When the Utah Utes got absolutely annihilated by the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Saturday night, it became official: At least one double-digit seed will make the Elite Eight this year.
What also became apparent: America needs to learn a new term at the NCAA tournament — call it a piece of tournament terminology, or “tournamology.”
That term, ladies and gentlemen, is this: the “eight-seed non-upset.”
What is an eight-seed non-upset? It’s when a team seeded eight slots lower not only wins, but emphatically destroys the team seeded eight slots higher. You probably recall an example here and there, but are you aware just how prevalent this kind of event has become in the NCAA tournament in the current decade?
Get this: In 2015, there was no “eight-seed non-upset,” but in the previous five NCAA tournaments and six of the previous seven, a team seeded eight slots lower won in the round of 32. In the 2010, 2011 and 2013 editions of the Big Dance, an eight-seed non-upset occurred.
In 2010, Cornell crushed Wisconsin in a 12-4 game (highlights at 5:06 in the clip):
In 2011, VCU manhandled Purdue in an 11-over-3 runaway:
In 2013, Oregon pulverized Saint Louis in another 12-4 beatdown, and in the clip below, Florida Gulf Coast ran past San Diego State in the only instance of a 15-over-7 victory, achieved by a double-digit scoring margin:
Gonzaga reached the 30-point threshold against Utah. The Zags could have won this game by 40 if they felt it was important enough to do so. The rise of what had been an underachieving backcourt — Eric McClellan being the prime figure in this transformation of Mark Few’s team — gave the 11 seed a combination of positional balance and potency which Utah couldn’t hope to match.
The Pac-12 — this was always my thought during the season — was a league which was balanced, but not blessed with high-end heavyweight teams. North Carolina and Virginia in the ACC have their flaws, but one could readily identify them as teams more than capable of reaching the Final Four. Utah did have high-end talent when it came very close to winning the 1998 national title. Andre Miller, Keith Van Horn (on the 1997 Elite Eight team but not the 1998 Final Four team), and Michael Doleac all cracked the NBA and succeeded at various levels. This Utah team, without Delon Wright, needed to win ugly. It needed its opponents to play ugly. It needed to get immersed in a rugby scrum, which is the kind of game Jakob Poeltl craves. As soon as Gonzaga made this a shooting-and-skill-set game, however, the Utes had no exit route, no escape plan, no alternative solution.
It is the constant theme of these “eight-seed non-upset” games. The victims are worker-bee teams that succeeded during the season because their work habits were regularly superior to their opponents. The teams seeded eight slots higher got there because of consistency, but not necessarily by being overwhelming. In a parity-laden season such as this one, it only stands to reason that a lot of higher seeds thrived in their conferences merely by limiting their flaws and masking their weak spots. Teams which found the back end of the bracket as a double-digit seed might have had more talent, but couldn’t unlock it with the regularity a 2 seed or 3 seed manages to achieve.
When that double-digit seed finds the key, though, and the NCAA tournament bright lights offer an urgency which leads to inspiration, BOOM! Everything changes.
The Pac-12 champion, the Oregon Ducks, deserved their No. 1 seed. Yet, Oregon destroyed Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament final to get that No. 1 seed. At the time, such a romp seemed to show that the Ducks were top-line material. With Utah’s awful performance — the rotten cherry on a sour sundae for the conference after three nightmarish days of competition — it’s that much easier to see that the Ducks arrived at their (deserved) seed by whaling away at a conference which “distributed” its wins. This dynamic was unpacked over the weekend in a similar deconstruction of the Big 12’s woes.
The eight-seed non-upset — it occurred Saturday in Gonzaga-Utah. It will probably continue to be a fairly common feature of future NCAA tournaments in the round of 32.