This is the week the NCAA tournament goes to the 'dogs. Since 1990 the first and second rounds have produced 49 major upsets, which, for argument's sake, we will define as a victory by an underdog seeded at least five places below its opponent. Eleven majors occurred in the last two years alone. So for the time being forget about Duke--you have a week, probably two, to brush up on your spelling of Krzyzewski and your pronunciation of Battier. It's time to stand up and ponder whether a team that sounds as if it was named after a British butler can put a hurting on big, bad Auburn. Go-o-o-o-o-o Winthrop!
Most glorious are the upsets that appear to be inexplicable. In 1993, for example, during 15th-seeded Santa Clara's 64-61 West Regional shocker over No. 2-seeded Arizona, the Broncos surrendered 25 unanswered points during one surreal nine-minute span that stretched from late in the first half to early in the second. Yet somehow they survived. Former Marquette coach Al McGuire (a two-legged manifestation of inexplicability) swears that his Warriors owed their Cinderella run to the 1977 national championship to a fistfight he had with forward Bernard Toone at halftime of Marquette's first-round game against Cincinnati. Says McGuire, "The fight just seemed to clear the deck." But those examples aside, certain patterns run through most major upsets, and we're going to tell you what they are. We'll even walk out on the plank and tell you who we think will pull off shockers this year. Herewith our anatomy of an upset:
1. The higher seed comes into the NCAAs under a bad sign. Playing miserably at the end of the regular season or in the conference tournament after a successful year is one way a high seed can be primed for an upset. Worrying about where it's playing is another no-no for the higher seed. In 1996 defending national champion UCLA thought that by virtue of having won the Pac-10 by three games, it was going to be kept in the West, probably in Tempe. Instead the Bruins got shipped to Indianapolis. "That really threw us for a loop," says coach Steve Lavin, who was then an assistant to Jim Harrick. "In our minds, there was no justice." The result: little effort. UCLA, seeded fourth, was backdoored out of the tournament 43-41 by 13th-seeded Princeton. Five years earlier, after Syracuse became the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 by falling 73-69 to Richmond, Orange coach Jim Boeheim said he wasn't that surprised because Syracuse had been distracted by an NCAA investigation that eventually resulted in sanctions. "It had been a tumultuous year even though we had won 26 games," says Boeheim.
This year? Having played itself out of a possible second seed by losing in the semis of the Conference USA tournament, Cincinnati might not feel real warm about getting moved to Boston in the East.
March 15, 1999
2. Conversely, the underdog comes in on a roll. Perhaps that 1993 Santa Clara team didn't fold against Arizona because it had won six of its last seven West Coast Conference regular-season games and three straight in the league tournament. "Any team that comes in hot, I put a star by its name," says senior guard Ryan Robertson of Kansas, a perennial high seed that has gone down in second-round flames three times in the last decade. "If a team that finished strong doesn't get psyched out by the NCAA glitter, it will do well."
This year? Delaware got a 13th seed by winning 13 straight. Beware the Blue Hens.
3. The lower-seeded team, even if it comes from a no-name conference, has competed against big names during the season and is no NCAA tenderfoot. Before 13th-seeded Valparaiso, from the Mid-Continent Conference, upset fourth-seeded Mississippi of the SEC last season, the Crusaders had already played Purdue and Stanford. So what if they had lost to both? Ole Miss was old hat. Tennessee-Chattanooga, which in 1997 pulled off two upsets (over No. 3 Georgia 73-70 and No. 6 Illinois 75-63) as a 14th seed, had played Missouri and Penn State and was making its fourth NCAA appearance in five years. Upset specialist Dick Tarrant, whose Richmond teams shocked Charles Barkley and Auburn in '84, defending NCAA champion and No. 4 seed Indiana and No. 5 Georgia Tech in '88, and Syracuse in '91, routinely scheduled big boys like North Carolina, Oregon, Providence and Wake Forest to compensate for the lack of competition in the ECAC South and Colonial Athletic Association.
This year? Murray State, No. 13 in the South, is an NCAA regular.
4. The lower-seeded team is better prepared mentally. Invariably, the favorite's coach tries to convince his guys that the underdog is formidable, and the underdog's coach tries to convince his guys that the favorite is beatable. There isn't a textbook way to do either. Utah's Rick Majerus, facing a first-round game with overmatched No. 14 San Francisco last year, told his third-seeded Utes to pack for only a one-night stay when they traveled to Boise, Idaho, for the first game of the West Regional. The message was clear: Look beyond the Dons and you could be going home early. Majerus's players may have smelled a little ripe, but they took care of business in Boise, routing San Francisco 85-68 and then beating Arkansas two days later to begin their run to the national final. Sometimes, though, all the preaching in the world doesn't get through. Sonny Smith, now special assistant to the athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth, said that when he was coaching Auburn in 1984, he just couldn't persuade Barkley to take Richmond seriously. "You give him a great player and Charles would eat him alive," says Smith, "but Richmond was a difficult sell." And a difficult opponent--the 12th-seeded Spiders won 72-71.
Dennis Sprague, a sports psychologist in Lexington, Ky., who has worked with Kentucky's football and basketball teams, says that getting an underdog to believe it can beat a favorite is more difficult than getting a heavy favorite to buckle down for a weak opponent. Besides, a powerful team will often win even if it doesn't respect its foe, while a double-digit 'dog will almost never triumph if it isn't at a mental peak. Still, even players on favored teams, says Sprague, are susceptible to the consequences of catachalmines, chemicals released by the brain in times of tension, which create what he calls "precompetitive anxiety." (We call it nerves.) A starter on the Wildcats' 1996 NCAA championship team was so overloaded with catachalmines before the tournament that Sprague had to hypnotize him to calm him down. The player (whom Sprague won't identify) went on to have an outstanding tournament.
Fearing a catachalmine calamity--well, he didn't put it exactly that way--Tarrant didn't show his 1991 Richmond team films of Syracuse because the sight of LeRon Ellis and Billy Owens running the floor and dunking would've been a confidence sapper. Jim O'Brien did crank up the VCR for his ninth-seeded Boston College underdogs before they took the court for a second-round matchup against top-seeded North Carolina in '94. But O'Brien's choice was a football game, specifically BC's 41-39 upset of No. 1 Notre Dame several months earlier. "We talked about how if those guys could do it, we can do it," says O'Brien, now the coach at Ohio State. And they did it, winning 75-72.
5. The underdog has an outstanding game coach. Exhibit A is Jim Valvano against Guy Lewis in the 1983 national championship game. That was simply Dresden on a chalkboard. Says Sacramento State coach Tom Abatemarco, a Wolfpack assistant that year: "I would scout a game, watching tape for hours, and V would come in, sit down for 10, 15 minutes and say, 'O.K., this is what we've got to do.' He'd get it immediately, and he knew exactly what was going to happen." Result? No. 6-seed North Carolina State 54, No. 1 Houston 52, the biggest upset in NCAA history.
Tarrant, that mid-major maestro who's now retired from coaching, was the classic springer of upsets--confident, respected, knowledgeable, albeit little-known. Ditto for defensive specialist Dick Bennett, now at Wisconsin, who led 12th-seeded Wisconsin- Green Bay to a 61-57 upset of No. 5 California in 1994 and, as a 14th seed, almost beat No. 3 Purdue (the score was 49-48) the next season. Ditto for zone-master John Chaney, who, with seventh-seeded Temple in '93, made it to the West Regional final before his Owls lost to Michigan, the No. 1 seed, 77-72. McGuire says that early-round upsets are created by coaches whose style is drilled into the fiber of the team and whose command over the players is "dictatorial," as he puts it.
This year? No coach in the field wants to match sideline wits with veteran Eddie Sutton of ninth-seeded Oklahoma State.
6. The underdog gets off to a good start. "You set the tone for an upset in the first five minutes," says Murray State (Ky.) coach Tevester Anderson, who was an assistant when the 15th-seeded Racers stayed with No. 2 Duke before losing 71-68 in 1997. To that end, from the opening tip-off, Majerus ordered three Utah defenders--one more than usual--to get back on every shot attempt to stop heavily favored Arizona's fast break in last season's West Regional final. The top-seeded Wildcats never got the needle on the speedometer up where they wanted it, and that was a key to the Utes' 76-51 rout. Alan LeForce is convinced that his 14th-seeded East Tennessee State team never would have upset Arizona in '92 had the Buccaneers not gotten out of the gate confidently. "The longer a Cinderella keeps it close," says LeForce, "the longer the crowd stays behind you." The advantages of staying close can't be overstated. "When a Number 1 or 2 seed falls behind, it's very difficult to come back," says the Jayhawks' Robertson. "The pressure mounts because of the expectations." Or as McGuire memorably puts it, "If an underdog is still there at the bell lap, the favorite starts shrinking up like hemorrhoids."
This year? Auburn looks like a good candidate to falter if it falls behind early. The Tigers blew out so many teams that they have little experience in close games and don't have a player with NCAA tournament experience. That may prove to be a lethal combination.
7. The underdog controls the tempo. Two years ago coach Fang Mitchell had a Coppin State team that loved to run and press, but it didn't do much of either in upsetting South Carolina 78-65 in the first round of the East Regional, one of only three 15-beats-2 mind-blowers since the tournament field was expanded to 64 in 1985. "Running was our game, but we felt South Carolina was better at it," says Mitchell. Similarly, though Valparaiso may have been considered a slow-it-down throwback when it reached the Sweet 16 last season, it was actually a team that had outstanding athletes and liked to run. But it ran only opportunistically and controlled the tempo in its 70-69 surprise of Ole Miss.
This year? Samford, a 14th seed, plays slow and smart, like its sound-alike brother, Stanford.
8. The underdog employs different looks on defense. While an overwhelming favorite would be foolish to change a winning formula, the underdog has a what-the-hell sense of freedom. "You say, I don't think we can take these guys head-to-head," says Majerus. "Let's add a wrinkle. Let's not be afraid of failure." In '97 Tennessee-Chattanooga played mostly man-to-man when it beat Georgia (coach Mac McCarthy felt the Bulldogs didn't have a dominating, physical team) and mostly zone in its win over Illinois (McCarthy felt that the Illini's outside shooting was suspect). Zone, though, is undoubtedly the preferred defense for a would-be David, the idea being that Goliath, somewhere along the line, will grow frustrated, panic and begin clanking outside shots. (No team in the '90s has learned this lesson as painfully as Kansas, which was a top seed when it was beaten by ninth-seeded UTEP's zone in '92, and a second seed when it was stymied by No. 4 Syracuse's zone in '96.)
This year? Look out for 10th-seeded Creighton, which will throw in some zone with its nose-to-nose man-to-man.
9. The underdog has reliable guards who can handle pressure. That Santa Clara upset of Arizona in 1993 marked the coming-out party of a freshman backup named Steve Nash, who made six free throws in the final 31 seconds to help the Broncos hold on. At the same time, powerhouse teams that get through the regular season without stellar guard play often stumble in the tournament, when moderate tempo and pressure-cooker atmosphere conspire to keep the ball in the mitts of the little guys.
This year? George Washington's Shawnta Rogers and Detroit's Jermaine Jackson (insert your Jackson 5 joke here) carry the hopes of their 11th- and 12th-seeded teams.
10. Providence--and we don't mean that nonqualifier from the Big East--is looking out for the underdog. Sometimes an upset is just meant to happen, and to support this supposition we offer this historic trinity: Lorenzo Charles, Harold Jensen and Bryce Drew. N.C. State doesn't beat Houston in 1983 unless Charles happens to be standing near the basket to catch Dereck Whittenburg's air ball and lay it in at the buzzer. (It was only Charles's second field goal of the game.) Number 8 Villanova doesn't beat top-seeded Georgetown in the '85 title game unless Jensen suddenly turns into Larry Bird and makes all five of his shots from the field. And Valparaiso doesn't beat Mississippi unless Drew converts a miracle 23-footer.
With all that in mind, we're ready to shimmy out on that limb and predict these four upsets:
--Delaware over Tennessee, first round. The Volunteers, particularly point guard Tony Harris, looked abysmal in a 62-56 loss to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament. And neither Blue Hens star Mike Pegues nor coach Mike Brey (a Mike Krzyzewski protege) will be intimidated.
--A matched, first-round set: Detroit over UCLA and Murray State over Ohio State. Those two would then play in the second round, with the winner wearing the slipper into the Sweet 16.
--George Washington over St. John's, second round: This one will leave Red Storm coach Mike Jarvis pondering if he shouldn't have accepted the lifetime contract offer that was made by his previous employers...at GW.
You'll notice that we weren't so bold as to predict a 16th seed over a No. 1, something that has never happened in the NCAAs. In this decade top dogs have beaten bottom 'dogs by an average of 27.2 points, and only two 1-against-16 games (Purdue over Western Carolina by 73-71 in 1996, and Michigan State over Murray State by 75-71 in overtime in '90) could be considered to have been cliffhangers. But, listen, you 16th-seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, whose 12-18 record earned a first-round date with Duke: Has coach Mickey Clayton considered picking a fight with one of you at halftime?