King Kaufman's Sports Daily

On a wild day of college basketball upsets and near upsets, unbeaten Illinois finally takes the advice of the superstitious and loses.


Salon Staff
March 8, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

As a dispassionate observer of the college sporting scene, patches on the elbows, Magic 8-Ball at the ready in case of moral dilemmas, I don't often find myself leaping out of my chair, exclaiming aloud at some exciting play, causing the family to race into the room to see what killed Daddy.

It happened three times Sunday. This is what keeps bringing us all back, even those of us who dislike the unfair scheduling and the lopsided balance of power and the corruption. In spite of it all, when college sports are good, there's nothing quite like them.

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The first scare in my house came when Ohio State's Matt Sylvester hit a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining that gave the Buckeyes a 65-64 upset over the last undefeated team in the nation, top-ranked Illinois.

The game had a Tournament feel because it was played in Columbus and this was it for Ohio State, which has banned itself from the NCAA Tournament in the wake of rules violations under former coach Jim O'Brien. Yet another case of the wrong people, fans and current players, being punished for a crime.

The next shout came in the climactic moment of No. 2 North Carolina's furious rally against No. 6 Duke, when Tar Heel Raymond Felton missed a game-tying free throw, but Marvin Williams won a scramble for the rebound and banked in a shot as he was fouled. He made the free throw to complete a 9-0 run in the last three minutes, one that was an immediate answer to a 9-0 Duke run. North Carolina averted the home upset, if losing to Duke could ever be called an upset, 75-73.

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The last uproar -- by this time, I could have shouted "Fire!" and nobody would have even looked up -- came when No. 4 Wake Forest's Chris Paul raced downcourt in the final seconds of the Demon Deacons' game at North Carolina State with the score tied 53-53. Paul had already distinguished himself and further endeared himself to the Raleigh crowd by landing the best low blow this side of Jack Sharkey, temporarily felling Wolfpack star Julius Hodge in retaliation for some dirty pool finger-mashing moments earlier.

Now Paul dribbled through the retreating N.C. State defense, got fouled by Engin Atsur -- uncalled because the rules are different in the last seconds of a game -- and somehow tossed in a 15-foot fadeaway that swished through as the buzzer sounded. Another upset averted.

It's more fun when the upsets aren't averted, but those were some fantastic finishes, all of them with great story lines to boot. And there were a couple more big upsets that weren't averted.

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Missouri beat arch-rival Kansas, the seventh-ranked team in the country, which looked like it had other things on its mind even though this was a rivalry game, and Florida beat No. 3 Kentucky in a game that probably would have produced another yelp from me had I seen the climactic moment live, when Anthony Roberson of Florida, down by one, stole the ball with 12 seconds left.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber has been joking for most of the season about people who have suggested that his team should lose a game so it wouldn't have to go into the NCAA Tournament with the pressure of being undefeated. Which one, he's asked, would you like us to lose?

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After the loss to Ohio State, Weber said, "Everyone said we needed to lose a game. Maybe they're right," but he didn't sound convinced. He's been saying all along that he doesn't see much value in losing.

We all know that the last team to go undefeated and win the championship was Indiana in 1976, and we keep hearing about that 1991 UNLV team that entered the Tournament without a loss but got beat in the semifinals by Duke.

There's kind of a superstition that a team jinxes itself by going undefeated in the regular year. You have to get that loss out of the way before it becomes too important.

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Besides, it's kind of intuitive to think that the pressure of remaining undefeated is wearing, tiring, that by the time an unbeaten team reaches March Madness it's been playing Tournament games for two months, and it's impossible to maintain that edge against the brutal competition of the later rounds.

Maybe. But if that's true, losing the last game of the season is no help. Illinois has still been playing pressure-packed games for a while, and now it has to go play in the supposedly meaningful Big Ten Tournament -- where it might be a wise thing to lose quickly, go home and rest, although that would probably cost the Illini a No. 1 seed. But is a No. 1 seed rather than a No. 2 worth playing two more tough games on consecutive days on the eve of the most important games of the year? I think not, but no one asks me.

Anyway, if you want to know the value of losing a game, ask St. Joseph's and Stanford, both of which lost for the first time just before the Tournament last year, and neither of which reached the Final Four.

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Based on a close analysis of the records of past champions, I've concluded that the ideal number of regular-season losses for a team hoping to win the national championship is precisely 2.4.

OK, I made that up. The idea is to lose precisely zero games after the Ides of March. Before that, it's all just cockamamie theory, so you might as well try to win 'em all. Illinois gave it a pretty good shot. Matt Sylvester's shot was just better. Brought me right out of my chair.

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