With the field of 68 now revealed, college basketball’s most exciting time of the year is officially in full swing. Naturally the postseason is the most exciting part of the season in any sports league , but college hoops’ “March Madness” takes it to another level completely: no team, no seed is safe—hence the madness.
Need proof? Only once (2008) since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 have all four top seeds made it to the Final Four.
This isn’t by accident, of course. The NCAA, despite completely blowing it in college football, has invented a thrilling basketball postseason that breeds upsets at every step of the way. Here’s how.
1. No Home-Court Advantage
Imagine if the top four seeds in each region had home-court advantage until the Round of 16 each year. It’d be a world without upsets.
Think of a team like Kansas, which has more conference titles (10) than home losses (9) in the Bill Self era, getting to play their first two games at Allen Field House. It’d practically be a free pass to the Sweet 16 every year. Instead, Self’s squad has suffered first-round losses to Bucknell (2005) and Bradley (2006) as well as an ugly second-round TKO to Northern Iowa in 2010—which is what most fans, outside of the Sunflower State, want to see.
Yes, they try to give the higher seeds the closer venues until the regional semis, regardless of region, but it’s not the same. Think about it: if Duke and Carolina are both playing in Raleigh, who are the Duke fans rooting for if Carolina is on the court or vice versa? Most likely, an upset, which is also what any neutral fans are clamoring for. Why? Everyone wants to see the improbable happen—just not to their favored team.
2. The One-and-Done Format
The NBA’s postseason consists of four best-of-seven rounds that, in total, take more than two months to complete. The result is that, eventually, the better team wins. Upsets happen, but the favorite has plenty of time to make adjustments and rebound, as it were. In that formula, the win-or-go-home Game 7’s are the most thrilling. Of course they don’t always happen.
In college basketball’s win-or-go-home postseason, every contest becomes a Game 7—hence the madness.
There’s little time to make adjustments and if a star player has an off day, there better be someone to pick him up. Conversely, star players can be born on this stage and cause quite a ruckus to those teams that are unprepared.
Think Davidson and Stephen Curry in 2008. Seeded 10th in the Midwest, the Wildcats made a run for the ages behind Curry’s incredible shooting. The sophomore guard burned Gonzaga in the opener for 40, then scored 30 in the second-round win over second-seeded Georgetown, and finally finished off third-seeded Wisconsin with 33 in the Round of 16. By the time they played Kansas for the right to go the Final Four, Curry was an overnight superstar, but the Jayhawks had adjusted their defense for him and won the game.
3. The Misleading Seed Numbers
Let’s get one thing straight: once the seeds are announced, they become irrelevant. The only thing a higher seed gets, in return for a great regular season, is the privilege of wearing their home uniforms. That’s it.
In fact, the home uniforms can even become a psychological disadvantage. They become like a target on their backs as every team that plays them is constantly reminded that they’re the lower seed—and are expected to lose—thus giving them the underdog mentality.
Granted, as far as favored scheduling goes, a one-seed has never lost to a 16-seed, but that opening-round patsy is where the favor ends. The following round pits them against either an 8 or 9, which is exactly where 8th-seeded Wichita State came from last season in crashing the Final Four. The Shockers took down a one and a two seed before losing to eventual champion Louisville in the national semis.
In retrospect, Wichita State’s run looks much less like an upset now that they’ve gone 34–0 this season.
It’s been proven time and time again in the tournament: any giant can be beat, and (nearly) every seed can pull off an upset, at any time. Hence the madness.