Mark Story

March Madness winners and losers: Stock is up for SEC, Richard Pitino and a UK player

Evaluating the winners and losers after the first weekend of men’s NCAA Tournament action:

Stock up: The SEC. As recently as 2016, the Southeastern Conference put only three teams into the Big Dance. That was the third time in four seasons (2013-16) the league sent only a trio of teams into NCAA play.

This year, the SEC got seven teams into the NCAA tourney, saw five advance to the round of 32 and has four — Auburn, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee — alive in the sweet 16.

It is only the third time (1986 and 1996) the SEC has ever placed a quartet in the round of 16.

Just how good SEC hoops now is will be determined this week by how many, if any, teams the league gets to the Final Four.

Rick Barnes
Rick Barnes is trying to coach Tennessee to its first men’s Final Four appearance ever. Brandon Dill AP

Stock down: The state of Mississippi. The SEC’s two first-round laggards both came from the Magnolia State. Oklahoma pummeled Mississippi, 95-72, while Liberty gave Mississippi State’s season death with an 80-76 upset.

Stock up: Richard Pitino. After Pitino led Minnesota to an 86-76 victory over Louisville — the school that axed the Golden Gophers coach’s father in 2017 as its head man after a succession of scandals — he locked up his family’s 2019 MVP award.

Richard Pitino vs Louisville.JPG
Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino questioned a call during the first half of his team’s 86-76 victory over Louisville in the NCAA Tournament round of 64. Nati Harnik AP

Stock down: Louisville. After the turmoil of recent years, if you had offered U of L fans this preseason a 20-14 year in 2018-19 that would include upsets of Michigan State and North Carolina and an NCAA tourney trip, all would have giddily taken that for Chris Mack’s first season as top Card.

The Cards accomplished all of the above, yet the final act of Mack’s first performance as director of the Cards was a downer.

U of L lost nine of its final 13 games. It blew leads late in several of those losses, most notably falling to Duke by two points after leading the Blue Devils by 23 inside the final 10 minutes. Then came the season-ending defeat against the head coach whose father is suing U of L for as much as $40 million.

Stock up: The OVC. Late Thursday afternoon, the top three trending Twitter items in the United States were Ja Morant, Belmont and Murray State.

On Thursday, the marvelous Mr. Morant produced a triple-double (17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds) as Murray State battered Marquette 83-64. That same afternoon, Belmont — which had given its venerable head coach, Rick Byrd, his first NCAA tourney victory Tuesday by besting Temple in the First Four — came agonizingly close to upsetting Maryland before falling 79-77.

For the Ohio Valley Conference, Thursday’s level of national exposure was pure gold.

Ja Morant
Murray State’s Ja Morant had a triple-double — 17 points, 11 rebounds, 16 assists — in the Racers’ 83-64 victory over Marquette in the NCAA Tournament round of 64. Elise Amendola AP

Stock down: The Big East Conference. Marquette got whacked by Murray State. Seton Hall was ousted by Wofford. After escaping St. Mary’s in the first round, Villanova was axed by Purdue, 87-61, in the round of 32.

It was a humbling March Madness for the basketball-centric Big East.

Stock up: Reid Travis. With star forward PJ Washington on the Kentucky bench with a hard cast on his sprained left foot, Travis was the rock of Gibraltar for UK last weekend.

The post player had 18 points and nine rebounds in UK’s 79-44 rout of Abilene Christian in the round of 64. Travis then came back with 14 points and 11 boards and hit the game-clinching foul shots with 18 seconds left in UK’s tense 62-56 win over Wofford in the second round.

If you’ve wondered where UK would be right now without the graduate transfer from Stanford, the answer is: Through playing basketball for 2018-19.

Stock down: Kansas. The Jayhawks were rocked and chalked by Auburn in an 89-75 round-of-32 defeat that was not nearly as close as that final score indicates.

What began as a promising Kansas season was compromised by a season-ending injury to 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike and the loss of guard Lagerald Vick for undisclosed personal matters.

Still, of college basketball’s current four elite brand names — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina — KU is the only one that failed to make the round of 16.

Bill Self vs Auburn.JPG
Not much went right for Kansas and Coach Bill Self in a round-of-32 loss to Auburn. Jeff Swinger AP

Stock up: Chalk. According to ESPN, the betting favorites won all 16 round-of-32 games, something that had never happened since the NCAA Tournament expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985.

Stock down: Cinderella. Underdogs were bulldozed in the second round. Florida State crushed Murray State 90-62. Texas Tech smashed Buffalo 78-58. Oregon whipped California-Irvine 73-54. Virginia Tech outlasted gutty Liberty 67-58.

That’s how you end up with your four regions featuring seeds No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 (East); 1-2-3-4 (West); 1-2-3-5 (Midwest); and 1-2-3-12 (South) — and the “12” is a well-heeled power-five school, Oregon.

This NCAA Tournament will be remembered as the one where the glass slipper got shattered.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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