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

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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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