The real thing

Most of those NCAA Tournament upsets aren't really upsets, but when Duke loses, now you've got something.

By King Kaufman

Published March 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

I was all set to write a piece about how, when you get right down to it, there aren't that many real upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Sure, the guys in the white suits lose a few -- going into the Sweet 16 round Thursday night, the higher-seeded team had lost 12 times in 48 games -- but most of those games aren't true upsets.

The way I figure it, Tournament teams fall into three categories. There's an elite of maybe a dozen to 15 really excellent teams, another dozen or so that just aren't on the same level as everyone else in the Tournament and, in between, everybody else. That great central mass has to be seeded, so in each region somebody has to be the fifth seed and somebody has to be 12th. But it's kind of arbitrary. The Tournament selection committee seeds them its way, favoring fourth- and fifth-place teams from major conferences over champs from smaller conferences. But you could seed them any old way. The difference between a third seed and a fifth is greater than the difference between a fifth and a 12th.

Line up Tulsa, the 12th seed in the East, and Marquette, the fifth seed, 10 times, and each side would win at least four. Tulsa won in the first round this year, but it sure didn't look like an upset.

But when you get to those elite teams, the top seeds, they don't lose that often. For all the thrill you get from predicting upsets, if you choose the higher seed in every game when you're filling out your bracket, you'll have a pretty good chance of winning your office pool most years.

So there I am, all set with my no real upsets piece, planning to be in bed by midnight, and Indiana beats Duke.

Now that, folks, is an upset.

I've been accused by more than one reader of being a part of what everyone knows is a nationwide media conspiracy to promote Duke. The Blue Devils get every break from the refs, this theory goes, and the media never mentions it. For we Duke backers in the typing classes, it's all about the genius of Mike Krzyzewski, who's not a genius at all, he's just a guy whose team gets every single call, but is lionized by us nattering nabobs because, um, I never read this far in the e-mails so I don't know why.

I'm not sure if people really think that Duke wins so much because of charitable officiating as opposed to, you know, having the best players and a really good coach. It's funny to be told I'm part of the conspiracy, though, because I'm as happy as anyone to see Duke lose, anytime. And, now that you mention it, I kind of thought Notre Dame got worked by the refs in the waning moments of their heartbreaking loss to Duke in the second round.

Then on Thursday, in the fifth minute of the Duke-Indiana game, Duke center Carlos Boozer drove the baseline, hooking his arm around Indiana's Jeff Newton, which should have been called an offensive foul, then dribbled the ball off his own foot out of bounds. The call? Duke's ball. The rare double blown call, of course in Duke's favor. Maybe there's something to this theory.

Duke was in control most of the way, leading by as many as 17 points, but Indiana roared back in the second half, took its first lead at 72-70 with a little over a minute to play, and had a 74-70 lead in the game's final seconds. That's when it looked like the refs were ready to hand Duke the game again.

The Blue Devils came downcourt with less than 10 seconds remaining. Daniel Ewing missed a three-pointer, but the long rebound came out to Jason Williams, Duke's star, who launched a three-pointer from straightaway with five seconds left. It went in. And he was fouled. Fouled? Are you kidding me? Duke would get a free throw to try to tie the game with 4.2 seconds to go.

Indiana coach Mike Davis staggered over to the bench and flopped down to his knees, his head on the seat of a chair. He looked up with a pained expression. I thought he was upset at the call. Duke gets bailed out again. But wait a minute. A replay showed that Williams had clearly been fouled by Dane Fife, who ran into him trying to block the essentially meaningless shot, one that still would have left Duke one point behind. Davis was reacting to the colossal boneheadedness of Fife, ordinarily a fine defensive player.

Williams missed the free throw, but Boozer got the rebound. And then the damnedest thing happened. Boozer tried to go up for the game-winning put-back, but Indiana's Jared Jeffries reached in and knocked the ball away. The Hoosiers picked up the loose ball and held on for the win.

That's not the damnedest part. Here's the damndest part: Jeffries wasn't called for a foul. As soon as he reached across Boozer, I was sure there would be a whistle, Boozer would get two foul shots and he'd either send the game to overtime or win it for Duke.

It wasn't clear to me from replays whether Jeffries hit all ball or a part of Boozer as well. But usually it doesn't matter. I remain, more than three decades into my basketball watching life, completely baffled about what does or does not constitute a foul. Some light touches are whistled while other bone-rattling collisions, in a similar game situation, are not. But this much I know: If you reach in like Jeffries did on Boozer, you'll get called for a foul 19 times out of 20, whether you touch the man or not.

Amazingly, this was that 20th time. Maybe that pro-Duke conspiracy is falling apart.

And with 10th seed Kent State joining Indiana in the Elite Eight by beating No. 3 Pitt in the South, maybe there's something to this upset thing after all.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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