A fun stat to start: Of the teams that made the Sweet Sixteen of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, only four-have returned this year.
Many may blame it on increased parity or the “one-and-done” syndrome, but I’ll pin this phenomenon on something else entirely—the fact that Cinderella didn’t miss her invitation again.
And it’s not even “blame” really; we missed you, Cinderella, and not just because we only see you a couple weekends a year. No, we missed you because we hardly saw you at all in 2009.
For once, the 2009 tournament went as it “should have.” One year after all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first time in modern tournament history, those who filled out even a straight chalk bracket did pretty well in their office pools.
Seven of the 10 double-digit seeds to win in the first round last year weren’t really Cinderellas, but middle-of-the-pack power conference teams masquerading as princesses that were also wooed by the court jester they call the NIT.
Even Dayton, whose conference (the Atlantic 10) is one of the better regarded mid-majors, was a bit under-seeded for a 25-win team because they faltered a bit down the stretch.
Sure, Midwest No. 13 Cleveland State pulled the biggest upset of the tournament with their 15-point win over Wake Forest in the first round, but it didn’t last; they were beaten two days later by No. 12 Arizona, who was forced to play Cinderella by default.
See, when all was said and done, Arizona’s counterparts in the Sweet Sixteen were 14 teams seeded Nos. 1-4 (who ideally should be the best 16 in the tourney) and a No. 5 in Purdue that held off a fervent second-half rally by No. 4 Washington to survive the second round.
Where’s the fun in that? Most people don’t watch the Big Dance to see the best of the best—at least not until the Elite Eight, anyway. They watch for the drama, the intrigue, and the little guy who inevitably sticks it to a Goliath and makes themselves a national name.
Siena, Davidson, Western Kentucky…they’re the real reasons why we watch every minute of perhaps the greatest weekend on the sports calendar.
In 2008, they all gave us a reason. Even though the East and South were virtually chalk—only three games were won by the lower seed, all of which were one-seed differences—the Midwest and West regions were crashed early and often.
Who can ever forget watching not one, but two 12 vs. 13 matchups in the second round? In the West, it started when No. 13 San Diego’s shocking overtime win over No. 4 Connecticut sent the surprising Toreros—whose win in the West Coast Conference Tournament propelled them into (and 2010 darling Saint Mary’s out of) the Dance—on to the second round.
Not to be outdone, Western Kentucky came back moments later and toppled upstart Drake to set up a second-round clash with the Toreros that WKU also won.
Meanwhile, the Midwest saw Big East midcarder Villanova advance to the sixteens as a No. 12—at the expense of No. 13 Siena, who became the Gonzaga of a new generation with their first-round win over No. 4 Vanderbilt.
All that drama doesn’t even mention Kansas State, who pulled off an 11-5 upset on the backs of current NBA stars Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, or Davidson—whose sophomore sensation, Stephen Curry, carried the No. 10 Wildcats to the Elite Eight, where they nearly knocked off eventual National Champion Kansas.
Sounds a lot like 2010, right?
You’ve got Washington and Cornell, the Nos. 11 and 12 seeds in the East, set to try and topple Top 5 teams West Virginia and Kentucky. Down South you have No. 10 seed Saint Mary’s looking to continue their magical run, while Midwestern darling Northern Iowa hopes to back up their win against the No. 1 team in the land with another over last year’s runner up.
Add in Ohio’s dismantling of Georgetown, Murray State’s back-to-back buzzer beater specials and whatever Old Dominion did to Luke Harangody, and you’ve got a tournament to remember.
Can Omar Samhan, Ryan Wittman or Ben Eglseder become this year’s Curry? Will Washington continue the Pac-10’s recent streak of average teams getting hot in the tourney? Will West Virginia or Syracuse salvage a horrible tournament for the Big East by winning it all?
Maybe. But we'll all watch to find out.
Chances are that none of those four big remaining upsets will happen. But while the clock may soon strike midnight on the Huskies, Big Red, Gaels and Panthers, don’t simply dismiss them as flukes and curse them for busting your brackets.
Instead, appreciate them for what the fun they’ve brought to the tournament—even if it came at the expense of your alma mater, expected national champion or favorite team. Thanks for all three, guys.
And if the slipper fits for one more day…that’s just all the more reason to root harder.
One shining moment, indeed.