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Most upsets ever? Not quite, but underdogs crowd the final 16

TJ Starks of the Texas A&M Aggies drives to the basket against Kyron Cartwright of the Providence Friars in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16 in Charlotte, North Carolina. AFP
TJ Starks of the Texas A&M Aggies drives to the basket against Kyron Cartwright of the Providence Friars in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16 in Charlotte, North Carolina. AFP

Most upsets ever? Not quite, but underdogs crowd the final 16

Mike Tierney

Texas A&M’s path to their NCAA West Region semifinal at Staples Center was by no means a direct one.

The Aggies endured losing streaks of five and three games. So many players were suspended – six in all, one of whom ultimately was banished – or injured that coach Billy Kennedy says he lost track of who was available “plenty of times.”

Their season-long rollercoaster carried them to a No5 ranking in The Associated Press poll in mid-December before a plunge that left them without a single vote in the final pretournament rankings. (Forty-six teams got at least one vote.)

Yet here they are, one of a half-dozen teams seeded No7 or worse in the round of 16 that begins on Thursday with games here and in Atlanta.

Despite plenty of hyperbole having been thrown around about this tournament’s number of upsets, the bracket-wrecking results are not happening at an unprecedented rate.

The average seed of the first week’s survivors is 5.5 – well above the tournament’s historical average of 4.5, but still in a three-way tie for the second-highest ever, along with 1990 and 1999.

But none of those three years can match the 1986 edition. The double-digit-seeded teams Texas (No10), Louisiana State (No11), Ball State (No12), DePaul (No12) and Cleveland State (No14) all found themselves in the final 16.

That is not to say there have not been some unique distinctions with this year’s upsets.

Nevada walked a tightrope

The projected Final Four contenders Arizona, a No4 seed, and Virginia, the overall No1, were not toppled by buzzer-beaters or in nerve-racking finishes.

No13 Buffalo buried the Wildcats by 21 points, and the Cavaliers became the first No1 seed to lose in its first game, getting crushed by the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, a school known more for its chess team before Friday.

Syracuse’s elimination of Michigan State, a No3 seed and a popular championship pick, was the third win in five days for the Orange, a team that came into the tournament with little notice beyond being the selection committee’s last invitee.

No7 Nevada has walked a tightrope, advancing to the Sweet 16 despite leading for barely four of its 85 minutes played.

They were trailing Texas by 22 points midway through the second half before winning in overtime, and overcame a similarly late 14-point deficit against Cincinnati before toppling the No2 seed.

Nevada belongs to the South Region, where No5 Kentucky is the top team remaining.

It was the first time a region has lost its top four seeds in the first weekend, and it occurred despite one oddsmaker having listed every remaining team but Kentucky at 60-to-1 merely to win the South.

No journey from November to March has been more adventurous, however, than Texas A&M’s has. They stand alone in NCAA annals by starting 0-5 in league play and then reaching the Sweet 16.

The revolving door of players “was disruptive for everybody,” Kennedy said. “I’m just thankful these guys stayed the course and believed in what we were telling them.”

Kennedy has sent out nine different starting line-ups in 34 games, primarily because of the suspensions, most of which were short-term.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go two steps backward before going one step forward,” he said. “Fortunately, our guys bought in and grew up some.”

‘Stuff happens’

Tyler Davis, a junior who was the lone Aggie who did not miss a game, shrugged off the comings and goings as part of the normal course of a season. “Stuff happens,” he said.

Still, the slump prompted players-only meetings. The freshman Robert Williams, speaking of some teammates, said: “When things started falling apart, they were doing their own thing. So we just had to buy into that we’re all here for each other.”

The perpetually relaxed Kennedy said: “I never lost faith. It was early enough in the year that I thought we could right the ship.”

A similar attitude was expressed by coach Leonard Hamilton of Florida State, who, 47 years into a career in coaching, is unsurprised by the capricious nature of the postseason.

“Basketball is in a revolution,” said Hamilton, 69, observing that a talented player can excel outside the circle of elite college programs if he gains experience on the AAU/summertime circuit and finds a system where he fits.

“I turn on the TV all the time. I see a school that’s supposed to be categorized as a mid-major and I say: Boy, I wish I had those guys,” he said. “So I don’t think ‘upset’ is something you can use as much as we used to because there is parity.”

‘Share the load’

Hamilton has discovered that gaps between the sport’s upper crust and its second-tier programmes can be closed with innovative approaches. He allots significant minutes during the regular season to 10 players, a rotation larger than the norm.

While some peers shrink their rotation for the tournament to as few as six players, he stays the course.

“I always felt that was the best way for me to compete with the rich tradition of programmes that are always loaded with seven or eight players who are some of the top players in the country,” he said. “Let’s try to get a team of guys that would allow them to win by committee.”

He added: “We feel that we can compete a lot better if we have more guys to share the load.”

Now the question is if the upsets will continue. Gonzaga is a pronounced favourite on Thursday over Florida State, and Michigan is a narrower one over A&M. But if the tournament continues as it has thus far, at least one of the (under) dogs will have its day.

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