Mark Story: Will this be the year a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 28, 2013 

They are the Washington Generals of March Madness. Pity those poor No. 16 seeds.

As everyone who follows college basketball even remotely knows by rote, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to at least 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds are oh-for-eternity in matchups with No. 1 seeds.

The current count is 0-for-112 against top seeds for the poor 16s.

Yet amid a regular diet of jaw-dropping upsets in the 2012-13 college basketball season, the sentiment is growing that the NCAA Tournament will finally be sweet for the 16s.

"A 16 beating a 1 is not out of the question," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski told USA Today this week. "(College basketball) is so balanced, so balanced."

At least three teams thought to be in the running for No. 1 seeds in the 2013 NCAA tourney have losses to opponents whose power ratings are in the range of (or lower than) the teams that tend to earn 16 seeds.

A year ago, the four teams that made it into the bracket of 64 as 16 seeds had Pomeroy Ratings of 102 (Lamar), 120 (Vermont), 121 (UNC Asheville) and 191 (Western Kentucky).

Already this season, possible No. 1 seed Miami has a loss (albeit with a key player, big man Reggie Johnson, sidelined by injury) to No. 146 Florida Gulf Coast. Another potential No. 1, Michigan, fell Wednesday night to No. 152 Penn State.

The most inexplicable result of all came when Kansas, last season's NCAA Tournament runner-up and a strong contender this year for a top seed, somehow lost at No. 284 Texas Christian early last month.

If teams thought to be among the nation's elite can lose to TCU, Penn State and Florida Gulf Coast, goes the current thinking in the hoops world, who is to say a loss of similar magnitude will not happen in El Gran Baile?

A season ago, basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy wrote a blog post in which he proclaimed that 2012 would be the tournament where a No. 16 beat a No. 1. Pomeroy wrote then that the mathematical odds of a 16 seed besting a top seed were roughly the same as the odds of all four No. 1s making the Final Four.

In 2008, the latter happened.

Alas, 2012 did not yield the "Chaminade over Virginia" of NCAA Tournament games — but it came close.

After top seed Syracuse saw its starting center, Fab Melo, declared ineligible for the NCAA tourney, the Orange were very nearly crushed by No. 16 UNC Asheville. The underdog Bulldogs led at halftime, 34-30, becoming only the third No. 16 seed ever to lead a No. 1 at intermission.

Three times in the game's final 1:20, the Bulldogs pulled within three points, but they couldn't get over the hump and into hoops history, falling 72-65.

It was the first time that a No. 16 had played a No. 1 within single digits since 1997 (North Carolina 82, Fairfield 74).

Last year's tourney did supply significant evidence that the gap between the top of college basketball and the middle has decreased. Before 2012, No. 2 seeds were 47-1 against No. 15s in the 2000s, with the only such upset of this century in 2001, when Hampton stunned Iowa State.

Last season, however, the No. 15s hit the glory road. Norfolk State rocked Missouri; even more stunning, Lehigh ousted regal Duke.

Does all that suggest that 2013 really is the year when the futility for college basketball's ultimate underdogs finally ends?

According to the latest Bracketology from ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi, the teams projected as No. 16s in the 2013 tournament are not as highly rated (using Pomeroy again) as last season's 16s were.

Whereas last year, three of the four 16 seeds (in the bracket of 64) had Pomeroy ratings of 121 or higher, this season the highest rated of Lunardi's projected 16s (Mercer) has a 139.

So I don't think this year's top teams are as powerful as Kentucky, North Carolina (before the Kendall Marshall injury) or Syracuse (before Melo was ineligible) appeared to be in 2012, but I do think all the chatter that this is the year a No. 1 will lose to a 16 makes that outcome less likely.

Last season, before UK faced WKU, then-Wildcats point guard Marquis Teague was asked whether he and his teammates had thought about the sports infamy that awaited the first No. 1 seed ever beaten by a No. 16.

They had. "We don't want to be that team," Teague said.

Someday, a No. 16 will beat a No. 1. But there is an old proverb that says a watched pot never boils.

I suspect the same concept applies to a No. 16 besting a No. 1.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: Markstory.bloginky.com.

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