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Will a 16-seed ever beat a 1-seed?

Jack Fu's picture
March 13, 2014 at 10:01am

I kick this question around in my head every year around this time. Do you guys think it will ever happen? Why or why not?

The reason to think it will eventually happen is obvious: sample size. Basically, eventually, given enough trials, the stars will align and the unthinkable will happen. Also on this side of the ledger is the fact that, given the one-and-done rule (and the massive numbers of stud high school players who skipped college before that), the 1-seeds are generally weaker than they were in previous years.

On the other hand though, the 16-seeds are also generally weaker than before. About 25 years ago, in back-to-back seasons, we saw the three closest instances of 1-seed vs. 16-seed games: Georgetown beat Princeton 50-49 in 1989; Oklahoma beat East Tennessee State 72-71, also in 1989; and Murray State actually took top-seeded Michigan State to overtime before losing 89-85 in 1990. Here's the thing: there is no way in hell the champions of the Ivy League or the Ohio Valley Conference (a member of which ETSU was at the time, and Murray State still is) would be 16-seeds nowadays. Those teams are much more likely to be 12- or 13-seeds; hell, Murray State was a 6-seed just two seasons ago. Nowadays your 16-seeds are more likely to be bad teams from terrible mid-major conferences, like Long Island or Lamar, or terrible teams that managed to get hot for a few games and win their mediocre mid-major conference, like Western Kentucky (15-18 record in 2012) or Liberty (15-20 in 2013). The 16-seeds may actually be getting worse compared to their forebears than the 1-seeds are: in 2012 top-seeded Syracuse beat 16-seed UNC-Asheville by seven points; that seven-point margin represented the closest 1 vs. 16 game since 1996.

And that game highlights maybe the biggest reason I am pessimistic that a 16 will ever beat a 1: the monkey wrench that is the refs. I am of the opinion, and I think that game backs me up on this, that whenever a 16-seed is going down to the wire in a close game against a 1-seed, the officials will - consciously or not - pucker up and award basically every call in favor of the 1-seed. I don't know if they'll be imagining themselves being infamous for being the refs who worked the very first NCAA tournament upset of that caliber, worrying about being interrogated in some future "30 for 30" about such a monumental upset, or if it will be totally subconscious, but I think officials would be a gigantic stumbling block the 16-seed would have to get over.

I used to be of the opinion that, I mean, it's gotta happen eventually, right? As the seasons have passed, I'm really not sure anymore, and I get more pessimistic about it by the year. What say you, 11W commentariat?

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Mortc15's picture

I cannot see a scenario in which it happens either. With the 1-and-done rule in college basketball, the same handful of teams, on a general basis, get the top 20-30 players every single year. If players were made to stay 2-3 years like football, I could see a better chance of it happening because players wouldn't want to wait that year or two to be the star attraction at Kentucky or Kansas or similar and would spread out the stars to other schools but in today's game, I do not see it happening simply because the level of play is too great between those teams and because the tournament places such a big emphasis on who they give 1 seeds too, which are (almost) always very deserving teams, with an impressive resume.


TMac's picture

Ever is a very long time - eventually probably yes - but not anytime soon. 

16 seeds are automatic qualifiers and presently never one of the best 64 teams in the country. It would be tough enough for #s 61-64 to beat #s 1-4, but they are generally #100+ teams and severly outclassed. The stars would have to align so perfectly that it hasn't happened yet. 

ONE Not Done!

TMac's picture

your 16-seeds are more likely to be bad teams from terrible mid-major conferences

Sorry but a 14 seed is the lowest at large seed ever in the NCAA tourney

ONE Not Done!

Jack Fu's picture

I never said 16-seeds were at-larges.

TMac's picture

No, you said they were from Mid Majors which I think of as including the MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Conference USA, A10 and the like rather than the Sun Belt Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference, Northeast Conference, Colonial Athletic Association, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, or Big South where recent 16 seeds have come from. 

ONE Not Done!

alust2013's picture

I think it will happen once. There's no good reason it should, but 15 seeds winning seems to be reasonably common recently. All it takes is one game.

...and Michigan still sucks.

toad1204's picture

It will happen.  Gonzaga and Kansas' had closer than wanted games last year. 

Nothing like dancing on the field in 02... 

EvanstonBuckeye's picture

It will definitely happen. The number one seeds this year, especially, will be pretty watered-down or unproven (Wichita State). It's not impossible to imagine an upset when a team that's given the number one seed undeservedly or a 16 seed undeservedly get together.

+2 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I think it will happen.  You mention that 16 seeds are getting weaker (which I disagree with), but I'd argue that #1 seeds are as well.  This year we could see two #1 seeds from teams with sos of 44 (Villanova) and 105 (Wichita St.)    In addition to these two teams, another #1 seed has a conference sos of 97 (UF).  So it's possible that 3 of the 4 number one seeds will have played weak teams for at least half of their season.  So, it will happen, but it will need to be a perfect storm of a 16 seed playing a tough schedule, losing all close games and sneaking in against an overrated #1 seed, which we have at least one every year.  

Read my entire screen name....

buckeyestu's picture

It will happen, when? I do not know, but, I hope it is scum that is the number one seed who gets bounced by a 16 seed. Why? Just because scum is scum and scum is scummier each day. It is now 10:45 a.m., and scum sucks more than they did a minute ago.

+1 HS
1MechEng's picture

It can/will eventually happen, but not without some help IMHO.

Here's one plausible scenario ...

A couple of high profile players on the #1 seed team (after the brackets are decided) are suspended or dismissed for some sort of violation, leaving that particular team vulnerable. The media hype up this matchup with a "hot" 15-15 team from a small/mid-major that played its way into the field of 64, and start to promote the game as a possible upset watch. At a neutral site (or even across the country for the lowest #1), the crowd is now pro-underdog. The #1 seed falters with the backups, and the #16 continues its hot run, pulling off the upset.

Just sayin ... it's possible.  Not likely, but possible.

OSUStu's picture

Here is one scenario that could cause this to happen:  Imagine a 16 seed that has struggled relatively because of injuries getting their top one or even two players back right in time for the tourney.  Meanwhile, the 1 seed takes a devastating and demoralizing injury to their top player.  However, that 1 seed would have to be somewhat balanced and would have to have really been dominant not to lose the 1 seed.

If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.  ~ Bruce Lee

+1 HS
hodge's picture

As long as the tournament continues from here to eternity, every plausible outcome will eventually occur.  So the real question we have to ask ourselves is, will a sixteen seed beat a number-one seed before the tournament is abolished or changes to a new format?  Granted, even if the latter occurs, a tournament expansion will always allow for the possibility of a sixteen-vs.-one game, but if it's not a guaranteed game, the likelihood of the occurrence diminishes exponentially.

brylee's picture

It will eventually happen.  All it takes is for a couple of starters to have an off night, and add in some foul trouble.

FROMTHE18's picture

I think the way the tourney is nowadays, its near impossible for a 16 to beat a 1…with that said, it would take a 16 to shoot lights out and the 1 to have a ton of turnovers. Will it ever? Ill say yes, but It'll be a one in a million type scenario (break out the dumb and dumber meme). Hope it happens to Florida this year. 

OldColumbusTown's picture

One day - when a hot-shooting 16 seed meets a cold-shooting 1 seed, it will happen.  Heck, it could happen this year.  Mount St. Mary's or Eastern Kentucky are two teams that are in the 15-16 range, yet they are each in the top 100 (or in EKU's case, top 60) in offensive efficiency.  Let's say they play Villanova, who relies on the 3-ball going in.  If the low seed is hot, and the 1 seed is not, then it could definitely happen.  We've seen close calls even recently.  One of these times it will happen.

1MechEng's picture

I agree with your premise, but I think MSM or EKU will be higher than 16's. I would guess MSM will be a 13 or 14 ...

Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

100% chance it will happen and I will vote sooner rather then later. I could see a Kentucky team with 4 starting true freshmen being a 1 seed based on recruiting rankings and beating up on a terrible sec conference going down to a 16 with 4 starting seniors with ic water in their veins. It may take an injury to a center that was owning shit all year or a set of unaccounted for circumstances but it will happen within the next 5 years.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

Jack Fu's picture

FYI, the last two times Kentucky was a 1-seed they started 3 freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior, and they won their first three tournament games by an average score of 84-59 (2010); the other time they started 3 freshmen and 2 sophomores and they won the national title with none of their six tournament games decided by fewer than eight points, and none of their pre-Final Four games decided by fewer than 12 points (2012). Teams that get 1-seeds are really good, even when loaded with underclassmen.

Colerain 2004 G.O.A.T.'s picture

Oh I know teams that get 1 seeds are really good that is kind of the point right? When dealing with a high turnover ratio on your roster like Kentucky does I just feel they would be my pick to take the fall. Plus they get overrated at times just because of the name on their jersey and they play in a shitty conference were they can dominate at times and inflate their record. Sorry if you are a big Ky fan I was just using them as an example of a scenario. They also could be loaded like last year and miss the tournament entirely while winning the National Championship the year before. When you deal with a high percentage of freshmen on your roster emotions can play into a game a lot more making them more of a target in my honest opinion.

I speak the truth but I guess that's a foreign language to yall.~~Lil Wayne

luckynutz's picture

Kentucky has an overall SOS of 5 this year. As they do pretty more chance every year. Their non conference schedule is usually pretty wicked. Is the SEC down in basketball? Yes. But they dont exactly play a cupcake schedule. They schedule up...because thats what big time programs do in basketball. And for the most part, they play veteran squads early on with a bunch of young pups. And hold their own pretty well. So by march they have come together. I think you'd be more likely to see a 16 beat a 1 in a year like this year. Theres maybe 1(Florida) clear cut one. Yes, wichita state is going to be a 1. And is a veteran team...but have they even been tested this year? After those gets pretty murky as to which other 2 teams can lay claim to being worthy of that 1 seed. So you could, if you get the right 16, see it happen this year.

Jack Fu's picture

They also could be loaded like last year and miss the tournament entirely while winning the National Championship the year before. When you deal with a high percentage of freshmen on your roster emotions can play into a game a lot more making them more of a target in my honest opinion.

But that's the thing: when they had a lineup loaded with highly-recruited freshmen and they ended up not coming together and actually being that good, they not only weren't a 1-seed, they didn't even make the tournament. If a Kentucky team loaded with highly-touted freshmen gets slotted into a 1-seed by the committee, chances are they're really goddamned good.

Johnny-Shane_Utah-Falco's picture

I remember that UNC-Asheville/Syracuse game. UNC-A got robbed!

There were so many suspicious, late-game mystery calls given to Boe-slime & the Cuse.

ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

I waffle on this question a lot.  Personally, I think it will happen eventually.

On the one hand, those 16 seed teams would be the kind of teams that the 1 seeds would play in November and December as their traditional "cupcake" non-conference games.  The talent differential is so great that 9 times out of 10, the game will be a blowout.  Generally, the 16 seed would have to play out of their fucking minds, while the 1 seed would have to play terribly, for the idea of the upset to even be entertainable.

Then I see a game like Syracuse/UNC Asheville a couple of years ago, a game that UNC Asheville could've won had just a few things gone differently.  I see a 15 seed in Florida Gulf Coast that went to the Sweet 16 last year.  Are 15s really that much better than 16s?  They can't be that much better, can they?  And 1s aren't significantly better than 2s, either.  Didn't two 15-over-2 upsets happen that very same year that UNC Asheville came close to the ultimate 16-over-1 stunner?  Seeing that 2s losing to 15s have happened...and given that I don't think 1s are generally all that much better than 2s, and 15s generally aren't all that much better than could happen.  I think it's a once or twice in a century occurrence if it does happen.

Here's what I think it would take for that to happen:

The 16 would need to:
-Have an upperclassmen laden team
-Shoot the lights out of the building like they never have before, and only a few teams have (think OSU vs Wisconsin, Deal With It game - 14/15 from 3 - that type of shooting)
-Protect the basketball at an incredible level (very few turnovers, if any)
-Make all of the hustle plays
-Crash the glass on both ends
-Avoid foul trouble
-Be 100% healthy

The 1 would need to:
-Have a key player or two out for whatever reason
-Shoot horribly (I'm talking building a brick skyscraper, not just a brick house)
-Turn over the ball a ton
-Be completely lazy on any play that requires hustle
-Have key guys get into foul trouble
-Have somebody get pissed over something and get T'd up

Class of 2010.

Buckeye Chuck's picture

It could happen. It's nearly happened, and enough #2s have beaten #15s to lead me to believe it's only a matter of time.

I think it's going to take the combination of two related factors: a #1 seed that's been overrated because of a weak schedule, and a #16 that's been underrated because it hasn't beaten enough good teams to build up their RPI. An example would be the Cleveland State team that beat Indiana in the tournament in 1986 (a 14 beating a 3). That team was really good -- I think they only lost 3 games in the regular season. But they hadn't played anybody, so their computer ranking didn't reflect their actual level of ability.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

+2 HS
TheShookster's picture

I was hoping to see a reference to the Syracuse UNCA game last year. Everyone is biased when it comes to referees on any given night, but I think even Syracuse fans might tell you that Asheville got screwed last year.

He ain't even stretch doe!!

TheShookster's picture

Btw I worded that awfully, I should have said "I was glad to see a reference"

He ain't even stretch doe!!

The Rill Dill's picture

Can a small school (say, uh......Appalachian State), ever beat a huge school ( like, uh-----Michigan)?

I_Run_The_Dave's picture

This year, assuming these teams win their conferences, our 16 seeds will be among the following:

Vermont (110 RPI)
Davidson (134 RPI)
Robert Morris (137 RPI)
Weber State (168 RPI)
Southern (173 RPI)
Coastal Carolina (191 RPI)

If the teams above do not win their conferences, then lower RPI teams will fill in the 16 seeds.  I believe that we usually see 6 teams seeded 16th, the bottom 4 playing into the tournament on Tuesday.  So really, the highest RPI we might see in a 16 seed this year is a 110, and they'd presumably be playing against the 4th 1 seed and we'll estimate an RPI of 4.  Right now, that's Wichita State (although I would venture to say that they won't be the 4th #1 -- I'll go out on a limb and predict Louisville now).  Would Wichita State or Louisville lose to Vermont?  Is that even in the realm of possibility?  Maybe...  I could see Wichita State dropping that game to be quite honest, but not Louisville.  

Nicholas Jervey's picture

Sure. It's happened in women's basketball, where the talent disparity is much greater. Southern almost pulled it off against Gonzaga last year, and back in 1996 some Ivy League school missed a buzzer beater that would've won the game. Given that each 16 seed has had about a 1% chance of winning, it's got to happen eventually.

Ceci n'est pas une signature.

Seattle Linga's picture

We as adults may never see it but it will happen