On Selection Sunday in 1986, Indiana Coach Bob Knight watched the brackets go up and saw that his team was the No. 3 seed in the East Region, paired against 14th-seeded Cleveland State. As all coaches do as soon as they see their first-round pairing, Knight sent his assistant coaches in search of tape on Cleveland State. The next day, after he had looked at the newly arrived tape, he met with his coaches.
"We've got a real problem here," he said. "This team is good. I mean it's real good -- quick, presses 94 feet and they can shoot. And there is absolutely no way between now and Friday that we're going to be able to convince our guys how tough this game is going to be. They're going to see the name Cleveland State, see the number 14 seed and think we're in the second round."
Knight knew from whence he spoke. That Friday, Cleveland State beat his team, 83-79, in one of those first-round upsets the NCAA tournament has become famous for.
"It used to be that coaches knew when a non-name team was good enough to pull an upset," Pittsburgh Coach Ben Howland said Friday night after his second-seeded team had dismantled No. 15 Wagner. "The kids would figure, 'Yeah sure, coach, they're good. Everyone's good.' Now, you don't even have to tell them someone's good. They watch basketball. They know."
Friday morning when his team arrived at shootaround, Howland called his players together before they began their workout. "Fellas, I hope you watched the games yesterday," he said. "Because if you did, you saw that a lot of low seeds had chances to win. Utah State could have beaten Kansas. Holy Cross could have beaten Marquette. Duke was in trouble against Colorado State." He paused, knowing there was one other game he wanted to mention.
"Notre Dame," Brandin Knight said. "You forgot Notre Dame, Coach. They should have lost. Guy missed a layup."
Howland smiled. He knew he didn't have to say anything else.
Times have changed in the NCAA tournament. The notion of double-digit seeds upsetting high seeds is no longer considered implausible. In fact, those upsets are frequently expected.
"Every time I picked up a paper this week or turned on TV someone was saying Penn was going to beat us," Oklahoma State point guard Victor Williams said after his team had pulled away late to beat the Quakers. "When I looked at them on tape, I was impressed, especially with the way they ran their offense. So we came in here expecting a difficult game."
Difficult games are almost the norm nowadays. There are few walkovers anymore, except in 1-16 games. That was the case again this year, all four No. 1 seeds easing to blowout victories. But No. 2 and No. 3 seeds often struggle. This year, Wake Forest and Kansas were in trouble almost to the buzzer as No. 2 seeds while Pitt and Florida cruised. None of the No. 3 seeds had easy games -- Syracuse and Xavier pulled away late and Duke and Marquette were both in jeopardy into the final minute.
But when the smoke cleared, the only team among the top 16 seeds that had not advanced was Dayton, a No. 4 which lost to No. 13 Tulsa. That hardly qualifies as a Cleveland State or Hampton over Iowa State sort of upset. Tulsa is from a conference (the Western Athletic) that frequently receives at-large bids; it was in the round of 8 three years ago, and Dayton was seen as a weak No. 4 as soon as the brackets went up.
"If you can't make your players understand these days that just about anyone in the field can beat you, then you aren't doing your job," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The game has changed. There are a lot more good teams out there, especially the mid-majors who are built around seniors. That's always a dangerous game, especially if you have a team that doesn't have a lot of players with tournament experience."
The one real first round upset, a mid-major over a power conference team, was Butler, which got in as one of the two lowest seeded at-large teams (at No. 12 along with Brigham Young) and stunned No. 5 Mississippi State. Certainly, the Southeastern Conference Bulldogs should have been prepared for the Horizon League Bulldogs. In 2000, Butler had Florida beaten until Mike Miller hit an off-balance runner at the buzzer. Two years ago, the Bulldogs crushed Wake Forest in the first round. So it was no surprise when they jumped to a 12-3 lead, then came from behind late to win, 47-46.
In this tournament, no one asks how you won or how much you won by. As the late Jim Valvano once put it, "survive and advance." Almost all the favorites did that in the first round against teams vying to be this year's Cinderella -- or in hoops terminology, this year's Valpo or Gonzaga, schools that have come from nowhere to go deep into the tournament.
There are more of those teams with upset potential now. And yet, at least this year, fewer upsets occurred. Tulsa was the only No. 13 to advance; Butler the only No. 12 and Central Michigan -- which beat another mid-major, Creighton -- the only No. 11. Since the 10th seeds are all from power conferences, they hardly qualify as underdogs.
The little guys have repeatedly proven they can compete. Actually winning seems to have become more difficult. The element of surprise is gone.
"We won today for one reason," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said after his team's victory over Manhattan. "Because our guys knew, without being told, that if they didn't come to play, they would lose."
That's the difference between now and 1986. If Knight had to face Cleveland State again in 2003, his players would know without being told that the game could be lost. Which might very well mean they would win.