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Lack of big-time NCAA Tournament upsets, but no lack of drama

By Marc Tracy / New York Times News Service

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Larry Brown, the only man ever to coach both an NBA champion and an NCAA champion, watched the first round of this year’s men’s NCAA Tournament with a close friend. This friend is simply a casual basketball fan, and — to Brown’s fascination — was most interested in watching the close games in which the underdog might win.

“Which I think is a cool way of thinking about it,” Brown said.

Brown, who coached the Detroit Pistons to the 2004 NBA title and Kansas to the 1988 NCAA title, watches differently: to see up-and-coming coaches, quality basketball, hard-fought contests.

But upsets?

“Having SMU lose was a huge upset to me — it might upset my stomach,” he said Saturday morning, in reference to watching his former team, sixth-seeded SMU, lose Friday to No. 11-seeded Southern California.

Saturday and Sunday brought several close games and a few unexpected outcomes — many of Sunday’s games were quite compelling, and they were capped off by No. 7 South Carolina’s upset of everyone’s favorite favorite, Duke.

Still, the tournament’s opening weekend, and especially its opening round, felt less dynamic than usual. Most favorites won, frequently by comfortable margins. None of the top 16 seeds lost its first game.

According to the NCAA, all the No. 4 seeds advanced to the second weekend for only the second time in the expanded bracket’s 32-year history. By Sunday evening, there was no scrappy upstart capable of making an out-of-nowhere run on the level of past ones by George Mason, or VCU, or pre-Big East Butler, or pre-big-time Wichita State.

David Worlock, the tournament’s media coordinator, noted that there had been several upsets this year, if few moments to compare to last year’s half-court winner by Northern Iowa, a historic comeback by Texas A&M or the title-game buzzer-beater by Villanova.

Television ratings have not suffered. But the tournament’s predictability this year — dare to call it dullness? — can prompt soul-searching even among lovers of college basketball.

“I think it lessens the charm and the excitement,” said Paul Westhead, the former Oregon women’s coach who led the No. 11 Loyola Marymount men to the Elite Eight in 1990. “But this tournament is so big, and everyone follows it so closely, I don’t think anyone stops watching.”

The relative absence of tumult threatens to undermine the populist appeal of an event whose defining features include not only those magical Monday mornings when everyone — from the officemate who studies Horizon League rosters to the brother-in-law who does not know a Jayhawk from a handsaw — begins with the same blank bracket and the same 1 in 9.2 quintillion chance of predicting every game correctly, but also those first Fridays when a brand-name Goliath loses early, delighting millions who, until that moment, had never heard of David.

“Show me a team that looks like it’s going to get beat by 20,” said Westhead, “and all of a sudden, that’s your team.”

This feature of the tournament derives from two deceptively radical premises. First, everyone is invited: the champions of every Division I conference, from the mighty Atlantic Coast to the lower-profile West Coast, the Big East to the Big West, receive automatic berths. Second, pedigreed or not, everyone knows one bad game can end even the best team’s season.

“The one and done makes it really, really great,” said Lute Olson, whose fourth-seeded Arizona in 1997 defeated three No. 1 seeds en route to a national title. Because every game is sudden death, Olson added, “March Madness is the most intense tournament of any of ’em.”

Compared, for instance, to the NBA postseason, which rigorously chooses a champion by seeding teams after equally scheduled 82-game seasons and then staging four rounds of seven-game series, the NCAA Tournament can seem downright arbitrary. For everything to go according to plan feels somehow off.

“In the NBA, cream always rises,” Turner Sports basketball analyst Reggie Miller said. “You’ve got the best players in the world, and when you’re playing in a best-of-seven series, the best team’s usually going to win.”

By contrast, Miller explained, in college, “if you have a bad shooting night, your best player tweaks an ankle, you don’t rebound well — no matter if you’re Villanova, you could be going home.”

Which is not to say that the NBA’s way is definitively superior. Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, spent the weekend in Salt Lake City watching his alma mater Northwestern play in the tournament for the first time. Shortly before the eighth-seeded Wildcats lost to No. 1-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday, Morey said he wished the NBA would adopt a more NCAA-like model for its playoffs.

“People tune in to a game in any sport based on two factors: How important is this game to the overall project of winning, and how unlikely is the outcome?” Morey said. “You can’t get more unlikely than a one-and-done, 40-minute, evenly matched game.”

“As a very good team this year, I love the seven-game series,” he added of the 49-22 Rockets. “But if I take my Houston Rockets hat off, I think it’s better to have more unexpected outcomes.”

Still, when Villanova coach Jay Wright said Friday that teams “are judged by how you play in this tournament,” and his Wildcats, the top overall seed, were then upset Saturday by No. 8 seed Wisconsin, it exposed what any close follower of college basketball understands: The tournament is not optimally designed to filter out college basketball’s best team.

“You could start this tournament all over again after it concludes and have a totally different outcome,” Worlock said.

His proposition was that maybe that is not a bad thing.

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