Beware the Favorite: The Best Teams Don’t Always Win the Title
During my life, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my beloved Kansas Jayhawks win the NCAA championship twice. In 2008 a 37–3 top-seeded Kansas team took down Memphis in the title game, thanks to a last-second 3-pointer by Mario Chalmers to force overtime.
That was a great KU team. Two months later, five players from that squad were selected in the NBA draft.
Exactly 20 years earlier, an unheralded, unranked sixth-seeded 27–11 team, led by All-American Danny Manning and coached by journeyman Larry Brown, shocked the nation and won the tournament as a major underdog.
I remember that team well. My parents had just purchased a VCR that year and I taped every single KU game and watched them over and over until the tapes were virtually worn out. (Surprisingly, I had no girlfriend at the time.)
Of course, I was off-the-charts happy that my favorite team had won the title. I was a fifth-grader and I’m pretty sure I ran around our house like a kid hopped up on sugar (I probably was) boasting of our title and how my beloved KU was now officially the best.
But my Dad, an admitted Kansas State fan (our bitter rival—never confuse the two), stopped me and said, “No, they’re not. They just won the tournament.”
Whether it was sour grapes or not (KU beat KSU in the regional finals that year), he had a point. How could an 11-loss team (they started just 12–8) also be the best?
The truth is they weren’t. Neither was a 25–10 Villanova three years earlier or 26–10 N.C. State two years before them.
This wasn’t a phenomenon of the ’80’s either. In 1997, Kansas entered the tournament at 32–1 and had been ranked No. 1 for 15 straight weeks. But Arizona, which entered the tourney with a 19–9 record, took them down in the regional semifinals en route to winning it all.
So while the 25–9 Wildcats got to cut down the nets as champs, the 34–2 Jayhawks had little to show for their success. Just like Oklahoma nine years earlier.
Even last year Connecticut, who were unranked for nearly half of 2014, cut down the nets after an unlikely six-game run through the tourney. Meanwhile, Florida was the only one of the four top seeds to even win their region and advance to the Final Four.
In fact the only time that all four top seeds won their regions, since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, was in 2008.
Simply put, the best teams don’t always win the tournament—let alone make the Final Four.
It’s the nature of the tournament. An obscene number of teams get invited (we’re up to 68 of 351 teams now) for a single-elimination, neutral court venue that gives the higher-seeds the lone privilege of wearing their home uniforms. They have no advantage whatsoever—save for a false imagination that the lower-seeds they’re matched up against are actually worse than they are. Plenty of times they’re not.
Even the neutral sites they play at are misleading.
Although the top seeds are given priority placement, it’s still closer to a road game atmosphere than a home one. Why? Because almost all neutral fans want to see one thing—an upset—so they root for the underdogs, especially when the game gets close.
My freshman year at college (1996) was the year Princeton shocked defending champion UCLA in the first round. Our dorm lobby was packed watching the game and when the Tigers finally prevailed, in a thrilling game, everyone cheered.
Were we Princeton fans? Nope. We just wanted to see an upset. (So did most of the fans at the RCA Center in Indianapolis that day.) Why? For one thing, the more higher-seeded teams that lose, the easier the path is for your own team. And if you’re team has already lost, nothing makes you feel better (or so you think) than seeing another powerhouse school go down.
Will this year be different? Will 34–0 Kentucky—easily the best team in years—complete their mission and survive the tournament?
The last time a team entered with this much fanfare was 1991 when 30–0 UNLV made it all the way to the Final Four, before losing to Duke. The last time a team entered the tournament undefeated? Wichita State in 2014. They entered at 34–0, but lost to eighth-seeded Kentucky in the Round of 32.
Anything can happen.