Upsets add spice to tournament

Upsets in this year's NCAA college basketball tournament are as common as pig tracks on a pig farm.

And upsets are the spice of sport, the exclamation points. They endlessly intrigue and are broadly enjoyed unless, of course, you or the team you support are the upsetee.

Going into this weekend's games, which began yesterday and will chop the field to the Final Four by Sunday, two of the four teams figured to be the nation's best had been thumped and dismissed - Stanford, which spent much of the season ranked No. 1, and Arizona.

It has been 19 years since two of the nation's four best teams failed to advance to the round of l6. That was when DePaul and Oregon State both lost early.

Upsets - sports and beyond - grab our attention partly because so much of our lives provides no surprises. Most of our days are filled with the expected. Banks accept our money, cleaners clean our clothes, traffic lights change, newspapers arrive, we go to work, and we return from work, the sun rises and it also sets.

No wonder our heads snap back when, for example, Truman defeated Dewey in 1948 to become president after the polls promised the reverse would be true. Losing politicians still clutch this event to their chests in waning days of unsuccessful campaigns.

In 1919, arguably the greatest racehorse ever, Man o' War, lost only one race in his 21-race career - to a horse appropriately named Upset. Whenever there is an upset, the populace immediately points to so-called experts and says this is yet another example that these know-it-alls don't know zip. That view is incorrect.

After all, experience teaches us that when dog bites man, that's how it's supposed to work. But nobody can predict man biting dog. In this NCAA tournament, North Carolina barely made the field of 64, and plenty of experts properly groaned it shouldn't have. The coaching of Bill Guthridge was growing increasingly suspect. When the Tar Heels were matched against talented Stanford in the second round, it seemed clear they would be sent back to Chapel Hill where they belonged in the first place. Why?

Stanford was, obviously, a better team with better talent and a better record and better coaching.

Inexplicably, North Carolina won. A key reason was the scintillating play of freshman Joseph Forte, who looked scared and uncertain much of the game until near the end, when he hit two crucial three-pointers. Nobody, nobody, nobody would have thought Forte would have risen up and been the star. It was, yes, a fluke.

Almost of the same magnitude was Seton Hall's upset of No. 2 seed Temple, a team some thought was deserving of being No. 1. Temple coach John Chaney, who has never made it to the Final Four with some good teams, felt this was his best team. Then star Seton Hall point guard Shaheen Holloway injured his ankle and couldn't play. Now, Temple couldn't lose.

Inexplicably, it did, mostly because Holloway's backup, Ty Shine, soared magnificently, hitting a career-high 26 points, including the winning three-point shot in overtime. Nobody, nobody, nobody would have thought Shine could do this. Fluky.

The story replicated everywhere. Tulsa slapped Cincinnati, the team widely considered pick of the litter this year. But Cincy was doomed when Kenyon Martin, college hoops player of the year, was injured just prior to the tournament and was unable to play. Gonzaga knocked off St. John's, thought by many to have a solid chance of making the Final Four. Lightly regarded Wisconsin nailed Arizona early. And more.

If all the games had gone as they should have, based on performance all season, then experts - even sportswriters - would have a record approaching 100 percent. But since that is not the case and never is, upsets cascade down upon us.

No wonder television ratings already are up 6 percent over last year. Certainly feeling much better about things is CBS, which agreed in November to pay $6 billion to broadcast an additional 11 years of March Madness.

Ultimately, maybe Michigan State (which played Syracuse last night) and Duke - the two remaining No. 1 seeds - will end up playing for the national title. That's as it should be, if all goes according to Hoyle. However, it could be Florida vs. Purdue or Tulsa against Iowa State in the finals April 3.

Either would be fitting in a year in which little seems to fit the facts.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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