The NCAA I Men’s National Basketball Tournament has had at least 64 teams selected for 34 years now. The teams are put in four regions. In each region, there are 16 teams. Those teams are seeded from one to 16.
During the past 33 years, the 15 seeds have beaten the number 2 seeds eight times. Sadly, Missouri fans remember the 2012 game with Norfolk State. Hopes were high for the Tigers that year. They were favored by more than 20 points but trailed the whole game. The two-point loss was as close as they could get.
That means 94% of the time, the number 2 seed beats the number 15 seed. When it happens, it is a giant upset. The granddaddy of all upsets would be if the number 16 seed could beat the number 1 seed.
People were saying it would happen this year. Bill Self, the Kansas head coach, told anyone who would listen that his number one seed was only favored by 14 points. Coach Self claimed that was the smallest point spread in the history of the tournament for the one v 16 game. Many writers claimed that Penn was the best number 16 seed ever.
Going into this year, the number 16 seed was 0 – 132. After the Thursday first round, the record is now 0 – 134. Kansas did beat Penn and the final margin was 16 points. I knew I should have beat the farm on Kansas to cover.
Just five years ago, two teams came close. Weber State and Costal Carolina were number 16 seeds facing the number one seeded Arizona and Virginia. Both underdogs led at half. In the end, Arizona won 68-59 and Virginia prevailed 70-59.
Kansas actually has had two close calls as the number one seed. In 2013, Western Kentucky wasn’t supposed to cause the Jayhawks much distress. I hope you didn’t bet the farm on Kansas in 2013. They ended up winning 64 – 57 as the “Waves of Grain” could continue for another game.
In 2002, it was Holy Cross. I remember this so well because John Feinstein wrote about this game in one chapter in his book, A Season Inside. Holy Cross did not offer an athletic scholarship. Yet in the opening game of the 2002 tournament, Kansas was stumbling to the finish line. In the end, Kansas could take a deep sigh of relief with a 70 – 59 win.
There has been one overtime game in the one v 16 game. It occurred in 1990 when Michigan State survived a three-point field goal at the end of regulation to send the game with Murray State into overtime. Sparty ended with a 75 – 71 victory.
In 1996, Purdue squeaked out a 73 – 71 win over Western Carolina. However, it was 1989 where something must have been in the air. George Bush was inaugurated president, the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters, serial killer, Ted Bundy was executed, the World Series earthquake shook the baseball world and the Chinese activists made news with the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Three number one seeds had close calls in 1989. Illinois just squeaked by McNeese State 77 – 71 and Oklahoma held off Eastern Tennessee State 72 – 71. The greatest number 1 v number 16 was that same year when the mighty Georgetown Hoyas faced off against the co-Ivy League champ, Princeton.
What gave Princeton any chance was the type of offense employed by their coach, Pete Carril. Carril had made famous the “Princeton Offense.” In 1989, the rules had a 45 second shot clock. Very seldom did Carril’s Princeton team shoot in the first 30 seconds of the shot clock.
Opponents would chase the ball around until Princeton would get an easy backdoor bucket or pop out for a wide open 3-point field goal.
No one expected the Princeton offense to work against might Georgetown. Blessed with gifted athletes, the Hoyas went into the tournament ranked second in the nation. Their coach, John Thompson, was as imposing a figure as his team.
Thompson stood over a foot taller than Carril. There was a story about Thompson standing up to a DC drug lord who was getting too close to his players. It was said he was the only person to survive after giving out such a tongue lashing to the king of the DC underworld.
Thompson had inherited a 3 – 23 team. He had them in the NCAA tournament in just three years. Before he retired, Thompson’s team won 596 games and one national championship. Carril’s record was impressive, too. He had been to 11 NCAA tournaments and won a total of 514 games. Only he had done it without athletic scholarships against Ivy League competition.
The game was played at Princeton’s pace. As much as Georgetown wanted to speed up their out-matched Ivy League foes, the game ground to a half court game.
Princeton’s patience drove the Hoyas crazy. Their impatience showed and amazingly, the Tigers led 29 – 21 at half.
The Hoyas made little progression in the second half, but they didn’t succeed in speeding up Princeton. The score was tied at 49 when star freshman, Alonzo Mourning fouled with 23 seconds remaining. Mourning wasn’t a great free throw shooter, but he made the first of two.
Trailing 50 – 49, Princeton had 23 seconds to make history. It just wasn’t long enough to work the Princeton Offense into a good shot. With about 5 seconds left, a Princeton player shot a 3-pointer. Mourning blocked it out of bounds.
Now only one second remained. Princeton did get a shot from about 15 feet but Mourning blocked that one too. Georgetown had survived in the greatest one v 16 game ever played.
A few years later, Carril retired from Princeton. His 514th win was a first round win over UCLA. The final score was 43 – 41. Princeton was seeded 15th that year and UCLA second. Princeton was one of the 6% of the teams that have won this type of first round game. It is still considered the greatest upset in the NCAA Tournament, even if occurred in the first round.
Thompson went on to have a great coaching career at Georgetown. Carril wasn’t done coaching after the UCLA game. He spent 10 years as the Sacramento Kings assistant coach. He was in charge of the King’s offense proving the Princeton offense could work in the NBA, too.
It almost got him that historic win in 1989. Almost.