By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 16, 2006
More notebooks: Atlanta | Oakland | Washington, D.C. | Minneapolis
When Tennessee and Winthrop take the court in Greensboro Thursday, the game will be perhaps the closest thing to a toss-up that a 15-seed vs. a 2-seed has ever produced. Odds makers have the Volunteers, the second-seeded team in the Washington, D.C., region as only a 6.5-point favorite over the Big South champion Eagles, by far the narrowest spread of any 15 vs. 2 game in this year's tournament.
Belmont, for example, is an 18.5-point underdog to UCLA in the Oakland region, a line more familiar to the opening round of the NCAA Tournament when major conference programs are paired against a small conference tournament winner.
Looking at the Winthrop (23-7) and Tennessee (21-7) game more closely, there are many reasons Coach Greg Marshall's Winthrop team might have the goods to pull off an upset.
Of the two programs, Winthrop is the one with more recent NCAA Tournament experience. This is the Eagles' sixth appearance in eight years, though they've yet to win a game. Tennessee hasn't been to the tournament since 2001 and hasn't won an NCAA game since 2000.
After a hot start, Tennessee has lost four of its last six.
Winthrop has already demonstrated that it can beat a big-name program and hang with others. Back in November, the Eagles won at Marquette, 71-64, and later lost close games to Alabama, Auburn, and Memphis.
Last year, Winthrop gave Gonzaga a scare in the first round before losing, 74-64.
Let's look at common opponents. Both teams traveled to Alabama. Winthrop lost, 60-57. Tennessee lost, 92-70. Winthrop traveled to Auburn and lost, 64-62. Tennessee hosted Auburn and won, 105-89.
That may sound good, but here are a couple reasons why it might not be a great idea to start fitting Winthrop for slippers just yet.
Since 1985, the record of 15 seeds in the opening round is 4-80. The winners were: 1991 – Richmond 73, Syracuse 69; 1993 – Santa Clara 64, Arizona 61; 1997 – Coppin State 78, South Carolina 65; 2001 – Hampton 58, Iowa State 57.
Tennessee hit a bit of a late-season skid, but the Volunteers ripped off eight straight SEC wins in January and February, including victories over then-No. 2 Florida and at Kentucky.
Yes, Winthrop gave Gonzaga a scare last year. But the fact is that they lost and every time they've made it to the tournament, they've lost, sometimes by a lot. In 2002, for example, Duke beat the Eagles, 84-37, and in 1999, Auburn gave them an 80-41 reminder that the Big South is not the SEC.
Whatever happens in the opening round, history doesn't bode well for a deep run into the tournament for Winthrop. Even if they do pull off the upset, none of the 15 seeds that have won in the past won a second game.
So, rooting for Winthrop is a little like rooting for Kevin Covais, the skinny, lovable underdog on American idol. You know he's not going to win, but it's kind of cute to see how far he'll go.
Here's a link to the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, as compiled by Knight-Ridder.
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the tournament exclusively for Yahoo! Sports from Philadelphia this week and Washington, D.C., next week.
Create your bracket for a shot at $5,000,000. Sign up for Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick'em '08 today!
Updated on Thursday, Mar 16, 2006 3:01 am, EST
Email to a Friend | View Popular