You probably know that the biggest possible upset in the NCAA Tournament has almost happened. A different bounce, better luck, a different spin of the roulette wheel, really, and we would all think of East Tennessee State and Western Carolina the way we do Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack and the Bryce Drew play.
Maybe you remember 1989. This was four years after the tournament expanded to 64 teams. No. 1 seed Oklahoma was coached by Billy Tubbs and had Stacey King but trailed by as many as 17 in the second half and survived a potential game-winner at the buzzer against 16th-seeded East Tennessee State. That same year, top-seeded Georgetown needed Alonzo Mourning to block a last-second shot that preserved a one-point win over Princeton.
The next year, Murray State took Michigan State into overtime. In 1996, Western Carolina missed two shots on the last possession of a two-point loss to Purdue. That’s as close as we’ve come to seeing college basketball’s ultimate upset.
This kind of history has never been more likely to happen than this week.
Upsets happen every year in college basketball, of course, but think of a few specifics from this season: Penn State over Michigan, South Florida over Georgetown, and, yes, TCU over Kansas.
Using various metrics, includingKen Pomeroy and College Basketball Reference
’s Simple Rating System, those upsets are comparable to a 16 seed beating a 1. According to Pomeroy, TCU is worse than all six 16 seeds. South Florida and Penn State are slightly worse than Southern, and slightly better than Western Kentucky and James Madison.
Nobody is confusing any of this year’s 16 seeds for a powerhouse, but using Pomeroy’s metrics, it is one of the more balanced groups in recent history.
A 16 seed beating a 1 is the bomb that hasn’t yet detonated, and if you talk to college basketball obsessives — coaches, analysts, stat guys, whoever — you will hear surprise that it hasn’t. In a college basketball season dominated by talk of parity and shocking upsets, this year might be the best chance it does.
It’s fairly well accepted that men’s basketball has more parity than the women’s game, but No. 16 Harvard beat top-seeded Stanford in the 1998 women’s tournament.
Why couldn’t it happen in the men’s game?
No. 16 seeds are winless in 112 games, but depending on how you do the math, the statistical probability of any particular upset is between 1 and 2 percent. Using those calculations, we should’ve already seen a 16 topple a 1. Last year, Syracuse beat North Carolina-Asheville by seven. Michigan State was the only top seed to win its first game by 20.
Big-name coaches from Bill Self to Mike Krzyzewski have called this the most wide-open tournament in memory. At one point this season, the country’s top-ranked team lost four weeks in a row.
Nobody with knowledge of the game expected anyone to beat Kentucky last year, especially after North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall went out because of an injury. This year, there isn’t even a consensus favorite.
Overall No. 1 Louisville, like Kansas, lost three straight conference games. Gonzaga is 31-2 but played the nation’s 112th-ranked schedule and, aside from St. Mary’s, hasn’t faced a team in the tournament field since beating Oklahoma State on Dec. 31. Indiana won the brutal Big Ten outright but lost three of its last six games (each to teams in the field) and came within a tantalizing roll around the rim of a fourth loss against Michigan.
There is every reason for fans of each team to expect to win, of course. They will be heavy favorites, with all the future pros. Pushing the top seeds to at least the second round is the first thing a lot of us do when filling out our brackets.
But trends and people within the sport indicate one of those picks will be wrong soon. Maybe even this week.