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Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Updated: March 24, 11:15 AM ET

Underdogs are rare breed at Tournament time

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

In the 20 years since North Carolina State's improbable march to the NCAA championship, few teams have managed to duplicate the Cinderella-inspired, lightning-in-a-bottle magic of that team.

Tom Coverdale
Tom Coverdale and Indiana were Cinderella to the finals last year, but couldn't get past Maryland.

Sure, Weber State might beat North Carolina here, Princeton may knock off UCLA there and Santa Clara might beat Arizona on a given night. But other than N.C. State upsetting Houston in '83 and Villanova shocking Georgetown two years later, no bona-fide underdog led a charmed life all the way through the NCAA Tournament to a Monday night in April.

Typically, underdogs are welcomed -- heck, they're encouraged -- in the first and seconds rounds of the tournament. But once the Sweet 16 rolls around, the stakes rise, the pressure builds and it's the big boys who are usually left standing.

"It just isn't that easy anymore," said Sam Perkins, who played on North Carolina's 1982 championship team and lost to N.C. State in the '83 ACC tournament. "With the parity in the college game and the number of talented upperclassmen that leave early for the NBA, it just isn't as easy to string together six straight upsets."

The '83 N.C. State team was the first to win the national championship with 10 or more losses. Since then, only nine of the 76 teams to reach the Final Four have lost as many as 10 games. And of those nine, only three -- the 2002 Indiana Hoosiers, the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats -- advanced to the championship game. Two of those three -- Kansas and Villanova -- won the title.

The '83 N.C. State team was a No. 6 seed, but there were only 48 Tournament teams at the time (the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985). Since the N.C. State run, only four teams -- Villanova in '85, LSU in '86 and Wisconsin and North Carolina in 2000 -- have reached the Final Four with a seeding lower than sixth. LSU was a No. 11 seed while Villanova, Wisconsin and North Carolina were all No. 8s.

Planting Final Four Seeds
Yr. Teams/Seeds
'84 Kentucky (1), Georgetown (1), Houston (2), Virginia (7)
'85 St. John's (1), Georgetown (1), Memphis (2), Villanova (8)
'86 Duke (1); Kansas (1), Louisville (2), LSU (11)
'87 UNLV (1), Indiana (1), Syracuse (2), Providence (6)
'88 Arizona (1), Oklahoma (1), Duke (2), Kansas (6)
'89 Illinois (1), Illinois (1), Duke (2), Seton Hall (3), Michigan (3)
'90 UNLV (1), Duke (3), Georgia Tech (4), Arkansas (4)
'91 UNLV (1), North Carolina (1), Duke (2), Kansas (3)
'92 Duke (1), Indiana (2), Cincinnati (4), Michigan (6)
'93 North Carolina (1), Kentucky (1), Michigan (1), Kansas (2)
'94 Arkansas (1), Arizona (2), Duke (2), Florida (3)
'95 UCLA (1), Arkansas (2), North Carolina (2), Oklahoma St. (4)
'96 Kentucky (1), UMass (1), Syracuse (4), Mississippi St. (4)
'97 Kentucky (1), Minnesota (1), North Carolnia (1), Arizona (4)
'98 North Carolina (1), Kentucky (2), Stanford (3), Utah (3)
'99 UConn (1), Duke (1), Michigan St. (1), Ohio St. (4)
'00 Michigan St. (1), Florida (5), North Carolina (8), Wisconsin (8)
'01 Arizona (1), Duke (1), Maryland (2), Michigan St. (3)
'02 Indiana (5), Oklahoma (2), Kansas (1), Maryland (1)
Note: National champion in bold

So why aren't more underdogs capable of going all the way?

"I think teams are better prepared these days," said North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty, a teammate of Perkins' on the '82 Tar Heels. "When teams start to surprise some people and make a run, they're exposed. And down the road, a more talented team will take away their strengths."

Which begs the question: Will we ever see a team like '83 N.C. State again? Is a run like that even possible in today's shot clock-controlled game?

"Definitely," said Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who played for Providence from 1983 through '87. "Based solely on the 3-point line. That thing is the great equalizer. You can have a team that is not as talented as its opponent start making shots, get on a roll and not be stopped. There's no question it will happen again. It's just a matter of time."

This year? Parity reigned during the regular season -- no team lost fewer than three games. So with no clear cut favorite in the field, there's a strong belief that this is the year a sleeper could go all the way.

"We've given them hope. We gave Villanova hope," 1983 N.C. State guard Dereck Whittenburg said. "We made the Tournament interesting again. You don't need the No. 1 seeds to win all the time. People love the underdog."

Perkins' former Tar Heels teammate Brad Daugherty remembers what it was like to walk off the floor after a game against N.C. State knowing that you had lost to a team with inferior talent. And, contrary to conventional thinking, the ESPN college basketball analyst believes parity has actually made it more difficult for a team to repeat that run.

"The parity evens everything out," Daugherty said. "When you get into the Tournament, so much of it depends on matchups, on who's healthy, things like that. With guys leaving early for the NBA, no team has those one or two guys that can just carry you. So to do something like N.C. State did, you would need an awful lot of things to fall your way."

One key to being a successful underdog, Donovan says, is experiencing -- but yet surviving -- a "near-death game." When Donovan's Gators reached the national championship game in 2000 as a No. 5 seed, they did just that, riding an opening-round buzzer beater by Mike Miller against Butler throughout the Tournament. When the Wolfpack won the title in '83, they thrived on such games, winning four of six Tournament games by two points or less.

"You always hear teams talking about the team, how close they are, how they've come together. Why doesn't that happen during the regular season?" Donovan said. "Because it's those near-death experiences that make you realize how fragile this all is. And a good team builds off that sense of urgency."

Why don't more underdogs win the title? Whittenburg cites a lack of belief. Whittenburg, who will coach tiny Wagner College in its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance Friday against Midwest No. 2 seed Pittsburgh, said one thing the Seahawks won't lack is belief.

"You have to genuinely believe you have a chance to do it," Whittenburg said. "You have to ignore the seedings, ignore all the experts who are picking against you and deep down, have a true belief that you're the better team. If you can get over that mental hurdle, it's a huge advantage."

Lorenzo Charles, who was on the other end of Whittenburg's famous airball, agrees.

"We had a group of guys that just came together at the right time," Charles said. "It's not a situation where the most talent is always going to win. It's about coming together and getting things unified to make a run for six games.

"You don't have to be a great team to have great things happen."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com



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