The Incredible Upset That Has Never Happened

Greg CouchFeatured Columnist IIIApril 2, 2017

What Bob Scrabis seems to remember most was the finality: "My career is over. I'm done now." The opportunity was gone, missed.

That, and he needed to get going on his senior thesis.

Who knew that despite losing that day, 50-49 in the first round of the NCAA tournament to No. 1 seed Georgetown, Scrabis and his 16th-seeded Princeton basketball team had just changed the tournament forever, saved it from its own leaders and turned it into maybe the greatest sporting event in the country? Who knew that 27 years later, that game wouldn't offer any finality whatsoever?

"At least my efforts still allow a 16 to dream," he said this week, laughing. "The Underdog Almost Makes It. It's almost more romantic when the underdog comes real close and fails, isn't it?"

All these years later, and the real underdog in college basketball, the No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, has never been able to actually do it, to beat a No. 1 seed. That's four No. 16s losing every year—one in each of the tournament's regions—since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Closest 16-1 Games in Tourney History
1989Georgetown 50, Princeton 491
1989Oklahoma 72, ETSU 711
1996Purdue 73, Western Carolina 712
1990Michigan St. 75, Murray St. 714
1985Michigan 59, Fairleigh Dickinson 554
Washington Post

Going into the tournament this week, No. 16 is now 0-124 against No. 1, according to a Washington Post database of tournament games. It might be the last upset that has never happened in sports.

We've seen pretty much everything else, right? Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Team USA beat Russia in hockey. The Florida Marlins won the World Series—twice. The Kings won the Stanley Cup as an No. 8 seed. The Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl as a wild card. The New York Mets, the New York Jets…

Tiger Woods in his prime lost the PGA Championship to some guy named Y.E. Yang. Roger Federer lost in the second round at Wimbledon to someone named Sergiy Stakhovsky.

It happens. But not in the men's NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, the No. 1 is better than the No. 16. But never? Never is a long time. No. 2 seeds are far better than No. 15s, too, but 15s have won seven times. No. 3 seeds are better than No. 14s, but 14s have won 20 times.

A No. 1 has never choked in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A No. 1 has never been overwhelmed by injuries. A No. 16 has never risen in the occasion to play the game of its life.

"I guess that the separation between No. 1 and No. 2 is so great, it's unreal," said Hampton University head coach Buck Joyner. "Or maybe it shows that the difference between a 15 and 16 is so great, it's unreal. Every player on a 16 seed believes he can win the game. But what you have to do is play your A game and do it 10 times better than that."

Joyner has led Hampton to the NCAA tournament three times. Each time, the Pirates have been a No. 16 seed, including this year. They play No. 1 Virginia.

"In these types of games, you want to make the No. 1 seed think about losing," Joyner said. "If they think about losing, then you have a shot."

There is something magical about never. In track and field, you see marks that seem impossible to beat, and then once someone does it, everyone seems to do it. The four-minute mile. The high jump. The pole vault. It happens in every event.

So it's not only an incredible physical feat, but also a mental one. That's what Joyner was talking about: getting into the head of the No. 1.

"We scored first, so that gave us a boost," said Wayne Wilson, longtime head coach of the Rochester Institute of Technology hockey team. Last year, RIT became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in the NCAA hockey tournament, beating Minnesota State Mankato.

It was particularly amazing, considering that RIT plays in a lower level, Division III, in its other sports. As a result, it doesn't give out hockey scholarships. Yet it beat the No. 1 team in the country. It overcame the 16-1 barrier that had never been overcome before in that sport.

What was the magic formula?

"We're still pretty new to Division I, so I don't think there's a whole lot of respect for us," Wilson said. "There isn't a lot of time to prepare, so maybe sometimes being the unknown is better than being the known. I think we can sneak up on people. I don't know if we snuck up on Minnesota State, though. They hadn't won an NCAA game, and I know they were eager to put themselves on the map.

"I also think we had gone through a number of top teams. We played Minnesota in their tournament, and it went to overtime. Lowell. Yale. So we said we'd kind of already played the best teams in the country and we hadn't been run out of the building.

"When we play our nonconference schedule, it's very important to play these teams. Hockey is a little different than basketball that way. RIT can play a Big Ten team."

Wilson said that while he has had a few players leave school early for the NHL, RIT players tend to stick around for four years. So RIT has stability and players who are experienced in the system.

But there are a few things that made his big win a little less amazing than, say, if Hampton were to beat Virginia. First off, there are just 16 teams in the NCAA hockey tournament, meaning RIT was the 16th best team in the field. Hampton, at best, is the 61st best.

Also, Minnesota State is not a traditional hockey power, and RIT reached the Frozen Four as a No. 15 seed just five years earlier. So intimidation should not have been an issue.

Scrabis and Princeton weren't so lucky in 1989 when they had to play Georgetown. The Hoyas were ranked No. 2 overall and were led by Alonzo Mourning. After seeing the brackets, Princeton coach Pete Carril started having his team practice five-on-six to get used to the Hoyas' defense.

At the time, college basketball was undergoing a moment similar to what college football is going through today: The NCAA tournament was growing, and the major conferences wanted to find a way to ace the smaller conferences out of their share of the money.

Meanwhile, the small-conference teams were getting crushed in the tournament. So the discussion was over whether the NCAA should stop giving small-conference champions an automatic invitation to the tournament.

Georgetown-Princeton was on prime time, and CBS wasn't going to pre-empt its regular shows. So ESPN chose to show the game. Here's what Dick Vitale said on-air before the game:

"If Princeton can beat Georgetown, I'm going to hitchhike to Providence, which isn't that far from here. I'm going to be their ball boy on their next game and then I'm going to change into a Princeton cheerleading uniform. I'm going to lead all the cheers. 'Let's go Tigers. Let's go Tigers.'"

Scrabis, Princeton's leading scorer and only senior, said that Georgetown was not taking Princeton seriously at first. Mourning was seen smiling and laughing while Princeton took the lead.

"We saw their swagger dissipate in the second half," Scrabis said. "I think what was unique about our situation was that we played a completely different style. It wasn't a slowdown, but it was meticulous. Georgetown had never played it. We were spreading out the court, far from the basket."

They went backdoor after backdoor all day, and Georgetown couldn't seem to get itself to drop down to stop it. So Princeton led at halftime, and nearly the entire second half was spent within two points one way or the other.

In the end, Georgetown led by one, and Scrabis took a long jumper with seven seconds left to try to win. Mourning blocked it. Princeton got the ball back with one second left, but Mourning blocked another shot at the buzzer.

CBS officials watching decided right there, based on that game, that the network would play up the whole tournament, live, start to finish, according to Sports Illustrated's Sean Gregory and Alexander Wolff. Eight months later, CBS signed a seven-year, $1 billion deal to show the tournament.

And the little guys got to keep their automatic bid.

That makes Scrabis the face of Cinderella. Actually, that doesn't sound right. But without that game, we probably wouldn't have teams like Hampton emerging from nowhere with a shot at the bluebloods. Those Cinderella games are the heart and soul of the NCAA tournament's first week.

But even Princeton didn't have quite enough magic. What is it going to take for a 16?

"I do think it'll happen," Scrabis said. "But it's going to take a senior-laden team that has played together for four years and had some success playing against schools from the bigger levels—ACC, Big Ten what have you.

"But there's so much social media and hype and television commercials about March Madness now, and a lot of these kids have never been on that stage before. There's added pressure, scrutiny or social media covering the story and people can get caught up in that.

"And the first five minutes of the game…if you're not close or playing tough, the score isn't relatively close, you could very easily get blown out. We never were behind, never were playing from behind."

Here's what I believe: When it happens, it will be from a No. 1 team filled with freshmen planning to jump to the NBA. They will choke collectively. The players will start thinking, "Oh, my God. We're going to be the first No. 1 to lose to a 16."

Actually, a No. 1 seed has lost in its first tourney game before. In 1981, DePaul was No. 1, but there weren't 64 teams in the field, so it got a bye in the first round. Then, it lost to St. Joe's after DePaul's Skip Dillard missed a free throw in the final seconds and the Blue Demons didn't bother to defend St. Joe's game-winning layup.

A few years ago, I talked with DePaul's star on that team, Mark Aguirre, who said that DePaul didn't take St. Joe's seriously. When the game was over, Aguirre said, he couldn't face anyone, so he went straight out of the stadium, still in uniform, and walked for miles all the way back to the hotel.

Bruce Reynolds, a longtime high school football coach in Delaware who won seven state titles and wrote a book called Art of the Upset, told me this about the psychology involved for a No. 16 seed:

"When you know something has never been done, the media will portray you as a severe underdog, the oddsmakers will portray you as a severe underdog. If you're a person that's susceptible and vulnerable to those kinds of influences, it's hard to overcome.

"You have to set a completely different mindset. You have to create your own reality and cannot buy into the reality that they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger and they're undefeated."

He also said a team looking for the big upset has to set small goals, like winning one short span of the game at a time, and not get caught up in the bigger picture.

Reynolds said it might be harder to get the big upset in basketball than, say, individual sports, where one person having one bad day could be all it takes. Or a sport like hockey, where an underdog's goalie can have the game of his life and change the outcome all by himself.

A No. 16 did beat a No. 1 in the 1998 NCAA women's tournament, when Harvard beat Stanford. But in the days before the tournament, Stanford suffered a few serious injuries.

That's not exactly the most hopeful news for Hampton and Joyner, or for this year's other No. 16s: Austin Peay, Florida Gulf Coast and Holy Cross.

"You just have to be the better team for 40 minutes," Joyner said. "Make the shots, hope the stars align right and hope they have some sort of lapse. Can it happen? We've put ourselves in position to find out."

There have been 124 teams in that position. Just 15 have been decided by single digits.

Scrabis, now an investment specialist in central New Jersey, says it hasn't eaten away at him. He might have thought he was one jump shot away from changing history, but the truth is, that team changed it anyway. And it gave us decades to pull for the ultimate underdog.

"I have no regrets on anything," he said. "I was hoping people would remember this game, and now that I think about it, we did almost accomplish something pretty amazing."


Greg Couch covers college basketball for Bleacher Report.


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