The NCAA tournament has started, and already there have been some real surprises. Murray State knocked off Vanderbilt — thank you, Racers, from the bottom of my Buck Back heart! — and second seed Villanova was taken into overtime by number 15 seed Robert Morris.
I think there are two reasons for such surprises. The first reason is that there is tremendous balance in college basketball. Lower-seeded small conference teams may not get the glamour of ongoing national attention during the season, but often they have one or two very good players, senior leadership, and helpful tournament experience. If the good players get hot, they can carry a team for a few games. In contrast, the higher-seeded, big conference teams often lack NCAA Tournament experience and seasoning. In the NCAA Tournament, keeping a cool head and running your offense in the clutch seems to count for a lot, and knowing how to deal with tournament pressure and distractions counts for even more.
The second reason for the upsets, in my view, is that the players on the higher-seeded teams may be focused on the matchups that could be coming in a few days — the hypothetical, later-round contests that the talking heads argue about after the tournament bracket is announced. The players may be thinking about who they might be facing, don’t focus on the team they actually are playing, and then find themselves in a tough contest against a good, gutty team that they aren’t mentally prepared to handle.
Let’s hope Ohio State avoids this scenario. I’m not sure they fell prey to the syndrome last year, when they lost to Siena in the first round, but that experience should have taught them a lesson. This year’s first-round opponent, U.C. Santa Barbara, is a good team that must be approached with deadly seriousness. Ohio State’s goal should be simple: by hook or by crook, get to the second round.