In every other college basketball season, four upsets in the NCAA Tournament’s eight second-round games would be a warning that something major is about to happen.
Was that the start of the long-rumored mid-major revolution? Have enough talented athletes and smart coaches moved to programs outside of the Big Six to tip the power balance?
It’s difficult to tell. Since this season is unlike any other.
Just two of the teams that won on Sunday were mid-majors: eighth-seeded Loyola of Chicago, which dominated No. 1 seed Illinois from the start and won 71-58; and 15th-seeded Oral Roberts, which beat Florida 81-78 thanks to a late surge. No. 12 Oregon State defeated fourth-seeded Oklahoma State 80-70, and No. 11 Syracuse smothered third-seeded West Virginia just enough to win 75-72.
But it felt like the day of the little boys. ORU coach Paul Mills modified his numbers-don’t-mean-anything postgame speech from the upset over Ohio State after being just the second No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
“We are not capitulating to anybody here,” Mills said bravely, referring to his Golden Eagles’ upcoming matchup with No. 3 Arkansas.
Meanwhile, four more of the 16 teams in action on Monday, including overall top seed Gonzaga and two more, Creighton and Ohio, who are facing each other, can be classified as mid-majors. If Abilene Christian manages to pull the rug out from under UCLA, there will be a total of five mid-majors in the Sweet 16. That would be a significant achievement.
However, it’s also likely that something more subtle is going on.
Teams had to navigate a stop-and-start regular season due to the pandemic, then slapdash conference tournaments before being seeded by an NCAA selection committee that, without the normal analogies, may have been playing “Eenie meenie miney mo.”
Mid-majors are used to being an afterthought. They don’t have the budget to iron out all of the rough patches in regular seasons, and since they’re still farther down the recruitment line, their players stay because only a handful are good enough to go pro early. They are almost always underdogs when they leave the conference.
During normal seasons, those drawbacks are a stumbling block. This time, qualities like resilience and cohesion are transforming moral victories into real victories.
Loyola center Cameron Krutwig, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the victory over Illinois, said, “Nobody was really doing something out of body or out of mind.”
Krutwig resembles a grown-up Dick Butkus, but he runs like Justin Timberlake and isn’t easily shaken. He added matter-of-factly, “We all stuck to the game plan.”
Despite this, all of the regular Big Six conference suspects are present, with a few flexing their muscles.
No. 1 seed Baylor defeated Wisconsin 76-63, while No. 5 Villanova thrashed North Texas 84-61. Both No. 2 Houston and No. 3 Arkansas came within a whisker of defeating Rutgers and Texas Tech, but ultimately prevailed.
Syracuse was given an 11 seed, presumably because the selection committee overlooked that a.) the Orange 2-3 zone defense is still uncommon enough in the game to perplex teams that haven’t seen one all season; and b.) Syracuse almost always makes the Sweet 16 when it enters the tournament with a double-digit seeding.
While the Orange’s passing of No. 3 West Virginia to get there was only slightly shocking, the twist of fate this time is that Buddy Boeheim, the son of Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim, is driving the bus.
After halftime, he scored 22 of his 25 points, including all but one of his six 3-pointers, and three late free throws helped put the game away. Then he revealed what father told son during what looked like a heartfelt moment just after the buzzer sounded.
Buddy chuckled as he said, “Yeah, you missed the last free throw.”