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Monday, March 26, 2007

Lack of tourney upsets is upsetting

March Madness thrives on the unexpected, not the predictable Final Four march of top seeds

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The NCAA tournament as a whole has disappointed, raising a temperature that's fallen several degrees shy of madness.

It's been boring. It's been predictable. Who really wants the high seeds advancing through the brackets at a near-record pace?

At that point, why even have a field of 64? Just take the top eight teams.

The Big Dance doesn't work without the underdog unexpectedly changing the tune.

And how do you find an underdog in a Final Four of two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds, including one whose name immediately harkens memories of the college game's greatest dynasty?

Perhaps Florida qualifies as an underdog simply due to the enormity of its quest. Did anyone honestly believe we'd witness again a repeat national champion with the highly fluid personnel turnover rate in college basketball?

Maybe the immediate impact of the first-year player fits the criteria? Freshmen don't usually inspire national championship dreams, but Ohio State's Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr. just might contradict that long-held principle.

We're grasping here, but we're left with no other alternatives. The tournament's heartbeat is the element of surprise, providing the electricity that captivates those that aren't even huge college basketball fans. If you don't recognize the name on the front of the jersey, you pull for them like you would the little animal trapped among the tall trees in the forest. You know the odds of survival are scarce, but it's that tiny reserve of possibility that keeps you interested.

When the NCAA tournament doesn't have that, it's got nothing. The dearth of those upsets and dramatic finishes sapped the event of its soul.

If this is the result of improved seeding, then the selection committee should return to the blindfold and dartboard next year.

This will be the most top-seed -heavy Final Four since 1993 when No. 1 seeds North Carolina, Michigan and Kentucky and No. 2 Kansas dueled in a memorable weekend in New Orleans.

Let's be honest. Those who fill their office pool Final Four brackets with No. 1 seeds are roundly mocked and ridiculed for taking the cowardly path. Where's the science? Where's the challenge? The skill is finding that hot No. 3, 4 or 5 that finds its rhythm at the right time.

The favorites have ruled. The average victory margin in tournament games this year is three points greater than last year. There were 18 games last year with an outcome margin of four points or fewer. There were only 12 games this year. There were six overtime games last year, but only five this year.

But the most-telling disparity is the number of upsets.

Now, I categorize an upset as a differential of at least two seeds. A No. 9 beating a No. 8, a No. 5 beating a No. 4 or a No. 2 beating No. 1 don't qualify because those encounters are largely considered toss-up games.

There were 17 upsets in last year's tournament-eight alone in the first round-compared with only four upsets this year through the regional finals.

You had three regional finals pairing No. 1 vs. No. 2 seeds for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 games in 1985. It was also the first time in those same 22 years that the lowest seed in the Elite Eight was a No. 3.

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