Why was the Weber State basketball team cheering last Sunday?
Gathered with their fans and coaches in the Dee Events Center to watch the televised announcement of the NCAA tournament invitations, they cheered wildly when it was announced that they had been officially invited to the tournament. Maybe in the excitement they missed the fine print of the arrangement:
The Wildcats were assigned the No. 16 seed, and, as such, they will play the No. 1 seed, Arizona. They cheered and smiled as if they had just won the lottery, and this was the part that was confusing.
They just got a death sentence and they’re happy?
Hooray, we get to be annihilated and sent home early!
Of course they were pleased by the invitation itself, but that was a mere formality — they already knew it came automatically when they won the Big Sky Conference postseason tournament. The devil was in the details.
“It’s all because they got to see their name on TV, and it’s March Madness and the excitement of it all,” says coach Randy Rahe. “They could have put up there that we were playing Timbuktu and we would have been excited.”
But Timbuktu probably wouldn’t put you on the next plane home.
As virtually every basketball aficionado knows, a No. 16 seed is a one-and-done proposition. The beginning and the end. A 16th-seeded team has never won a game in the NCAA basketball tournament since it was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The won-loss record for No. 16 seeds is, oh, let’s see, ZERO and ONE HUNDRED SIXTEEN.
Adam Sandler has a better shot at winning an Oscar.
The matchup between the No. 16 and No. 1 seed has been 100 percent upset free.
“I knew that,” says Rahe. “Every year the brackets come out, it’s one of the first things they talk about. It grows every year when (an upset) doesn’t happen.”
There might not be a more daunting position in sports. What are the odds of a No. 16 seed NEVER breaking through? Most of the 16-vs.-1 matchups have been blowouts, but there have been several close calls:
1985 — Michigan 59, Fairleigh Dickinson 55. FDU pushed Michigan to the limit and led by six at halftime. The Knights held the lead until the final 4½ minutes, despite having four players foul out of the game.
1986 — Duke 85, Mississippi Valley State 78. MVS led by 11 at halftime.
1989 — Oklahoma 72, East Tennessee St 71. ETSU led by 17 points in the first half and by five with less than four minutes to go and didn’t give up the lead for the first time until the final minute.
1989 — Georgetown 50, Princeton 49. Princeton had two shots to win in the final eight seconds. Both shots were blocked.
1990 — Michigan State 75, Murray State 71. The outcome was decided in overtime.
1996 — Purdue 73, Western Carolina 71. WCU had two shots to win or tie in the final seconds.
1997 — North Carolina 82, Fairfield 74. Fairfield, which won only 11 games all season, led by seven at halftime and was tied with 7:22 remaining.
In each of these games, the underdogs wilted down the stretch after taking an early lead. “That’s what happens in those situations,” says Rahe. “The 16th seed is pretty excited and the No. 1 seed is thinking they’re OK, and then they don’t come out and play the way they need to and the other team runs out to a lead. But as the game wears on the quality of the players takes over.”
Did we mention that Arizona is 30-4 and ranked No. 4 nationally? They defeated Utah 71-39 in the Pac-12 tournament and Colorado 63-43.
A No. 15 seed has upset a No. 2 seed seven times, including three times in the last two years. In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast ran past Georgetown. Santa Clara beat Arizona 64-61 in 1993 and Hampton beat Iowa State 58-57 in 2001 to name a few others.
After so many games, and after so many near misses, it seems certain that a No. 16 seed will break through, but year after year they fail.
“That’s what I told my guys,” says Rahe. “Eventually, it’s gonna happen some time. It’s not going to go on forever. Why not us? Let’s dream big and swing as hard as we can.”
The Wildcats actually have done just that. In 1999, 14th-seeded Weber State played third-seeded North Carolina and won 76-74. It is frequently included on lists of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
“You never know,” says Rahe.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org