March Madness Indeed: Early NCAA Upsets

It's March and, as usual, there was upset madness in the early rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Underdogs Virginia Commonwealth, Morehead State and Richmond might be sizing their feet for glass slippers to wear to the big dance after beating some heavily favored teams this week. NPR's Mike Pesca discusses the results with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon.

Time for sports. It's March and, as usual, upset Madness in the early rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Underdogs: Virginia Commonwealth, Morehead State and Richmond might be sizing their feet for glass slippers to wear to the big dance, after beating some heavily-favored teams this week.

NPR's Mike Pesca joins us in our studio. Good to be with you personally, right across from each other.

MIKE PESCA: Good to be with you.

SIMON: Thanks very much. Mike, Friday night, 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth beat Georgetown by 18 points? Another 11-seed, Marquette beat Xavier by 11. Of the six teams with double-digit seedings to make it through the second round, who do you see going furthest?

PESCA: Well, I think maybe another 11th-seed, Gonzaga, as the best chance. They play BYU in the next round today. And the BYU's problem is that they lost their center, Brandon Davies. He's the Hester Prynne of the 2011 NCAA tournament.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And was kickoff...

SIMON: Yeah. They were - the red A. It wasnt A. it was...

PESCA: No, it was...

SIMON: Never mind.

PESCA: Well...

SIMON: I'm not to put an initial on that.

PESCA: ...according to the tenets of the faith actually I think it might be. But yes, he was engaged in something that...

SIMON: Against the honor code...

PESCA: ...member of the LDS church is not allowed to be.

And he's a, basketball-wise, a huge subtraction from that team. And Gonzaga, who we always perennially think of as a glass slipper-type team, this year is peaking at the right time. They beat an 11-seed, St. John's. And so that means, including some of the teams that you mentioned, four Big East teams lost in the first round. But seven survive, and so that tournament is doing pretty well.

And let me also say, Virginia Commonwealth, who beat Georgetown, there an 11th-seed. But in a way they're sort of a 22-seed because they had to play one of those don't call it a play in games. But that's what they are; they had to beat USC to even get to the Georgetown game. So for them to win, perhaps a vindication of the NCAA's policy of inviting more teams in, but letting some of them slug it out before they get to what they call now the second round.

SIMON: Syracuse looked totally confident, pushing around Indiana State. And they used like - they looked like they could use Larry Bird at the age of 65.

PESCA: Yes. Of course, the Sycamores could always use Larry Bird. And Syracuse is another one of these Big East teams that is advancing. You know, it's a tough and deep tournament. I don't know if the winner or even any of the Final Four participants will come from the Big East.

For instance, today Pitt plays Butler. You remember Butler? Butler won on a last-second shot. And Pittsburgh has trouble foul shooting. Maybe Butler can pull a big upset today.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to talk about the buzz surrounding the Michigan-Duke rivalry, thanks to ESPN's "30-for-30" documentary. You have a member of the former Fab Five, Jalen Rose had this to say.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. JALEN ROSE (Former Guard, University of Michigan): For me, Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything I felt Duke stood for.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ROSE: Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms. I was jealous of Grant Hill. He came from a great black family. Congratulations, your mom went to college and was roommates with Hillary Clinton.

SIMON: Now, I don't like this kind of attack against Duke at all. I dont mind saying it. And I'm a Carolina fan. What makes Duke so unpopular?

PESCA: Well, Duke is unpopular because they are - the perception is and to some extent the reality - they are full of prep school kids; and especially when they were really popular during a really great during the Bobby Hurley-Christian Laettner era. The facial expressions of those guys didn't, you know, please a lot of people in the NCAA. And sometimes it just comes down to do that, the optics.

but Really what's going on there, and this was a fabulous documentary and Jalen Rose was the executive producer of the documentary. I took it that he was speaking honestly from the perspective of a 17-year-old. And, of course, the charge Uncle Tom is a very loaded and very heavy charge, and Grant Hill addressed that in a New York Times op-ed that was beautifully written.

You know, they've asked Jalen Rose to you back off that? And he still says that they don't recruit players like me. And that's probably true but we should also add - for good and ill.

I mean, Duke has great players and they're a number one seed in the tournament. And they've got a great player named Kyrie Irving who hasn't really played all year, who's now an addition to the team. They could be, just basketball-wise, the favorite now in the tournament.

SIMON: Okay. NPR's Mike Pesca, thanks so much for being with us.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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