This has been a wild and fun NCAA tournament, but let me ask you this: When was the last time the NCAA tournament didn't deliver?
Yet every year we lead up to the tournament by proclaiming that it will be "wide open" and that "anybody can win."
Well, we fell for it again. It is true that anybody can win a game or two, but it's not true that anybody can advance to the second weekend or that anybody can win the whole thing. Yet, because of our love affair with the chaos of the first weekend and the havoc it wreaks on brackets all over the country, we all seem to explain any upset by trotting out the term "parity."
Parity means equality, and the numbers don't suggest that there is equality in college basketball. Or, if there is parity, perhaps we have always had it. Or perhaps that is just the way basketball works.
Because, as I remember the past 30 years, the NCAA tournament has always had upsets, has always had close games and has always had little guys beating big guys. The truth is, very little is different in the results we see today. Let's take a look.
In 1990, UNLV was a dominant team. Jerry Tarkanian's Rebels were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in a period that preceded the "one-and-done" or early-entry era, when the best players stayed for four years, and the game was chock full of junior and senior NBA lottery picks. Surely, there was no claim of parity in that era.
In the first round of the 1990 NCAA tournament, No. 6 seed Minnesota barely beat No. 11 seed UTEP, 64-61. No. 1 seed Michigan State barely advanced past No. 16 seed Murray State, 75-71. And 12-seed Ball State beat 5-seed Oregon State, 2-seed Kansas squeaked past 15-seed Robert Morris, 4-seed Arkansas barely beat 13-seed Princeton and 12-seed Dayton beat 5-seed Illinois. There were upsets in 1990, before "parity," just as there are today.
While UNLV was steamrolling its way to the Sweet 16, Ball State followed up its upset of Oregon State with a 62-60 win over 4-seed Louisville to move to the second weekend and a date with UNLV. Ball State joined two other double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16: Loyola Marymount and Texas. Against UNLV, Ball State played the Rebels to a near draw, and it was the only team to hold UNLV under 76 points. In fact, Ball State had a chance to win or tie the game on the last possession, but lost 69-67. The other two double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 advanced to the Elite Eight. UNLV went on to win the national championship.
This story is not to diminish the upsets we are seeing in the past few years, or to diminish the accomplishments of Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle or Wichita State this year. To the contrary, it is to underscore just what a terrific accomplishment it is for each of those teams to reach the second weekend of play with a chance to advance further. I believe it is the facile use of "parity" to explain an upset or the success of good teams and programs that diminishes the accomplishment. Just throwing out "parity" as an explanation for such upsets and advancement makes the wins seem random, arbitrary or somehow accidental. I can assure you the upset wins pulled off by FGCU were not random. They were special.
Here are the double-digit seeds that have advanced to the Sweet 16 in the past four years:
2013: FGCU, Oregon, La Salle
2012: Ohio, Xavier, NC State
2011: Richmond, VCU, Marquette, Florida State
2010: Cornell, Washington, Saint Mary's
The NCAA tournament has seen 13 double-digit seeds advance to the Sweet 16 in the past four seasons. This year's success of double-digit seeds is nothing new, at least not lately. But if we go back to the four-year period before 2010, there were only six double-digit seeds that advanced to the Sweet 16, less than half those that advanced in the past four seasons. At first glance, this might seem to indicate that more double-digit seeds are advancing now than ever.
2008: Western Kentucky, Davidson, Villanova
2006: Bradley, George Mason
Looking back to the four seasons before that, it was more of the same. From 2002 to 2005, eight double-digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.
2005: UW-Milwaukee, NC State
2003: Butler, Auburn
2002: Kent State, Southern Illinois, Missouri
In the eight seasons before 2010, 14 double-digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, as compared with 13 that have advanced in the past four years. The inference is that, given the numbers, the game is moving toward equality, and less separation between teams. However, if one looks at the numbers before 2002, it is clear that the game has experienced times like this before.
From 1998 to 2001, 13 double-digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, the same number as in the past four years.
2001: Gonzaga, Temple, Georgetown
2000: Gonzaga, Seton Hall
1999: Southwest Missouri State, Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Miami (Ohio), Purdue
1998: Valparaiso, Washington, West Virginia
In addition, three double-digit seeds advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1997, 1991, 1990, 1986 and 1985, the season the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams.
Upsets aren't new in the NCAA tournament, nor is the phenomenon of a team getting hot and going on a magical run. Upsets and magical runs have been a tradition, and rich and delicious ones at that. Annually in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, we wax poetic about how wild it is and how anybody can win. But when we hit the second weekend, we have a baker's dozen of the usual suspects and a trio of double-digit party crashers, including a Cinderella.
FGCU is the first No. 15 seed in history to reach a Sweet 16. FGCU is a Cinderella. That moniker isn't an insult. What can be insulting is suggesting that anybody could do what FGCU is doing now. To me, describing things in that way actually cheapens the accomplishments of FGCU, La Salle and Wichita State, by making it seem as if anybody could have done what these teams have done. Not anybody can do this. It is difficult.
Wichita State, which isn't a double-digit seed in this year's tournament (No. 9) but does qualify as a team from a non-power conference that has surprised people by making it to the Sweet 16, does not just have a great team. Rather, it has a great program that was a national power in the 1980s and returned to prominence after 2000. In 2006, Wichita State earned a 7-seed and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four participant George Mason. That wasn't random luck or a hot streak at the end of the season.
If we truly have parity and anybody can win, why don't such teams win more often? Why do such teams, in this age of parity, "underperform" so badly and so consistently? After all, if there is parity, the "little guy" should win more often on neutral courts, shouldn't he?
Consider this: There were 35 "non-BCS" conference teams in this year's NCAA tournament field and 33 "BCS" conference teams. Of the 33 BCS conference teams in the field, 13 of them advanced to the Sweet 16, and only three of the 35 non-BCS-conference teams did the same. BCS conference teams, which made up less than half of the NCAA tournament field, make up more than 81 percent of the Sweet 16. Non-BCS-conference teams, which make up more than half of the NCAA tournament field, make up fewer than 19 percent of the Sweet 16 teams. That isn't parity. In fact, that is closer to dominance for the major conference teams.
One often hears that, if the non-BCS teams received better seeds, the results of the NCAA tournament would be quite different. Well, this year, non-BCS-conference teams received very good seeds -- and did very little with them. Gonzaga (1), New Mexico (3), Saint Louis (4), VCU (5), UNLV (5), Creighton (7), Butler (6) and San Diego State (7) all earned seeding among the first 28. None of them reached the Sweet 16. Three of these eight teams lost to non-BCS-conference teams, and, of the three non-BCS-conference teams that advanced to the Sweet 16, two of them beat non-BCS-conference teams to get there. Only La Salle beat two BCS conference teams to reach the Sweet 16.
If there is indeed parity, it seems fair to ask why more of the better-seeded non-BCS teams didn't win more games, and why the seed numbers have remained basically the same over time. In my judgment, the answer is simple: Advancing in the NCAA tournament is difficult, and it always has been. There are close games decided in the final possession, just as there always have been.
FGCU is one of the many reasons this NCAA tournament has been so much fun. In 1990, Ball State pushed mighty UNLV to the brink and came within a single possession of winning. Perhaps FGCU will go one better and beat Florida on Friday night to continue its magical run. After all, if there really is parity, anybody can do it.