Upsets are a blast . . . to a point NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 20, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

Upsets are a gas. They're probably the reason why some maintain an interest in sports. Like a credit card that will go nameless, they are accepted everywhere. But only to a point.

In conference tournaments, upsets are terrific. There, rivalries flourish and familiarity breeds form reversals. They're OK in the opening round of the NCAA tourney, too, just so long as the situation doesn't get out of hand.

After all, this whole show got started back in '39 to determine which half of the country, East or West, played the better brand of ball. Shortly thereafter, the term national champion took on misguided meaning and that is what the tournament format is supposed to lead to ultimately.

It was exciting, two No. 3's, a No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 getting knocked out at the eight subregional sites heading into the weekend. Better yet were all the close games and the scares thrown at superior talent and funding by teams just happy to be entered and given a chance.

People who have been part of the March Madness scene for years agree that a fan is ahead of the game if he's treated to two good ballgames during the brace of doubleheaders in the opening round. Baltimore had its pair, Saint Louis squeezing by Minnesota in overtime and Penn giving Alabama all it could handle in another overtime affair.

In Austin, Texas, one of the Midwest Regional early-round sites, folks were barely able to relax and purchase a souvenir T-shirt all day as both tourney defending champ Arkansas (2) and Purdue (3) won by a point and Syracuse had to score 96 to best Southern Illinois' 92.

The list of sparkling efforts rolls on: Old Dominion and Weber State, a pair of rank outsiders with No. 14 seedings, dispatched No. 3 seeds Villanova and Michigan State, 'Nova going down in three overtimes. Oklahoma, a nine-point favorite and No. 4 seed, lost to Manhattan (13) by more than that, 10 points. Arizona (5) got upset by Miami of Ohio (12), except it happens to Lute Olson's teams so often in the first round, they're hardly considered upsets anymore.

St. Peter's (15) was leading Massachusetts (2) late until the Minutemen finished the game with a 20-2 run. Murray State (15), VTC a 20-point underdog, hung with North Carolina (2) forever before bowing by 10. Western Kentucky and Michigan went overtime.

There were big efforts in the second round, too, Saint Louis (9) tossing a large scare into Wake Forest (1) and the Oklahoma State (4) win over Alabama (5) proving far closer than the final score of 66-52 indicates in the twin bill at the Baltimore Arena Saturday.

Georgetown (6) was scandalously lucky to hold off Weber State, Cincinnati (7) and Western Kentucky (8) stayed within five points of heavily favored Connecticut (2) and Kansas (1), Miami (Ohio) took Virginia (4) to overtime, and top-ranked UCLA and defending champ Arkansas needed miracle finishes to turn seemingly certain losses into wins over Missouri (8) and Syracuse (7), respectively.

But enough's enough. Subsequent play has a way of putting the tournament back in balance after an early shocker and, face it, that's what this exercise is all about from now on: The best taking on the best to determine which is best.

As much fun as it was watching Richmond beat Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, 73-69, at College Park four years ago, the first time a No. 15 had beaten a No. 2, only the players and coaches themselves held any hope that they would be able to shock Temple, then Oklahoma State and North Carolina to make the Final Four.

The last time an outsider, a team with a high seeding, made it to the Final Four was LSU as a No. 11 in 1986. The year before, eighth-seeded Villanova went all the way to the title as had No. 6 North Carolina State in 1983. In each case, though, these teams were known quantities that simply hadn't played up to their capabilities during the regular season.

When you talk about Cleveland State (15) whipping Indiana (3) and Bobby Knight, then advancing past St. Joseph's (6) before losing to Navy (7) by a point in 1986, that's enough Cinderella stuff to last a decade.

What constitutes the biggest upset in NCAA tourney history is conjecture, although Lebanon Valley's win over Fordham in 1954, Wayne State's triumph over DePaul in 1956 and Dick Vitale's winning half his two appearances as coach of Detroit Mercy in 1977 are up there.

But consider: Would Wayne State have been a worthy adversary for Bill Russell and the two-time champs from San Francisco in '56? What would Vitale be like today if he had reached the summit with his team, beating Al McGuire and Marquette in the final?

Upsets are fun, but within reason.

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