SI Vault
Jack McCallum
March 15, 1999
Though this may not be the year that a No. 16 seed finally knocks off a No. 1, rest assured that, just like death and taxes, upsets will happen. Herewith is our surgeon general's list of the 10 leading causes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 15, 1999

Anatomy Of An Upset

Though this may not be the year that a No. 16 seed finally knocks off a No. 1, rest assured that, just like death and taxes, upsets will happen. Herewith is our surgeon general's list of the 10 leading causes

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Fearing a catachalmine calamity—well, he didn't put it exactly that way—Tarrant didn't show his 1991 Richmond team films of Syracuse because the sight of LeRon Ellis and Billy Owens running the floor and dunking would've been a confidence sapper. Jim O'Brien did crank up the VCR for his ninth-seeded Boston College underdogs before they took the court for a second-round matchup against top-seeded North Carolina in '94. But O'Brien's choice was a football game, specifically BC's 41-39 upset of No. 1 Notre Dame several months earlier. "We talked about how if those guys could do it, we can do it," says O'Brien, now the coach at Ohio State. And they did it, winning 75-72.

5. The underdog has an outstanding game coach. Exhibit A is Jim Valvano against Guy Lewis in the 1983 national championship game. That was simply Dresden on a chalkboard. Says Sacramento State coach Tom Abatemarco, a Wolfpack assistant that year: "I would scout a game, watching tape for hours, and V would come in, sit down for 10,15 minutes and say, 'O.K., this is what we've got to do.' He'd get it immediately, and he knew exactly what was going to happen." Result? No. 6-seed North Carolina State 54, No. 1 Houston 52, the biggest upset in NCAA history.

Tarrant, that mid-major maestro who's now retired from coaching, was the classic springer of upsets—confident, respected, knowledgeable, albeit little-known. Ditto for defensive specialist Dick Bennett, now at Wisconsin, who led 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay to a 61-57 upset of No. 5 California in 1994 and, as a 14th seed, almost beat No. 3 Purdue (the score was 49-48) the next season. Ditto for zone-master John Chaney, who, with seventh-seeded Temple in '93, made it to the West Regional final before his Owls lost to Michigan, the No. 1 seed, 77-72. McGuire says that early-round upsets are created by coaches whose style is drilled into the fiber of the team and whose command over the players is "dictatorial," as he puts it.

This year? No coach in the field wants to match sideline wits with veteran Eddie Sutton of ninth-seeded Oklahoma State.

6. The underdog gets off to a good start. "You set the tone for an upset in the first five minutes," says Murray State (Ky.) coach Tevester Anderson, who was an assistant when the 15th-seeded Racers stayed with No. 2 Duke before losing 71-68 in 1997. To that end, from the opening tip-off, Majerus ordered three Utah defenders—one more than usual—to get back on every shot attempt to stop heavily favored Arizona's fast break in last season's West Regional final. The top-seeded Wildcats never got the needle on the speedometer up where they wanted it, and that was a key to the Utes' 76-51 rout. Alan LeForce is convinced that his 14th-seeded East Tennessee State team never would have upset Arizona in '92 had the Buccaneers not gotten out of the gate confidently. "The longer a Cinderella keeps it close," says LeForce, "the longer the crowd stays behind you." The advantages of staying close can't be overstated. "When a Number 1 or 2 seed falls behind, it's very difficult to come back," says the Jayhawks' Robertson. "The pressure mounts because of the expectations." Or as McGuire memorably puts it, "If an underdog is still there at the bell lap, the favorite starts shrinking up like hemorrhoids."

This year? Auburn looks like a good candidate to falter if it falls behind early. The Tigers blew out so many teams that they have little experience in close games and don't have a player with NCAA tournament experience. That may prove to be a lethal combination.

7. The underdog controls the tempo. Two years ago coach Fang Mitchell had a Coppin State team that loved to run and press, but it didn't do much of either in upsetting South Carolina 78-65 in the first round of the East Regional, one of only three 15-beats-2 mind-blowers since the tournament field was expanded to 64 in 1985. "Running was our game, but we felt South Carolina was better at it," says Mitchell. Similarly, though Valparaiso may have been considered a slow-it-down throwback when it reached the Sweet 16 last season, it was actually a team that had outstanding athletes and liked to run. But it ran only opportunistically and controlled the tempo in its 70-69 surprise of Ole Miss.

This year? Samford, a 14th seed, plays slow and smart, like its sound-alike brother, Stanford.

8. The underdog employs different looks on defense. While an overwhelming favorite would be foolish to change a winning formula, the underdog has a what-the-hell sense of freedom. "You say, I don't think we can take these guys head-to-head," says Majerus. "Let's add a wrinkle. Let's not be afraid of failure." In '97 Tennessee-Chattanooga played mostly man-to-man when it beat Georgia (coach Mac McCarthy felt the Bulldogs didn't have a dominating, physical team) and mostly zone in its win over Illinois (McCarthy felt that the Illini's outside shooting was suspect). Zone, though, is undoubtedly the preferred defense for a would-be David, the idea being that Goliath, somewhere along the line, will grow frustrated, panic and begin clanking outside shots. (No team in the '90s has learned this lesson as painfully as Kansas, which was a top seed when it was beaten by ninth-seeded UTEP's zone in '92, and a second seed when it was stymied by No. 4 Syracuse's zone in '96.)

This year? Look out for 10th-seeded Creighton, which will throw in some zone with its nose-to-nose man-to-man.

Continue Story
1 2 3