In any other college basketball season, four upsets in the eight second-round games played at the NCAA Tournament would be a sign that something big is brewing.
Were those the opening shots in the long-rumored mid-major revolution? Have enough talented kids and smart coaches finally taken up residence at programs outside the Big Six to nudge the balance of power?
Hard to say. Because this one isn’t like any other season.
Just two of the teams that won Sunday qualify as mid-majors: eighth-seeded Loyola of Chicago, which manhandled No. 1 seed Illinois from the get-go and won 71-58; and 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, which used a late run to squeeze past Florida 81-78. The other two upsets were No. 15 Oregon State fending off third-seeded Oklahoma State 80-70, and No. 11 Syracuse smothering third-seeded West Virginia just enough to win 75-72.
But it felt like the little guys’ day. After becoming only the second No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16, ORU coach Paul Mills updated his numbers-don’t-mean-anything postgame speech from the upset over Ohio State.
“We,” Mills said bravely, since his Golden Eagles will face No. 3 Arkansas in the next round, “are not capitulating to anybody here.”
Meanwhile, four more of the 16 teams in action Monday can call themselves mid-majors, including overall top seed Gonzaga, and two more, Creighton and Ohio, who are playing each other. If Abilene Christian somehow manages to pull the rug out from under UCLA, that’s three more mid-majors for a total of five in the Sweet 16. Which would indeed be something big.
But it’s possible, too, that something a bit more subtle is going on.
Because of the pandemic, teams had to navigate a stop-and-start regular season, then slapdash conference tournaments and then get seeded by an NCAA selection committee that, lacking the usual comparisons, might as well have been playing “Eenie meenie miney mo.”
Mid-majors are used to being treated as an afterthought. In normal seasons, they don’t have the budget to smooth out all the rough spots, and because they’re always farther back in the recruiting line, their players stick around because precious few are good enough to turn pro early. Nearly every time they venture out the conference, they do so as underdogs.
In normal seasons, those disadvantages are a chip on their shoulders. This time around, qualities like resilience and cohesion are turning what might have been moral victories into actual W’s.
“Nobody was really doing anything out of body or out of mind,” said Loyola center Cameron Krutwig, who delivered 19 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Illinois.
Krutwig looks like a bigger version of Dick Butkus, but moves just like Justin Timberlake and doesn’t rattle easily. “We just stuck to the game plan,” he added matter-of-factly.
For all that, plenty of the usual Big Six conference suspects are hanging around and a few are flexing.
No. 1 seed Baylor toyed with Wisconsin 76-63 and No. 5 Villanova methodically broke down North Texas 84-61. No. 2 Houston and No. 3 Arkansas both got close shaves, but outlasted Rutgers and Texas Tech, respectively.
Syracuse was handed an 11 seed, apparently because the selection committee forgot that a.) the Orange 2-3 zone defense is still rare enough in the game to befuddle teams that don’t see one all season; and b.) almost every time Syracuse starts the tourney with a double-digit seeding, it’s a lock to make the Sweet 16.
While it was only mildly surprising that the Orangemen slipped by No. 3 West Virginia to get there, the twist-of-fate this time around is that Buddy Boeheim, son of Hall of Fame coach, is driving the bus.
He scored 22 of his 25 points after halftime, including all but one of his six 3-pointers, and helped put the game away with three late free throws. Then he revealed what father told son during what looked like a heartfelt moment just after the buzzer sounded.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you missed that last free throw,” Buddy laughed.