Could karma be pointing to Pittsburgh and the CONSOL Energy Center this Thursday, when the Big South Champion UNC Asheville Bulldogs take on the top-ranked Syracuse Orangemen, now without star Fab Melo, out for the tournament because of academic reasons?
Bracketbusters beware, here are a few intangibles. As many fans know, no No. 16 has beaten a No. 1 seed in 108 tries dating to 1985, when the tournament was expanded to 64 teams. And no No. 16 seed has come within single digits of winning since 1997, when Fairfield lost to North Carolina, 82-74. The average margin of the four top seed vs. No. 16 games last year was 28.3 points.
Asheville goes into the game as the sixth-best 16-seed of all time according to the Sagarin ratings. Lamar University, which has to beat America East Champ Vermont on Wednesday in the First Four just to get a crack at Midwest leader UNC, is the best of all-time. The top No. 16s all-time based on his ratings: Southern (1985); Wright State (1993); Oral Roberts (2006); (tie) Lamar (2012) and Portland State (2008); East Tennessee State (2009); (tie) UNC-Asheville (2012) and Arkansas-Little Rock (1990). Interestingly, no mention of the '89 Princeton team that's most associated with the near-upset, taking powerhouse Georgetown to the brink that year.
Then you factor in some other little things. UNCA is back in the tournament for a second straight year, and gained some chops with a First Four victory last year over UALR before giving the University of Pittsburgh all it could handle in the first round matchup. The Bulldogs coach, Eddie Biedenbach, is a Pittsburgh native and one of the area's all-time great football and hoops players at Edgewood High School. Biedenbach still has plenty of friends in the area and his high school coach, Art Best, will be at the game on Thursday.
Which No. 16 will win or come closest to winning a first-rounder this year?
"It's exciting to be back home again, and I'm proud to bring our team back to Pittsburgh," said Biedenbach. "I haven't seen the CONSOL Energy Center yet (the arena is just two years old) but I'm looking forward to seeing it on Wednesday."
Then throw in that the Bulldogs wear an underdog brand, Crons (stands for Come Ready Or Never Start), which is one of only five apparel brands in the field and by far the smallest. Crons is on a run of its own, having found a school partner for four straight years in the tournament, a streak matched only by powerhouses adidas and Nike. Why is that significant? The company is based in Pittsburgh, and its CEO, Pat Cavanaugh, made a reputation for himself as a walk-on turned captain with some of the best Panthers teams of all time. Crons also brings some harmonic feelings because they are also the “Official Motivational Brand” on the building's primary tenant, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“We love all the way things have played out and are excited for UNC Asheville as they come to our city to take on Syracuse this week,” Cavanaugh said. “It is a great time of year and an exciting time for our company, we will see what happens.”
So if you are a believer in karma, intangibles and a little luck, maybe give the Bulldogs a little motivational luck on Thursday, and fill out a bracket buster with the Orange, never a team known for strong annual showings in The Dance, flaming out against an upstart. Madness is underway.