Operation overdog

The NCAA Tournament's first day shows that when the world's only superpower goes to war, it's not a good time to be an underdog.


King Kaufman
March 22, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

The first round of the NCAA Tournament is America's greatest festival of the underdog. Every year, inferior teams rise up and stun their betters, urged on by screaming, rabid fans who often had no rooting interest in the game when it started, but found themselves won over to the underdog's cause.

But on Thursday, the day the world's only superpower kicked its war machine into gear, the Tournament seemed to be playing along. Early on a day that started with news that Iraqi troops were surrendering before ground fighting had even started, underdogs weren't putting up much more of a fight than that.

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In the eight games that made up the first half of the day's action, exactly one favorite fell, and that was Cincinnati, a favorite only in the most technical sense. The Bearcats, the 8 seed in the West, lost to ninth-seed Gonzaga, 74-69, which means this is the only chance I'll have to tell you what a Bearcat is, something I'd wondered about in Thursday's preview piece.

Several readers wrote in to say that a Bearcat is a Himalayan beasty, also known as a red panda, that looks sort of like a raccoon. The University of Cincinnati's Web site explains that the word bearcat first appeared as a literal transliteration of the Chinese word for panda, but also that there's a catlike Malaysian animal called a binturong that's known as a bearcat. In other words, I still have no idea what a Bearcat is, but at least now I've decided that I really don't care.

The U of C Web site spends less time explaining any of this than it spends explaining that the school's ugly logo -- the second "C" in Cincinnati sort of looks like a paw, if you think a paw looks like a "C" -- is a federally registered trademark and you better not use it. And for that reason, good riddance to the Bearcats.

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But anyway, I think I was saying that a 9 seed beating an 8 is hardly an upset. In fact, 8 vs. 9 games are hardly worth watching at all, since 8 and 9 seeds tend toward stumbling mediocrity. With no good team and no really bad one, an exciting upset isn't possible in an 8-9 game. Whoever wins, it's a shrug, and they're going to get crushed by the top seed in the next round anyway.

Much as I like to avoid 8 vs. 9 games, I couldn't do that Thursday because the other one was Cal vs. North Carolina State in the East, and I am a Cal man, an Old Blue, a Golden Bear. Not only did I not avoid this 8 vs. 9 game, I made a special trip to a sports bar to watch it, because the wise people at CBS -- whose work was seen on ESPN early in the day because of war coverage -- had decided to shield viewers in my part of the country from having to see it.

And I wasn't disappointed. The game sucked. It was 44 minutes and 50 seconds of torpor capped by 10 seconds of excitement as the Bears and Wolfpack traded three-pointers at the end of overtime, Cal surviving as Scooter Sherrill's buzzer beater just missed. I don't think I could have been too disappointed if my team had been sunk by a guy named Scooter Sherrill.

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Southern Illinois, the 11th seed in the Midwest, should have had the upset win over 6-seed Missouri, but the Tigers were handed the victory on a horrible call. Saluki Jermaine Dearman was standing in place long enough to smoke a cigarette before Rickey Paulding plowed into him driving to the basket with the score tied in the last seconds. Dearman, whose feet had practically grown roots, was amazingly called for the block. Paulding hit one of the two gift free throws for the win. This was not a day for underdogs.

The guys in the dark suits started to fare a little better as evening fell. (The higher seed in any game wears its home uniform.) In the West, 11-seed Central Michigan pounded 6-seed Creighton, let the Bluejays back in the game, then held on for a 79-73 win, and 10-seed Arizona State beat what had been a streaking Memphis team, the 7 seed, 84-71.

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But it didn't take long for the big guns to restore order, though there was some excitement along the way. In West region games, Kansas and Notre Dame dodged upsets within seconds of each other. Fifteen-seed Utah State missed a good-look three-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied the No. 2 Jayhawks and 12-seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee somehow missed a layup in the waning seconds that would have beaten the No. 5 Fighting Irish. Then CBS switched to Duke-Colorado State just in time for the 14-seed Rams to stage a rally, pull within three and foul Dahntay Jones out of the game. The fans in Salt Lake City, who 90 minutes earlier couldn't have cared less about Colorado State, were going nuts.

Duke, the third seed, pulled out to an eight-point lead, 59-51, but the Rams hung in there, going on a 6-0 run during which Casey Sanders fouled out as well. It was bedlam in the stands as Salt Lake Citians roared for Colorado State and asked each other what town the school might be in. Let's hear it for the underdog!

Colorado State didn't score another point. Duke won 67-57. No, sir, not a day for underdogs.

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At least not until the last game of the night, when Tulsa, No. 13 in the Midwest, became the lowest seed to advance by beating 4-seed Dayton 84-71. Could the overdog coalition be starting to crumble?

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I've expanded my little virtual office pool of national sports commentators who publish their brackets, whether they admit, as I do, that they have no idea what's going to happen or they try to come off as soothsaying know-it-alls.

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When we last spoke, I had the Sporting News' three "experts," Tim Brando, Mike DeCourcey and Kyle Veltrop. I've since added the brackets of Sports Illustrated writers Seth Davis, Stewart Mandel, Grant Wahl and Alexander Wolff, as well as the bracket printed in the magazine, which was compiled by Wahl and Wolff. I am pursuing the expert brackets from ESPN.

And in the meantime, for the heck of it, I filled out a bracket on behalf of my son Buster, which we arrived at by picking the top seeds to win in the first round, and then flipping a coin to decide every other game, with heads representing the team that comes first alphabetically. In other words heads for Alabama, tails for Indiana. Buster has East Tennessee State beating Tulsa in the championship game.

Here are the standings after the first half of the first round, 16 games, with each correct pick worth 10 points:

Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News (130 points)
Tim Brando, Sporting News (120)
Mike DeCourcey, Sporting News (120)
Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated (110)
Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated (110)
Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated (110)
King Kaufman, Salon (100)
Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated (90)
Sports Illustrated (90)
Buster, Coin Flip Journal (80)

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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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