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Round Two Upsets Surprise All

By Brian Chase


The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament lives and dies by the excitement caused by its various upsets. The 10-seeds over the 2-seeds, the odds-on favorites getting shocked, these are the things that make the tournament exciting. But this year, it seemed the tournament was doomed to disappoint after the first two days of play and the first 32 games, only a handful of upsets had occurred, and at least on of those, 12-seed Manhattan over 5-seed Florida, wasn’t even an upset, because the vast majority of fans were betting on it happening. Where were the upsets?

They were there, they just decided to be sneaky this year. Instead of happening immediately, in the first round, the real upsets were waiting in the second round. Occurring March 20 and 21, Round Two saw huge surprises and disappointments. Put it this way: after the first round, I had predicted five games out of 32 inaccurately. After the second round, only one of my predicted Final Four teams were still alive.

What happened? Well, the top two teams in the tournament lost, as well as two 2-seeds. Kentucky, rated the top team in the tourney, fell to the University of Alabama-Birmingham and their “40 minutes of hell” defensive style, which is designed to use less talented but more physically fit players to full court press their opponents, tiring and frustrating them. The whole system worked to a T against Kentucky, who exited the tourney early for the second straight year. Because many, many people had Kentucky in the Final Four, this game made a lot of sportswriters (including myself) look foolish.

As if the Kentucky game weren’t bad enough, Stanford, a team that went nearly undefeated in the regular season, fell to Alabama. Stanford’s top scorer, Josh Childress, fell into early foul trouble and then fouled out quickly in the second half, leaving Stanford at the mercy of a very athletic Alabama squad that had been tested by the nation’s toughest schedule. Quite a weekend for the former Confederate state.

Add these upsets to the defeat of 2-seeds Gonzaga and Mississippi State, both of which were predicted by some experts to get to the Final Four, and you have a lot of upset mania in the Sweet Sixteen. After that, though, the next two rounds went roughly according to plan, as only two upsets happened in the Elite Eight. Texas was cut down by Xavier, and Syracuse was beaten by ’Bama. The only other game which wasn’t won by the top seed was when Oklahoma State beat St. Joseph’s to qualify for the Final Four. And that game wasn’t really an upset anyway, because the teams were only one seed apart and most people thought Ok. St. would win anyway.

What does all this craziness mean? Not much really. The NCAA Tournament is designed to give even the lowliest teams a chance against the big boys because of its single-elimination format, and so even the most dominant team can have an off night and be out. The dearth of first-round upsets could have been a rash of upsets, since a number of games won by higher seeds were determined by five points or less. The teams that end up in the Final Four are usually very good teams, but they are also the good teams that were lucky during the first four games they had to win. There’s no discernible method to the tourney, which is why the phrase “March Madness” was coined in the first place.

Anyway, here’s how I think the rest of the tournament will play out: Georgia Tech will lose to Oklahoma State, because their lead scorer will still be limited and they won’t be able to crush Ok. State’s leading scorer they way they did the Kansas Jayhawks’ leading scorer, Wayne Simien, to get here. Connecticut will beat Duke, because Duke is battling more injuries and because UConn has a better defense than Duke, which I believe will make the difference between the two teams in a very, very tight game.

Finally, UConn will overcome Oklahoma State on the back of Emeka Okafor, their big man inside, against whom the Cowboys really won’t be able to guard. Of course, this is all liable to be very, very wrong, especially if Okafor’s back spasms bother him at all during the last two games. But hey, as we’ve seen, this is March Madness. Not many sane humans can be expected to predict it accurately.