The cream will rise
Don't expect many major upsets in the NCAA tourney
Posted: Sunday March 16, 2008 9:07PM; Updated: Monday March 17, 2008 2:13PM
The NCAA tournament wouldn't be what it is today without its annual dose of upsets and unpredictability. If everyone that was supposed to win did win, we wouldn't be able to call it March Madness. It would be Mundane March. Or March Morphine Drip.
So by all means, feel free to pencil in a couple clever upsets when you fill out your bracket in the coming days. A word to the wise, however: You might want to steer clear of anything overly earth-shattering. And don't be afraid to turn in a highly conservative Final Four.
Over the past decade, we've seen No. 1 teams bow out in the Sweet 16 (Duke in 2006) and season-long favorites fail to reach the Final Four (Arizona and Kentucky in 2003). We've seen years where the bracket absolutely imploded (2000, when two No. 8 seeds reached the Final Four) and when parity reigned supreme (2006, the George Mason year).
This, my friends, is not one of those years.
Take a look at the records of this year's four No. 1 seeds: Memphis (33-1), North Carolina (32-2), UCLA (31-3) and Kansas (31-3). Their nine combined losses are the fewest for a set of No. 1 seeds since 1988 -- and that's saying something, considering teams play at least two to four more regular-season games today than they did then. Right behind them you've got a 29-4 Tennessee team that handed Memphis its sole defeat and a 28-6 Texas team that beat the Vols and two of the No. 1 seeds (UCLA and Kansas).
Following years of complaints about the sport's "watered-down" landscape due to NBA defections, college basketball churned out a bundle of dominant teams this season.
Since as far back as the mid-'90s, you could usually take a look at the bracket when it first came out and identify any number of "vulnerable" teams among even the highest seeds. This year, I would only apply that label to one No. 1 or 2 seed, Duke, for reasons previously discussed. (A quick addendum to that February article: the Blue Devils have gone 5-4 since starting the year 22-1.)
On the flip side, the bottom half of the at-large part of the bracket (six through 12) is as weak as I can remember. Trust me, having spent four straight days poring through the so-called bubble teams prior to Selection Sunday, no one got left out that didn't put themselves in that position to begin with, and even most of the ones who did make it -- Oregon, Kentucky, Villanova, St. Joe's -- should hardly be viewed as threats to suddenly string together a deep tourney run.
All told, this may be the most top-heavy bracket since 1999, which was the last time three of the four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, with 32-1 Duke facing 28-2 Connecticut in the title game.
Sure, there will be some surprises. There better be if we're all going to be forced like duct-taped prisoners to listen to Billy Packer for the next three weeks.
But for the most part, I expect them to be mild in nature -- partially because the type of mid-majors most poised to pull them off (Drake, Butler, Davidson, Winthrop, et. al) are themselves no longer clandestine Cinderellas -- and to taper off considerably once we reach the deeper realms of the tourney.
So while it's fun to try to be the Einstein of your office pool and pick that upset that no one saw coming, before you put pen to bracket (or finger to mouse, as we do it these days), you're going to have to stop and ask yourself some important questions, like ...
Do I really think Drake or BYU is going to be able to handle UCLA's Kevin Love?
Do I really think Tyler Hansbrough is going to let North Carolina lose to Washington State?
Do I really think Kansas is going to inexplicably lay an egg against Clemson?
Do I really think Memphis, after steamrolling overmatched foes for four straight months, is going to suddenly overlook somebody?
If your answer to the any of the above is yes ... you're a braver soul than me.
Breaking down the bracket
Committee thumbs-up: Honestly -- the whole thing. It's not often I come away from Selection Sunday not mystified by at least a couple of their decisions, but this year there were no real injustices (beat a top 50 team prior to March 14 next time, Virginia Tech) and no truly bizarre inclusions (though I do wonder whether they were temporarily blinded by Oregon's uniforms when handing them a No. 9 seed).
Committee thumbs-down: Previously, chairman Tom O'Connor said his colleagues would try not to put undue emphasis on conference-tournament performance, but that's the only way to explain how Kansas trumped Tennessee for the last No. 1 seed. The Vols played the toughest schedule in the country; the Jayhawks' was 50th. Tennessee beat both No. 1 seed Memphis and No. 3 seed Xavier on the road. Kansas' best road victim was sixth-seeded USC. And the Jayhawks' only win over an RPI top 25 team happened ... an hour before the bracket came out.