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12 the lucky number for upsets
Nearly every NCAA Tournament, a 12th seed knocks off a No. 5, and theories abound as to why.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published March 15, 2006
A year ago at this time, Bruce Pearl, then coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, gathered his team and rattled off a particularly germane set of NCAA Tournament opening-round matchups.
No. 12 seed George Washington would meet No. 5 Georgia Tech.
No. 12 New Mexico drew No. 5 Villanova.
No. 12 Old Dominion had No. 5 Michigan State.
His team, also a 12 seed, would open with No. 5 Alabama.
"Based on the percentages," he told his players, "one of us (12s) is going to win."
You see, he knew that in one of the crazier trends of March Madness, at least one No. 12 seed had won in the opening round 18 times in the previous 20 years.
"I kind of gave them, if you will, that confidence; that why-not-us (mentality)?" said Pearl, now the coach at Tennessee.
His Panthers got the point. They proceeded to beat Alabama and No. 4 seeded Boston College, then lost to No. 1 seed and eventual NCAA runnerup Illinois.
Since the NCAA field expanded in 1985, the 12 seeds have won more tournament games (42) than the 11 seeds (39) and teams seeded 13 through 16 combined (40).
Surely, there's more than percentages in play, right?
Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez has invested significant time the past couple of years into studying the propensity for a No. 12 pulling off an upset after his team won such a matchup against Florida in 2004.
"I was on about a million radio and television shows across the country, and they expect you to be the expert when you win a 12-5," he said with a laugh.
His main theory is that 5 seeds are typically teams outside the Top 25, the generally recognized elite. That year, the Gators reached No. 1 in the AP poll in December but fell out of the rankings by mid February.
"When you play a Top 10 team, there's a big difference," Gonzalez said. "You hate to say it, but they get protected by whatever. I won't say officials, but the crowd and the brackets and playing in their home states."
The Gators and Jaspers played in Raleigh, N.C., which wasn't exactly colored orange and blue as the Gators might expect in Jacksonville's Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Thursday.
But a partisan crowd, or lack thereof, isn't as important as a gap in talent and/or NCAA Tournament experience, and most coaches insist the disparity in those critical areas aren't as dramatic as one might guess between the 12 and 5 seeds.
In 2004, Manhattan had a shooting star in senior guard Luis Flores and a veteran group of players back from a team that played well as a No. 14 seed against Syracuse in the NCAAs.
"I'm just a big believer in outside the first two seeds, it's wide open," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We don't give those teams enough credit that are a 12. Those are good basketball teams."
He should know.
In the previous six years, the Gators have been a No. 5 seed three times, surviving an overtime thriller against Butler in 2000 - the year they reached the NCAA finale - and losing in double overtime to Creighton in 2002, then to Manhattan.
Coach Lute Olson, whose Arizona team was stunned by No. 12 Miami (Ohio) in 1995, said attitude also plays a part. The lower-seeded team often is just thrilled to be on that grand stage and can relax.
"They have everything to gain and nothing to lose," he said.
But not all the so-called Cinderellas with the size 12 slippers are good but unheralded mid majors such as Miami (Ohio) or Manhattan or Creighton.
Florida State last made the NCAAs in 1998, a controversial choice given a 6-10 ACC record and 3-7 mark to end the regular season, and easily beat No. 5 Texas Christian before barely losing to tournament darling Valparaiso.
"When you get to that point, everybody's assigned a number, but what does that number really mean?" said then-FSU coach Steve Robinson, now an assistant with defending champion North Carolina. "The thing I kept stressing to the kids was, "Hey. Since we're here, let's go ahead and play and try to win some games.' "
Herb Sendek, Miami's coach in '95 who is now at North Carolina State, agreed that psychology can be a valuable tool.
"Sometimes, there's a little bit of an extra edge on the favored team," he said. "Maybe that works sometimes to the advantage of a 12 seed. ... We did have a good team that year; Arizona had a really good team.
"On that night, we won the game. That's not to say if we played the day before or the day after, we would have won again. But in a single-elimination tournament in the game of basketball with foul trouble and the 3-point line and all the different things that go into it, anything's possible. That's one of the aspects that makes the tournament what it is, so exciting."