As records being made to be broken go, the four-minute mile largely proved to be a psychological barrier after Sir Roger Bannister burst through it in 1954.
Conversely, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 figures never to be broken.
Nestled somewhere in between extremes is one surely within the grasp of human capacity but that has proved impregnable entering the 32nd year since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket.
However much is mental, however much physical, it’s ultimately the same year after year after year: When top-seeded Kansas takes on No. 16 seed Austin Peay in their first-round game Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, the Jayhawks will be seeking to extend the 124-0 history that comes with that lofty perch.
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Despite all the talk of parity, the fact that the 23 combined losses owned by the four No. 1 seeds is the most ever (the top seeds had nine last year) and upheaval through The Associated Press top 10 all year …
The reality is that any such madness appears to be just something for a vague someday down the road — particularly so when it comes to KU’s game.
Same as it’s ever been.
In fact, the prospects never were more ripe late in a game than they were four times from 1989-1996 — including “The Game That Saved March Madness,” as Sean Gregory and Alexander Wolff wrote in their wonderful piece on the 25th anniversary.
Before 16th-seeded Princeton took on top-seeded Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA Tournament, Tigers coach Pete Carril assessed their glimmer of hope thusly:
“I think we’re a billion-to-one to win the whole tournament,” he said. “To beat Georgetown, we’re only 450 million to one.”
But the Hoyas only were able to salvage a 50-49 win with two late blocked shots by Alonzo Mourning, the second of which came in the final second and was believed by some to be a foul.
Afterward Carril would tell his team, “As bad as you feel, feeling this bad is better than never getting a chance to feel this bad.”
Piercing as it might have been for Princeton, the game served higher causes and fed the imagination that still percolates even as it’s never been realized.
A day after top-seeded Oklahoma had been fortunate to fend off No. 16 East Tennessee State 72-71, Georgetown-Princeton revitalized a flagging argument for continued inclusion of perceived also-ran conferences.
It also was eloquent testimony to a broadening appeal that meant CBS by the end of the year would sign with the NCAA a seven-year, $1 billion deal to carry the tournament.
“You talk about games that grew the tournament, or even grew college basketball,” said Kansas associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, then the NCAA director of communications.
Marchiony likened it to such groundbreaking moments as Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird meeting in the 1979 Final Four.
It established a fundamental dynamic of the tournament’s allure: the prospect of upsets.
“The game convinced you we’re not far off from a 16 beating a one,” he said, smiling and adding, “And how many years later, we’re still saying the same thing.”
As wild and unpredictable as the tournament might have come to be seen, true chaos remains cordoned off by the rule that has known no exception.
“That’s what I’m thinking of,” Austin Peay’s Kenny Jones said. “I’m trying to beat impossible.”
Inevitable as it might seem, there is little reason to think it’s imminent.
It’s the last frontier of a tournament that has hatched seven first-round upsets of No. 2 seeds, enabled three double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four and many other upsets that make you think anything can happen.
But it hasn’t played out that way, despite scholarship reductions and the one-and-done phenomenon that generally have been thought to create more parity. That hasn’t happened, despite 15 of the matchups ending in single-digit deficits and nine featuring the No. 16 seed leading at halftime — as Holy Cross did against KU in 2002 and Western Kentucky did against the Jayhawks in 2013.
Not that this will provide a cautionary tale for KU coach Bill Self, whose team ultimately won 64-57.
“I hadn’t even thought of that; that will never be brought up,” he said as he walked through a hallway of Wells Fargo Arena.
The point wasn’t denial or arrogance so much as the obvious:
He wants his team to just play.
Meanwhile, the burden of proof, and burden overall, is on the cuddly No. 16 seeds, toothless unless and until they show otherwise.
Because even with the expansion to 68 teams that theoretically enhances the bottom four, the disparity between the very best and the teams that just make it in remains pronounced.
Case in point:
As KU was romping to its 12th straight Big 12 title and winning its conference tournament, Austin Peay was 12-17 before rallying to qualify for the Ohio Valley Tournament … in which it won four games in four days with escapes that included a rally from 19 points down and an overtime win enabled by a disallowed tip-in at the horn.
As the first No. 8 seed to win the OVC Tournament, the Governors are proclaiming themselves charmed ... and hoping to extend the mojo.
“It’s going to happen eventually,” leading scorer Chris Horton said, “so why not now?”
The why nots are abundant, though, starting with the eye test and the pedigrees and sheer experience against quality opponents that distinguish KU and Austin Peay.
Why it would be now is the better question.
So is what it might take — a perfect storm that might be seen in the common denominators from past close calls including the two 1989 games; Michigan State being taken to overtime by Murray State in 1990 before prevailing 75-71; Purdue squeaking past Western Carolina 73-71 in 1996; and Albany in 2006 leading Connecticut 50-38 only to lose 72-59.
Study those games, and the composite picture starts with the top seeds either demonstrating early or outright saying that they took their opponents for granted.
Meanwhile, the underdog was as motivated as the top seed wasn’t, and generally had the poise to not turn the ball over, take time to find the right shots, make three-pointers and free throws and turn a sterile neutral-site crowd its way.
But in the final minutes, the favorite has managed to reach back for something extra without losing its composure, while the less deep 16-seed either wearies or rattles as it realizes what it’s doing.
And that, of course, is just the formula for the near-miss — a record made to be broken, but no more to be expected soon than it was 27 years ago.
Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian