Already, the NCAA Tournament is nearing a record. There have been 12 upsets, which are defined by the NCAA as a win by a team seeded five spots lower than its opponent. That’s one shy of the record for an entire tournament, set in 1985 and equaled in 2014.
Four double-digit seeds have advanced to the second weekend for the first time since 2011. The record is five, set in 1999. Oral Roberts became just the second No. 15 — Florida Gulf Coast was the first in 2013 — to reach the Sweet 16.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, there is no regional advantage with the entire tournament being played in Indianapolis. Typically, the top-four seeds are placed in regions closer to their campuses, which can play a factor. Secondly, limited non-conference play made it tougher to accurately judge teams. Loyola Chicago should not have been an eight-seed. Oral Roberts was clearly better than a 15. Thirdly, It was apparent throughout most of this season how top-heavy the sport was. That after the obvious title contenders like Gonzaga, Michigan and Baylor, there really wasn’t too much of a difference between teams ranked from 10-40. That’s proven to be true.
Below are some other takeaways from the opening weekend of what has been a memorable start to the NCAA Tournament:
Highs and lows
I’m not sure what’s been the biggest story of this tournament: The Pac-12’s undefeated start or the Big Ten’s collective faceplant. The Pac-12 is 9-1 with four teams in the Sweet 16 and only Colorado being eliminated. The team picked to finish last — Oregon State — is one of four teams headed to the Sweet 16, along with in-state rival Oregon, USC and UCLA. Those nine wins have come by an average of 16.4 points. The league isn’t just winning, but dominating. Remember, in the final Associated Press ranking of the year, only USC was in the top 25.
As for the Big Ten, I’ve been on record for months saying the bottom half of this league was soft. I didn’t realize the top half was, too. Clearly, talk of this conference being one of the best in recent history was nothing more than hot air. Ohio State was terrible in becoming the ninth No. 2 seed to lose its opener. Illinois, a popular national championship pick, got a tough draw in underseeded Loyola Chicago in the second round, but made zero adjustments — Ayo Dosunmu was just successfully trapped again — and lost going away. No. 2 Iowa was even worse, blitzed early and often by Oregon. Purdue dropped an opening-round, 4-13 game to North Texas, which was then bludgeoned by shorthanded fifth-seed Villanova. For the conference to get nine bids and have eight teams eliminated by the end of the fourth day makes it clear how overrated it was.
You can point to Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois, or Cade Cunningham and No. 4 Oklahoma State falling in the second round to Oregon State. But my biggest disappointment of the opening weekend was No. 3 Texas and Shaka Smart. The Longhorns were coming off a Big 12 Tournament crown. They had such a strong regular season, finishing third in the powerhouse conference. And they followed that up by losing to an overmatched 14th seed in Abilene Christian which shot 29 percent from the field in the upset victory. It certainly didn’t make Texas look any better when UCLA smoked the Southland champion on Monday. Since leading VCU to the Final Four in 2011, Smart is 2-7 in the NCAA Tournament.
As exciting as all of these upsets are, as much as it is fun to see so many small schools enjoying the spotlight, I wouldn’t exactly be unhappy with a Gonzaga-Baylor title game. Thus far, the two programs have looked awesome — clearly the two best teams in the tournament. Baylor has won its two games by a combined 37 points. Gonzaga, looking to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976, has prevailed by 59. The Bears, remember, didn’t lose until a three-week COVID-19 pause negatively impacted them. But they have begun to look like themselves again. Jalen Suggs against Davion Mitchell has to happen.
Doing the area proud
Locally, two teams qualified for the tournament: Iona College and Rutgers. Both represented themselves exceedingly well.
The Scarlet Knights won their first tournament game in 38 years and came painfully close to becoming the first local to reach the Sweet 16 since Seton Hall in 2000. For 35 minutes Sunday night, No. 10 Rutgers outplayed second-seeded Houston. It was the better defensive team, the tougher team and the better team. But then it got conservative, trying to take the air out of the ball, lost control of the defensive glass, and the Cougars outscored them 14-2 over the final 4:33.
I think Rutgers fans should be pleased with this season overall, and optimistic the program is here to stay. That said, they should also be crushed. This was a golden opportunity with the right draw and the right team. Unless we’re talking about the elite of the elite, these chances don’t come around often. Next year, with Jacob Young, Geo Baker and Myles Johnson all possibly leaving, a step back should be expected.
Iona, seeded 15th, hung with No. 2 Alabama for 30 minutes before running out of gas, pushing the Crimson Tide further than anyone could’ve expected. Rick Pitino’s first season in New Rochelle was a rousing success. If he really does plan on coaching the Gaels for several more years as he has frequently stated, Iona will become a mid-major powerhouse. Just look at what he did in his first season, despite multiple COVID-19 disruptions and no offseason training program. Freshman forward Nelly Junior Joseph is a future star.