Note: This was written Friday morning, mostly focused on the Kansas vs. Penn game. I was about 75 percent done with the article, was going to finish the post on Saturday morning. I had no idea the question posed in the headline would be answered later that night.
By: Chris O’Brien
Will a 16 ever beat a Number 1?
The short answer is yes.
It had already happened in the women’s NCAA Tournament; Harvard took down Stanford in 1998.
But over on the men’s side, at least before March 16th, 2018, it was always just a fun speculation. “Will we ever see this ultimate Cinderella story?” The odds felt somewhere between landing Boardwalk in McDonald’s Monopoly and winning the Powerball.
Even though all pieces of evidence suggested otherwise, I still believed that someday a Number 1 seed would be trailing late in a game and word would spread fast over the internet. The name of the little midmajor would be trending on Twitter. ESPN alerts going off left and right, millions of people stealthily exiting their three o’clock meetings at work.
The Number 1 seed would miss a shot with like five seconds left. Sixteen seed grabs the rebound. Heads to the free throw line. Four point game. Five point game. This thing is over! Camera pans to the stunned faces in the crowd. People with their hands on top of their head, others covering their mouths in that prayer formation; standing next to people jumping up and down in pure joy. We’d have jaw dropped expressions next to smiling people taking selfies, next to plenty of crying fans on the wrong side of history. Everyone loves David vs. Goliath stories… except for the person wearing a Goliath t-shirt.
It will be one of those “where were you when” type of moments in sports. And it really was bound to happen; just like when the Red Sox won the World Series, or Cleveland ending their championship drought, or the Cubbies going all the way.
But, let’s not forget, before the UMBC Retrievers shocked the world, Number 16 seeds were a whopping 0-135. And, even now that it’s happened, picking a No. 16 seed remains a crazy move to make on your bracket. Those four 16 vs. 1 games are the only near guarantee on an otherwise chaotic bracket. Anyone who picks a No. 16 seed either did it for the mascot or their reasoning sounds like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
Before diving into how this all finally happened, let’s take a quick tour through the history books replaying the times when it almost did.
Has a 16 seed ever been close to winning? A decent amount of times actually. Here are a few of the most recent scares courtesy of Ian Wenik’s article on Newsday.
2014: Virginia over Coastal Carolina (70-59) – Coastal Carolina led at halftime and still had a lead with 8:34 to go.
2013: Kansas over Western Kentucky (64-57) – I remember this one all too well. Going into the half down 31-30. In the second half, you just kept waiting. Ok, now we’re going to open this thing up. Get it to ten points. Any time now. Aaaaany time now…
2012: Syracuse over UNC-Asheville (72-65) – The controversial call. Looked like the ball went off of Syracuse, and in today’s long video review process (#WichitaStateMarshall), with ultra 4K HD, it probably would have switched to UNC-Asheville. Had that been the case, the No. 16 seed would have had the ball, about 30 seconds left, down 66-63.
Go back a little bit further and another Jayhawks game comes to mind. 2002: Kansas vs. Holy Cross.
This one got really scary because Kirk Hinrich went down with an injury in the first half. KU would need to hold on for twenty minutes without their best guard.
I grew up in Michigan, and this was pre-TBS/TruTV/TNT, so I remember my Jayhawk family and I just sitting there, stressed out, watching that tiny little box score on CBS as they played some meaningless Big 10 game. Holy Cross took a 49-48 lead with about nine minutes to go. On a scale of calm to armpit sweat, my meter was running on high.
Thankfully, Roy Williams’ squad pulled away late, winning 70-59.
My memory of the NCAA Tournament only begins in 1997 so I had to jump into the vault for these ones. I went back before my time, back before the internet, to find the three closest No. 1 vs. No. 16 games. The result after reading these recaps: Man, I wish these games would have happened during the Twitter era. The internet would have been going crazy!
1996: Purdue over Western Carolina (73-71) – Wenik writes that “Western Carolina had a chance to tie or take the lead as time expired, but both Joel Flemming’s open three-pointer and Joe Stafford’s 15-footer hit the back of the rim.”
1990: Michigan State over Murray State (75-71, Overtime) – I can just picture that Buffalo Wild Wings commercial popping up on the screen at the end of regulation. We’ve got overtime babay. I’ll come back to this later on in the post, but part of the formula for beating a No. 1 seed is having one guy with NBA level talent. In this game, Murray State had a big man by the name of “Popeye Jones” who dropped 37 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. He went on to play in the NBA. Go ahead and Google his video game image, one of the funnier screenshots out there.
1989: Georgetown over Princeton (50-49) – This was the game people were referencing for the Kansas vs. Pennsylvania matchup. The Ivy League almost knocked down a giant nearly 30 years ago.
1989: Oklahoma over ETSU (72-71) – I am deeply saddened that I missed out on the 1989 NCAA tournament. Can you imagine having TWO No. 1 vs. 16 seed games, each decided by a point!? I was nervous when Kansas trailed Penn by 10 points early on, in this game Oklahoma was down by as many as 17 to ETSU. Must have been something in the water that year…
But we’ve been getting closer
Eight times, a No. 15 seed has taken down a No. 2. Half of those have happened in the last six years.
In 2012, Norfolk State had big man Kyle O’Quinn pulling a Popeye Jones (who thought you would read that sentence when you woke up this morning) with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Lehigh got 30 points from C.J. McCollum in their win over Duke. And Florida Gulf Coast played like an NBA All-Star game, throwing alley-oops over and over again in a win against Georgetown, followed by a win over San Diego State. It was the first time a No. 15 seed made it to the Sweet 16.
And then what I would say was the biggest tournament upset of all time took place in 2016 when Middle Tennessee State took down Michigan State. I pick this one because Michigan State was a really strong No. 2 seed. They had just won the Big 10 Tournament, Denzel Valentine was having an incredible senior season, and most of ESPN had picked the Spartans to win the whole thing.
This was the closest to a No. 16 over a 1, largely because Michigan State could have been the fourth No. 1 seed. And the selection committee was only a couple teams away from putting MTSU on the 16 line. Apologies to my co-host Chuck on the Medium Rare College Basketball podcast, and all the Spartans fans out there, but until we got a 16 over a 1, this stood out as the biggest first-round shock.
Kansas vs. Pennsylvania produced a whole lot of heartburn
I was Sean Miller sweaty about this one. I went into full Bill Self mode leading up to the game, agreeing when people said, “I dunno man, I dunno, Kansas might lose to Penn.” I’d over-praise the PENN squad. “Look, they’re a great team. Way underseeded. It’s gonna be rough.” And when KU was down 10 in the first half, Bill Self sends Udoka in, I’m sitting there thinking, “Wait, wasn’t Doke only supposed to be used in emergency situations? Have we already hit the panic button?”
I also didn’t want to write about this “Will a 16 seed ever beat a No. 1?” before the game, because when I sat down with the stats comparing Penn and Kansas, the whole thing kept becoming scarier and scarier. Add in a little bit of that “Kansas struggles in the tournament” perception, and I was headed for the Tums.
The KU vs. Penn game came very close to having the ideal formula for a No. 16 beating a 1. From that game, mixed with the games mentioned above, mixed with the unbelievable achievement by UMBC, I’ve created a 16-step formula for how it can someday happen again. And this is a practical list not a, “Hey, the starting five will all be out of action tonight with a collective case of diarrhea. FBI investigating the local taco shop.”
Now that the impossible has happened, now that 16 seeds are 1-135, let’s take it into the lab to examine. Could this all happen again?
Here are the 16 steps to beating a No. 1 seed.
And here’s where I put a frustrating ending. I’m using a cliffhanger AND a paywall combined together. This half + the rest I am compiling together and publishing as an ebook. It’s only going to be 99 cents, I really think you’ll enjoy the rest of how UMBC followed the formula for an upset, but also did things their own way. And who would have thought the first one would be a 20-pt beatdown.
Look for this ebook to be released by Tuesday of next week. And potentially re-published for when UMBC goes on to win the entire tournament 😉