I love upsets.
I was raised as a sports fan to follow the principle that if you don’t have a particular allegiance to either of the teams involved, you root for the underdog. And in no sport is this more applicable than in college basketball.
This season has been a roller coaster for the teams on top of the standings. Weeks one through 10 were ruled by preseason No. 1 Indiana and their successor, Duke. But we have since seen a different team claim the top spot each of the last four weeks, and we’re likely headed for a fifth after Indiana lost to Illinois last Thursday.
The lore of the “giant killer” — the scrappy upstart that knocks off the major power — is a rich history that includes Jim Valvano’s 1983 NC State team and the Butler squads that made it to back-to-back NCAA Championships. But this year, the anatomy of the upset has changed, as the power conferences have turned into brutal proving grounds where nationally-renowned teams beat up on each other and turn conference play into a war of attrition.
The Big Ten in particular has been the land of the triumphant underdog this year. Indiana and Michigan have combined for eight weeks at No. 1 but have lost five times to conference foes. The common assailant is Wisconsin, who held Indiana to 59 points at Assembly Hall in January then knocked off Michigan Saturday with an overtime buzzer-beater. Illinois rose as high as No. 10 in the rankings, then dropped a dismal nine of 11 games, then rebounded by claiming the scalps of ranked conference opponents Indiana and Minnesota.
But it’s not just the Big Ten. ESPN featured a shocking statistic Monday: Seven of the top 10 teams in the USA Today coaches’ poll have lost in the last 11 days. In addition to Indiana’s and Michigan’s woes, Big East power Syracuse stumbled to an unranked opponent, as did SEC leader Florida, Pac-12 top-dog Arizona and former Big 12 leader Kansas, who dropped three straight to unranked teams in that span.
The lesson? Nobody is safe.
Though we might not see another 15-seed triumph against a No. 2 this March like Lehigh did to Duke and Norfolk State did to Missouri last year, be prepared for the reality that some highly-ranked teams are going to bow out of the Big Dance much earlier than their seed suggests.
And how fitting that in this year rife with upsets, one of the teams that looks primed to take advantage is traditional giant killer Gonzaga, who has ridden the play of forward tandem Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk to the No. 5 spot in the polls.
Despite my love of upsets, I like when traditional powers like Duke are relevant. Half of the fun of upsets is seeing a lowly opponent humble a highly-ranked team, then watching to see whether the talented squad will pull themselves back up by their bootstraps to reclaim their top-dog status. Indiana and Duke have done it already this year, and it will be interesting to see if another team like Michigan will do it as well.
With little time left before dance cards get punched, there are bound to be more upsets left in this season. Who’s next?