With apologies to the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Playoffs and the World Cornhole Championships, the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the greatest spectacle in sports.
The basketball is astounding, but there is an even greater entertainment value — grown men reduced to tears because a No. 15 seed destroyed their bracket with a first-round upset. Listening to the wailing and gnashing of teeth over busted brackets is nearly as entertaining as Charles Barkley’s halftime analysis.
And, when it comes to upsets, the 2021 tournament has had a bumper crop.
No less than eight double-digit seeds advanced in the first round. Granted, some of those low seeds are from power conferences No. 11 UCLA, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 12 Oregon State, but that leaves upstarts like No. 13 Ohio, No. 14 Abilene Christian, and No. 15 Oral Roberts to create additional carnage.
Ironically, Oral Roberts has dashed the prayers of amateur handicappers throughout the country, taking down No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Florida.
Personally, these upsets are precisely the reason I love the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The upsets point out the flaw in the “logic” of many sports fans. In recent years, analytics have taken center stage in too many sports discussions. Before you fire off an angry email, I’m not dismissing the value of metrics. I’m saying games cannot be solely reduced to numbers.
Analytics don’t factor in the human element. Math allows no provisions for heart, hard work, discipline and the collective effect of five teammates working as a single unit. And, as Brian Sutter, former coach of the St. Louis Blues stated, “Hard work is a skill too.”
When the Salukis made their NCAA tournament runs earlier in this century, I watched SIU teams dismantle bigger, stronger, faster teams. The Salukis were able to win because they out-worked, out-hustled, out-gutted more talented teams.
And, when the chips were on the line, the Salukis could fall back on a system that incorporated the skills of all five players on the floor. They didn’t rely on one person to go one-on-five against the opposition. Those intangibles are enough to defeat more talented opponents.
Loyola, this year’s Missouri Valley Conference, champion is demonstrating those same virtues. Undervalued, like virtually all MVC teams, the Crusaders were an 8-seed.
Porter Moser’s club would be the talk of the tournament if it weren’t for Oral Roberts. In two games Loyola has knocked off Georgia Tech, the ACC tournament champion, and Illinois, the Big Ten tournament champion.
And, while we’re plugging the MVC, let’s not forget that Drake defeated Wichita State, an MVC defector in a First Four game.
In a sense, it is frustrating that the NCAA continues to overvalue teams from the Power 5 conferences over the likes of Loyola. On the other hand, it makes me smile every time I see an expert confounded by the number of upsets.
In the end, there is a high degree of certainty a team from a Power 5 conference will emerge as the national champion. Depth and the advantages of financial resources will eventually push one of the big teams over the top.
As Bruce Weber once explained to me, mid-majors have to execute nearly perfectly to defeat Big Ten, ACC and SEC teams. It’s not that difficult to play two or three nearly perfect games in a row, but to maintain that level of play for six games … that takes superhuman effort.
That’s why I normally lose interest in the tournament about the time the field is whittled down to eight teams — I really don’t care which team from a Power 5 conference emerges. On the other hand, if Oral Roberts or Loyola is still alive, all bets are off.