On Saturday, either Loyola Chicago or Nevada will play for a spot in the Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and if you’re inclined to bet against either one with confidence, good luck.
At this point, nothing that happens with any of the remaining 16 teams should be shocking, regardless of what their seedings might suggest. Unless you still believe in assumptions and seedings, rather than your own eyes.
That was the biggest takeaway from a rollicking first weekend of a tournament that has built its popularity on unpredictability. Seedings inherently create drama because, by definition, every game has the potential for an upset. But if you could somehow ignore team names and seedings and just watch two teams playing basketball, the supposed talent disparity between smaller schools and blue bloods looked negligible in many of these upsets.
“Each time it happens,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said, “everybody is completely surprised that it took place and wonder how in the world it could happen. But it happens every single year.”
Jacobson’s team became one of those mid-major darlings in 2010 by reaching the Sweet 16 with an upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas as a No. 9 seed.
Saul Phillips was coach at North Dakota State in 2014 when the Bison secured a No. 12 seed.
“Everybody on our team was like, ‘Well, that’s where the upsets happen,’ ” Phillips said.
They were right. NDSU knocked out No. 5 Oklahoma in overtime.
Only half of the teams seeded Nos. 1-3 remain alive in this tournament. None of the top four teams in the South Region is still playing. The first weekend was wacky but not necessarily fluky.
“There is so much more parity now compared to how it used to be,” said Phillips, now the head coach at Ohio University.
Here are a few reasons behind that parity: AAU basketball, one-and-dones and the explosion of three-point shooting.
Start with the first one. AAU has many ills, but summer basketball also has undeniable benefits, namely it has deepened the talent pool nationally because more kids are playing year-round. That has narrowed the talent gap between different levels of Division I basketball.
Mid-majors are attracting more talented players who have competed against elite players for years on summer circuits. So they don’t have an intimidation factor in facing a higher seed in the tournament.
“Twenty years ago, they may have never played against each other before or never seen them,” Jacobson said. “They’re not fazed by it anymore.”
The proliferation of one-and-done players often forces top programs to reload every year. That doesn’t mean teams can’t win a championship relying heavily on freshmen, but mid-majors tend to have more experience, which can be an advantage.
Phillips compared it to “the old guy at the YMCA that holds court.”
“You always have that one team in the city league with 38-year-olds that inexplicably beats the kids that just graduated high school,” he said. “It’s a smaller scale, but same premise.”
More than anything, three-point shooting has revolutionized basketball and become an equalizer for teams that lack size or athleticism. Teams that thrive on three-pointers can be dangerous if they get hot.
Consider: The four teams that were No. 12 seeds in the 2000 tournament combined to shoot 1,907 three-pointers that season. The four No. 12 seeds in this tournament attempted 3,326 threes this season.
Also, 297 Division I teams attempted at least 600 three-pointers this season. About one-fourth of that total shot that many threes 15 years ago.
“A game can change really fast right now,” Jacobson said. “Some of these teams have five guys on the floor that will shoot a three-point shot.”
Maryland-Baltimore County walloped Virginia from the outside to become the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1 in history. UMBC made 12 three-pointers, compared to Virginia’s four. The result was a stunning 20-point win.
Phillips doesn’t think it will be long before another 16 seed wins.
“The biggest key to all of this is the randomness of a 40-minute basketball game where a lot of perimeter shots are being taken,” he said.
Hopefully the tournament will produce more bracket wackiness this weekend. We shouldn’t be shocked.