Busting Brackets

NCAA Tournament 2024: The Magic Of March Found Its Way To Pittsburgh

Oakland v Kentucky
Oakland v Kentucky / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

There are people out there who are actually trying to make you believe the NCAA Tournament should change. Think about the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, take a deep breath and let it hit you how insane that is.

More than ever this year, we needed a reminder of what makes the tournament's first weekend so great, and over two nights in PPG Paints Arena, a small college with a charismatic coach, two giants (one in height and one in personality) and a red hot shooting point guard came together to deliver the March magic that has always made this event so special.

Legendary Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo kicked off the week with commentary that the rewarding of automatic bids through conference tournaments needed to be "looked at seriously" and that he wasn't sure that "it's what's best for the game." Maybe a small NCAA Tournament expansion (four to eight teams) could better the event, but any true improvement would have to involve an expansion of opportunity for smaller conference teams, not a reduction.

On day one, the fans got to voice their opinions on the matter and made a victorious Michigan team the highest rated game of the first round. Except it wasn't powerhouse Michigan State, it was Oakland, who's upset over Kentucky was watched by more people than any other men's or women's game in the first round. More than Duke or North Carolina. More than #1 UConn or the start of Purdue's attempt at redemption. More than Caitlin Clark or the LSU soap opera.

You couldn't have drawn up a more perfect Cinderella than Oakland. They were so unknown on the national stage that plenty of people thought the school was in California. The coach, Greg Kampe, arrived forty years ago and never left. He spent an afternoon last week working at a McDonald's drive thru for a charitable initiative and laughed when I called Jack Gohlke a celebrity after the Kentucky win, because "he looks a linebacker." Trey Townsend was Player of the Year in the Horizon League but was seemingly too small to succeed playing in the low post against power conference opponents (Wrong!). And of course, there's Gohlke himself, on his own version of the Duncan Robinson path, transferring up from Division II and never taking two point shots (just eight attempts for the full season).

But Gohlke went from unknown to superstar immediately and once a few threes fell for him against NC State, you could feel the entire arena begin to hang on his every movement. There's no more electric feeling at an in-person sporting event than what happened that game. Knowing that the crowd was so enamored by the thought that he could catch fire again, feeling that the noise was going to explode every time a shot went in, and wanting it to happen, even if you're neutral or rooting against it, just because you know that wave of energy is coming. Only two types of athletes can illicit that feeling, the all-time greats and the guys who are on legendary hot streaks. In fact I've only gotten to witness it from four athletes so far in my life: LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Carsen Edwards and Jack Gohlke.

Oakland's star trio produced so many signature moments over the weekend. Gohlke making ten three pointers against Kentucky, becoming only the fifth player to ever do so in an NCAA Tournament game (one of the others was the aforementioned Edwards in that specific game), Kampe spending halftime of the game he was scouting afterwards to take dozens of pictures with the Oakland fans and all of those Golden Grizzlies' fans who had absolutely no intention of leaving the arena anytime soon. Later that night, Kampe and Gohlke were the signature guests on Sportscenter with Scott Van Pelt. Gohlke even reminded us of the best parts of legalized NIL, signing endorsement deals with Turbo Tax and Buffalo Wild Wings over the weekend.

Even in defeat on Saturday, Townsend had a legendary performance with thirty points and thirteen rebounds, all while fouling out two different NC State big men who both stood four inches taller. But what really drove home how memorable Oakland's short run will always be, was a moment about an hour after the loss. Jack Gohlke, still in his jersey, came out to greet the remaining Oakland fans, and presumably family and/or friends, when an elementary school aged boy, already a big enough Kentucky fan to still be wearing a blue hoodie two days after they were eliminated, asked for and received a picture with Gohlke. A budding member of Big Blue Nation, in awe of the man who vanquished the Wildcats.

But it wasn't just Oakland who was enveloped by the magic of March, as even some power conference schools joined in, like NC State, who had absolute no chance of making the tournament, before they won five games in five days, culminating in a massive upset of archrival UNC, to win the ACC Tournament and the automatic bid that came with it.

The Wolfpack's starting center DJ Burns Jr absolutely captivated the Pittsburgh crowd in Thursday's upset victory over Texas Tech. He followed it up with a delightful boombox entrance on Saturday and after a brief run as the ultimate villains when they defeated Oakland in overtime, NC State now stands as the last double-digit seed in the Sweet Sixteen, a massive underdog left in a field of all of the best teams. By absolutely no means a Cinderella, but with Burns at the forefront, still a very likable underdog.

The story of those two teams, culminating in a terrific overtime game, was enough to trigger the idea of this story on it's own and so I went to work during commercial breaks, unbeknownst as to what was in still in store. I then witnessed a twenty-five minute stretch from before halftime until the final minute of overtime, when only two players, Jermaine Cousinard and N'Faly Dante, scored points for Oregon. The Ducks, like NC State and Duquesne, were another team who despite being in a multi bid league, needed the auto bid to get in, and then proceeded to win their first round game of the NCAA Tournament.

Jadrian Tracey eventually broke this Oregon role player drought, rebounding an air ball and putting it in with thirty-seven seconds left in overtime, setting the stage for a gutsy Cousinard game-tying three to force double overtime. Oregon got waxed in that final bonus period, after Creighton's giant center Ryan Kalkbrenner and Steven Ashworth went on a run. But the Ducks delivered for fans twice that night, providing a memorable game that was likely the best of the day, while still bowing out and setting up a Creighton showdown with Tennessee, that promises to be one of the best of the Sweet Sixteen.

In that way, this year's March Madness has given us the best of both worlds. The opening round gave us all the great Oakland moments, Duquesne's first NCAA Tournament win in forty-five years, Yale hanging on by a thread to beat Auburn and James Madison showing the world how they won thirty games. The second round got real chalky but still gave us three overtimes in Pittsburgh and whatever the heck that insane Houston-Texas A&M game was. It also gave college basketball fans what they do truly want as the bracket shrinks, most of the top teams still hanging around and the most exicting Sweet Sixteen schedule in a very long time.

Next. Ranking Sweet 16 teams. Ranking Sweet 16 teams. dark

It turns out the Basketball Gods took a serious listen to Izzo's comments, gave him a sly smirk, a wink and perhaps an inflammatory hand gesture, before gifting fans what truly was best for the game, with no changes necessary.