To cross one off the bucket list, my dad and I drove up to Brooklyn last year for the first round of March Madness.
Our West Virginia Mountaineers were utterly destroyed by the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, led by a guy named Thomas Walkup who looked like a Fishtown bartender but scored 33 points in the win.
Walkup plays in the D-League now, but that game made him an overnight sensation. The 14 point Lumberjack win was one of several early upsets, which also included No. 15 Middle Tennessee State knocking off No. 2 Michigan State.
Everybody loves a good underdog story, unless your team loses by double digits to the Southland Conference champions.
Like everything in the American news cycle, those stories died down in 48 hours. Middle Tennessee lost by 25 points to Syracuse in round two. Iowa State smoked Arkansas Little Rock by 17. Stone Cold Stephen F. Austin put up one hell of a fight but fell to Notre Dame by a single point.
By the time the dust had settled, the Sweet 16 was filled with traditional powers from major conferences. Duke and North Carolina were in. Virginia, Villanova and Maryland advanced.
Casual basketball fans went back to work on Monday morning with waning tournament interest.
These underdog stories are short-lived because the cream always rises to the top, and it’s been that way for the last half-decade.
In 2015, a pair of 14 seeds made it to the second round. Then, Georgia State lost by nine to Xavier and UAB lost by 17 to UCLA, a traditional power team that earned an 11 seed that year.
When the second weekend started, the Bruins were joined by No. 8 North Carolina State as the lowest remaining seeds left in the tournament.
You can talk about parity all you want, but Cinderella teams just aren’t advancing to the Sweet 16 with regularity.
For context, here’s a list of every team that made it to the second weekend and beyond, going back to 2012.
Final Four – Villanova (1), North Carolina (1), Oklahoma (2), Syracuse (10)
Elite 8 – Kansas (1), Oregon (1), North Carolina (1), Virginia (1), Villanova (2), Oklahoma (2), Notre Dame (6), Syracuse (10)
Sweet 16 – Kansas (1), Oregon (1), North Carolina (1), Virginia (1), Villanova (2), Oklahoma (2), Miami (3), Texas A&M (3), Duke (4), Iowa State (4), Maryland (5), Indiana (5), Notre Dame (6), Wisconsin (7), Syracuse (10), Gonzaga (11)
Syracuse, a traditional power, was the only team seeded 10 or below to advance beyond the Sweet 16 last year. All four number one seeds made it to the Elite 8.
REMEMBER: Michigan State and Kansas were the two trendy title picks a year ago today. Neither wound up advancing to the Final Four.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 12, 2017
Final Four – Wisconsin (1), Duke (1), Kentucky (1), Michigan State (7)
Elite 8 – Wisconsin (1), Duke (1), Kentucky (1), Gonzaga (2), Arizona (2), Notre Dame (3), Louisville (4), Michigan State (7)
Sweet 16 – Wisconsin (1), Duke (1), Kentucky (1), Gonzaga (2), Arizona (2), Oklahoma (3), Notre Dame (3), Louisville (4), North Carolina (4), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), Xavier (6), Wichita State (7), Michigan State (7), NC State (8), UCLA (11)
This tournament was incredibly similar to 2016. Michigan State went to the Final Four that year as a seven seed, joining three #1 seeds. Wisconsin knocked off the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four.
Final Four – Florida (1), Wisconsin (2), Connecticut (7), Kentucky (8)
Elite 8 – Florida (1), Arizona (1), Michigan (2), Wisconsin (2), Michigan State (4), Connecticut (7), Kentucky (8), Dayton (11)
Sweet 16 – Florida (1), Virginia (1), Arizona (1), Michigan (2), Wisconsin (2), Iowa State (3), Michigan State (4), Louisville (4), San Diego State (4), UCLA (4), Baylor (6), Connecticut (7), Kentucky (8), Stanford (10), Dayton (11), Tennessee (11)
Same thing here.
This was the year when Mercer upset Duke in the first round, then lost to Tennessee by 20 points in the second round. North Dakota State beat Oklahoma in a 12/5 upset, then lost by 19 to San Diego State. Dayton, who I view as a relatively strong team, had a good run that year as an eleven seed, taking out Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford.
Then the title game featured two traditional powers who did not have amazing regular seasons.
Final Four – Louisville (1), Michigan (4), Syracuse (4), Wichita State (9)
Elite 8 – Louisville (1), Ohio State (2), Duke (2), Marquette (3), Florida (3), Michigan (4), Syracuse (4), Wichita State (9)
Sweet 16 – Louisville (1), Indiana (1), Kansas (1), Miami (2), Ohio State (2), Duke (2), Michigan State (3), Marquette (3), Florida (3), Michigan (4), Syracuse (4), Arizona (6), Wichita State (9), Oregon (12), La Salle (13), Florida Gulf Coast (15)
Finally, some real minnows show up. We have to go all the way back to 2013 to find the last time
that a true underdog advanced to the Sweet 16.
Dr. John Giannini’s La Salle Explorers knocked off Boise State, Kansas State and Mississippi
before falling to Wichita State. The fifteen seed FGCU Eagles dispatched Georgetown and San
Diego State before losing to the Florida Gators in game three.
What about the Shockers then? Are they an underdog? Wichita State had wins over No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State before going down in the Final Four. They’re the only “mid-major” to make the Final Four going back five years.
This was a fun tournament with some good upsets. It also brought us this famous quote from La Salle guard Tyrone Garland:
Final Four – Kentucky (1), Kansas (2), Ohio State (2), Louisville (4)
Elite 8 – Kentucky (1), North Carolina (1), Syracuse (1), Kansas (2), Ohio State (2), Baylor (3), Louisville (4), Florida (7)
Sweet 16 – Kentucky (1), Michigan State (1), North Carolina (1), Syracuse (1), Kansas (2), Ohio State (2), Baylor (3), Marquette (3), Louisville (4), Wisconsin (4), Indiana (4), Cincinnati (6), Florida (7), Xavier (10), NC State (11), Ohio (13)
Ohio made a nice run in this tournament, handling Michigan in the first round, then beating USF in a rare 13-against-12 matchup. Their reward was a date with North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
So where do the underdogs stand?
Going back five years now, only three true underdogs have advanced to the Sweet 16 — Ohio, La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast. You can put an asterisk next to Wichita State and Dayton, because those programs are always competitive and always a tournament threat, despite coming from “lesser” conferences.
Every other instance of a double-digit seed moving into the second weekend involves a team from a traditional power conference, or a program like Gonzaga that has historically overachieved despite being stuck in a smaller conference, just like Wichita and Dayton.
If you want to take the numbers beyond the last five years, you do find some examples that dispute my stance. It wasn’t that long ago that Butler played VCU in the Final Four. Davidson and George Mason made historic runs. The Missouri Valley Vikings had some wins that really redefined competitiveness in college basketball.
For whatever reason, those stories haven’t popped up too much in the last five years. And the reality is that Stephen F. Austin probably isn’t going to win six postseason games in a row. Of the 68 teams entering the tournament each year, only six or eight have a legitimate chance to win the whole thing.
We allow ourselves to get carried away with early round upsets, but you know as well as I do that the Elite 8 is going to give us a Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, or Michigan State.
Just like you, I enjoy a good underdog story, as long as my team isn’t getting its ass kicked.
Just don’t expect Cinderella to win it all.