March is a month in which just about anything can and does happen — well, anything other than a No. 16 beating a No. 1 seed, that is.
One-hundred and twenty 16-seeded dreamers have taken cracks at No. 1 seeds since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. A fifth berth for 16 seeds was added in 2001, with a sixth added in 2011.
This year’s Davids hoping to lob one between a Goliath’s eyes are Coastal Carolina, Lafayette, Hampton and North Florida and Robert Morris, the latter two of which face off in Wednesday’s First Four.
March Madness is short-lived for those programs that draw the No. 16 seed. Winning a conference championship is the culmination of a season’s worth of efforts, and the appearance on the CBS Selection Sunday show is the apex of celebration.
A national championship is as unlikely as it gets for these teams. However, just getting one win would be enough to etch any of these teams into college basketball lore forever.
Though it’s never happened, it’s not impossible. A few ingredients are necessary, though — one of which, Hampton head coach Edward Joyner joked Tuesday via ASAPSports.com, might be intervention from a higher power.
“I told you all I had Jesus on speed dial,” Joyner joked with a cell phone against his ear, becoming an instant NCAA Tournament viral sensation. “Hey, Jesus, first of all, you can’t play so I ain’t worried about you being hot. They want to know how much of a mountain and what our odds are. Hello? Hello?”
Alright, so a deity may not want any part of trying to beat a No. 1 — particularly the undefeated Kentucky bunch that faces Hampton in the Round of 64. But there are other paths to upset that previous No. 16 seeds have come oh-so-close to completing.
Western Carolina took Purdue to the brink in 1996, losing 73-71 when a buzzer-beating 3-point attempt fell just short. In 2013, Gonzaga got all it could handle from Southern in a 64-58 decision.
This year’s dreamers can take advice from those almost-history-makers.
Talking to the Columbus Dispatch in 2011, current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta described prepping Western Carolina for its encounter with Purdue. Matta was an assistant for the Catamounts in 1996.
“They were a No.1 seed, but they had a couple of chinks in their armor. They weren’t a great shooting team,” he said.
Western Carolina’s zone exploited that weakness. Likewise, Southern forced Gonzaga into a game played “above the rim,” as Javan Mitchell described it, better suited to the Jags’ strength than the Zags’.
Finding a weakness and going after it relentlessly — like the rock between Goliath’s eyes or the arrow through Achilles’ heel — is essential.
Just as vital is avoiding an early deluge. The first eight minutes of the first half and the stretch following the half’s final media timeout are when dreams of upset start unraveling for heavy underdogs.
Enduring early onslaught turns up the pressure on the favorites. And there’s already inherent pressure with a No. 1 seed, as no top team wants to wear that proverbial scarlet letter as the first to lose to a No. 16.
“You get in this 1/16 game, I’ve watched ’em before on TV and momentum can really get on their side,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said in 2013.
Momentum begets confidence, and confidence fuels belief.
“Coming into the game we thought we was going to make history,” Southern’s Jameel Grace said in the postgame press conference. “No one comes into a game expecting to lose. We always expected to come into the game and win.”
While not consciously expecting to lose, having the fortitude to not be overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment is key.
Take Albany, which is in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season. This year, Albany landed a No. 14 seed and Round of 64 date with Oklahoma.
Last season, the Great Danes had to play their way into a No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchup, but they parlayed their First Four victory into a knock-down, drag-out contest with overall No. 1 seed, Florida.
“Our program has been in these situations,” Albany head coach Will Brown said via ASAPSports.com. “I mentioned ’06 against UConn. Last year…in the first round, we played Duke. I thought with a healthy Ryan Kelly they were the No.1 team in the country.”
Like Albany last year, there’s big-time experience among this crop of 16-seeds. Coastal Carolina played Virginia to a 70-59 finish last season, and the Chanticleers will try their hand with Wisconsin this year. The last time Robert Morris played in the postseason, it shocked Kentucky in the 2013 NIT.
And speaking of Kentucky, Hampton star Quinton Chievous knows what to expect as a former SEC counterpart to the Wildcats, playing at Tennessee previously.
“He can talk to the guys about how to understand the moment,” Joyner said Tuesday. “That’s the one thing that made me nervous tonight. Not the fact that I didn’t think that we could compete with Manhattan. I didn’t know that we would be able to understand the moment. And for the last four, five ball games they’ve understood each night what we needed to do to win. Now, to beat Kentucky, I don’t know that even Quinton understands that moment is enough but we’ll definitely find out.”