We always get more traffic this weekend during the year than any other time of year. Mainly because fans are looking for information on the upcoming tournament or the bracket about to be released. As the tournament has grown, and as seasons have gone by there are only a limited amount of things that can happen that haven't happened.
Although we have not had a midmajor win a title, given VCU's, Butler's and George Mason's recent runs to the Final Four, really those schools have broken a sort of glass ceiling. Among the limited number of things that could happen which would make everyone take notice would be one of our five "darling" schools making the tournament (see list to the right) -- Northwestern (13-19, 11th in the Big 10), The Citadel (8-22, 5th in the SoCon), Army (16-15, a narrow loss to eventual Patriot Champ Bucknell in the Patriot Tournament, but still not enough), St. Francis of New York (12-18, 8th in the NEC), and William and Mary (13-17, 8th in the CAA). Again, these five have been fielding programs since 1948, yet none of them has ever been to the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern, likely limited by academic requirements in a rigorous power conference, just fired head coach Bill Carmody. I'm not sure what Northwestern can do to compete in the Big 10. I would love for Ken Pomeroy to analyze this on a per possession basis with some sort of recommendation. Arguably, the head coaching position at Northwestern is the most challenging position in major college basketball. Army and The Citadel, are limited by military restrictions. William and Mary and St. Francis or New York, limited by ? At any rate, none of these five will again be in the field which has now expanded to 68 teams. So we can keep these events for next year.
The second thing that could happen that would merit attention in the modern game would be the 16 seed over a 1 seed in the first round. As the years have gone by, this seemingly probable event, I would argue has gotten more difficult to achieve. Let's look at the history.
Prior to 1985, there were only 48 teams in the tournament. (Arguably, there were 'opening round' games similar to the play in game we now have, so the 1984 field actually featured 53 teams).
Nonetheless, the top seeded teams essentially received a bye into the second round. For example, in 1984, top seeds Kentucky, Georgetown, North Carolina, and DePaul were already in the round of 32. This meant that for Morehead State, North Carolina A & T, Princeton, San Diego, Richmond, Rider, Northeastern, Long Island, Alcorn State or Houston Baptist to win the tournament they had to win seven games while any of the top 16 teams (1 through 4 seeds) only had to win five games.
So in 1985, the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, making every team have to win six games to win the tournament. This created the first year of the 16 seed vs. the 1 seed. That year there were only 285 teams at the Division I level. One might argue that given the limited number of scholarships available it was more likely that a 16 would beat a 1. Or at least this factor would work toward the 16 seed's advantage and perhaps this is partially responsible for the results which are analyzed below.
So there have been 28 tournaments or 112 match ups featuring a 1 seed against a 16 seed since the advent of the 64 or present day 68 team field. The closest match ups all occurred when there were fewer total number of teams playing division I basketball and when there was a 45 second shot clock with the exception of one game. The closest were:
1. (1) Michigan State 79 (16) Murray State 71 (overtime) -- 1990 1st Round -- At the time we didn't realize the magnitude of this game. The Ohio Valley regular season and tournament champions were clearly under seeded but Michigan State entered the game with 6 losses and 3 non conference losses. Murray State featured future NBA star Popeye Jones -- he scored 37 points in this game and grabbed 11 rebounds. Jones played in the NBA for 11 seasons. Additionally, Murray State's tradition and history made them a questionable 16 seed (See Link: Murray State at Mylosingseason.net). A common theme of the 16's that almost pulled the upset is an NBA caliber talent having a big night. You won't often find a 16 seed with a future NBA player much less a future NBA star like Murray State had in Jones.
2. (1) Oklahoma 72 (16) East Tennessee State 71 -- 1989 1st Round -- East Tennessee was hugely under seeded this was the start of a four year run of upsets by the Buccaneers as Les Robinson assembled a team that would later beat Arizona, Wake Forest, Tennessee, Memphis and N.C. State. ETSU also featured a future NBA star in diminutive point guard-- Keith "Mister" Jennings and an NBA caliber center in Greg Dennis who was picked up by the Atlanta Hawks.
3. (1) Georgetown 50 (16) Princeton 49 -- 1989 1st Round -- Probably the most famous of the 16's vs. the 1's because of Pete Carril's legendary offense. Princeton entered the game as 23 point underdogs, but they also led the nation in defense that season. Georgetown entered ranked #2 in the country. Largely, a game dictated by Princeton's tempo in the 45 second shot clock era.
4. (1) Purdue 73 (16) Western Carolina 71 -- 1996 1st Round -- A game that doesn't receive the recognition of any of the above, but should because it is the exception that falls outside of the 45 second shot clock era. WCU had two looks at shots in the closing seconds to win or tie. Ohio State's Thad Matta was an assistant at Western Carolina. Anquell McCollum (NBA talent) was a three time Southern Conference player of the year entering what would be his final game he scored 21 points in this game. He is currently an assistant coach for the Catamounts. Also, WCU featured the nation's leading three point percentage shooter in Joe Stafford who hit three three pointers in this game, but missed a shot at the end that would have tied the game. Finally, there was a sense that Purdue was the weakest of the four number one seeds entering the tournament. (See Link: New York Times on the Western Carolina near upset of Purdue)
5. (1) Michigan 59 (16) Farleigh Dickinson 55 -- 1985 1st Round -- A game dictated by Farleigh Dickinson's ability to control the tempo before the NCAA had even instituted a shot clock. Essentially, Farliegh Dickinson may have had the actual best chance at winning given the rules of the game had not been changed and no team had even played as a 16 seed prior to them. Given the complete lack of a shot clock, the 1985 tournament was easily the best opportunity for any 16 seed to beat a 1 seed.
6. (1) Illinois 77 (16) McNeese State 71 -- 1989 1st Round -- Michael Cutwright scored 27 points for the Cowboys, he was a second round draft choice of the Denver Nuggets. Again, an NBA talent on an obscure team that had a huge night.
7. (1) Oklahoma 77 (16) Towson 68 -- 1990 1st Round -- Towson entered the game a 27 point underdog. Kurk Lee of Towson scored 30 points he also spent one year in the NBA. Again an NBA talent with a huge night in the 45 second shot clock era.
8. (1) North Carolina 82 (16) Fairfield 74 -- 1997 1st Round -- Fairfield led at halftime after making 6 of 11 three point attempts. The Stags entered the game with a losing record (11-18). Maybe the most unexplainable of any of the eight games in the list.
Most of these games were decades ago. Why do 1989 and 1990 appear so frequently? There were 287 schools playing division I basketball in 1989. 1990 featured another of our near upsets and there were 292 that year. Secondly, the 45 second shot clock had not been around for very long. Teams seemed to change the way they played in the tournament and it was more difficult for the one seed to adapt.
More importantly, was clearly the advent of the shot clock. The 45 second shot clock was first introduced in 1986. In 1994, it dropped to 35 seconds. Increasing the number of possessions and ultimately the number of shot attempts, placing a premium on teams getting shots quicker. Essentially, forcing the less talented teams to settle for field goal attempts they would not have tried only a couple of seasons earlier often by players other than their "NBA Talented player", we have noted those players where appropriate above.
The Common Themes:
There was a window during the 1986 to 1993 period where the 45 second shot clock clearly allowed 16 seeds a better opportunity at controlling the tempo of the game and I would argue allowing their NBA type players (Lee at Towson, Cutwright at McNeese State, McCollum at Western Carolina, and Jennings at ETSU) longer opportunities for their teams to find or create shot opportunities for them or for them to find shot opportunities for teammates. Essentially, this allowed these teams better opportunities. This era gave us six of the closest opportunities for a 16 seed to beat a 1 seed. I would also point out that McNeese State, East Tennessee, Western Carolina and Murray State were southern schools -- their athleticism playing a factor in keeping them in the games.
The increase to 68 teams likely gives a slightly better chance at a 16 beating a 1 than three years ago as now two of the 16 seeds will have won a play in game just to get the opportunity to play a 1 seed. Meaning (1) they are better because they won one more game and (2) they have had an opportunity to play before having to play into the tournament field and perhaps giving them fewer "jitters" in their second game.
What to Look For:
Yet, the shot clock issue is still controlling factor in the modern tournament making it more difficult for the 16 seed to upend a 1 seed. To summarize, when the brackets are released the following factors appear to be necessary for a 16 seed to beat a 1 seed and even then it's a long shot:
1. An NBA caliber player
2. A weak 1 seed. The 1996 (35 second shot clock and still out best sample) near win by WCU was as much about Purdue as it was WCU.
3. An obscure southern or city school (see Towson in 1990) with athleticism.