King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA Tournament Day 2: Underdogs hang around, hang around and, finally, a couple of them break through.


Salon Staff
March 19, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

1:50 p.m. EST: Seth Davis, the Sports Illustrated writer moonlighting on CBS's NCAA Tournament studio show, has bolted to the lead after one day in this column's annual NCAA Tournament Pool o' Experts by picking 15 of 16 games correctly, missing only on the Alabama-Birmingham upset of LSU.

Aside from the NCAA Selection Committee, which got 13 outcomes right, no one else in this year's expanded field got more than 12 of 16.

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This year's field has expanded from 12 to 16. Returnees are: Davis; the committee; your humble servant; 2003 champion Tony Mejia of CBS.SportsLine.com; 2004 champ Tim Brando of CBS and the Sporting News, plus his Sporting News colleague Mike DeCourcy; Stewart Mandel, Grant Wahl and Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated; the editors of Sports Illustrated, who inspired this contest three years ago; John Salley of Fox Sports; and my son Buster, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America.

The four new entries are: CBS.SportsLine's users, whose bracket will serve as the wisdom of the crowd; Kyle Veltrop of the Sporting News, who was in the 2003 pool but not in last year's for some reason; Luke Winn, who writes about college basketball for SI.com; and Yoni Cohen, who has parlayed his college basketball blog into a gig writing columns for Foxsports.com, and who was the first person to volunteer for inclusion in this pool, a request that was granted because he was once my student.

Anybody who's had to listen to me talk about writing deserves a break or two.

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I was going to include Marques Johnson of Fox Sports, but his promised bracket has not materialized on the Web site.

Here are the standings after the first half of the first round, with 10 points awarded for each correct pick in the first round, then 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 in the subsequent rounds. The number in parentheses after a score indicates the number of Sweet 16 picks already eliminated.

1. Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated/CBS: 150 (1)
2. NCAA Selection Committee: 130
3. CBS.SportsLine.com users: 120
3. Yoni Cohen, Yocohoops/Foxsports.com: 120
3. Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News: 120
6. Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated: 120 (1)
6. Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated: 120 (1)
8. King Kaufman, Salon: 120 (2)
9. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com: 110
9. Sports Illustrated: 110
9. John Salley, Fox Sports: 110
12. Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated: 110 (2)
12. Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated: 110 (2)
14. Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News: 100 (1)
15. Tim Brando, Sporting News/CBS: 100 (3)
16. Buster, Coin Flip the Magazine: 80 (5)

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Friday's early games, all in or just starting the second half at this writing, have been competitive if not always see-saw affairs. Charlotte, 7-seed in the Syracuse Region, looked like it was going to run No. 10 North Carolina State out of the gym early, but the Wolfpack steadied and it's 52-45 with about 13 minutes left, roughly the margin that's held for a while now.

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My apparently Big 12-mad part of the country has been watching the entertaining Oklahoma State-Southeast Louisiana tilt, in which the Cowboys have led all the way but the Lions have hung around thanks to their athleticism and defense, especially by Ricky Woods. It's 35-26 as the second half starts.

Iowa State leads Minnesota by 10 at the second-half tip in a less-than-stellar 9-8 matchup in the Syracuse, and in the same bracket No. 4 Florida seems to be handling but not losing No. 13 Ohio. It's 38-28.

It looks like we're going to have three weardowns, plus a close one between the Carolina teams, though Iowa State and Minnesota might tighten up.

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3:10 p.m. EST: So there I am, happily watching the Oklahoma State-Southeastern Louisiana game. It's highly entertaining, though it doesn't look like the 15-seed Lions are going to catch the No. 2 Cowboys and pull the biggest upset since Hampton in 2001.

Oklahoma State being a Big 12 team, I know the St. Louis CBS affiliate isn't going to switch to one of the other games without a fight, but that's OK because those games aren't close. North Carolina State has erased an early double-digit deficit and beaten Charlotte in a mild 10-over-7-seed upset in the Syracuse region, while Iowa State, in the same bracket, is cruising along over Minnesota, leading by 10 or so on the way to a 9-over-8 win.

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That just leaves Florida, the 4-seed in the Syracuse, beating up on No. 13 Ohio. Let's see, last time I looked it was a 20-point lead, and now it's -- whoa! It's 60-60! What happened?

Florida has been a poster team for Tournament underachievement these last few years, but this year the Gators have looked different, tougher, more defense-minded. This year, they were looking like a Final Four contender, certainly a reasonable Elite 8 pick.

And they let the Ohio Bobcats come back from 20 points down to tie the game in the dying minutes. It's looking like a choke job when David Lee puts up a 17-foot jumper from beyond the free-throw line and it comes up three feet short. But Anthony Roberson is there to haul it in like a pass, score and get fouled. He makes the free throw, and when the Bobcats turn it over -- unforced -- on their next possession, the threat's over. Florida survives, 67-62, but how's that "Fla" scribbled on your bracket's Elite 8 line looking?

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Best non-game shot of the Tournament so far: Before the second set of games, one of which will be Central Florida vs. UConn, the CBS cameras catch the Central Florida mascot, a Golden Knight, in sparkly armor, climbing up on a pair of folding chairs to lead a cheer, but stepping wrong and tumbling to the ground.

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4:05 p.m. EST: Five of the eight 1 and 2 seeds have played, and we haven't had any of those lopsided blowouts in those games. The lower seeds haven't really come close to winning, but they've at least been competitive.

Until now. Syracuse top-seed North Carolina is leading Oakland, the play-in winner, 59-33 at the half, meaning the Tar Heels are on pace win by seven and a half touchdowns.

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No. 2 Connecticut, from the same region, is leading the 15-seed Central Florida Tumbling Knights 47-31 at halftime thanks to Charlie Villanueva's buzzer 3-pointer. Several low seeds have fallen behind by that much and then rallied to make a game of it in the second half, but I doubt UConn's sweating much in the locker room.

Remember when I said a 12 wouldn't beat a 5 this year? Of course you do. You always remember when I say ridiculous things that turn out to be wrong. Well, if I hadn't backed myself into that corner, I'd have picked New Mexico to upset Villanova in the Syracuse region.

And you know what? Instead of writing me e-mails or posting on your blog about how dumb I was for that 5-12 prediction, you'd be writing about how I'd lost my mind by picking New Mexico. 'Nova's leading that game 34-10 in the last two minutes of the half.

In the game I'm watching, one I'd been looking forward to, Southern Illinois is leading St. Mary's 35-26 at the break. This is not just a game between two good medium-conference teams roughly from the last two areas I've called home, it's an intriguing matchup, but the Gaels haven't been able to put anything together. Southern Illinois is the seventh seed in the Chicago Region, St. Mary's the No. 10.

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So it looks like the seeds are holding up big-time in this set of games, which goes against my theory that seeds don't mean much, that they're a result of the prejudices and biases of the NCAA Selection Committee, and your own prejudices and biases would serve equally well.

Also going against my theory, according to reader Kevin Kraft: reality in general.

"I have found that, looking at game outcomes averaged over the long long term, the seedings are surprisingly accurate and meaningful," Kraft writes. "I came across this while working on a side-project attempting to define a metric gauging the level of upsets for a given NCAA Tournament (i.e. a number that would indicate whether a given year was a big year for upsets, and how it compared to other years).

"Since defining an 'upset' depends on the relative seedings, I went back and examined the historical data, plotting both seed and seed differential (winning seed minus losing seed) vs. winning percentage," he continues. "The results were beautiful straight lines, indicating a very high correlation between higher seeds, larger seed differentials, and higher winning percentages. So, taken over the long term, the seeding process has proven to be surprisingly accurate."

Shut up, he explained.

5:35 p.m. EST: I don't know what to tell you about the second set of games Friday. I don't mean I'm at a loss to explain what happened. There were no surprises. North Carolina and Connecticut crushed their low-seed opponents, though it looks like Central Florida made it look respectable in garbage time, losing only 77-71.

I saw not a second of that game because I've been watching the Southern Illinois-St. Mary's game, and here in St. Louis the Salukis are a semi-local team, so no look-ins to other games.

North Carolina beat Oakland 96-68, the first score of that type in this Tournament. Too bad for Golden Grizzlies. I tried to help them out by wearing my "Oakland" hooded sweatjacket. It's really an Oakland, Calif., jacket but I thought it couldn't hurt. It didn't, but there's nothing mysterious when North Carolina beats Oakland by 28, except maybe "Why didn't they win by 38?"

New Mexico, a popular upset pick over Villanova because that's a 5-12 matchup, has spent much of the game down by about 20. Ha. Who would think a 12 could beat a 5? What's not to understand there? The Lobos have crawled back to 52-45 with 1:07 to go, though.

And Southern Illinois, the No. 7 in the Chicago Region, has just rapped up a 65-56 win over No. 10 St. Mary's.

What I mean when I say I don't mean to tell you is that I've hit some doldrums. I'm unable to process basketball for a while. The first two days of the NCAA Tournament are eight sets of games, four at a time, and we're coming to the end of Day 2, Set 2, which is to say Set 6.

And suddenly, I'm doubting that my existence serves a purpose. This is something of a crisis because usually I'm sure my existence serves no purpose.

Villanova's up by five in the last minute, and the Wildcats have missed five straight double-bonus free throws, all of them by good free-throw shooters. And I just don't have anything to say about it.

I think I need Chinese food. Actually, I thought I needed Chinese food about three hours ago, so I had some delivered. And then I ate it and immediately started doubting that my existence serves a purpose, which should not be taken as a comment on the quality of the food. I'm just trying to say there are no answers in those white cartons.

OK, Villanova has closed out New Mexico. All four games in this time slot were favorites winning. There have now been 24 games, with the higher seed winning 19. And of the five lower-seed winners, two were 9-seeds, which is a toss-up with an 8. The other three upset winners have been a 10, an 11 and a 12. No Cinderellas.

That's really my problem here. In 24 games, there has yet to be a memorable upset. Nor has there been a buzzer beater. There's only been one attempted buzzer beater, Creighton's against West Virginia. There hasn't been an overtime.

So this is a curable malaise. March Madness, an advertising coinage I rarely use, hasn't been lacking good basketball. It's just been lacking madness. And you need a little madness here and there, otherwise sitting in one spot and watching 32 basketball games in two days is madness.

Dinner. Then more games, and everything will be fine.

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9:55 p.m. EST: The longer an underdog hangs around with a high seed, the more confident it gets, and the more dangerous it becomes.

Every single time an underdog hangs around with a higher seed, this point gets made in the CBS studio, usually by Clark Kellogg. I just knew that if Kellogg kept saying it, it was going to be true at least once, and how about those Vermont Catamounts! The 13 seed in the Austin Region has knocked off No. 4 Syracuse in overtime, an honest-to-goodness Cinderella-story upset.

Finally, a team in road uniforms going shocked-the-world crazy, celebrating a game they had no business winning but for the magic of the Tournament. Vermont's win extends not only the college careers of Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, the highest scoring duo in Division I, it extends the career of coach Tom Brennan, a beloved character who'll retire whenever Vermont loses.

That was just the pick-me-up this Tournament needed.

I wish I could tell you more about it, but CBS was keeping my part of the country glued to a mostly pointless Northern Iowa-Wisconsin game, an 11 vs 6 in the Syracuse Region, two teams going nowhere in the Tournament.

CBS has been very good in this Tournament, committing almost none of the sins I complain about -- crazy camera angles, that sort of thing -- but it had a giant brain fart of a moment at the end of those two games. The Vermont game was down to 13 seconds left in overtime, Syracuse down by three, about to inbound in the backcourt. CBS, which had been looking in, switched back to Northern Iowa-Wisconsin for the final 3.2 seconds.

Northern Iowa was also about to inbound in the backcourt, but the Panthers were down by five. Why are we watching this? They have no chance. Let's get back to Vermont-Syracuse!

Wait a minute. The officials are having one of those little meetings at the scorer's table. So CBS hangs around to watch ... nothing. Nothing's happening. Meanwhile, in the score bug for the Vermont-Syracuse game, the clock is ticking down: 13, 12, 11, 10 -- a long shot of the court, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin players standing around -- 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 ... all the way to nothing. Not a zero, just nothing. Then a "1" appears. The refs are still talking.

Finally, CBS switches to the last 0.4 seconds, a throw-in by Vermont, then about two seconds of celebration, before switching back to the already-iced Wisconsin victory. I don't know how much of the country was affected by this. Probably not much, but it was just lousy work, CBS.

Nobody I've ever met watches sports this way. Everybody I've ever met wants to see 1) the home team and then 2) the best game going. Teams vaguely in your region of the country? Really, no thanks. Why would anyone not actually in Wisconsin or Northern Iowa want to be watching that game rather than a hard-fought, possible huge upset game between Vermont and Syracuse? Not to mention Louisiana-Lafayette's almost-upset of Louisville.

So anyway, finally. Not just finally an underdog winning one, but finally that thing about underdogs becoming more dangerous as they hang around because their confidence builds? Finally came true for once.

North Carolina over Oakland had been the only real overdog blitz, so one would-be Cinderella after another had been hanging around for at least part of the game. From Eastern Kentucky to Winthrop to Utah State to Central Florida. Penn, Chattanooga, Montana, Niagara.

"The longer they hang around ..."

They all lost, every last underdoggy one of 'em. Maybe there's just nothing to that hanging around thing.

Maybe it's just that when big underdogs win, of course they do it by staying close for most of the game and winning at the end. Favorites have many ways to win, like taking a 30-point lead, for example, and either maintaining it or losing some of it but still winning. A Delaware State might beat a Duke, but it's not going to do it by getting a 30-point lead and hanging on. It has to play like crazy just to stay close.

But that doesn't mean that hanging around is important because it builds the confidence that leads to victory. Hanging around is important because that's the only way to win.

You don't want to let an underdog hang around for the same reason you don't want to let an equal or a favorite hang around. It's because you want to beat them, and it's easier to beat a team you're leading by 15 than one you're leading by three, or trailing by three.

Two more underdogs hung around in the early evening games: No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette against No. 4 Louisville in the Albuquerque Region and No. 16 Delaware State against No. 1 Duke in the Austin. Duke pulled away in the second half. Louisiana-Lafayette hung in against Louisville to the bitter end.

And lost.

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12:50 a.m. EST: "Oh no! Christian Laettner!"

I actually said those words out loud as Wayne Simien caught a 75-foot pass at the free-throw line, pivoted and launched a 15-footer that would have given Kansas the win if it had gone in.

The Jayhawks, the 3 seed in the Syracuse Region, trailed No. 14 Bucknell 64-63 with 2.4 seconds left. Bucknell was trying to become the first Patriot League team ever to win a Tournament game. Kansas, having rallied from five down to take a one-point lead with half a minute to go, had given up a go-ahead basket on an unlikely looking jump hook by Chris McNaughton -- over the brilliant Simien -- with 10 seconds remaining.

Keith Langford took the inbounds pass, raced upcourt, pulled up as he reached the left baseline, and launched a 10-foot air ball. In the scrum for the ball Kansas committed a foul, and backup Bucknell point guard John Griffin went to the other free-throw line with 3.5 seconds left to try to extend the lead to three.

He missed the front end of the 1-and-1, setting up the inbounds play after a timeout. Pretty much the only thing Bucknell didn't want to happen was for Simien, Kansas' star big man, to catch the ball in shooting range. The official handed the ball to Langford, who, without a moment's hesitation, reared back and threw a bomb downcourt that Simien caught at the right corner of the key. He pivoted clockwise to the middle, rose up and let fly, an open shot.

It looked exactly like the most famous shot in college basketball history, Laettner's game-winner for Duke against Kentucky in an Elite 8 game in Philadelphia 13 years ago. I don't think I've ever been as sure of anything as I was that Simien's shot was going down, just as Laettner's had.

It was short. Bad short. Bucknell had scored the second huge upset of the night, the biggest upset of this mostly to-form Tournament. For all the talk about how rare it is for a 15 to beat a 2, something that hasn't happened since 2001, it's been two years longer since a 14 beat a 3. Weber State was the last one to do it, beating North Carolina in 1999.

In the other late games, two 5s escaped the upset curse of their seed, beating No. 12 opponents. Georgia Tech drilled George Washington 80-68 in the Albuquerque Region, Michigan State survived Old Dominion 89-81 in the Austin. The other game was a 9-over-8 "upset" in the Austin Region, Mississippi State pounding Stanford, 93-70.

Two big upsets and a Stanford loss! What a night! Two underdog piles at center court. Two fantastic finishes. Who was it who was doubting the purpose of his existence a few short hours and two plates of Chinese food ago?

Previous column: NCAA Tournament Day 1

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