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Mike Lopresti | | March 10, 2016

March Madness: Upsets of top seeds becoming common in conference tournaments

High Five: Best Final Four Cinderella stories

It’s official. The conference tournaments have become one big wad of upsets.

Not that anything should be surprising, after a regular season with the orderliness of a food fight. But still, consider what has been going on out there:

Of the 13 league tournaments settled through Thursday, the No. 1 seed had been upset in 12 of them. The lone survivor? All hail Chattanooga, in the Southern.

As for the rest, start with Holy Cross. Most certainly, Holy Cross.

The Crusaders went into the Patriot League tournament as the No. 9 seed, with a 10-19 record and losers of nine of their last 11. They had not won a conference road game all season. A perfectly imperfect 0-9. Now they’re going to the NCAA Tournament, after a stunning trail of drama – and four wins in four different hostile arenas.

They beat Loyola (Maryland) 72-67 in the first round, when Anthony Thompson – who hadn’t scored a point all night – buried a tie-breaking three with 10 seconds left.

They upset No. 1 seed Bucknell 77-72 in double overtime in the quarterfinal, as Robert Champion’s 3-pointer at the buzzer saved them in the first overtime.

After a routine semifinal romp at Army, they finished the job at Lehigh 59-56, as the Mountain Hawks had four 3-point attempts to tie in the final seconds and missed them all.

Since the Patriot League plays all its tournament games on the higher seed’s court, Holy Cross had bounced around the East for nine days; a road show that turned into something of a miracle.

"It was certainly improbable," coach Bill Carmody said. Bottom line: Carmody found the magic March in one year at Holy Cross he never could in 13 years at Northwestern.

MORE: Conference tournament schedule, automatic qualifiers

Then there was Austin Peay, who took the Ohio Valley as a No. 8 seed, beating No. 1 Belmont 97-96 in overtime in the semifinals. A tip-in for the losing Bruins at the buzzer was ruled to have come an instant too late, after replay review.

A day later the Governors hit 16 3-pointers to beat Tennessee-Martin by 10 and win the championship on coach Dave Loos’ 69th birthday. "Best birthday present I ever had," said Loos, though many of his thoughts were on his five-year-old granddaughter, fighting for her life against stage 4 cancer in a New York hospital.

The Horizon League grants double byes to its top two seeds. Armed with such an advantage, Valparaiso and Oakland . . . both lost their first games. "If the double bye is so great," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "I don’t think Valparaiso or Oakland think it’s so great."

No. 4 seed Green Bay, who shot 52 free throws in an overtime victory over Valpo, ended up champion, winning four games in four days, in Linc Darner’s first season as coach. The Phoenix had been sixth in the Horizon preseason poll. A year ago this time, Darner was leading Florida Southern to the Division II national championship, so he’s won 13 March games in a row.

Summit No. 1 seed IPFW blew an 18-point lead in the semifinals against North Dakota State, and was beaten with four seconds left on a basket by Carlin Dupree, who quit the team for two weeks in January. South Dakota State ended up champion.

Just when Gonzaga’s 17-year streak of NCAA Tournament bids seemed ready for the trash compactor, the Zags took down Saint Mary’s. They’re in the bracket, same as every March since 1999.

Florida Gulf Coast needed overtime to beat No. 7 seed Stetson to win the Atlantic Sun. Three days earlier, Florida Gulf Coast also beat No. 1 seed North Florida – by 33 points. Dunk City déjà vu?

UNC Asheville, picked to finish seventh in the league, won the Big South by beating No. 1 seed High Point by 11 and No. 2 seed Winthrop by nine, on back-to-back days.

Iona, down four points at half, got past Monmouth 79-76 to win the MAAC. Monmouth had been 21-0 this season when leading at halftime. And now 27-7 Monmouth, with its remarkable non-conference victory run against some big boys, must await a nod from the selection committee.  

Northern Iowa lost a 17-point lead over Evansville in the Missouri Valley Conference final, then won the game when Wes Washpun’s shot banged high off the back of the rim and fell back through. Northern Iowa beat Evansville three times this season by a combined seven points.

The day before, the Panthers had taken out Wichita State in overtime. After starting 2-6 in league play, they have won 12 of 13, if anyone shopping for hot dark horses next week is interested.

"So many things have to go right in order to play in the NCAA Tournament," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "A lot of things have to go well. Six weeks ago, there were not going well.

WATCH: Relive Washpun's game-winning buzzer beater

So Wichita State is waiting for Sunday, like so many other conference tournament victims.

"If there’s a bubble," coach Gregg Marshall said, "it’s a big one."

Chaotic landscape, huh?

There was nothing but celebration a dance date for the winners. For the losers, especially in the leagues that usually get but one bid, March is cruel.

"Just imagine," said Wright State’s Billy Donlon, who lost to Green Bay in the Horizon title game, "that you’re an ACC coach, a Big Ten coach, a Pac-12 coach, an SEC coach, a Big 12 coach, a Big East coach, and the only way you go to the (NCAA) Tournament is wining your (conference) tournament championship. It’s the only way. Evaluate that."

Said Jacobson, "It’s just so hard to get there."

So we’ve noticed this week.

P.S. UAB, which went 16-2 in Conference-USA play this season didn’t get out of the quarterfinals Thursday against Western Kentucky 88-77. And Duke lost to Notre Dame in the ACC, giving Mike Krzyzewski his first double-digit loss season in nine years and second in 20. The beat goes on.

P.P.S.  The only other two times Coach K took a 10-plus loss team into the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils lost in the first round to Eastern Michigan and VCU.

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