Year of the long shot?

If you’re like me, your favorite part of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament takes place early with a ton of first-round matchups. The prospect of the little guy (David) knocking off the big guy (Goliath) is what makes March Madness fun, almost as much fun as filling out the bracket sheets that make their way through offices all over the country. Almost, I said.

There has never been a 16th-seeded team that has won a single NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game. Not since the tournament expanded from 32 to 64 teams in 1985. That’s a long time in basketball circles.

There have been a few close calls, especially in 1989 when Princeton nearly knocked off Georgetown and Eastern Tennessee State fell to Oklahoma. Each game was decided by one point. Either of those potential upsets would have been “a game for the ages” if the underdogs had managed just one more basket or a couple more free throws. Make no mistake, though, whenever a 16th seed topples a 1 seed, it automatically becomes a game for the ages. And it’s bound to happen. Eventually.

These days there are an additional four teams involved in the tournament, all of whom will compete in the “First Four” or, essentially, play-in games. They get underway tonight and tomorrow in Dayton, Ohio. The winners will join the other 60 teams for the traditional first round of the tournament, which begins Friday.

The odds against a 16 beating a 1 are long indeed. But unlike 1985, there are six 16s in this “Big Dance,” not four. The likelihood of the unthinkable happening increased just by getting two more shots at the big prize.

Also, following a general trend in sports, this is the era of parity in college basketball. Long gone are the days when John Wooden’s UCLA program could recruit 12 of the top 20 players in the nation, knowing that the Bruins’ bench players were better than many of the starting fives they would face in the regular season.

In the old days, a Swen Nater could back-up Bill Walton for three seasons and still become a first-round draft pick in the NBA without ever playing a meaningful minute of Division I basketball. These days, the only way someone gets to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft without contributing to a college team is by going straight from high school to the pros. But that’s a story for another day.

Finally, there’s the theory that says a team that has one game under its belt has an advantage over another team that may need a few moments to shed the rust of not playing in almost a week or lose the jitters that can accompany a game in this spotlight.

I’d give that last point more credence if the college game was 20 minutes shorter than the 40 minutes it is. More talented teams who may struggle early usually figure it out sometime in the second half.

But let’s get down to it. Is there a 16 in this tournament capable of pulling off the upset of Cinderella proportions?

My answer is … yes.

Of the eight teams competing in the “First Four,” there are four 16s, a couple of 14s and a pair of 12s. Of the four 16s, no one gives any of them much of a chance. Not Western Kentucky or Mississippi Valley. Not Lamar or Vermont.

That leaves UNC-Asheville and LIU Brooklyn.

Other than Kentucky or Syracuse, clearly the strongest two teams in the regular season, everyone is vulnerable in this tournament. Unfortunately for UNC-Asheville, it is Syracuse that awaits them.

LIU-Brooklyn gained a more fortunate draw, however. They will face Michigan State on Saturday. This Brooklyn bunch hopes that different styles make for a good fight, or in this case increases their potential to pull off the upset.

The Blackbirds play a high-octane, up-tempo game that averaged almost 82 points per outing this season, ranking third in the country in offense. They’ve been there before, as a 15th seed last year, and they’ve got a bit of a chip on their shoulder this time around, believing they’re better than a year ago and deserved no less than a 15 from this year’s selection committee.

Standing in their way are the Michigan State Spartans and their legendary coach, Tom Izzo.

I’d feel better about LIU-Brooklyn’s chances if Izzo wasn’t on the other sideline, but at coach Jim Ferry asks, “Why not us?”

I agree. Why not LIU-Brooklyn? It’s bound to happen someday. Why not now?

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4 thoughts on “Year of the long shot?

    • School says he’s ineligible. He missed three games earlier this year with academic issues, but no one’s saying what this one is about. UNC-Ashville’s chances just improved, but I still don’t think it’s enough for a first-round stunner. But you could be in trouble if you had Syracuse going to the Final Four.

  1. wow.

    i wonder what the Vegas odds are on the Blackbirds winning?

    Western Kentucky (Derrick Gordon) and Kentucky (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) both have a freshman from St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth.

    I wish i knew all the other NJ Alumni that were playing in the Tournament (hint?)

    • I think LIU-Brooklyn is 2,000-1 to win the whole thing, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I would like them to win just one game, that would make a great story!

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