
Houston and the AAC
Houston made their first Sweet 16 since 1984 when they had their second of back-to-back championship game losses. Overall, they had made the sweet 16 once in the ’50s, 4 times in the ’60s, twice in the ’70s, and 3 times in the ’80s. No one would have thought they would then go on a 35-year drought, but Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars back where they want to be. It was the first time since 2014 for the young AAC (which was then in their first year of existence) to send a team to the Sweet 16, and that year UConn won it all. With teams like Houston, Cincinnati, Temple, UConn, Memphis, and, starting last season, Wichita State, this conference feels like they should be sending teams to the second weekend of the tournament regularly. The AAC isn’t going to get the respect of a major conference with teams like Tulane (4-27, 0-18) and ECU (10-21, 3-15), but they’re probably the seventh-best conference behind the power 5 and the Big East.
No Big East teams in the Sweet 16
Speaking of one of the top 6 conferences in basketball, the Big East sent no teams to the second weekend for the second time since the AAC branched off of them in 2014. Before that, they only had one year (2001) in which they failed to get at least 2 teams to the Sweet 16. That’s partly because the conference had more teams, but it also is because the conference was just better. Virginia Tech, who left the Big East in 2004, made the Sweet 16 this year. Other former Big East teams in this year’s tournament were Louisville, Syracuse, and Cincinnati. In other words, while the Big East sent 4 teams to the tournament, including one that didn’t make it to the first round in St John’s and only one team that made the second round (Villanova), the fewest since at least 2000, they had as many former members in the tourney as they did current members.
Feast or famine
Only one game (Duke vs Virginia Tech) in the sweet 16 saw both teams score in the 60s or 70s in point total. The other game in their region between Michigan State and LSU was the next closest, with LSU scoring 63 to MSU’s 80. 2 teams (Michigan and Oregon) got held under 50 when they ran into the teams that ended up playing for the National Championship, Kentucky and Houston scraped their way to a 62-58 final, and Gonzaga kept Florida State from getting to 60. However, the fast-paced game between North Carolina and Auburn put up 177 combined points in a regulation game, and after going to overtime tied at 82, Purdue and Tennessee both went over 90 points en route to a 99-94 Purdue win. The Elite 8 would then be more famine than feast, as only one team (Texas Tech) scored more than 70 points in regulation (Purdue and Virginia went to OT tied at 70, and Auburn and Kentucky both ended with more than 70 points after going to extra time tied at 60).
A mix of regulars and surprises
Teams like Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, and Kentucky advancing past the Sweet 16 doesn’t surprise people, but some of the other teams that made it at least to the Elite 8 were surprising, and it was also surprising who they beat. For instance, Texas Tech made its first ever Elite 8 last season and was making just their fourth appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1976. Their opponent, Michigan, was the tournament runner-up a year ago, and had been to 8 Elite 8’s since 1976. But the Red Raiders prevailed behind their stifling defense that kept the Wolverines to just 44 points. Auburn had been to just one Elite 8 in school history, it was 33 years ago, they had just beaten one traditional basketball power in Kansas, and now they had to face another in North Carolina. Didn’t matter. The Tigers not only ran with UNC, they ran them out of the gym on their way to 97 points and then dispatched another blue blood in Kentucky to make their first ever Final 4. If Purdue were playing a team with more history than Tennessee, they may have been a surprise as well. The Boilermakers had lost their last 4 times in the Sweet 16, in 2009, ’10, ’17, and ’18. Two of their first 3 NCAA tournament appearances ended at the final 4 (1969, 1980), but in 10 Sweet 16 trips since then they have yet to get back to a Final 4.
The tourney turned on its head
What had been an exceptionally straightforward tournament turned in the Elite 8 when 3 of the 4 games went to the higher seeds. Three 1 seeds made the Elite 8, but only one made the Final 4, and they needed a buzzer beater to force overtime to get there. Duke played in their third straight game that was decided by 2 points or less, in which none of them went to overtime, and their luck finally ran out as Michigan State held on to get to their first Final Four since 2015. The South Region saw a game go to overtime for the third straight round, as Iowa took Tennessee to overtime in the second round, then an extra period was needed to decide the winner of Tennessee and Purdue, and then Virginia miraculously forced overtime and won it to get to their first Final 4 in 35 years. The Midwest Region also saw their Elite 8 game go to overtime with Auburn channeling the 2013 Louisville run, where after Kevin Ware suffered a compound fracture in his leg in the Elite 8 they went on to win the championship (later vacated), and made their first ever Final 4 without Chuma Okeke, who had torn his ACL in their Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.
2 new teams make the Final 4
For just the second time since 1996, when UMass, then under John Calipari and later vacated, and Mississippi State each made their first appearance (along with 2017 with Gonzaga and South Carolina), there were 2 new teams in the Final 4. Texas Tech and Auburn both cut down the nets at a regional final for the first time in school history, and both already have rumors about their coach possibly leaving soon for historically better programs. Since ’96, there have been more years with no new Final 4 teams (15) than years that featured at least one new team (7) including a run of 6 out of 7 years from 2012, a year after VCU made their first Final 4 run, and 2018. Obviously, every time a team gets to their first Final 4, getting new teams becomes less common. There will still be times where we see 2 first time teams, but there’s a reason we haven’t seen 3 first timers in the Final 4 since 1970, when only 25 teams were invited, and the three first time schools were Jacksonville, New Mexico State, and St Bonaventure. If you didn’t know that the Jacksonville Dolphins played Division I basketball, I wouldn’t blame you.
Final 4/National Championship Game
2 first time title teams
As we mentioned at the start of this article, it was the first time in 40 years that both teams playing in the championship game were doing so for the first time. Virginia had been doing good for a while recently, as this was their 6th consecutive year entering the tournament as a 5 seed or higher, being a 1 seed in 4 of those 6 years, the most of any team in that span. For Texas Tech, on the other hand, the last 6 years started with 2 straight not making the tournament or even the NIT (the last two of a 5-year streak of no postseason tournament, and 8 straight years of not making it to March Madness, a stretch that went back to Bob Knight’s last full season at the helm), then two years as a middle seed and losing in the first round, until last year as a 3 seed they made the Elite 8 for the first time in school history. This year, as a 3 seed again, they surpassed that previous school-record run in the tourney by going all the way to the title game before Virginia outlasted them in OT.
First-time matchup in championship game
The title game was the first time Virginia and Texas Tech had ever played each other in men’s basketball. The last time a title game was the first ever matchup between two teams was in 2011 when UConn defeated Butler. In 2013, Louisville and Michigan faced off for the first time since 1978 and only the third time ever, but it was not a first all-time meeting. This was also the first time that an ACC team had faced a Big 12 team in the championship game, and that seems surprising until you remember that the Big 12 is just over 20 years old. An ACC team and a Big 12 team had met in a Final 4 before, when Kansas beat North Carolina in the all-1-seed 2008 Final 4 en route to their third title in school history.
Texas team in the title game
Texas Tech had a chance to be the first team from the state of Texas to win a championship in men’s basketball since UTEP (then known as Texas Western) beat Kentucky to win the 1966 national championship. Houston would then go to the Final 4, but not make the championship game, the next two seasons, then went again in 1982 and the championship game in ’83 and ’84, and then no Texas teams made a final 4 again until Texas made their Final 4 run in 2003. Since then, 6 Final 4’s have taken place in the state of Texas (San Antonio ’04, ’08, ’18, Houston ’11, ’16, Arlington [Dallas] ’14), but despite 7 teams in the 7 biggest conferences (Big 12, AAC, SEC have teams from Texas, other big conferences being Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East, ACC) and 23 total D-I basketball programs, none had made it to the Final 4 until Texas Tech came an overtime period away from winning the national championship.
The Horizon League went winless in the tournament for the seventh consecutive year. The Horizon League doesn’t strike people as a strong conference, but they had at least one win in every season from 2005-2011, also a seven-year run. Of course, losing Butler to the A-10 (now in the Big East) in 2012 was the first painful domino, followed by the departure of Loyola (Ill, 2013) and Valparaiso (2017) to the Missouri Valley further weakening the conference. The Conference-USA suffered a winless year in the big dance after 4 consecutive seasons sending a team to the round of 32. Their run of no teams in the Sweet 16 now extends back to 2009, when they sent Memphis to the Sweet 16 a year after their runner-up tourney run in ’08, at which point they had already lost Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, Saint Louis, etc., but still had Houston, Tulane, UCF, and others to go along with the Tigers who now reside in the AAC.
The ACC had a perfect second round for the second time in the past 4 years, sending all 5 teams that won their first-round games (Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia Tech) on to the Sweet 16. The ACC also went 6-for-6 in the second round in 2016, and while the Big 12 went 4-for-4 in the second round last year, no conference other than the ACC has sent 5 teams to the Sweet 16 since the Big East in 2009, when 5 of 6 teams that they sent to the second round advanced to the sweet 16, and 3 of those teams (Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse) are now in the ACC. The ACC is owning the NCAA tourney right now, and Virginia winning the championship is only more evidence of the ACC’s dominance.
In 2020, will we see more of the same, or will it be something totally new? In March Madness, every year we remember we have to expect the unexpected. Surely there will be some familiar teams, some familiar names and faces, but we’ll likely see a few teams making their first appearance in more than a decade, or maybe their first appearance ever. We’ll probably see at least one team make a run that they’ve never made before, but it probably won’t be two new teams in the championship game again. That will be one of the lasting legacies that will be remembered from this year’s tourney. One more thing we can count on for the 2020 tournament? No one picking a perfect bracket. That’s about as likely as, well, a 1 seed getting beat by a 16 seed one year and then winning the championship the next.
Stats and info courtesy of college basketball at sports-reference and CBS Sports