Clock strikes midnight quickly for 16th seeds
By DAN GELSTON
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The NCAA tournament is famous for the little guys shocking the marquee powerhouses and turning into the darlings of March.
In every region, every year.
With one lopsided exception: No. 1 vs. No. 16.
When brackets are e-mailed to the office staff after the 65-team field is set, typing the "W" in that 1-16 matchup is about as automatic an annual occurrence as ringing in the New Year on Dec. 31. With good reason: The Washington Generals have better odds at victory over the Harlem Globetrotters than a No. 16 seed does over a No. 1.
That's the career record for No. 1 seeds against 16th seeds since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Yet those unlucky 16s, sometimes schools you never heard of from small college towns across America, always think big even if they should pack light.
This year's likely one-and-doners: Lehigh, East Tennessee State, Vermont and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Those four have a combined 17 tournament appearances. Top seeds Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke have a total of 14 — as in NCAA national championships. All but the Wildcats have won a title in the past 10 years.
If there was ever a bracket where the 1-16 matchup might merit a little more study, perhaps it's this one: Syracuse vs. Vermont. After all, this upset has happened before, only five tournaments ago.
In 2005, it was a 3-14 matchup.
Win tomorrow, and the Catamounts would not only add to their lore as Orange squeezers, they'd pull off one of the monumental upsets in sports history.
"I think everybody around Syracuse took that loss to heart," said Andy Rautins, a fifth-year senior with the Orange who grew up in Syracuse. "It's definitely going to be a payback game."
Eastern Tennessee State was also a No. 16 last season when it threatened Pittsburgh. Coach Murry Bartow said the near-miss helped his team gain confidence and makes them believe they can finish the job this season.
"I think the mental part of it is big, that, 'Hey, we can win this game if we do these things well,' " he said.
Sometimes the underdog sneaks in some body blows and jabs that stumble the heavyweights.
An overwhelming underdog in its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2006, Albany led No. 1 Connecticut 50-38 about 8 1/2 minutes into the second half. The Huskies were flustered in Philadelphia until they remembered how top seeds are supposed to dominate and used a 20-4 run to snuff the Great Danes' upset bid.
There have been other "can you believe this?" moments in the first two days of the tournament.
• 1989. East Regional. No. 1 Georgetown, 50, No. 16 Princeton 49.
Ivy League champion Princeton was considered so little of a threat that ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said before the game he would hitchhike to Providence, R.I., where the game was played, if the Tigers won.
• 1990. Southeast Regional. No. 1 Michigan State 75, No. 16 Murray State 71, OT.
The Ohio Valley champion Racers pushed the Spartans in regulation and became the only No. 16 seed to lose in overtime.
• 1996. West Regional. No. 1 Purdue, 73, Western Carolina 71.
Western Carolina point guard Joel Fleming put up a high-arching 3-pointer that missed in the waning seconds. But the rebound came out long and Catamount Joe Stafford grabbed it and fired up a running 15-footer that also missed as the buzzer sounded.