Time is Ripe for a 16-Seed to Beat a 1-Seed

It is February 19th and Selection Sunday is on March 11th. There are a couple of weeks left in the college basketball regular season before the conference tournaments begin and no one has a clue who the top four seeds will be. Virginia is the default #1 this week only because they are the only two-loss team left. Michigan State and Villanova are the only three-loss teams left.

We are four total losses away from having zero teams under four losses. That would be the second time that’s happened in the last three years after never occurring before in the history of college basketball.

Everyone knows that a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. 1-seeds are a staggering 128-0 all-time vs. 16-seeds since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Eight 15-seeds have beaten 2-seeds. Twenty-one 14 seeds have beaten 3-seeds.

But alas, the great white whale of college basketball has yet to be slain. Fear of being that first team to crap the bed in front of the entire country is a powerful motivator. But is time running out?

College basketball is changing. When I was a junior political science student at Georgia Southern, I read The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. The book was about how technology and free trade was making the world more connected and thus, leveling the playing field.

Correspondingly, you are just as likely to meet a friend from India or Romania online as you are to meet someone down the street, probably more so. Friedman has published two more editions of his ’05 book but has yet to include a chapter or even a paragraph about basketball. For shame!

Let me explain…

Coaches at mid-majors, DII, DIII, NAIA, at the AAU level, or even overseas have greater access to information about how to become a better coach than ever before. The proliferation of analytics over the past decade has taught us all the importance of the 3-point shot and good defense above all else. Butler came within an inch of winning a national title in 2010 over Duke. The next Brad Stevens or Gregg Marshall could be coaching a 16-seed this year (*ahem* Pat Kelsey *ahem*) and we just haven’t discovered him yet.

A player no longer has to play at Duke and Kentucky to become nationally known. Ever since Steph Curry led little ole’ Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008, college basketball has changed. One of the top three most recognizable athletes in the world came from a small private college a half-hour north of Charlotte. Butler can get guys like Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack to play there. CJ McCollum came from Lehigh, yes LEHIGH. I’m pretty sure Giannis Antetokounmpo is an alien that fell off the Monstars spaceship.

I’m going to dub this the Steph Curry Effect. Talent is everywhere. Basketball blue-bloods no longer have a monopoly on success. Therefore, anything can happen.

Social media, and especially YouTube, has made it simple for a kid from a small school to become an overnight sensation. Recruits have picked up on that. Why should they share the ball and playing time at the Kansas’s or UNC’s of the world when they could be the star at a Davidson or Weber State or Mid-Major team X, and still make it to the league like Curry or Lillard? That line of thinking has flatten the playing field in college basketball. But it isn’t the only factor.

  • The First Four play-in games give a pair of 16-seeds a chance to sustain momentum, confidence, and keeps them fresh.
  • Parity has made it more difficult to properly seed these teams. 2-seed Michigan State lost to 15-seed MTSU last year. Michigan State could have easily been a 1-seed, and Middle Tennessee was clearly under-seeded. Consequently, a less polarized field makes it more likely that another seeding error occurs. The selection committee is made up of humans after all, and humans make mistakes.
  • The three-point shot is the ultimate field-leveler. A squad with a good offense, which likes to run, like Winthrop, Florida Gulf Coast, Bucknell, Nicholls State, or Rider can catch fire from beyond the arch and blitzkrieg an overconfident 1-seed into submission.
  • The group of potential 16-seed I’m about to list below play challenging schedules. That’s how they fund their athletic departments. They have no choice, just like in football. Savannah State has played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. The Tigers did not have much success, but at the same time, they are battle-tested. They aren’t going to be intimidated by anyone they face, despite the talent disadvantage.
  • Since the one-and-done rule was introduced, the college basketball aristocracy has leaned on super-talented freshmen more and more. Even Coach K snags guys like Kyrie Irving and Marvin Bagley Jr. these days. In contrast, mid-majors rarely produces a guy that has the luxury of declaring for the NBA Draft early. That is especially true of potential 16-seeds. They have rosters full of guys that have played four years together and have a chemistry that the big schools just cannot manufacture in five months.
  • What if Auburn, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, or Xavier are named 1-seeds? Can anybody truly say with a straight face that they trust any of those teams with a 1-seed? Heck, you can’t even trust Mr. March himself, Tom Izzo, anymore after last year.

So who could do it? Which potential 16-seed has the potential to shake up the world? Good question. I used ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’s Jerry Palm as a reference point and found out that there could be several flies in the proverbial ointment.

  • Winthrop: 18-9 overall, 12-4 in the Big South, 13th in PPG, 10 tournament appearances since 1999, beat Notre Dame in the 1st round in ’07, Coach Pat Kelsey 118-68 at Winthrop.
  • UNC-Asheville: 19-10 overall/12-4 in the Big South, 45th toughest SOS OOC, Nick McDevitt is 95-61 at UNC-Asheville, 73-30 in the last three seasons. Small schools from North Carolina know how to play basketball, trust me.
  • Penn: 19-7 overall, 9-1 in the Ivy League, tough defensive team, twentieth-winningest CBB program of all-time, 25 Ivy League championships, 23 NCAA tournament appearances, made the Final Four in 1979, five Sweet Sixteen trips. Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have pulled off memorable NCAA tournament upsets in the recent past. Big game vs. Harvard on Feb 24.
  • Savannah State: Toughest out-of-conference strength of schedule in the country, 9 game win streak until losing to Norfolk State Saturday. 5th in best offense in the country. Coach Horace Broadnax was PG for Georgetown from 1983-86, played on that famous 1985 Georgetown team that was upset by Villanova in the title game.
  • Charleston: 21-6 overall/12-3 in the CAA. Even though CofC hasn’t made the tournament since 1999, they’ve always had a good basketball program. 57th in points allowed per game, 10 wins in a row in the CAA, 13-0 at home. CAA has pulled off big upsets in the past, member George Mason and VCU? I member.
  • UC-Santa Barbara: 20-6 overall/9-3 in the Big West, 91 RPI, 76 Out of Conference RPI, Joe Pasternack is a Sean Miller disciple.
  • Florida Gulf Coast: 20-10 overall/11-2 in the Atlantic Sun, everyone remembers Dunk City, 44th in PPG, they like to run and dunk, nothing has changed. No 1-seed wants to play them.
  • Bucknell: 20-9 overall/14-2 in the Patriot League, 86 RPI, 42nd in PPG, beat 3-seed Kansas in ’05 and 8-seed Arkansas in ’06.
  • Wagner: 20-7 overall/14-2 in the Northeast Conference, 109 RPI, 97 non-conference RPI, 70th in defense, does anyone really want to play a tough New York City basketball team with a good PG in the first round? Thought so.
  • Nicholls State: 18-9 overall/12-2 in the Southland, 19th in PPG, 16th toughest SOS OOC. Battle tested, likes to run.
  • Rider: 21-7 overall/14-2 in the MAAC, 32nd in PPG. 62 RPI, 55 OOC RPI. Beat Penn State on December 22nd.

Have your bookie on standby. A 16-seed is going to do it sooner rather than later. You’re going to get great odds on it no matter what. Will it happen this year? Hard to say. But it feels like we’re inching closer to it.

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