- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

When Georgetown and UMBC meet in Raleigh, N.C., tomorrow in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the Retrievers (24-8) will be chasing history.

In the 23 seasons since the tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket, No. 15 seeds have won four times in 92 first-round matchups.

The upset victims seem to share two or more of the same three characteristics. Unfortunately for UMBC, the Hoyas (27-5) don’t fit the gag profile.

After leading Santa Clara over Arizona 64-61 in 1993, freshman point guard Steve Nash told the San Jose Mercury News: “I’m pretty sure they underestimated us. I mean, just look at us. Wouldn’t you?”

It’s likely that none of history’s Fallen Four (No. 2 seeds Syracuse, Arizona, South Carolina and Iowa State) afforded the proper respect to its unheralded counterpart. And given the lopsided nature of first-round success for No. 2 seeds, it’s difficult to pin culpability for that shortsightedness on the players. In games in which there is a disparity in talent, it’s the coach’s responsibility to engender respect among his roster for a lesser opponent.

That’s why suspect coaching is the most glaring similarity connecting the big bracket’s grandest goats. Eddie Fogler, who coached South Carolina when it fell to Coppin State in 1997, is no longer part of the profession after compiling a 2-6 record in the NCAA tournament. Former Iowa State mentor Larry Eustachy, the man who presided over the Cyclones’ loss to Hampton in 2001, now coaches at Southern Mississippi. But in 17 years, Eustachy’s teams have made it past the first round in any postseason tournament once (2000).

As for the other two coaches in question, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Arizona’s Lute Olson both boast NCAA titles. But over the last 30 seasons, that duo also ranks 1-2 on the list of coaches with the most first- or second-round NCAA tournament losses. Boeheim has made 13 early exits, and Olson bowed out in the event’s opening weekend 15 times.

Unlike those coaches, Georgetown’s John Thompson III has never met a team that didn’t concern him after spending both his playing days and formative coaching years at perennial low-seed Princeton.

“I have been at the other end of where we are now,” said Thompson, who was an assistant on the Princeton squad that ousted defending champion and No. 4 seed UCLA 43-41 in the opening round in 1996. “I have been in a position to upset people, and I know that can happen. I’ve done that, made that happen, been a part of that experience. You can’t get to this part of the year and overlook anyone.

“Teams are too well coached. They’re too poised. They’ve won their league, or they’re playing well right now and have gotten an at-large bid. I don’t think we go into any game overlooking anything or anybody. I don’t, and for the most part, I think [the team] takes its cues from me.”

A second common thread between the victims is their lack of versatility. The Syracuse team that fell to Richmond in 1991 featured forward Billy Owens and spotty guard play. Iowa State was caught undermanned in the middle after Marcus Fizer left early for the NBA and leaned heavily in 2001 on point guard Jamaal Tinsley. South Carolina’s 1997 squad was dominated by the guard trio of Melvin Watson, Larry Davis and B.J. McKie. Coppin State dominated the Gamecocks 40-31 on the boards, and South Carolina had no other answer when its perimeter players went cold.

The Hoyas, on the other hand, have options. If an opponent swarms 7-foot-2 senior center Roy Hibbert, Georgetown can turn to any of four players who shoot better than 38 percent from 3-point range (Jon Wallace, Jessie Sapp, Austin Freeman and Chris Wright).

“They have so many answers,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They can beat you in a lot of different ways.”

Georgetown’s favorite way to beat opponents this season has been with its defense. The Hoyas enter the tournament leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (.367). That marks another contrast to the victimized No. 2 seeds, only one of whom (Iowa State) featured an above-average defense.

However, the Hoyas aren’t immune to an opening-round upset. But they are considerably better insulated than any of the Fallen Four.

“At the end of the day, our 13 guys are going to cross the line against their 13 guys,” Thompson said. “The differences are miniscule, and anyone can win regardless of what number is next to our name or their name.”

UPSET SPECIALS

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket in 1985, No. 15 seeds have upended No. 2 seeds four times:

1991 Richmond 73, Syracuse 69

Dick Tarrant’s Richmond Spiders made history in College Park, becoming the lowest seed to advance in the NCAA tournament by knocking off the seventh-ranked Orangemen. Riding an 18-point, six-assist performance from Curtis Blair, the Spiders never trailed.

1993 Santa Clara 64, Arizona 61

Rebounding from a 25-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 46-33 lead with 15:26 remaining, Santa Clara forward Pete Eisenrich (19 points, eight rebounds) and spindly freshman point guard Steve Nash carried the Broncos past a loaded Arizona team that included Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Chris Mills.

1997 Coppin State 78, South Carolina 65

MEAC teams were 0-15 before Ron “Fang” Mitchell’s Baltimore bunch dominated the Gamecocks. Eagles guards Danny Singletary (22 points) and Antoine Brockington (20 points) trumped South Carolina’s trumpeted perimeter trio of Melvin Watson, Larry Davis and B.J. McKie.

2001 Hampton 58, Iowa State 57

Playing virtually the entire second half with four fouls, shot-blocking phenom Tarvis Williams nudged the Pirates ahead on a 4-foot jump hook in the lane with 6.9 seconds remaining, and Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley missed an open coast-to-coast layup at the buzzer.

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