March Madness Underdogs Likely To Underwhelm

When it comes to the NCAA basketball tournament, everybody loves an upset. A 12th-ranked team will beat a No. 5 seed, for example. But the big upset - a 16th-seed beating a No. 1 - has never happened.

The NCAA men's college basketball tournament starts Thursday. As always, March Madness promises unpredictability and wild upsets. Davids in high-tops taking down Goliaths in high-tops. In reality, over the past 25 years, tournament games with the most potential to stun the basketball world haven't.

Hoping For Upsets

One versus 16. Say those words to any upset-loving hoops fan, and it should trigger palpitations. The first-seeded team playing against the 16th-seeded team has been a first-week tradition in the men's tournament since 1985. That's when the field expanded to 64 teams divided into four regions of 16 teams for the opening round. In each of those four regions, the best team begins by playing the worst team: 1 vs. 16. Cue the palpitations, which came in waves in 1989.

Round 1 of the 1989 tournament matched the top-seeded Georgetown Hoyas against the 16th-seeded Princeton Tigers in the East region. The Hoyas were favored by 20-plus points. But with one second left in the game, and trailing by a point, Princeton in-bounded the ball.

Although Princeton fans insist to this day that their player was fouled on the final shot, and should have had two potentially game-winning free throws, the contest went into the record books as a Georgetown win. That 1989 tournament also had two other incredibly close victories by 1s over 16s. The future for upsets and palpitations looked bright. But 21 years later, basketball fans are still looking.

No. 1 seeds have played No. 16 seeds 100 times, and the 16s — the underdogs of underdogs — have never won.

"There have actually only been 11 games between 1 and 16 in which the spread was under 10 points," says veteran basketball writer Bill Brill.

Brill has gone to every NCAA men's tournament since 1962. No. 16-over-No. 1 upsets have not happened, he says, mainly because of improvements by the selection committee, which picks the tournament teams and seeds them.

"Since they've gotten all this statistical and technological material, and they've got all the games on TV, and they get to see them all, they do a much better job of seeding than they used to," Brill says.

The Underdogs

He says that means not only the top seeds but also the bottom seeds are deserving. Sixteens don't have as many talented players. They're from weaker conferences, and their deficiencies stand out much more against the best teams where most of the best talent collects — especially the so-called one-and-done players, who are required to play a year of college ball on their way to the NBA.

The Lehigh Mountain Hawks from Pennsylvania are a No. 16 seed facing a tough task Thursday night. They play No. 1 Kansas, considered the best team in the country. Lehigh is coached by 37-year-old Brett Reed, who holds a Ph.D. in instructional technology, which he says he uses to help improve his team's performance — a good skill for a good coach who is unfazed by the bleak history of 16s against 1s.

"Why not us?" Reed says. "And why not now? We have the character. We have the talent. And it is March Madness. If the results were predetermined, there wouldn't be a reason to play the game.

That's true. But 0 for 100? Tough odds, Coach. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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