Five things we learned on Friday in the Tournament Where Upsets Went To Die:
1. Winthrop is the real deal. In the 'Bag-Bilastrator Challenge three weeks ago I picked Winthrop's Gregg Marshall as the unknown coach everyone would suddenly know by April Fool's Day. But I have to admit I thought the 11th-seeded Eagles got a horrible first-round draw against No. 6 Notre Dame. Guess again, 'Bagman. Winthrop played like the more-experienced NCAA tournament team (which it was), and big-man New Zealander Craig Bradshaw dominated the low post instead of making like Kevin Pittsnogle from the outside like he normally does. So far no team has looked better than Winthrop in its eight-team half of the Midwest Region. Not Wisconsin, not UNLV and not Oregon. We aren't smelling this year's George Mason, but we just might be sensing this year's Gonzaga-in-'99 Elite Eight run.
(Help us out here, Eagles fans: Has Craig the Kiwi ever done the Haka dance for the crowd? And if he hasn't, wouldn't Sunday be a good time to start?)
2. This is the worst tournament for first-round upsets in years. Barring a rash of upsets on Friday night (we're still holding out hope), this bracket has featured more chalk than a John McPhee New Yorker article. The 'Bag doesn't count 9-over-8 games as "upsets," which means we're left with just two 11-seed victors in VCU (over Duke) and Winthrop (over Notre Dame). The past two days have been like waiting months for your birthday as a kid and getting a pair of Moonboots as your present. (Note to 'Bag Dad and 'Bag Mom: We weren't upset with our Moonboots as an eight-year-old. We swear.)
3. Just because a team was over- or under-seeded doesn't mean it will be upset. The 'Bag fell into that trap this year with a few picks. Sure, Virginia hardly deserved a No. 4 seed, but that should have only helped its first-round chances against No. 13-seed Albany. (Duh.) As for under-seeded No. 7's in Nevada and UNLV, all credit to the reps from the Silver State for refusing to bellyache about their snubs and beating two solid teams in Creighton and Georgia Tech. (Well, make that one solid team. Tech was abysmal in the final 90 seconds against UNLV. How do you get whistled for a five-second call when you're down two in the final minute? Unbelievable.)
4. Don't count out Wisconsin. I know the Badgers went down 25-7 to Texas A&M Corpus-Christi (whose unfortunate acronym, AM-CC, makes the Islanders look like a community college), but the fact remains that Alando Tucker put on a heroic performance to spark the comeback win. The question is this: Was the Badgers' near-death experience a sign of impending doom or the excruciating win they needed before going on a deep run? (See Mike Miller's buzzer-beater for Florida against Butler in 2000.) It's hard to say. The Badgers' road to the Elite Eight wouldn't be a killer. Yet the 'Bag's only fear is that Wisky has turned into a one-man gang, and we're just not sure if Tucker (circa 2007) can turn into Danny Manning (circa 1988). Another reason for concern: the little-known Shelley Smith jinx. Whenever our ESPN pal gets embedded with a team it seems to end rather early (see No. 2 seed Tennessee in '06).
5. Players and coaches actually appear to care about SI's tournament picks. The 'Bag regrettably missed out on the Boston College press conference today when Jared Dudley called us out on the podium for picking the Eagles to lose to Texas Tech on Thursday. This comes after Roy Williams told me recently that he'd read my SI article (calling the Pac-10 the nation's top league) to his UNC players before they ripped Arizona in the desert in January. Guys: If our bumbling picks can stoke your competitive fires, we're only too glad to help.
Back soon with more from the Cigarette Capital of the United States.