Sunday, March 21, 2010

The problem with upsets

If a number 16 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament ever beat a top seed in the opening round, it'd be the biggest upset in the tourney's history. If all four 16 seeds somehow defeated all of the top seeds in the first round, it might be the most exciting weekend in tourney history.

And if all four 16 seeds somehow made it all the way to the Final Four, it'd be the worst Final Four in tournament history. It's the only problem I have with underdogs pulling off shocking victories over favorites early in the tournament. At some point down the line, in the final rounds, I'd rather watch the best teams, because they're more enjoyable to watch, they're more athletic, they're deeper, they're just...better.

As much as I enjoyed watching Northern Iowa's victory over Kansas on Saturday, I don't think I'd really enjoy a Final Four that included Northern Iowa, Cornell, Murray State and Old Dominion. The games and atmosphere would be about as exciting as a December game aired at 11 p.m. on ESPNU. One or two upsets are exciting, but have the same underdog knock off three favorites and it begins to feel like they're a formerly charming party guest who doesn't know it's time to leave. This rarely happens, but when it does the results can be ugly. In 1979, in perhaps the most famous Final Four ever, Penn - Penn! - joined DePaul, Larry Bird's Indiana State team and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans in Salt Lake City. Penn reached the Final Four by knocking off traditional powers North Carolina and St. John's. In the semifinals, Michigan State jumped out to a 32-6 lead and won 101-67. The moment finally caught up with the Quakers and everyone watching on TV suffered.

I love seeing the traditional powers occasionally knocked off, but I also like seeing them there in the end. I'm a basketball elitist (does that make me sound too much like Billy Packer? Please say no), except when I'm watching a thrilling opening-round game between a two seed and a 15 seed and I'm pulling for the no-names. There needs to be a good mixture of the great and the improbable, although, in the case of both Northern Iowa and Cornell, there's always the possibility that they are great and simply needed a showcase.

I guess I want the best of both worlds - the upsets and the best to meet the best in the end - and this year we just might get it. Cornell's been one of the most impressive teams through the first two rounds, but in the next game they face the team that has been the most impressive: Kentucky. It's an Ivy League school against one of the most decorated programs in NCAA history, a perfect matchup for a Sweet 16 game. Throughout it, I'm sure I'll be pulling for Cornell to continue their streak of upsets. But ultimately, when the Final Four rolls around, I'd miss not being able to watch John Wall play one more time, this time on the game's biggest stage. So confusing.

In the end, of course, my fear of an all-underdog Final Four is irrational. For every George Mason there are a dozen North Carolinas and Connnecticuts. Even this year, when it seems preordained that an unknown team will crash the final party, we'll probably get a Final Four of Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse and perhaps Ohio State. All familiar teams with rosters that are littered with all-Americans, led by coaches who qualify for sainthood, at least according to Dick Vitale. Not a feisty upstart in the bunch. But maybe Northern Iowa can break through and excite farmers everywhere. I'd love to see them in Indianapolis on that final weekend - as long as they're not joined by any other underdogs.

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