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
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
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?
The 10 Greatest Tournament Upsets
YEAR OUTCOME ROUND
1983 N.C. State 54 Houston 52 Final
SKINNY The Wolfpack's victory over Akeem and Co. (above) is the
granddaddy of them all
1985 Villanova 66 Georgetown 64 Final
[SKINNY] No. 8 Wildcats are still the lowest seed to win the
1993 Santa Clara 64 Arizona 61 First
[SKINNY] The 15th-seeded Broncos had not won a tournament game
1986 LSU 59 Kentucky 57 Fourth
[SKINNY] By beating No. 1 Wildcats, Tigers became lowest seed
(11) ever in Final Four
1996 Princeton 43 UCLA 41 First
[SKINNY] Bruins were defending champs when 13-seed Tigers showed
them the (back)door
1966 Texas Western 72 Kentucky 65 Final
[SKINNY] How many games literally change the complexion of a
1997 Coppin State 78 S. Carolina 65 First
[SKINNY] The nation met a coach named Fang and a 15th-seeded
team with bite
1986 Cleveland State 83 Indiana 79 First
[SKINNY] No. 14 Vikings' Mouse McFadden roared against the
1981 St. Joseph's 49 DePaul 48 Second
[SKINNY] Fall of top-ranked Blue Demons and stars Mark Aguirre
and Terry Cummings
1994 Boston College 75 N. Carolina 72 Second
[SKINNY] This loss kept No. 1-seeded Tar Heels from Sweet 16 for
first time since 1980
Coppin State's win over South Carolina in 1997 is one of only
three 15-beats-2 mind-blowers since the tournament field
expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
For proof that every underdog has his day, look no further than
the giant-killing 1994 Wisconsin-Green Bay team that sent
fifth-seeded Cal packing.