So far, a 16-seed has never defeated a 1-seed; the above video, featuring Princeton losing by 1 to Georgetown, is essentially the closest it’s ever been for that line (the expansion to 64 teams was in 1985, FYI). Interestingly, also in the 1989 first round, Oklahoma almost bit it to East Tennessee State — they were trailing by 17 at one point! (Check out the graphics on this game too; looks like old-school Nintendo.)
That was 1989, though. I was eight. I’m 33 and utterly a wreck now, so has nothing happened in the 16-vs-1 world in the intervening 23 years or so? There have been a few close calls; last year Kansas and Gonzaga both only won by single digits in their 1-vs-16 game.
Meanwhile, there’s been seven 15-seed over 2-seed wins — three in the last couple of years, with Florida-Gulf Coast over Georgetown, Lehigh over Duke, and Norfolk State over Missouri — and 17 14-seeds beating 3-seeds, including Harvard over New Mexico last year (oddly, that loss got Steve Alford a better job, at UCLA). 13-seed over 4-seed has happened 25 times, with LaSalle over Kansas State happening just last year.
That 12-seed over 5-seed upset pick is super trendy; it’s happened 41 times. Last year, it happened in three of the four regions (Oregon over Oklahoma State, California over UNLV, and Ole Miss over Wisconsin). In 2009, it happened in 75 percent of regions too.
So, back to the main question: could a 16 ever beat a 1? It’s definitely unlikely — when something hasn’t happened at all since 1985, you tend to question whether it ever will — but the new format with the play-in games on Tuesday night and the first round games (er, second-round games) on Thursday/Friday could be helpful for a 16-seed. If you play Tuesday and your two best guys are hot and feeling it, maybe that carries over to Thursday/Friday — whereas the 1-seed hasn’t played since the previous Saturday/Sunday, depending on their conference tournament (a 1-seed may not have played in a week or so if they got bounced early in conference). Sometimes proximity to recent playing can help in hoops, so that could theoretically make a 16-over-1 possible someday. Usually, however, the talent gap is simply too wide.
If you look at that Princeton-Georgetown example, which is often held up as the shining “best case” for a 16-seed, consider Princeton’s offense — which is hella unique, for sure. About six years later, it allowed them to (a) keep the score down and (b) ultimately defeat UCLA, the defending national champions at the time:
So that’s the final piece of the puzzle: a 16-seed with a different offensive style that maybe the 1-seed has never seen. Thus, the litany of key factors would be:
(1) Played recently vs. layoff
(2) Different offensive style
(3) Solid defense
(4) Rust from the 1-seed
A perfect storm? No doubt. But I honestly think we will see this one day. This year? Perhaps not — although not everyone is sold on UVA and Coastal Carolina (their opponent) is 11th in the country in rebounding. You never know … I wouldn’t necessarily go take $50 hard-earned and throw it down on Coastal Carolina, but one of these days, a 16 should take down a 1. I do believe in that.