By Kevin Sweeney
The Round of 64 is now officially complete, and there were plenty of exciting games. That said, in a tournament know for its unpredictability, I was left wanting a few more upsets. There were only 6 seed-line upsets, but the only one of those 6 that was truly surprising was #11 USC knocking off #6 SMU in perhaps the game of the tournament to date. The only mid-major to knock off a power conference club was the widely anticipated 12-5 upset of Middle Tennessee over Minnesota.
So, why the lack of upsets?
For one, it was the lack of top mid-majors in the tournament. Belmont, Monmouth, UT-Arlington, and Valparaiso (pre-Alec Peters injury) were all teams that would have put a real scare into a 4 or 5 seed. However, they all stumbled in their conference tournaments and were replaced by Jacksonville State, Iona, Troy, and Northern Kentucky. While all of those teams acquitted themselves well in their first round matchup, none of them ever had much of a chance to pull an upset. Those conference tournament upsets also lead to the inflation of seeds for teams that may not be as capable of pulling an upset into prime upset position.
Another cause for the lack of upsets was matchups. Even with the upsets in the conference tournaments, there were still plenty of squads capable of shocking the world, especially if they got the right matchup. Unfortunately, most mid-majors drew a team that didn’t match up well with them. UNCW had to take on a Virginia team with a lockdown defense that was able to keep the Seahawks’ dynamic offense at bay. A turnover-prone ETSU team drew Florida, a team adept at forcing turnovers. Bucknell, one of the few mid-majors with great bigs but more average guards, was paired with West Virginia and their pressing system that forced the game up and down. Vermont had no man big enough to handle Caleb Swanigan & Isaac Haas in the paint, opening things up for the Boilermaker guards. Nevada took on a better version of itself in Iowa State. Had some of these mid-majors gotten a more favorable matchup, we could have seen a wild two days.
In game, there were some things I noticed that contributed to the lack of upsets. When trying to pull off an upset, it is essential to get out to a quick start. That’s exactly the opposite of what happened for most mid-majors. Of the 12 games in what I deem “upset territory” (12-5, 13-4, and 14-3 games), just 2 of the lower seeds got off to an early lead. In those 2 games (UNCW/Virginia and NMSU/Baylor), the mid-major conceded that lead before halftime, taking away a lot of the confidence from the underdog. In 5 of those games, the upset-seeker trailed by double-digits early, which makes it much more difficult to attempt a comeback.
Even with tough draws and bad starts, many mid-majors had a chance late to pull the upset, but couldn’t get late bucket or two to fall. Princeton had a pair of great looks for the win in Thursday’s early afternoon tip versus Notre Dame, but neither Steven Cook nor Devin Cannady’s triple would fall, sending the Tigers home in heartbreaking fashion. That was the tightest of the non-upsets, but Nevada, Vermont, Bucknell, Florida Gulf Coast, and UNCW were all right there late. A few bounces one way or another, and we could have had one of the craziest first rounds in tournament history.
Even without all the upsets I was hoping for, it was an outstanding first round with a lot of great basketball played. If we are rewarded with as many competitive and exciting games the rest of the way as we had in the Round of 64, we should be in for an incredible rest of the tournament.