Posted: Wednesday March 16, 2011 12:18PM ; Updated: Thursday March 17, 2011 9:24PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Why the 12-5 upset has become a tourney rule, not an exception

Story Highlights

No. 12 seeds have beaten No. 5 seeds 35 times, or once every three games

12s: underrated mid-majors, hard-luck power teams, First Fours with a win

Every five-seed has a major flaw, plus something 12s don't: pressure to win

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Tai Wesley
Forward Tai Wesley, who helped Utah State win 30 games this season, called the team's No. 12 seed "a slap in the face."
Steve Conner/Icon SMI

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. Only four No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds. Only 16 No. 14 seeds have beaten No. 3 seeds. No. 13 over No. 4? Just 22 times.

When we get to No. 12 against No. 5, the number of upsets jumps to 35.

That might make perfect sense if the bell curve kept moving north and No. 11 seeds had compiled more wins against No. 6 seeds. After all, 11s are supposed to be better than 12s, and sixes are supposed to be worse than fives. But No. 11 has beaten No. 6 only 33 times.

So what gives? Why is the 12-5 game the upset sweet spot? Why does the No. 12 seed win an average of once every three games?

Because this is what players on 12th-seeded teams say on Selection Sunday:

"Our seed is a slap in the face," Utah State forward Tai Wesley said after learning the selection committee considered the Aggies the dirtiest of the first dozen in the Southeast region.

They also say this:

"We could have won three more games," Wesley said. "Then we probably could have gotten a 10 seed." Had Utah State won three more games, the Aggies would have been 33-0.

I hadn't heard the thoughts of Wesley or Utah State coach Stew Morrill before I filled out my bracket Sunday night, but now I'm even more thrilled I picked the Aggies to upset Kansas State. Why? Because Aggies such as Wesley wouldn't even consider it an upset, and because Morrill brought out the mashed potatoes.

Earlier in the season, Morrill posted a giant picture of mashed potatoes in the Utah State locker room. After each win, Morrill tacked on smaller pictures of gravy. (Think of the motivational ploy devised by that great leader of men Lou Brown in Major League. Now replace the removal of clothing with the addition of molten fat. Same concept. Just tastier.) If Utah State beats Kansas State, gravy will completely cover the mashed potatoes.

"If we'd have gotten a six, you guys just would have been saying we have to win," Morrill said. "If you want to find a bright side in this whole deal. ... There's nothing bad that can happen. Good can happen. Really good can happen. But nothing bad can happen at this point."

For Kansas State, which began practice in October with Final Four dreams, a loss represents abject failure for the 2010-11 season. For Utah State, anything is gravy.

The No. 12 seed is a veritable gravy train. Often, a No. 12 that pulls an upset is an underseeded mid-major that had a great season but somehow didn't earn the respect of the selection committee. But that isn't always true. Here's a trivia question guaranteed to stump your friends as you overdose on hoops Thursday: Which plucky upstart program was the first No. 12 to shock a No. 5 in the 64-team era?

The answer? Kentucky.

Weren't expecting that, were you? At 16-12, Joe B. Hall's 1984-85 Wildcats had the worst record of any at-large team in the tournament, but that didn't stop Kenny "Sky" Walker and company from beating Detlef Schrempf and Washington in Huskies coach Marv Harshman's final game.

In fact, Kentucky was favored in the game. And that brings us to the second major subset of the No. 12 winners: the down-on-their-luck power teams that still have the talent to beat anyone in a single-elimination situation. When No. 12 Villanova faced No. 5 Clemson in Tampa in 2008, it surprised no one when the Wildcats won. The following year in Miami, No. 12 Arizona pulled off an equally unsurprising win against No. 5 Utah. I was there for both. I tried for hours to wrap my brain around the idea that Arizona's win was an upset. I wouldn't be as confused again until I watched Inception.

Despite the difference in history and budgets between the streaking mid-major 12s and the downtrodden power conference 12s, the overriding concept remains the same. All the pressure is on the five. For the 12, it can be turkey, chicken, milk or red-eye, but at the end of the day, it's all gravy.

A No. 9 seed isn't that different from a No. 8 seed. A No. 10 seed isn't that different from a No. 7 seed. A No. 11 seed still has some expectations of success. A No. 12 seed has no expectations. Either it is a power-conference team dumped in that spot because it barely made the field, or it's a mid-major too good to be cannon fodder but not respected enough to claim a higher seed.

A No. 5 seed also is a different animal. The elite teams go on the first four seed lines. After that, it becomes much more difficult for the committee to discern which teams belong on which line. It's entirely possible that a No. 8 or a No. 9 can be miscast as a No. 5. That's because every five has at least one glaring flaw. Otherwise, it would be a four. In Kansas State's case this year, it's an early Big 12-season swoon that left star Jacob Pullen pledging that if nominated, he would not run and if elected, he would not serve in the NIT. The Wildcats changed their fortunes, winning their last six regular-season games. That streak included wins against Kansas, Missouri and Texas, so the Wildcats lack one key piece of the No. 5 upset victim profile. They certainly didn't back into the NCAA Tournament.

So how does one pick which 12s will throw off their shackles and rise up to smite the selection committee? Sometimes, it's not so easy. The average margin of victory for a 12 is 7.4 points. Eleven of the 35 wins have been decided by double digits, but 13 have been decided by four points or fewer. Once, the teams attempted to set basketball back 50 years (Southwest Missouri State's 43-32 win against Wisconsin in 1999). Four upsets have gone to overtime, including Western Kentucky's 2008 win against Drake on a Ty Rogers buzzer-beater.

Still, some 12-plays seem obvious. That Arizona-Utah matchup in 2009 jumped off the bracket. So did Manhattan-Florida in 2004.

It was a more innocent time then. Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez was a coach on everyone's shortlist and not just a guy who got fired from Seton Hall and accused of shoplifting a $1,400 man purse. The Jaspers had played in the tournament the previous season. They had guard Luis Flores, who averaged 24.1 points per game. They had won 19 of 21 games. They had been resting for more than a week since winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. Florida, meanwhile, lacked leadership and heart. The Gators would have been a lower seed, but they somehow strung together a run to the SEC Tournament final. In the process, Matt Walsh, the only one of Florida's stars playing with any discernible fire, injured his foot. The foot looked like roast beef on Selection Sunday, and the Gators drew the Jaspers at noon on Thursday.

So it didn't really shock anyone when Manhattan won by 15. Least surprised were the Jaspers. "America is going to look at this game as an upset, but behind closed doors we know it wasn't an upset," Manhattan forward Dave Holmes said. "We can play with anybody on any given night in the country. We just try to keep that behind closed doors. We belong here, and that's no fluke."

Repeat performances are key for the mid-majors. Manhattan couldn't beat Syracuse in 2003, but Florida was easy prey in 2004. Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Sweet 16 in 2000, but the tournament-tested Zags got saddled with a No. 12 seed in 2001. No. 5 seed Virginia, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1995, had lost its last nine consecutive postseason games counting the NIT and the ACC Tournament. Of course Gonzaga won. Western Kentucky made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in 2008 and came back as a No. 12 seed in 2009. That was too bad for No. 5 seed Illinois.

For the slumping power teams, just look for a massive talent differential. In 2009, Arizona's top three players were better than anyone on Utah's roster. That made the Wildcats an easy call. Of course, this year will add a new subset of the power conference 12: one that already has won a tournament game. Clemson thumped UAB in the First Four's first at-large game on Tuesday, meaning No. 5 West Virginia could have to contend with a completely different kind of momentum when it faces the Tigers on Thursday.

That new flavor will make this year's 12-5 matchups even tastier. This year's four No. 12 seeds (Clemson, Memphis, Richmond and Utah State) may have different motivations entering the tournament. They may boast wildly different rosters and styles. But once the ball is tipped, all four face the same consequences (none) and stand to reap the same hearty reward.

"We're just trying," Morrill said, "to get more gravy."

 
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