This year's NCAA Tournament seems a little bit upside down. The first round went more or less according to form, with a few big upsets as usual. Bucknell and Vermont got the headlines, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alabama-Birmingham and North Carolina State also had surprise wins worth mentioning. Mostly, though, the favorites moved on, as they usually do.
It was the second round that blew everyone out of the office pool. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a 12 seed, in the Sweet 16? N.C. State over UConn? Utah over Oklahoma? Texas Tech over Gonzaga? And don't get me started on that double-overtime West Virginia upset of Wake Forest. Words don't even do that game justice.
The myth and romance of the NCAA Tournament comes from the first round, the first two days. That's when the impossible happens, the high double-digit seed stunning some powerhouse from a power conference. The school names become synonymous with Cinderella-story upsets. Hampton and Cleveland State. Richmond and Weber State. UNC-Wilmington and Coppin State.
Once in a while, one of these teams gets through to the Sweet 16, as UW-Milwaukee has done this year. For the most part, though, order is restored over the weekend.
At least, that's how I always pictured it. Maybe I'm alone in that and you're out there saying, "Well, duh," but actually, upsets are way more common in the second round than in the first. This year hasn't been odd at all.
This is as good a place as any to note that by upset I mean someone beating an opponent seeded at least two spots higher, since I think we can all agree that a 9-seed beating an 8, or a 5 beating a 4, isn't really an upset.
For all the talk of parity in college basketball, some of which has happened in this column, I found it surprising that first-round upsets seem to be on a slight downward trend. This year's first round felt a little quiet, with its five upsets, and it was, just like the last two years have been. Before that, though, there were at least seven upsets in four years out of five.
Here's the number of first-round upsets, not counting 9-over-8, in each of the last 10 years:
1996 -- 6
1997 -- 5
1998 -- 8
1999 -- 7
2000 -- 3
2001 -- 9
2002 -- 7
2003 -- 5
2004 -- 3
2005 -- 5
If there's increasing parity, thanks to the rise of the so-called mid-major conferences, then those low seeds ought to be closer to the high seeds in quality, and they ought to be beating them more often, which isn't happening. By way of illustration, let's look at the women's game, where the talent isn't as deep and there's a huge gulf between high and low seeds. Here are first-round upsets the last five years, just to give you an idea:
2001 -- 3
2002 -- 4
2003 -- 1
2004 -- 4
2005 -- 4
Even the relatively quiet years on the men's side tend to have more upsets than the women's Tournament does, because there aren't enough good female players yet to create 64 teams that can compete at the top level, though I think that day is approaching fast. Less parity, fewer upsets. But on the men's side: more parity, fewer upsets.
So what's going on here? I have a theory, and like all the good theories, I can't prove it. But what I think is happening is that the Selection Committee has gotten better at handing out the seeds. Those smaller conferences had been fielding teams that could compete with the powerhouses for a while before the committee noticed it.
As recently as three years ago, the committee was still routinely shafting teams from medium-size conferences, seeding them 10th, 11th or lower and handing out single-digit seeds to lesser teams from the power conferences.
In 2002, for example, Southern Illinois was seeded 11th and had to play Texas Tech, the sixth seed, in the first round. Or got to play them would be a better way to put it. Anyone who'd seen both teams play that year and didn't have big-conference blinders on knew Southern Illinois was the better team. It won by eight.
That was an "upset," but it wouldn't be today because those teams would be seeded correctly. Pacific was an 8 seed this year and beat No. 9 Pittsburgh in the first round. Five years ago those same teams might have been seeded 11 and 6 and we'd be talking about the Tigers as a "Cinderella."
Here are second-round upsets over the last 10 years, not counting 5-over-4. Keep in mind, the second round is only 16 games, half as many as the first:
1996 -- 3
1997 -- 5
1998 -- 3
1999 -- 6
2000 -- 8
2001 -- 3
2002 -- 5
2003 -- 4
2004 -- 5
2005 -- 5
So over the last 10 years there have been 58 upsets in the first round, or one every 5.5 games. In the second round there have been 47 upsets, one every 3.4 games. We seem to have settled on five as a good number the last few years.
It's no mystery why there are more upsets in the second round. The odd Cinderella aside, the bottom four seeds can usually be counted on to lose in the first round. The second round is essentially a smaller, more competitive league, even with the annual double-digit interlopers. A 7-seed beating a 2 is an upset, but those teams are a lot more evenly matched than a 15 and a 2, or even a 13 and a 4.
Why do I have the feeling everybody knew this but me?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
From the sideline: Wonderful silence [PERMALINK]
You know what the best thing about the first two rounds of the Tournament was? It wasn't the upsets, the near upsets, that one overtime game or all those screaming fans in Oklahoma City. Those were all nice. The best thing, at least when viewed from the couch, was the absence of sideline reporters.
Did you notice that? Or were you just enjoying yourself and not realizing why? Not once did the announcers throw it to a sideline reporter for an anecdote about a player's mother, with whom the reporter spoke this week and who said something homespun and poignant.
Not once was there a toss to a sideline reporter who reported breathlessly that that player who just twisted his ankle and limped off the floor was being checked out in the locker room and we'll have an update as soon as we get it.
Never in four days did a sideline reporter report that he or she had spoken to the coach at halftime, and the coach had said that his team was going to have to defend and rebound a little better in the second half, and move without the ball to get some open looks.
No Leslie Visser. No Armen Keteyian. No Bonnie Bernstein. It was a conscious decision by CBS, to emphasize switching from game to game rather than lingering on interviews with coaches and whatnot. A great move by CBS Sports president Sean McManus. Please write him a letter telling him what a genius he is for being at the forefront of the anti-sideline reporter movement in television.
Hurry. By Thursday the sideline reporters will be back and we'll all be the poorer for it.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Show us the game dept. [PERMALINK]
Even when it uses sideline reporters, CBS takes a marvelously staid approach to the Tournament, committing almost none of the annoying flash sins of its competitors.
CBS shows us the tipoff rather than zooming in on the jump circle from a camera in the rafters. It doesn't switch to a camera in the top row of the corner section to give us a view from the cheap seats for a minute or two. Its graphics are not accompanied by electronic tweets and fizzles and swooshes, not introduced by giant animated robots.
It wouldn't dream of pointing a camera at a plasma-screen TV that's showing the game -- while the game is going on. If stars from CBS shows are attending the games, they're doing it on the sly. Robin Williams has not been called on a cellphone by a single announcer. Leon has gone uninterviewed.
CBS commits just one crime. It routinely switches to a camera directly under the basket during fast breaks. Since this angle puts the bottom of the backboard between the camera and the action, anything that happens on the play other than a slam dunk cannot be comprehended by the viewing audience.
Considering that a better nickname for the NCAA Tournament than "March Madness" would be "Blown Layup-a-Go-Go," that's a lot of missed action.
- - - - - - - - - - - -