PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The NCAA tournament is famous for the little guys shocking the marquee powerhouses and turning into the darlings of March.
In every region, every year.
With one lopsided exception: No. 1 vs. No. 16.
When brackets are e-mailed to the office staff after the 65-team field is set, typing the “W” in that 1-16 matchup is about as automatic an annual occurrence as ringing in the New Year on Dec. 31. With good reason: The Washington Generals have better odds at victory over the Harlem Globetrotters than a No. 16 seed does over a No. 1.
That’s the career record for No. 1 seeds against 16th seeds since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Those unlucky 16s, sometimes schools you never heard of from small college towns across America, always think big even if they should pack light.
This year’s likely one-and-doners: Lehigh, East Tennessee State, Vermont and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Those four have a combined 17 tournament appearances. Top seeds Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke have a total of 14 — as in NCAA national championships. All but the Wildcats have won a title in the past 10 years.
Yet, the rallying cry from these small schools is the same every season:
Why Not Us?
Why not indeed? Because if there was ever a bracket where the 1-16 matchup might merit a little more study, perhaps it’s this one: Syracuse vs. Vermont. After all, this upset has happened before, only five tournaments ago.
In 2005, it was a 3-14 matchup.
Win on Friday, and the Catamounts would not only add to their lore as Orange squeezers, they’d pull off one of the monumental upsets in sports history.
“When I saw that name pop up, it fired me up a little bit,” said Andy Rautins, a fifth-year senior with the Orange who grew up in Syracuse. “I think everybody around Syracuse took that loss to heart. It’s definitely going to be a payback game.”
If the game is even tight at halftime — or especially in the waning minutes — that would be enough of a stunner. The No. 1s usually destroy and demoralize the 16s by halftime — and make CBS want to cut away to a more competitive game.
No No. 1 wants to become the answer to a trivia question.
“Yeah, it enters your mind. You don’t want to be the first school to lose to a 16 seed,” Kentucky guard John Wall said on Wednesday. “They could come out and hit a lot of shots and they might get the lead and feel confident. We’ve just got to go out and play basketball like we’ve been doing this whole season, and don’t overlook no team.”
Last year, top-seeded UConn beat Chattanooga 103-47 in the third-largest margin of victory ever in the NCAA tournament. But two other No. 1s — Louisville and Pittsburgh — won their games by 10 points.
Sometimes the underdog sneaks in some body blows and jabs that stumble the heavyweights.
An overwhelming underdog in its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2006, Albany led No. 1 Connecticut 50-38 about 8 1/2 minutes into the second half. The 21 1/2-point favorite Huskies were flustered in Philadelphia until, well, they remembered how top seeds are supposed to dominate and used a 20-4 run to snuff the Great Danes’ upset bid.
There have been other “can you believe this?” moments in the first two days of the tournament.
— 1989. East Regional. No. 1 Georgetown, 50, No. 16 Princeton 49.
Ivy League champion Princeton was considered so little of a threat that ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said before the game he would hitchhike to Providence, R.I., where the game was played, if the Tigers won.
“I’m going to be their ballboy on their next game, and then I’m going to change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform and I’m going to lead all the cheers. Let’s go Tigers! Let’s go Tigers! … Never happen,” Vitale said.
The Tigers led Alonzo Mourning and Big East power Georgetown for most of the second half and were only 3 minutes away from the shocker.
Mourning put the Hoyas ahead 50-49 lead with 23 seconds left and blocked a pair of shots late — including a controversial non-foul call — to hold on for the win.
“I knew how they played and I didn’t want to play against that system,” former coach John Thompson said on Wednesday.
Thompson, back in Providence to support his son, the coach of the third-seeded Hoyas, is always reminded of one of the most famous close calls in tournament history.
“I always tell them their claim to fame was that they almost beat us,” he said. “I heard Bobby Knight say this and it’s very, very true what Bobby said, the emphasis on seeding was never significant to me. I never went into the tournament being concerned about who was seeded against who.”
— 1990. Southeast Regional. No. 1 Michigan State 75, No. 16 Murray State 71, OT.
The Ohio Valley champion Racers pushed the Spartans in regulation and became the only No. 16 seed to lose in overtime.
“It was one of those situations where you think you’re going to go out there and have an easy game because you hadn’t heard of the school,” former MSU star and current assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said by phone Wednesday. “The game got tight and the longer we let them stick around, we got tighter. Luckily, Steve (Smith) made some baskets to get us out of the jam.”
Murray State’s Greg Coble sank a 3-pointer as time expired to send the game into OT. Murray State had future NBA player Popeye Jones — the kind of prospect most of the automatic losers don’t have on their roster. Jones had 37 points and 11 rebounds, one reason why they led 68-67 late in the game.
The Spartans were understandably nervous about being on the wrong end of history.
“Heck yeah. We didn’t want to be the first one to lose to a 16. It was bad enough we went to overtime,” Stephens said.
Mike Peplowski, another player from Michigan State’s team, was only thinking about pulling off the win.
“I was so young, I didn’t know the significance of what happened until much later,” said Peplowski, who was a redshirt freshman during the 1989-90 season. “Now, I can only imagine what it would be like to watch a game like that now as a fan, thinking, ‘Oh my God, a 16 might be a 1.’ It definitely almost happened to us.”
— 1996. West Regional. No. 1 Purdue, 73, Western Carolina 71.
Western Carolina, making its first trip to the tournament, had two chances to tie or win in the final seconds after Purdue’s Brad Miller missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11.6 seconds left.
Western Carolina point guard Joel Fleming then put up a high-arching 3-pointer that missed. But the rebound came out long and Catamount Joe Stafford grabbed it and fired up a running 15-footer that also missed as the buzzer sounded.
“I felt we could make history as the first number one seed to lose to a number 16. That’s the kind of history I make,” Purdue coach Gene Keady said after the game.