NCAA Basketball: Responding to early tournament exits

For college hoops junkies, the summer is a quiet time with a few transfers and some assorted NCAA news. We can also go over the “way, way too early Top 25s” foisted on us by the usual outlets that do not have much to write about.

One thing that caught my eye while reading over these prognostications is that Virginia is still a highly rated team, despite coming off a tournament in which it was the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. Coach Tony Bennett’s crew now has a track record in the regular season that leads to a good seed in the tournament (five consecutive seasons of a five-seed or higher, three one-seeds in that span). However, I wondered how the team would respond to such a crushing loss at the hands of UMBC. In all likelihood, the Cavaliers will be fine since they return Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter along with the usually successful pack-line defense.

While a one-seed had never lost in the tournament before, there have been eight two-seeds who were dropped in the first round. How did they respond the next season? As you will see, some teams came back with determination and made a concerted effort to make a run in March. For other teams, the terrible upset was a clear signal that either the team was over-seeded or about to fall into the abyss. Let’s look at each situation.

The NCAA Tournament ran seven years in its 64-team format before a two-seed lost to a 15-seed. In 1991, Syracuse reached its 10th consecutive tournament and was led by junior Billy Owens. It lost to Richmond in its third straight season as a two-seed (and fourth in five years). Owens moved on to the NBA and had a Tyreke Evans-like career. The following season, coach Jim Boeheim brought back the majority of the team with freshman Lawrence Moten taking Owens’ place as the lead scorer. They were able to win one game as a six-seed before losing to Massachusetts led by John Calipari. The Orange missed the 1993 tournament, but have remained a mainstay in the Big Dance for the most part since.

The best-case scenario for the Cavaliers might be the 1993-94 Arizona Wildcats. Arizona was in the midst of a seven-year run in which it was seeded no lower than three in the NCAA Tournament. In 1992, the Wildcats had been beaten in the first round as a three-seed by East Tennessee State. They had the misfortune of running into a Santa Clara team led by future NBA MVP Steve Nash. Even with Chris Mills, Khalid Reeves and freshman Damon Stoudamire, they fell. Mills moved on, but coach Lute Olson brought back Reeves and Stoudamire who paced the Wildcats to a 17-1 record in the Pac-10 and a Final Four appearance. Arizona has only missed the NCAA Tournament twice in two of the first three seasons of the Sean Miller era.

Another two-seed would not lose for four years. South Carolina came into the 1997 tournament after not making the postseason in its previous seven seasons. The Gamecocks ran to a 15-1 SEC record under Eddie Fogler. They had a dynamite backcourt trio in B.J. McKie, Larry Davis and Melvin Watson, but were knocked out by Coppin State. McKie and Watson returned as upperclassmen in 1998 and helped the Gamecocks to more regular-season success and a three-seed. It did not translate to advancement in the Big Dance as they fell to Richmond, who had beaten Syracuse seven years earlier. South Carolina only made the NCAA Tournament twice in the next 20 years, though it did make the Final Four behind Sindarius Thornwell in the 2017 tournament.

In 2000, Iowa State was coming off a very successful season under coach Larry Eustachy when it went 14-2 in the Big 12 and made the Elite Eight as a two-seed. Despite losing Marcus Fizer to the NBA, the Cyclones continued to roll in 2001 with Jamaal Tinsley leading the way on a team that had five double-digit scorers. The Cyclones were upset by Hampton by one point. Iowa State had made seven of the last nine NCAA Tournaments, but they would only appear in one (2005) in the next 10 years as they cycled through four coaches. Fred Hoiberg was able to steady the ship from 2011 to 2014 with four straight appearances in the Big Dance as Iowa State became Transfer U.

It would be another 11 seasons before the next two-seed was felled. The 2012 NCAA Tournament was one of the craziest as two two-seeds lost in the first round. Missouri won 30 games in its first year under Frank Haith (and its last in the Big 12 before moving to the SEC). The team boasted five double-digit scorers, including Marcus Denmon and Kim English. The one thing they did not have is a big to defend Kyle O’Quinn who punished the Tigers for 26 points and 14 rebounds. Missouri made the tournament again in 2013, but then missed the next four postseasons and fell into tough times under Kim Anderson (average of nine wins over three seasons). Cuonzo Martin took the Tigers back to postseason play last year in the lost season of Michael Porter.

To the enjoyment of many, Duke joined the ranks for upset two-seeds in 2012. Coach Mike Krzyzewski was just starting to embrace the one-and-done player and had freshman Austin Rivers leading the way with Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee. They were beaten by C.J. McCollum and Lehigh in the first round. Perhaps that was the loss that made Coach K see the wisdom in Calipari’s recruiting ways. Duke would bring on Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson the following season and the team would advance to the Elite Eight. Duke has only headed into the NCAA Tournament lower than a four-seed once since 1997. Freshmen – Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, and Grayson Allen – would help the team win the 2015 NCAA championship.

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Under John Thompson III, the Hoyas empire reigned for a nice eight-year run. The team made the NCAA Tournament seven times and was a two- or three-seed in five tournaments. That run ended in 2013 as Otto Porter was not able to lead Georgetown past Dunk City of Florida Gulf Coast. The Hoyas would not make the 2014 tournament as Porter skipped off to the NBA. Thompson returned the team to the Big Dance in 2015, but it has now been three seasons that the Hoyas have gone to a lesser tournament in March. In the last three seasons, Georgetown has won just a total of 17 games in the Big East.

For many years, it seemed as coach Tom Izzo was able to get his team to peak in March. From 2008 to 2015, the Spartans advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in seven of eight Big Dances. In 2016, Michigan State was led by Denzel Valentine and had closed the season by winning 10 of its last 11 regular season games. The team proceeded to win the Big Ten tournament, but were defeated by Middle Tennessee State in what would be the first of two wins over Big Ten teams for the Blue Raiders. Kermit Davis’ team would beat Minnesota the following season as a 12-seed. The Spartans have had plenty of regular season success (50 wins) in the last two seasons, but it has not translated into wins in March. Michigan State has been out of the tournament at the end of the first weekend in the last three tournaments.