College Basketball’s Bernie Sanders Season
Perhaps if Alonzo Mourning’s arm hadn’t gotten in the way, we wouldn’t be talking about this. Perhaps it would have happened five more times since then, the psychological floodgates having been broken down, the barrier having been shattered by what would have been arguably one of the biggest upsets in American sports history.
But instead, 27 years have passed since Princeton nearly beat Georgetown in a game that permanently impacted the balance of power in college basketball, and it still has yet to occur: The record of 16 seeds against 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament stands at 0-124. It is the Great White Whale of American sports. It is also a streak has to end someday, and this year seems like as a good a time as any for it to occur.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the college basketball season up to this point, here is what you need to know: No one knows anything. The field is utterly wide open. There is no definitive top team, and every team that has ascended to the No. 1 ranking so far has managed to lose a game that has led people to wonder whether they were worthy of that No. 1 ranking in the first place. Kansas, the current No. 1, has won 10 straight games but may not even be the best team in the Big 12 Conference; Villanova, the previous No. 1, fell to Xavier; Xavier, a potential No. 1, followed up that victory with a loss to Seton Hall.
It is readily conceivable that any of the teams in statistical wizard Ken Pomeroy’s top 40 – hell, maybe even beyond that – could land in the Final Four. And maybe this is an anomaly, in a season defined by the presence of upperclassmen talent rather than one-and-done phenoms, but at least up to now, it has been the kind of year college basketball needed in order to restore its reputation. Multiple rule changes and a 30-second shot clock have rendered the game cleaner and more interesting, and now that the conference tournament season is near, there is good reason to believe that college basketball will be as chaotic and unpredictable as it has ever been.
Which is why this at least feels like the year that 16 versus 1 streak should end.
It’s not that there haven’t been close calls in the past. The same year Mourning blocked a shot by Princeton’s Bob Scrabis to essentially seal Georgetown’s 50-49 victory, Oklahoma fought back from a 17-point first half deficit to defeat East Tennessee State, 72-71. Fifteen times a 16 versus 1 has been decided by single digits, including Gonzaga’s 64-58 survival of Southern in 2014. Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990; Western Carolina missed a potential game-winner against Purdue in 1996.
All it takes, then, is one more shot to break down that wall; given the increasingly democratizing presence of the 3-pointer, it is easier and easier to imagine that shot going in. All it takes is for one team, or even one player, to hit on a hot streak, and the 16 versus 1 dynamic changes forever. Once that happens, the NCAA tournament becomes the full-on socialist paradise that we’ve always dreamed it to be. Already, college basketball is our Bernie Sanders, the mid-majors creeping up on the major conferences to the point that no one is surprised when Wichita State and Xavier and Valparaiso become regular power players. There is only one thing left for college basketball, then, and in a year that feels like a rebirth, it would be the ultimate culmination: A 16 beating a 1, finally.
“I think it can happen anytime,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN a couple of years ago. “Really, it’s just a matter of time.”
And this feels like as good a time as any.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb
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