Update: Louisville easily defeated North Carolina A&T but Gonzaga struggled against Southern. Indiana plays James Madison on Friday afternoon and Kansas plays Western Kentucky Friday night.
College basketball fans in and around Louisville have a rare interest in the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament’s most durable conventional wisdom—No. 16 seeds do not, cannot, will not defeat a No. 1 seed. But some argue that increasing parity in men’s college basketball means that a No. 16 seed will eventually win.
“A 1-seed laying that sort of colossal egg has got to happen at some point. Right?” wrote Fox Sports Reid Forgrave earlier this month.
But the top seed would have to play awfully and the underdog would have to play spectacularly—but that can happen, Forgrave continues.
This may be the worry for two teams with fans in Louisville—and a point of hope for one. The Louisville Cardinals and the Indiana Hoosiers are No. 1 seeds. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers a No. 16 seed. The No. 1 seed-No. 16 matchup has happened 112 times since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 (now 68) teams. No. 1 seeds are 112-0.
But what are the odds of that enduring forever?
Last month, Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story also raised the prospects by noting that several top teams in 2013 have dismal losses.
The most inexplicable result of all came when Kansas, last season’s NCAA Tournament runner-up and a strong contender this year for a top seed, somehow lost at No. 284 Texas Christian early last month. If teams thought to be among the nation’s elite can lose to TCU, Penn State and Florida Gulf Coast, goes the current thinking in the hoops world, who is to say a loss of similar magnitude will not happen in El Gran Baile?”
Kansas, now a No. 1 seed, plays the Hilltoppers in Kansas City at 9:50 p.m. Friday.
Let’s consider those RPI rankings—a metric the NCAA uses to determine tournament participation and seeding. WKU’s ranks No. 149; Kansas ranks No. 5.
Louisville’s RPI ranking is No. 3; the Cardinals’ opponent at 6:50 this evening, North Carolina A&T, is ranked No. 213. The Hoosiers are ranked No. 7; their opponent at 4:10 p.m. Friday is James Madison, which is ranked No. 182.
Kansas has that awful loss to a team with a worse RPI than WKU. Louisville’s worst loss by RPI is to No. 52 Villanova and Indiana’s is to No. 40 Illinois.
That should give a boost of confidence to U of L, IU and WKU fans.
Nate Silver, the New York Times statistics guru, concurs that U of L and IU are very—very—likely to win their first games tonight and Friday night, respectively.
Below are Silver’s likelihood of Louisville, Indiana and WKU’s likelihood of winning the first round game:
Western Kentucky 1.8%
The oddmakers? They heavily prefer the favorites.
Louisville favored by 26
Indiana favored by 20
Kansas favored by 20
Gonzaga favored by 22
Stats-keeper Ken Pomeroy has historically been more bullish on the prospects of a No. 16 seed winning a game. Last year, he suggested that it’s likelier than ever—and then all No. 1 seeds won. (I’ve sent him a message asking what he thinks the prospects are this year; I’ll update if he responds.)
“If you run the numbers, the chances of all of the one-seeds getting to the Final Four are typically roughly equivalent to one of the top-seeds losing in the first round,” Pomeroy wrote in a 2012 blog post that Story points to in his column.
“Yet somehow history has betrayed the odds. “
No. 16 seeds have twice come within a point of beating No. 1 seeds—both times in 1989.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, six No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds. It happened twice last year—Lehigh over Duke and Norfolk State over Missouri.
Is this a sign that unheralded teams are encroaching into the once-impenetrable world of top-tier teams?
“I do think it’s going to happen at some point,” James Madison head coach Matt Brady told USA Today. “I don’t know if we have quite enough scoring to try to make it happen, but we’re going to try.”