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Monday, March 24, 2014

Death by Choking

Dr. Henry Heimlich devised an abdominal thrust technique to relieve victims of choking during the mid-1970s. Today, it is a nearly universally known first-aid practice for such an emergency. It appears, however, that the memo did not make it to the high seeds in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.


Early round upsets are a staple of the NCAA Tournament. The single-elimination format of the tournament and the five-on-five nature of basketball, which enable one or two standout players to dictate the outcome of a game, facilitate an atmosphere in which lesser known, smaller basketball programs pull off unexpected surprise upsets each year. The “12-5” upset (in which a 12 seed upsets a 5 seed in a Region) is not a surprise anymore; it’s expected.

Still, upsets are called “upsets” because they are unexpected, an exception to the rule. In the second and third rounds of this year’s tournament, however, they became the trend. Only one 5th seeded team, the Saint Louis Billikens, advanced to the third round of the dance, meaning three 12 seeds won in the round of 64.

Dayton was just getting started. 1

Once is a coincidence. Twice is a pattern. Three times is a trend. The second and third rounds (rounds of 64 and 32) of the Big Dance saw 13 lower seeded teams defeating higher seeds among the 48 games played. Some of the pairings were close in seeding, such as 9th seeded Pittsburgh eliminating 8th seeded Colorado. Many of the lower seeded advancers could have never been foreseen by anyone outside of communities and fan bases of those schools.

So called “12-5” victors North Dakota State, Stephen F. Austin, and Harvard, while not shocking, did buck the odds.  However, nobody could have envisioned a scenario in which traditional powerhouse and 3rd seeded Duke, led by Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, would have ever lost to little known, Mercer (let alone lose by seven points). The second round delivered its annual quota of upsets.


The third round, however, delivered an upset overload. By the end of the weekend, a #1 seed, two #2 seeds, and a three #3 seeds had been eliminated. This defies any precedent or conventional wisdom regarding the NCAA Tournament.

What happened? Duke had no excuse for its loss. Mercer had no place on the same court with Duke. The Blue Devils failed to execute and Coach K, uncharacteristically, failed to prepare his team. The name on the players’ chests went to their heads and they paid a price.  This was illustrated by the thrashing delivered to Mercer in the third round by (11th seeded) Tennessee.

The 3rd seeded Syracuse Orange were unceremoniously bounced from the tournament by the 11th seeded Dayton Flyers, fresh off of an upset of 6th seeded Ohio State. Syracuse got off to a 25-0 start this season. Whether an injury to a key role player upset the apple cart, other teams found a way to bust their 2-3 zone defense, or (more likely) the team spent too much time reading its own press clippings, the Orange rapidly tailed off after suffering its first regular season loss and never appeared to recover.

Finally, the Wichita State Shockers, 35-0 entering yesterday’s third round matchup with 8th seeded Kentucky, was the first #1 seed to be eliminated. The Shockers lost by two to the Wildcats in arguably the best college basketball game played all season. What cannot be ignored, however, is that Kentucky, ranked in the top 25 for most of the season and having reached the championship round of the SEC Tournament, was seeded 8th in the Midwest Region.

In fact, the Midwest Region appeared to be more madness than method. The Louisville Cardinals finished the regular season ranked #5 in the country. Yet they were seeded #4 in a 17-team region in a 68-team tournament. In contrast, lower ranked Villanova, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Michigan were all #2 seeds. Nova and Kansas have been eliminated from the tournament.

The impact of the questionable seeds in the Midwest extends beyond bruised egos from perceived slights. They result in unfairly difficult matchups for all teams involved. A #1 seed is supposed to be a smooth path to the regional semifinals (Sweet 16) barring shoddy play. The Shockers play was outstanding, but against a Kentucky team that would not stun any observers by reaching the Final Four. Likewise, Kentucky had to face an undefeated team in its second tournament game.


Notwithstanding the over-concentration of talent in the Midwest Region, the teams that experienced unexpectedly early exits have only themselves to blame. The Big Dance gives each team one chance to advance. Teams with better records and more celebrated talent unable to crush low-seeded peasant revolts need not be considered to cut down the nets on the first Monday in April.
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