Thrill of Victory

Upsets headline NCAA Tournament weekend

As always, it was an entertaining three days of college basketball as the NCAA Tournament finished its Round of 64 games on Friday, and narrowed the 68-team field into its Sweet 16 on Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a summary of the things that caught my eye.

Upsets, get your upsets
It’s getting harder to be surprised with so-called “upsets” any more, given the parity we’ve seen in college basketball recently. The only thing sacred any more seems to be the 1-seed beating the 16, but even this year, 16-seed Western Kentucky led Kansas by a point at half just a day after Southern took Gonzaga down to the final two minutes.

When Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Georgetown on Friday, it became the third time in eight match-ups over the last two tournaments that the 15-seed has knocked off the 2. FGCU followed up by surprising seventh-seeded San Diego State on Sunday, and thus becoming the first 15-seed in NCAA Tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16.

Interestingly enough, Florida Gulf Coast was the only team in the South Region to break form to the Regional semifinals, as the 1- (Kansas), 3- (Florida) and 4- (Michigan) seeds all advanced to this week.

Twelfth-seeded Oregon surprised by getting by 5-seed Oklahoma State and 4-seed St. Louis with ease on both occasions. Perhaps the Ducks deserved a little more credit coming in; they won 26 games before the NCAAs and had road wins at Arizona and UCLA, not to mention they won the Pac-12 Tournament at a neutral site.

But once again, the Ducks were the only team to break rank in the Midwest Region, as the 1 (Louisville), 2 (Duke) and 3 (Michigan State) all advanced.

A similar thing happened in the East, where the 1-4 seeds (Indiana, Miami, Marquette and Syracuse) all survived. But it wasn’t that simple; Temple took Indiana down to the wire, both of Marquette’s wins went down to the final second, and Miami’s fate against Illinois was in doubt until the final few seconds.

The West bracket, however, turned into complete chaos. LaSalle had the performance of the week, wining the play-in game over Boise State before stunning Kansas State and then knocking off 12-seed Ole Miss to advance to this week’s games. I don’t know of anyone who predicted that a Sunday-night matchup between LaSalle and Ole Miss, but it turned out to be one of the tournament’s better games.

Fittingly, the Explorers next face off against another unlikely Sweet 16 participant in Wichita State. Not only were the Shockers a 9-seed (they advanced by knocking out 1-seed Gonzaga), but coach Gregg Marshall did it after losing four starters from last season.

Wildcats, Gators impress
Okay, so Arizona’s wins over 11-seed Belmont and 14th-seeded Harvard didn’t exactly equate to beating Top-10 teams. But in a week filled with close games, the Wildcats had their way with a pair of quality teams and never allowed either game to get interesting.The Wildcats have a tough draw next with Ohio State, but they looked about as good as anyone in the field over the weekend in the bottom half of that West bracket.

The 6-seed only makes the Final Four about 3 percent of the time, but the Wildcats have the height and the athleticism to do it. As TV analyst Doug Gottlieb reminded us this weekend, the ‘Cats were his preseason national title pick, and stranger things have happened than an Arizona run to the final weekend.

Meanwhile, my pre-tournament pick to win it all, Florida, didn’t break a sweat in winning two games. The Gators beat Northwestern State by 32, then knocked off Minnesota by 14. I’m aware that those teams were seeded 14th and 11th in the South, but if this weekend proved anything, it’s that just about any NCAA Tournament win is an accomplishment.

The fact that the Gators did it with such ease only proves that Billy Donovan’s got a shot to win a third national title. UF just needs some breaks; the Gators had a knack for losing just about every close game they were in this winter.

Let the coaching carousel begin
Generally, getting a team to an NCAA Tournament gets a coach a little more money, and perhaps an extra year or two on his contract — but not at UCLA or Minnesota. On Monday, UCLA’s Ben Howland and the Gophers’ Tubby Smith were both relieved of duties, which qualifies as a bit of a surprise from the outside looking in.

Few coaches have done more at a school, only to be fired, than Howland. In 10 years in Los Angeles, Howland went 233-107 and took the Bruins to three Final Fours. Before that, Howland went 89-40 in four years at Pittsburgh.

However, Howland had recruited players of questionable character, and at times did little to discipline them. Howland also had a long-held reputation for being a jerk, and a Sports Illustrated piece about UCLA’s 2012 season painted Howland as aloof and abusive to his assistants. So in spite of the wins, maybe it’s hard to blame UCLA — even if the Bruins did earn a 6-seed this year.

Ironically, Smith was the coach who knocked Howland out. But the Gophers couldn’t get past Florida, and the UCLA win was Smith’s only NCAA victory in six seasons at UM. Surprisingly, he never finished above .500 in the Big Ten, either, even though he took the Gophers to three tournaments in the last five years.