NCAA Tournament Handicapping: Can No. 16 Beat No. 1?
by Nicholas Tolomeo - 3/21/2013
The popular thing to say last year was that 2012 was finally going to be the year a No. 16 seed would beat a No. 1 seed. Alas, the predictions did not come true. No. 1 seeds improved to 112-0 against No. 16 seeds, quite possibly the most consistent trend in the history of sports.
The discussion of a potential major upset last year had more to do with the strength of the No. 16 seeds as opposed to a perceived weakness of the No. 1 seeds.
Teams like LIU Brooklyn, UNC-Asheville and Vermont were proven tournament teams who had legitimate shots.
Talk of a No. 16 seed finally doing the unthinkable has been around for years. In 1990, No. 16 Murray State became the first and only ever No. 16 seed to take a No. 1 seed to overtime. They ultimately lost to No. 1 Michigan State by four points. In 1989 a pair of No. 16 seeds both lost by a point, East Tennessee State and Princeton lost to Oklahoma and Georgetown. In 1996, No. 16 Western Carolina lost to No. 1 Purdue by two points.
This year any talk of a potential No. 1 losing centers on the lack of elite top seeds. No. 1 Gonzaga is from the West Coast Conference and arguably the weakest No. 1 seed since St. Joseph’s in 2004. The other No. 1 seeds, Kansas (29-5), Louisville (29-5) and Indiana (27-6) have all lost at least five games and have all had questionable losses.
Over the past six tournaments, No. 1 seeds have been favored by an average of 22.34 points per game. Not only are they undefeated all the time, but in the last six tournaments they are also 16-8 ATS. Last year the spreads were historically low with only Western Kentucky at +26.5 versus Kentucky a total longshot. LIU Brooklyn was +18.5 versus Michigan State, Vermont was +16 against North Carolina and UNC-Asheville was +15.5 against Syracuse.
A No. 1 seed did not lose in the Round of 64 last year, but there was an even bigger upset. No. 2 Missouri lost as a 21-point favorite to No. 15 Norfolk State in the biggest point spread upset in NCAA Tournament history. It was the sixth time a No. 15 seed won a tournament game, so a huge deal was not made of it. However, by measure of point spread it was just as shocking as a No. 16 beating a No. 1. So there is precedent, and not just last year.
In 2001 No. 15 Hampton beat Iowa State as a 17.5-point favorite, in 1997 No. 15 Coppin State beat South Carolina as an 18.5-point favorite, and in 1993 No. 15 Santa Clara beat Arizona as a 19.5-point favorite.
This season Kansas, one of the No. 1 seeds, lost at home to TCU as an 18-point favorite. That was not even the biggest upset of the year. Back in November Cal Poly won at UCLA as an 18.5-point underdog.
But you have to remember, the season is very long and these are rare examples. The NCAA Tournament is a different animal; there are neutral courts and there are plenty of days of rest in between games.
Since the 2006-07 season when Duquesne won as a 20.5-point underdog at Boston College, there have been only 10 other underdogs of at least 20 points or more to have won a game, and only Norfolk State did it in the NCAA Tournament. Some notable ones include Gardner-Webb winning as a 26-point underdog at Kentucky in 2007 and Yale winning as a 20-point underdog at Boston College in 2010.
Will a No. 1 seed ever lose to a No. 16 seed? The odds say yes, eventually. Will it be this year? The odds say no.
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