What truly makes the NCAA men’s basketball tournament “March Madness” is the inclusion of low-seeded underdog teams – those whose only chance of getting to “dance” came by winning their conference championships. These clubs, with typically weak schedules and statistics, go into their games with something to prove, and occasionally leave the court with an upset victory. Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, there have been upsets by seven No. 15 seeds, 18 No. 14 seeds, 25 No. 13 seeds, and 44 No. 12 seeds. There will quite possibly be more this year. Guessing which ones is a lot of the fun.
For example, look at the Albany Great Danes, who entered this year’s tournament last Saturday on the heels of a dramatic buzzer-beater by Australian import Peter Hooley to defeat America East division rival Stony Brook to get to the "Big Dance." This week, they will meet the third-seeded Oklahoma Sooners in the East region’s second round. Hooley, Albany’s most prolific scorer, is the sentimental story of the tournament. He recently returned from Australia after his mother's death following a long illness. While Hooley was with his family, the Great Danes won eight games in a row and have now won 19 of their last 20.
The Sooners sport a gaudy Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 18, against No. 14 seed Albany’s 99, but they also lost two of their last four games in Big 12 competition. Albany has a veteran coach in Will Brown, who nearly upset the top-seeded University of Connecticut in 2006 with a 2-3 zone defense he employed for the first time. Oklahoma has shown they can have problems against the zone, as they did in January, falling to Baylor, 69-58. But those two teams are well-known to one another, playing multiple times a year in conference. This brings up yet another intriguing aspect of second-round play. Many power teams have never faced these smaller squads before, and in some instances probably haven’t even heard of them.
The last three No. 14 seed upsets, including Georgia’s Mercer University over Duke last year; Harvard over New Mexico in 2013, and Ohio over Georgetown in 2010, fit this description and were surely head scratchers for the “Goliath” seeds, who had only three days to research their “David” counterparts. And in each case, the margin of victory for the lower seeds was what one might call “comfortable.”
Another possible second-round surprise could come in the game between the No. 4 seed Georgetown and 13th-seeded Eastern Washington, in the South region’s second round. Georgetown, with a lackluster 21-10 record in the Big East which included three losses to sixth-seeded Xavier, is likely seeded too high and has had exceedingly poor performances in the tournament in recent years, having lost their last five tournament games to double-digit seeds. Eastern Washington’s three-point specialist Tyler Harvey, if he gets hot from the perimeter, could make life miserable for the Hoyas’ big men. Overall, the Eagles have shot the ball better than 40% from behind the arc for the season and are ranked third in the NCAA in scoring.
Fifth seed West Virginia has also been the topic of speculation this week, as they could go down to No. 12 seed Buffalo in the Midwest region’s second round. The Bulls, ably coached by former Duke star Bobby Hurley, actually led Kentucky by five points at halftime in a game earlier this season. West Virginia's Mountaineers, whose skipper Bob Huggins was recently named Big 12 Coach of the Year, have lost three of their last four games, including a demoralizing overtime loss to Kansas. Also, for teams seeded so far apart, their RPIs are remarkably similar – Buffalo’s is 28, while West Virginia is a slightly better 24.
Twelfth seed Stephen F. Austin, loaded with veteran starters like the outstanding junior Thomas Walkup, upset Virginia Commonwealth University in their opening game last year. They’re now looking to reprise that performance against Utah in their first South regional game on Thursday night. They’re on a high after defeating Sam Houston State by double-digits in the Southland conference final last Saturday, and they will not be intimidated by the Utes from the Pac-12 Conference.