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Michael Wilbon: Without Memorable Upsets, NCAA Tournament Lacks Something

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By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, March 29, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz.

Sorry to be a spoilsport, but I don't like the NCAA tournament anymore, not the way it's gone the past two years, anyway. Last March, for the first time since the bracket was first seeded in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. This year, something far too similar is on the verge of happening again. I'm bored to tears. Where are the upsets?

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Where's Jim Valvano and sixth-seeded North Carolina State beating top-seeded Houston? Where is eighth-seeded Villanova stunning top-seeded Georgetown?

North Carolina and Louisville have some work to do Sunday before the Final Four is complete, but the way it's going there will be three No. 1 seeds in the Final Four and Villanova, a No. 3 seed that could easily have been a No. 2. For two straight years, there have been no stunners in the NCAA tournament, which is a stunner.

"The people at the top," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said after the Huskies' win over Missouri in the West Region final, "have clearly and definitively become the people at the top."

There's no question that Connecticut, the No. 1 seed here in the West, is deserving of being in the Final Four. The Huskies have trailed for about, oh, one possession through four games in this tournament. It's impressive enough the Huskies have Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson (three surefire NBA players), but they also have a savvy senior playmaker in A.J. Price and a freshman guard from the Bronx named Kemba Walker who stole the show Saturday against Missouri by coming off the bench to hit 7 of 9 shots and 9 of 10 free throws for 23 points. Oh, and he had five assists and five rebounds, most of them in traffic against bigger players.

And Connecticut has a coach, Calhoun, who's so ridiculously good he took his senior guard, Price, off the floor with 3 1/2 minutes left after Price had bricked 3 of 4 free throws and was clearly tired. How many college coaches would try to buy two minutes of rest for the team's best ballhandler against Missouri's relentless defense? Well, Calhoun did it, and Price returned to the game to swish a post-up and hit all his free throws down the stretch. Connecticut is a machine.

So, from what we've seen so far, are North Carolina and Louisville (which won by about 100 points Friday night). Pitt, the other No. 1 seed, has been shaky at best and still reached the region final.

Unquestionably, they're the best teams in the country.

But is this good for the NCAA tournament?

The wild popularity of this tournament, after all, was built on upsets like No. 1 seed DePaul losing to No. 9 Saint Joe's and No. 1 seed Oregon State losing to Kansas State on the opening weekend of the 1981 tournament. The NCAA tournament grew from nice little niche sporting event to a cultural festival because people were drawn to upsets like 15th-seeded Hampton beating No. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001, like 14th-seeded Weber State beating No. 3 seed North Carolina in 1999, like 15th-seeded Coppin State upsetting No. 2 seed South Carolina in 1997, like 15th-seeded Santa Clara upsetting No. 2 seed Arizona in 1993, like 15th-seeded Richmond upsetting No. 2 seed Syracuse in 1991, like Digger Phelps and No. 3 seed Notre Dame losing to 14th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock in 1986.

This is the tournament I became obsessed with, not one where the top three seeds all march through March.


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