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It’s the season of madness, a time of Cinderella and bracket-busting upsets, but over 32 years, the NCAA Tournament has yet to produce the biggest upset of all: A No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1, the equivalent of David toppling Goliath, the Miracle on Hardwood.
With this year’s tournament ending in Glendale, it’s appropriate to ask: Are we getting close?
Those within the sport disagree. Some say the gap between college basketball’s haves and have nots is closing. Others say it is growing. Some say the sport’s parity is its greatest strength. Others insist it’s a myth.
“I don’t see it happening,” said Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, who played on three Final Four teams at Duke. “The high end of the food chain is still very, very strong.”
With Selection Sunday here, familiar names are closing in on top seeds. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga on the top line. If they stay there, all four will be heavily favored over schools from conferences many have never heard of.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there have been close calls, but nothing more. Of 128 16-versus-1 matchups, only 15 have been decided by single digits. In 1989, Georgetown needed a last-second stop to beat Princeton 50-49. That same tournament, Oklahoma rallied from 15 down in the second half to beat East Tennessee State 72-71. The next year, Michigan State needed overtime to knock off Murray State 75-71.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas points out that all those games unfolded nearly three decades ago. Look at the recent matchups, he said. Few suggest the 16s are closing the gap. And in some ways, he’s right. Of the 15 single-digit outcomes, eight took place in the expanded tournament’s first six years. From 1991 to 2011, only three 16-1 matchups were decided by single digits.
“People take this the wrong way, but I think parity is the myth,” Bilas said. “It’s like Big Foot or a unicorn. … When the 16 seed first came in in ’85, the numbers were closer. We had 16-and-1 games going to overtime. We don’t have that stuff anymore.”
New Mexico State coach Paul Weir agrees.
“The parity is occurring between 50 and 200,” he said, referring to various rankings. “I don’t think the parity is occurring between 1 and 50. In fact, I think the parity is actually decreasing when it comes to the top five to 10 teams in the country. Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, Duke, they’re all getting better.”
Perhaps, but the the average victory margin in the 1-16 matchup actually dipped in recent seasons. In 2012, top-seeded Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse and North Carolina won opening-round games by an average of 15.75 points. In 2013, top seeds Louisville, Gonzaga, Kansas and Indiana won by 16.25. In 2014, Florida, Virginia, Arizona and Wichita State won by 14.75, the third-smallest margin between 16-and-1 seeds since 1985.
The margins the past two seasons ballooned (to 26.75 points in 2015 and to nearly 30 last year), but No. 15 Middle Tennessee upset No. 2 Michigan State in last season’s opening round. Entering the tournament, many considered the Spartans a top-line team.
Perhaps for that reason, Utah State coach Tim Duryea says the colossal upset will come, maybe within the next 10 years.
“There’s so much basketball talent in this country, and with kids coming from overseas and with prep schools and all kinds of things out there, I think one of these days there’s going to be enough talent on a 16th-seeded team and you’re going to get the perfect matchup,’’ he said. “Years ago, nobody ever thought a 3 would beat a 14 or a 2 would beat a 15, and slowly but surely, it’s kept creeping up the ladder.”
Since 1985, 21 No. 14 seeds have upset No. 3 seeds, including four in the past four tournaments. Over the same stretch, eight 15 seeds have shocked No. 2 seeds, four in the past five years.
Is No. 16 next?
“There’d have to be an alignment of the stars we haven’t seen yet, but it could happen,” UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said. “Anything could swing the pendulum so that the team is not truly a 16 seed. Or maybe the 1 seed isn’t necessarily a 1. Maybe they’re a 2 or a 3. It would definitely have to be a collection of anomalies for it to happen. I’d say it’s possible, but probably not probable.”
WIN $1,000 IN PRIZES: NCAA Tournament bracket contest
No. 1 vs. No. 16 — 128-0
No. 2 vs. No. 15 — 120-8
No. 3 vs. No. 14 — 107-21
No. 4 vs. No. 13 — 102-26
No. 5 vs. No. 12 — 82-46
Source: 2017 Men’s Final Four Records Book
What: The 68-team NCAA Tournament field will be announced
When: 2:30-4 p.m.
TV: Channel 5