After a one-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament, which forced the college basketball universe to wait from April 2019 until March 2021 for March Madness to return, the Big Dance arrived — and in a big way. There was a record number of upsets, a strong push for the sport’s first undefeated national champion in 45 years and just the second-ever Final Four run for a team that started in the First Four.
NCAA.com is here with superlatives from the tournament, to celebrate and remember some of the best plays, players, teams and moments.
The best shot
Our pick: Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs’ game-winning 3-pointer against UCLA
Is there any other viable option, really? Alex Reese of Alabama forced overtime against UCLA, ironically, with a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation and Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas had a shot to be cemented in March Madness lore, but his game-winning 3-point attempt against No. 3 seed Arkansas in the final seconds of their Sweet 16 matchup was off the mark.
Suggs’ shot wasn’t just the best of the tournament, it was one of the best of all-time. Consider the following factors:
- The distance: Suggs let go of the ball about 40 feet from the basket. We don’t discriminate when it comes to a buzzer-beater, but let’s be honest, a three-quarters court heave is probably more exciting then a half-court runner, which is more exciting than a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, which is more exciting than a mid-range jumper, which is more exciting than a layup. Suggs’ shot was the longest buzzer-beater in NCAA tournament history but there haven’t been many that were taken, and made, from a greater distance.
- The round: Once again, a buzzer-beater is thrilling regardless of the round. But this wasn’t in the First Four or even in the opening weekend. This was in the Final Four. The only stage later in the tournament is the national championship game, which is where Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made his title-winning three.
- The team and the season: Before facing No. 11 seed UCLA, Gonzaga had beaten all of its opponents by double digits except for one this season, which was a five-point win against West Virginia back in early December. With a 30-0 record entering the Final Four, the Zags needed just two more wins to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. Suggs’ 3-pointer against UCLA was going to be an all-timer no matter how Gonzaga fared in the national championship game, but if that shot had led to an undefeated national championship season, and Gonzaga’s first-ever national championship, that would’ve elevate it even more, when put in the larger context.
The best game
Our pick: No. 1 seed Gonzaga def. No. 11 seed UCLA 93-90 (OT)
Of course, the game ended with the shot that was outlined above, but from start to finish, this game was special and fitting of such a thrilling ending. Only one team had played Gonzaga to less than a 10-point margin all season and UCLA matched Gonzaga’s excellence.
The Zags scored 1.26 points per possession and the Bruins finished at 1.22, per kenpom.com. The national average is roughly 1.02.
UCLA was 17-for-25 on 2-point jumpers, or 68 percent, which speaks to the extremely high-level shot-making. As HeatCheckCBB noted on Twitter, the largest lead for either team was seven points, neither side scored more than six unanswered points, and the margin was a one or two-possession game for nearly 44 of the 45 minutes.
In a Final Four game between one of the most accomplished men’s basketball programs and one of the most successful of this century, one which was still searching for its first, the unlikely Cinderella played the nation’s No. 1 team to a near-draw through 45 minutes.
The best upset
Our pick: No. 15 seed Oral Roberts over No. 2 seed Ohio State
For just the second time ever, a No. 15 seed advanced to the Sweet 16, as Oral Roberts knocked off No. 2 seed Ohio State in the first round 72-70 in overtime, followed by an 81-78 win over No. 7 seed Florida. Leading scorer Max Abmas nearly sent Oral Roberts to the Elite Eight with his game-winning 3-point attempt against No. 3 seed Arkansas.
In Oral Roberts’ upset over Ohio State, the duo of Abmas and Kevin Obanor scored a total of 59 of the team’s 72 points with a combined 10-for-22 effort from 3. As a team, Oral Roberts made 14-of-18 free throws, while Ohio State made just 9-of-18. The Golden Eagles forced the Buckeyes into 16 turnovers while committing just six themselves.
The best Cinderella run
Our pick: No. 11 seed UCLA
Listen, we get it. UCLA has won 11 national championships. It made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006 through 2008. UCLA and “Cinderella” go together like a No. 11 seed and the Final Four — it’s unconventional, but not necessarily mutually exclusive.
This was a Bruins team that limped into Selection Sunday having lost its previous four games, including to Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament. UCLA lost two key players during the season and so the Bruins team that America watched five times in the NCAA tournament didn’t have the same composition as coach Mick Cronin expected his team to have.
So, no, the name on the front of the jerseys wasn’t that of a traditional Cinderella, and neither was much of the talent indicated by the last names on the backs of the jerseys. But UCLA was among the last four at-large teams in the field, the Bruins were given a No. 11 seed and they were trailing fellow No. 11 seed Michigan State by double digits in the First Four, yet they ended up making the Final Four, thanks to wins over a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed.
The best conference showing
Our pick: The Pac-12
Get this, the Pac-12’s highest-seeded team was No. 5 seed Colorado, which had never received a seed better than a No. 8 seed since the NCAA tournament started providing a seed to every team that made the field. The conference also had two double-digit seeds, one of whom needed to win the conference tournament to even make the Big Dance.
Yet that group finished 13-5, good for a .722 combined winning percentage for a No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 11 and No. 12 seed. Don’t forget that the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds — USC and Oregon, respectively — played each other in the Sweet 16, too, which guaranteed a win for the conference, but also a loss. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Pac-12’s .722 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament is tied for the 22nd-best mark by a single conference in a single season, with a minimum of 10 wins in the tournament.
To do so without a single protected seed (teams seeded No. 1 through No. 4) is all the more impressive.
The best breakout performer
Our pick: UCLA’s Johnny Juzang
Let’s be clear: Juzang, the former Kentucky Wildcat, was no slouch. He averaged 16 points per game as a sophomore in Westwood, but his scoring average climbed to nearly 23 points per game in the NCAA tournament, thanks to four games with at least 23 points. He had 28 of UCLA’s 51 points against Michigan, then 29 against Gonzaga, giving him 57 in back-to-back games against No. 1 seeds on a combined 23-of-37 shooting from the field and 5-for-11 from deep.
His 137 points were the most in the 2021 NCAA tournament — more than Gonzaga’s Drew Timme (122 points) and Corey Kispert (96 points), and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Jared Butler (91 points). By the way, Juzang’s teammate, Jaime Jaquez Jr. ranked fifth in the NCAA tournament in scoring with 90 points.
Juzang’s 137 points are also more points scored than the leading scorers in the 1985 (Chris Mullin of St. John’s), 1991 and 1992 (Christian Laettner of Duke), 1993 (Donald Williams of North Carolina), 1995 (Corliss Williamson of Arkansas), 1996 (John Wallace of Syracuse), 1997 (Miles Simon of Arizona), 1998 (Michael Doleac of Utah), 2000 (Morris Peterson of Michigan State), 2003 (Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse), 2006 (Joakim Noah of Florida and Glen Davis of LSU), 2007 (Ron Lewis of Ohio State), and 2009 NCAA tournaments (Wayne Ellington of North Carolina).
Juzang was the only player to be named to the 2021 All-Tournament Team who didn’t play for Baylor or Gonzaga.
The best sidekick
Our pick: Baylor’s Davion Mitchell
On many nights, Mitchell has made a strong case that he can be Baylor’s best, or at least most versatile player. He was named the national defensive player of the year, while shooting a team-best 44 percent from 3 for the best 3-point shooting team in the country. So the sidekick label is by no means intended to limit Mitchell’s talent or contributions, but when you play alongside the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, as Mitchell does with teammate Jared Butler, he often played an important complementary role, either as an off-the-ball scorer or secondary play-maker.
Mitchell fueled Baylor’s 81-72 win over No. 3 seed Arkansas with a really strong second half, he had a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists (and zero turnovers) against No. 2 seed Houston in the Final Four, and he had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in the Bears’ national championship win over Gonzaga.
Given how many offensive weapons Gonzaga had this season and just how dominant the Bears were for most of the season, there’s a chance we haven’t seen Davion Mitchell’s best basketball.
Mitchell was named to the 2021 All-Tournament Team.
The best day of the NCAA tournament
Our pick: Sunday, March 21 — the second day of the second round
This, of course, is a subjective pick but this Sunday’s eight games started with No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago knocking off No. 1 seed and in-state foe Illinois and it also featured No. 11 seed Syracuse, No. 15 seed Oral Roberts and No. 12 seed Oregon State advancing to the Sweet 16.
No. 3 seed Arkansas squeaked by No. 6 seed Texas Tech 68-66 and No. 2 seed Houston rallied to beat No. 10 seed Rutgers 63-60. There were major upsets and some of the best-seeded teams that were in action won by narrow margins.