HOUSTON — There’s no sugar coating it, this title game was bad.
Watching cars spin their wheels in mud would have been more exciting than the 76-59 slogfest that ended with Connecticut winning its fifth national title. If you weren’t a UConn or San Diego State fan and you had sense, you turned the TV off at halftime Monday night so your retinas weren’t permanently scarred by the ugly display of basketball – if you can call what they were playing basketball.
It was the lowest-scoring title game since 2015, and UConn wouldn’t have cracked 70 points if not for that flurry of free throws in the final 90 seconds. San Diego State barely got above 32% shooting, and the Aztecs finished with more fouls (20) than field goals (19).
Unpleasant as the game was, though, it doesn’t mean this was a bad NCAA men’s tournament. Quite the contrary. The first 62 games offered all kinds of fun and that, rather than this atrocity, should be the lasting memory of this year’s men’s tournament.
“The state of basketball is in good shape right 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 get every kid in the portal to be successful. You just have to have kids that are about the right things, that want to win beyond anything else.”
Remember Fairleigh Dickinson? Most people had never heard of the small, private school in New Jersey before last month. Now it’s got a permanent place in national lore, only the second 16 seed in the history of the men’s tournament to topple a No. 1 when it stunned Purdue.
We should have known then that this was going to be the year of upsets and upstarts. All four No. 1s were gone before the Elite Eight, the first time in the men’s tournament that’s happened, and the Final Four featured a ninth seed (Florida Atlantic) and two No. 5s in Miami and San Diego State.
FAU was two seconds from becoming the lowest seed to make the NCAA title game. Making the Owls’ run even more impressive, they’d never even won a tournament game before this year!
“We took it to a new height,” Nick Boyd said Saturday night. “All I can do is smile and be appreciative of the run we went on and know next year you’re going to hear it from FAU again.”
Twenty-seven years after Princeton knocked defending champion UCLA out in the first round, a player from that team coached the 15-seeded Tigers to not one but two wins in the tournament. We all learned what a Paladin is – a legendary knight in 8th century France — thanks to Furman’s first-round upset of fourth-seeded Virginia.
And how about the individual performances?
There was perhaps no better moment than watching Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell, a proud New Yorker, light up the Spartans in Madison Square Garden in what was arguably the best game of the entire tournament. Nowell had an NCAA single-game record 19 assists, the best of which was his no-look lob to Keyontae Johnson for an alley-oop with less than a minute left in regulation.
Nowell also scored 20 points despite turning his ankle in the first half.
“Today was a special one,” he said after the game. “I can’t even explain how I’m feeling right now. I just know that I’m blessed and I’m grateful.”
Drew Timme had 36 points as Gonzaga rallied from 13 down to beat UCLA. San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell had a monster game to send Alabama back home, for which an entire country is grateful, then drew a foul with a little over a second left and made a free throw to beat Creighton in the Elite Eight.
Not to be outdone, Trammell’s teammate Lamont Butler hit a buzzer-beater against FAU to send the Aztecs into Monday night’s title game.
The coaches had their moments, too.
Tom Izzo conjured up his old March magic, leading Michigan State to a second-round win over Marquette, which had come into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. Dutcher, who toiled as an assistant for 28 years before becoming the head coach at San Diego State six years ago, got his first win in the NCAA tournament. Then won four more.
And no one will ever forget the joy, and the dance moves, of Miami coach Jim Larranaga. The 73 years young coach was movin’ and groovin’ in the Hurricanes’ locker room after every win.
“My players have said you’re so stiff, you’ve got to loosen up. Well, I can’t. I don’t have that flexibility anymore,” Larranaga said Friday. “You can rate it or the players can rate it. I just know my wife likes it.”
See? There are plenty of good memories from this year’s tournament. The title game just won’t be one of them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.