Sports Outside the Beltway

Gap Between Cinderellas and Top Seeds Closing

Pete Thamel reflects on the ever increasing number of upsets in the NCAA tournament in a piece entitled, “Cinderella Now Lingers Longer at the N.C.A.A.’s March Dance.”

When George Mason defeated the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels on Sunday, the upset capped four of the most harried days in the history of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. Ten teams knocked off competitors seeded at least five spots higher, tying a record set in 1986 and matched in 1990 and 2002. Although underdogs have long been part of tournament lore, many who follow college basketball agree that the balance of power is shifting.

Cinderella, once an occasional guest at this ball, has a standing invitation now. And she is no longer checking her watch. That is partly because smaller programs have more talent than before and are capable, in some cases, of holding it together longer than elite teams whose players leave early for the pros.

Bradley and Wichita State hail from the Missouri Valley Conference, which competes in the shadow of the sweeping Big Ten and Big 12 conferences and is sending two teams to the Round of 16 for the first time. George Mason, in Fairfax, Va., is the first Colonial Athletic Association team to go this far since Richmond in 1988. Over all, 5 of the 16 teams playing in the next round are from outside college basketball’s six so-called power conferences.

“There’s very little difference in talent,” said Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference. “It’s about access. A lot of teams didn’t make the cut in this field that could have been exactly where Bradley and Wichita State are.”

The little guy’s success has helped make the tournament the spectacle that it is, from Coach Don Haskins leading his Texas Western squad over Kentucky in the 1966 championship to Larry Bird leading Indiana State to the 1979 title game. But officials from smaller conferences and coaches from power conferences all say the gap is rapidly closing. For the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, three teams with No. 15 seedings lost their first-round matchups against No. 2 teams by single-digit margins.

In 2000, the average margin of victory for a No. 1-seeded team over a No. 16 was 25 points. This year, that margin dwindled to 14.5. No. 16 Albany almost toppled No. 1 Connecticut, which many experts consider to be the most talented team in the field. Teams seeded 16th are 0-88 against No. 1′s.

“A No. 16 seed is going to beat a No. 1,” UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said. “The gap is closing.”

It certainly wreaked havok with my brackets this year. I had Kansas in the Elite 8 and North Carolina losing in the finals. Both got knocked out early.

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