If anyone watched the ESPN NCAA selection Sunday you probably noticed the small segment 2/3 of the way into the broadcast where an ESPN analyst, his name escapes me, (can anyone confirm whether it was Seth Davis?) talked about East Tennessee State University's NCAA tournament history.
He said that in the last 20 years East Tennessee State University (ETSU) has only lost in the first round by less than three points once. That was in 1990 to Georgia Tech 99-83.
If you look at their entire tournament history, which admittedly isn't much, it really is quite impressive. In 1989 as a No. 16 seed, they came very close 72-71 to knocking off No. 1 Oklahoma and as ESPN put it "Only a Mookie Blaylock basket at the end saved them" (from becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16).
In sum, their tournament history looks like this beyond their 1968 opening round win under a different format:
1989 as a No. 16 seed lost to Oklahoma 72-71
1990 as a No. 13 seed lost to Ga. Tech 99-83
1991 as a No. 10 seed lost to Iowa 76-73
1992 as a No. 14 defeated Arizona 87-80 but lost to Michigan 102-90 in Round Two
2003: as a No. 15 seed lost to Wake Forest 76-73
2004: as a No. 13 seed lost to Cincinnati 80-77
What can be concluded from all this?
Are the Buccaneers simply a tough-luck loser, or are they primed for a break out?
While a loss is still a loss, they've lost so impressively against a diverse variety of college basketball's traditional powerhouses that you have to think some experience was gained along the way.
In addition these seven appearances in 20 years is also quite impressive for such a small school, one that boasts slightly over 13,000 students, plays in a 6,000 seat arena, yet has been playing collegiate basketball since 1918-1919.
I believe if any team can make tournament history it is them, and that is why I picked them in my bracket to do just that. While it may appear misinformed, having people make bold predictions is what make March truly earn the Madness label.
Consider that the Johnson City, Tennessee school will be losing their two leading scorers in Courtney Pigram and Kevin Tiggs to graduation, the Buccaneers are still a young team, with all but five players scheduled to next season meaning the foundation is in place for continued future success.
Don't consider any of this to be blind ETSU optimism on the account of a delusional alum or that of a starry-eyed, energetic student caught up in the moment for I am neither. Its also not an anti-Pittsburgh vendetta by any stretch of the imagination, I just simply don't like their team's history.
Also, I've stopped their so-called magical run the very next game when, due to emotion from their historic win and all its inevitable coverage, they should lose to No. 9 Tennessee so it's not like I'm expecting them to be this year's George Mason, or that I'm a UT booster, I simply like this matchup, plain and simple.
Even though they enter the tournament technically the second highest of the four No. 1 seeds, this fact is misleading. One has to consider that the NCAA committee voters are enamoured with all things Big East (and deservedly so) but they place too much impact on this.
Don't forget that Pitt is in unchartered territory having to defend their first #1 seed in school history which could place unwarranted extra pressure upon them that the traditional powers have aleady experienced.
If I were ranking the No. 1's in terms of strength I'd go with:
1. Louisville-won Big East regular season and conference tournament
2. UCONN-have to be cut slack for losing in 6 OT's
3. North Carolina-I have them going to Champ. game so this isn't an indication of favroitism; its due to the region they play in, which I think is easier than UCONN's.
While Pitt's 28-4 (15-3) record is certainly impressive in the nation's toughest conference, we must not forget this is the same team that blew two over rated No. 1 rankings this year.
Included in this was the unexplainable loss to unranked Providence ironically two games after they beat heralded UCONN on the first of two occasions this season. Much of their hype was built off this defeat.
Moreover, if the 2009 Big East Conference tournament taught is anything its if ETSU can get big man DeJuan Blair into foul trouble early the team isn't nearly the same as the offense runs through him.
If I'm ETSU that's my strategy to get him on the bench were he is useless as soon as I can. Pittsburgh unceremoniously bowed out early as a result of this, increasing my lack of confidence in them in big games.
Finally, don't take just my word for it. On Monday's edition of First Take on ESPN, Pittsburgh Men's basketball coach Jaime Dixon was interviewed and mentioned that only three teams have made it to the Sweet 16 more than Pittsburgh's three appearances in the last eight years.
While this may seem consistent, I'd argue the opposite, and to a degree so did Dixon, stating that it proves they are good, and that they are close, but they can't seem to get any further.
I take this as an example of some teams simply maxing out early and not taking full advantage of their opportunities like some of the more established, traditional power schools can like Duke, North Carolina, and Michigan State. Some schools got it and some don't, and based on their tournament history to date, especially their recent history, I'm inclined conclude they don't.
Looking to make a gutsy call? Looking to impress your friends? Simply looking to adopt a Cinderella team to rally around?
Aside from Stephen F. Austin and North Dakota State University both of whom wouldn't surprise me if they were to win (more on that in a future column even though I do have both losing in my bracket), make a bold prediction and go with ETSU over Pitt on Friday.
You won't be able to say you didn't see it coming nor read of its possibility anywhere...
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