By Jason Keidel
Bet you didn’t expect to Google the difference between a golden, labrador, and Chesapeake Bay retriever.
But such is March Madness, when an acronym university, like UMBC, stuns the world and shocks Virginia, the No. 1 team in the country. It was the first time a 16th seed ever defeated a top seed. We all scrambled to find their name (Retrievers, of the Chesapeake Bay variety), game, and most famous alums, if any (Kathleen Turner is one, evidently). Did we even know Baltimore was a county as well as a city?
Folks say Virginia is used to this, since their 1982 juggernaut, led by the nation’s top player, Ralph Sampson, lost a game to Chaminade. But that game had no bearing on the season, other than the ephemeral egg on their face. Besides, none of the players on Virginia’s roster were close to being born in 1982.
To give you an idea about how bizarre this tournament already was after one round, that perfect, billion-dollar bracket faded into fantasy by the time the teams shrunk from 64 to 32. We all like to think our era is the best, even if it’s almost never true. But we can probably say with some certainty that no March Madness has been this unpredictable since the tournament expanded to its current form in 1985.
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And while Virginia was the biggest domino to fall, they were hardly the only one in a tournament already rife with enough upsets for two tourneys. Between UMBC and Buffalo and Marshall — the last winning their first NCAA Tournament game — you’ve got three deep, double-digit seeds winning a game. Not to mention the early darlings of the tournament, Loyola-Chicago, with the patron saint — or patron chaplain — March Madness, the adorable, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt flexing the power of prayer.
No one had a mini-bracket in the South Region that featured a 16th seed (UMBC), a 13th seed (Buffalo) and a No. 9 seed (Kansas St). Indeed Buffalo delivered a death blow to many brackets, including that of yours truly, who had Arizona snipping the nets in San Antonio.
Then we have Florida State stunning Xavier, the second top seed to be toppled long before the Final Four. And the hits go on, like Texas A&M taking North Carolina to the woodshed last night, a 20-point drubbing that was never close. If the world feels inverted, it is, at least in this year’s March Madness, an always turbulent hardwood affair that’s been flipped upside down.
And even Syracuse, no stranger to big hits and heartache in this tournament, is about as dangerous an 11th seed as you’ll ever see, having just bumped powerhouse Michigan State. Just on principle, Jim Boeheim should never enter the tournament seeded so low.
The media and masses are already scared of a Final Four that includes Loyola, Florida State, and West Virginia. Don’t fret just yet. For all the fear that this tournament has shattered into shards of no-name schools, there are still enough blue-bloods to keep the tourney, ratings, and your interest quite strong.
As was stated in this space last week, we love the Cinderella story, to a point. And we’re about there. After the Sweet 16, and certainly by the Elite Eight, we’re ready for the ancestral powers to assume their grip on the games. And that is still a strong possibility. With Duke, Villanova, and Kansas in perfect place to make a deep run. Oh, and for all his griping about where, when, and whom his club plays, John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats might be in the best place to make a run to the Final Four, if not beyond.
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Indeed, Kentucky need only beat Kansas St and then the winner of Nevada – Loyola-Chicago to make it to Texas. Then the Wildcats could face Gonzaga or Michigan, then perhaps Duke or Kansas for the whole thing. So for all the madness this march, when throwing a dart at your bracket would have worked better than logic, the logical teams could still make up most of the Final Four. That would give this year’s tournament everything we could ask for, and then some.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.