As many of you know, we are currently in the middle of the greatest week of the year – Championship Week. For seven days, we’re transfixed – well, at least I’m transfixed – by ESPN, ESPN2 and CBS as they televise tournament championship games of conferences that most people have never heard of (honestly, who knew that the Atlantic Sun was a D-I basketball league until last Saturday?).
From the Ohio Valley to the Sun Belt, college basketball fans around the country become acquainted with teams trying to fulfill a dream. The champion of each conference tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but for these smaller leagues, the conference tournaments are especially important. Unlike the ACC or the Big Ten, which annually send multiple schools to the NCAAs, the Big South isn’t going to get an at-large bid anytime soon. The only way for a school like Winthrop to get into the Big Dance is to win the Big South tourney (which the Eagles did, for the fourth straight season).
In most years, teams like Winthrop are nothing more than first-round fodder for bigger schools. The euphoria of making the NCAA Tournament is replaced with a sense of doom on Selection Sunday, when some team like Coppin State finds out that it is the No. 16 seed in the East Region and has to play Duke in the first round.
But, with Selection Sunday less than a week away, I’m here to tell these small schools that this year could be different. There’s always an upset or two on the opening weekend, but this season’s NCAA Tournament, which begins next Thursday, has the potential for a ton of early-round surprises.
The reason for this is simple: I can’t remember another season when there were so many highly ranked teams who came out of nowhere to have great years. I’m talking about teams like Marquette, Pittsburgh, Oregon and Gonzaga, which might be the most overranked team since the inception of basketball polls. All of these schools have surpassed everyone’s expectations but their own, and – with the exception of Gonzaga’s Dan Dickau – none of them have any players that anybody has heard of.
I’ll collectively term these teams “Boston Colleges”, in deference to last year’s Boston College squad. Prior to the start of last season, everyone thought Boston College was going to be horrible, and with good reason – the Eagles had been one of the worst teams in the Big East for a few years, and there wasn’t any reason to expect a change.
The rest is history. Boston College went on an amazing run, winning both the Big East regular-season and tournament titles and cracking the top 10. All the while, nobody could figure out why the Eagles were good, and everyone was waiting for them to screw up. To top it off, even though Boston College was winning for five months, nobody could name any of its players, besides maybe star guard Troy Bell.
The thing about the NCAA Tournament is that teams like that are usually exposed right away. For some reason, the magic these teams have during the season vanishes once the Big Dance starts. Boston College, which was the No. 3 seed in the East Region, barely survived the first round before losing in Round 2 to Southern Cal. In the process, the Eagles earned a place alongside the likes of the 1995-96 Purdue team, which may have been the worst No. 1 seed ever (remember when the Boilermakers almost lost to No. 16 Western Carolina?), the 1998-99 Auburn team, which might have been the second-worst No. 1 seed ever and South Carolina, which got two straight top-three seeds in the late-’90s and promptly lost to Coppin State and Richmond is consecutive first rounds.
There are usually one or two teams like that in a bracket. This year, there’s a chance that all of the No. 2 seeds and some of the No. 3 seeds will be “Boston Colleges.” Currently, Gonzaga, Pittsburgh, Alabama (another team that could be a “Boston College”) and Oregon are ranked sixth through ninth in the AP poll, and Marquette is ranked 13th. Two more potential “Boston Colleges” – Georgia and Western Kentucky – are ranked No. 17 and No. 18.
Many of these schools will end up with top-three seeds in the NCAA Tournament. A top-three seed in the NCAAs usually has the advantage of intimidation – the smaller schools are often happy just to be on the same court. But, a “Boston College” doesn’t scare anybody. A team playing Pittsburgh or Oregon in the first round won’t be intimidated and will go in thinking it has a good chance to win, which is an ideal formula for upsets.
So, I encourage the Winthrops, Florida Atlantics and Davidsons of Championship Week to keep their chins up. Sure, they could end up facing Kansas in Round One, but who knows? They could catch a break and earn a No. 15 seed, and this year, that means they’ll have a good shot of seeing the second round.
Arun Gopal still regrets picking Boston College to reach the Elite Eight last year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.