There are two NCAA Tournaments every year. One takes place over the opening weekend, the two-round, 48-game feast. This is the one usually rife with upsets and dramatic buzzer-beaters, and when it isn't it gets labeled "boring" by the media and the fans. The other tournament, starting with Thursday's Sweet 16, is a playground for the big boys, with matchups between power programs stocked with NBA-ready prospects. History has shown that, despite the occasional exception like George Mason in 2006 or Davidson last year, the underdog from the first tournament doesn't fare well in the second.
Still, fans like to see a Cinderella or two show up at the ball, and this year's tournament has disappointed in that regard. For the first time ever, the top three seeds in each region advanced, and only one double-digit seed—No. 12 Arizona—made it through. How come this year has produced such seemingly dull results?
One answer is that actually, it hasn't been that dull. There were some excellent games the first weekend, although the best ones took place late at night, after a wearying day chock full of TV timeouts, reminders that President Obama would be interviewed on 60 Minutes, and Bill Raftery screaming "Onions!" after every big shot. The Siena-Ohio State and UCLA-VCU contests were particularly thrilling, but both ended close to midnight ET, well after the casual bracket-filler-outer had called it a day. Ronald Moore of Siena probably wanted to call it a day against the Buckeyes after missing nine of the 11 shots he had taken, including all four 3-pointers. But Moore then drilled a game-tying 3 at the end of overtime, and another with 3.9 seconds left to win the game in double OT. How's that not exciting?
It is true, though, that several low-seeded teams came tantalizingly close to knocking off a big guy then fell frustratingly short after letting late leads slip away. No. 16 seed East Tennessee State scored five points in eight seconds to close within two of top-seeded Pitt on Friday, resulting in fist-pumping players drunk on the idea of an upset. Then Kevin Tiggs overeagerly drove the lane into three defenders and turned it over. Pitt responded coolly, feeding star big man DeJuan Blair for a 3-point play, and Pitt was able to avoid becoming the first No. 1 ever to fall to a No. 16.
Siena, a team good enough to qualify as this season's Davidson or George Mason, followed its dramatic win over Ohio State with a 12-0 run late in the second half Sunday to take a shocking lead over No. 1 Louisville. Rick Pitino called timeout, the Dayton crowd was going bananas—the scene had all the makings of a historic upset. But over the next couple of minutes, Edwin Ubiles and Clarence Jackson of Siena missed hasty 3-pointers (Jackson's miss was particularly painful, coming on a fast break seconds after a steal), Friday's hero Moore missed a couple of tough jump shots, and battle-tested Big East power Louisville reeled off nine straight points and won the game.
So was it just bad luck that the little guys fell shy of knocking off Goliath this year? Or is there something different about this year's tournament that made an upset less likely? Watching the Siena and East Tennessee games, it was hard not to wonder whether the endlessly hyped mythology of the Cinderella has started to affect the players as well as the fans. Today's players know that draining a 3-pointer to drop a top seed, a la Bryce Drew, will be better remembered than nearly anything in college basketball except winning it all—a goal realistic for only a handful of teams each year. So perhaps it isn't surprising that when faced with a moment that has the potential for repeated replays every March, some kids ditch the disciplined play that brought them to the brink of upset. Had one or two of the teams just kept their focus late in the game, no one would be labeling this tournament "boring."