NCAA Tournament: Sit back, relax & embrace the madness of march
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
So many upsets, all kinds of them, came from the first flurry of NCAA Men’s Tournament games. There were nail-biting upsets, blowout upsets, double-digit-seed-gap upsets, upsets from schools you’d barely heard of and upsets that truthfully didn’t feel so much like upsets at all.
It was glorious, every bit of it, encapsulating what we love about this time of year and a reminder that unpredictability can be thrilling, inspiring, dramatic – and heartbreaking – all at the same time.
As is always the case, whenever such things happen, particularly when they occur with as high a frequency as during this year’s opening two rounds, attempts are made to rationalize it.
As Oral Roberts did its thing — and Ohio, North Texas and Abilene Christian roared, too — everyone from fans to commentators to writers to coaches tried to identify reasons for the wondrous upheaval that has laid waste to brackets everywhere.
Theories are put forward, and sure, most of them have some value. You can see why people are trying to figure it out. The high seeds started to fall early, and they’ve fallen hard. Heading into the Sweet 16 later this week, there are more 11-seeds than 3-seeds, as many 12-seeds as 4-seeds, and a portion of the bracket – topped by ill-fated No. 1 seed Illinois – has seen the lower-rated team win exactly half of the matchups to date.
Theory One: Are there so many upsets because we are witnessing the growing rise of the mid-majors, with such depth of talent around the nation that the big conferences can no longer stockpile everything?
"In normal seasons, [mid-majors] don’t have the budget to smooth out all the rough spots," AP columnist Jim Litke wrote. "Their players stick around because precious few are good enough to turn pro early.
"Those disadvantages are a chip on their shoulders. This time around, qualities like resilience and cohesion are turning what might have been moral victories into actual W’s."
Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more upsets, Oral Roberts, a lowly 15-seed, sprung a shocker by downing Ohio State, then backed it up by taking care of Florida. Abilene Christian (over Texas) and North Texas (over Purdue) had their moments of magic. Ohio trumped Virginia. Oregon State (12-seed) and Syracuse (11-seed) both started with big wins and then decided that dancing was fun and there was no reason to stop. No. 6 seed USC over 3-seed Kansas wasn’t a monstrous surprise, but the 34-point margin was.
What’s going on?
Theory Two: Is the absence of spectators diminishing some of the advantages of higher seeds, which are often from bigger schools with larger fan bases, with quiet arenas providing an equalizing factor?
"The dichotomy between the uneventful calm of Indianapolis the last few days and the most electric set of opening weekend games in the history of the men’s tournament is hard to explain," USA TODAY’s Dan Wolken wrote. "Or perhaps they are related, a cause-and-effect that is simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking and exciting things I’ve witnessed in more than 15 years of covering this event."
Certainly, it is a quieter tournament on the eardrums, but the teams that were supposed to be just making up the field are instead making their own noise. Would it be different if the arenas were packed with screaming spectators, blaring instruments and that inimitable college hoops atmosphere? We will never know.
Wait, there are more theories.
Is it the removal of geographic positioning, the unpredictability of COVID-19, the disjointed season causing incorrect seeding or, in the case of Loyola Chicago upending Illinois, the mere presence of a vaccinated Sister Jean?
All of these things are worthy talking points, especially Sister Jean – the loveliest lucky charm in sports — who reminds me of my grandmother and whom I’d gladly talk about all day. But they also veer more widely from the crux of the matter than a desperation heave at the buzzer.
Upsets are supposed to happen. Sure, in terms of a guide, the regular season helps provide a pointer. The statistics help. The seeding helps.
But the reality is that 40 minutes of single-elimination basketball doesn’t give you an indisputable answer to which basketball team is better. It just tells you which one was better on that day, better able to handle the circumstance and pressure and conditions and subtle obstacles that needed to be overcome. That’s what makes the tournament what it is.
Rather than trying to figure out what it all means, maybe we should just enjoy the upsets for what they are and all the good stuff that emanates from them.
Upsets, particularly big ones, are a reminder of what is possible, a warning to not take things for granted, a note to self that expectation and reality are very different concepts.
Stats and trends are great, but they are not designed to be proof of fact.
Having a 58% free-throw shooter head to the line to shoot a pair, down by one with time virtually expired, doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. But when the shooter in question is Abilene Christian’s Joe Pleasant, and he calmly swishes both, you realize that the numbers mean nothing compared to the human spirit.
If the upsets keep rolling in as the tournament continues over the weekend, we can carry on doing all the parsing and scrutinizing, all the theorizing and wondering why the underdog was able to prevail. Yet the answer is not a new solution. It’s just like it always has been.
Because ... they had a chance like everyone does, and they took it. Because … the more we think we know about this confounding, marvelous sport of college basketball, the more we realize we actually don’t. Because … March Madness.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.