Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2010

Glass Slipper Mythology

True to form, this was the weekend that Cinderella died. Every year as March Madness gets underway there are a spate of stories about various teams that have a shot at being the public darling for the current tournament. After the first round, when inevitably some lower seeds pull off upsets, the spate turns into a surge. For several years at the turn of the century, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had me convinced that Cinderella’s castle was located in Spokane. For three straight years from 1999 through 2002 they pulled off upset victories against higher-seeded opponents and made it to the Sweet Sixteen once and all the way to the Elite Eight twice before finally being eliminated. Then in 2003 they finally made it into the top half of the draw as a number six seed, and were promptly upset themselves in the opening round.

But this year the underdog hysteria seemed particularly high-pitched. That can’t have been because of first round results. The 2010 tournament produced nine first round upsets, one fewer than last year and one more than 2008. Perhaps it was a product of the second round results, when four of those nine first round winners managed to duplicate their feat, resulting in fully one-quarter of the Sweet Sixteen being from the lower half of the draw. Plus the four giant slayers were spread out around the country, meaning that there was plenty of local press to bang the drums for their regional favorite in the short period between the end of the second round last Sunday and the beginning of the Sweet Sixteen round this past Thursday.

During that period the question being asked way too often wasn’t which if any of the four underdog darlings might pull off another upset; but rather how many of them would? Could #9 Northern Iowa, who had shocked overall #1 seed Kansas in the second round, beat a Michigan State team that was playing without its star guard, Kalin Lucas? Could #10 Saint Mary’s, the little college east of Oakland, come off its remarkable win over #2 Villanova and defeat Baylor? Could #11 Washington, about as different an institution of higher learning from St. Mary’s as one could imagine, but still lightly rated, beat a West Virginia squad that was on a mission to prove it should have been given one of the four #1 seeds? And in the most talked about match-up, could the improbable squad from the Ivy League, #12 Cornell, win a third game in the tournament and fell Kentucky, the team with the second most tournament championships ever?

We now know the answers to those questions: no, no, no, and, I’ll bet you can guess, no. Four games, four blowouts, an average fifteen point win for the higher seeded team. Despite all of the hype leading up to the Washington and Cornell losses on Thursday, followed by the St. Mary’s and Northern Iowa defeats on Friday, these results were utterly predictable.

Coming into the 2010 tournament, it had been twenty-five years since the NCAA expanded the field to sixty-four teams. That means 800 teams had taken the court seeded in the bottom half of the field. Exactly thirteen of those 800 have made it to the fourth round, the Elite Eight.  Teams from the bottom half of the draw have won just over 30% of the time in the opening round, a figure that is helped enormously by the fact that #9 seeds have actually beaten #8’s a majority of the time. So the nine upsets in the thirty-two first round games this year was pretty much right on the money. But as the tournament progresses success for lower half teams becomes enormously more difficult. Only about 7% of those 800 have won a second victory to reach the Sweet Sixteen, and a mere 1.6% have reached the Elite Eight.

That harsh reality takes nothing away from the exploits of Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s, Washington and Cornell. Their victories added greatly to the excitement of this year’s tournament. And the ever-present potential for upsets in general; meaning a lower seed defeating a higher seed, irrespective of where both fall into each region’s sixteen-team draw, is unquestionably what makes March Madness compelling viewing. This tournament has had plenty of those, what with two #5 seeds and only one #1 headed to Indianapolis. But the notion of Cinderella, the unheralded, unheard of squad coming from deep in the bracket to slay giant powerhouses and race towards the Final Four? It’s a great marketing tool for the NCAA and CBS. But that’s all it is. Even little children know that Cinderella is a fairy tale.

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