The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that there is more than one winner —or so it seems each year.
Only one team will be crowned national champion, but for some schools making the trek to the Final Four, reaching the Sweet 16, pulling the huge first round upset, or even just making it to the tournament, can be just as important and memorable in a school’s history.
The phrase “one shining moment” is often associated with the NCAA tournament. Over the next few days it’s time to look at each of this year’s 65 teams and assess its chances of achieving its own “shining moment” and what exactly that would entail for each school.
Let’s start the first part of this series with the 16 seeds.
The Golden Lions started the season by losing 11 straight games, but finished the year with a 17-15 record to reach their first NCAA Tournament. The squad has been thrown into the opening round play-in game tonight against Winthrop with the right to play powerhouse Duke in the first round on the line.
Making it to the tournament for the first time ever is already historic in itself. A win over Winthrop and a chance to play Duke would be a nice bonus so they get to feel like they are “really” in the main field. Beating Duke would be the biggest upset in NCAA history.
March Madness is nothing new for the Eagles.
They played in the tournament every year from 2005 to 2008 and even pulled out an upset victory over Notre Dame as an 11 seed in 2007. Perhaps even more impressively, they lost to two seed Tennessee as a 15 seed in the waning seconds in 2006, 63-61.
Thus a play-in game win over Arkansas Pine-Bluff would be nothing special, but a chance to play Duke after that would be. Frankly, the Eagles will be hard pressed to take any sort of school history away from this dance. A victory over Duke as a 16 seed would more than qualify, but it would be incredibly unlikely.
The Mountain Hawks have been to the tournament three times before—1985, 1988, and 2004—and have never won a game.
In 2004, they were relegated to the play-in game and lost to Florida A&M and never got a shot at upsetting one of college basketball’s powerhouses in a packed arena as a result. At least they get that shot this time around for the first time in more than 20 years (when they lost to Temple 87-73).
The best possible result for the Mountain Hawks, however, would probably not be a victory, but instead a close game—for at least the first half—against the top ranked team in the entire tournament, Kansas.
Playing Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a big underdog is nothing new for the Catamounts. Neither is upsetting the Orange.
Vermont did just that in its last trip to the Big Dance in 2005 as a 13 seed when they upended four seed Syracuse 60-57 in overtime for the school’s (and state’s) only victory ever in the NCAA Tournament.
A victory this time around could be even bigger as they would only add to their legend by upsetting the same team a second time and more importantly by becoming the first 16 seed to ever knock off a one seed in the first round. The Catamounts path to history in this year’s tournament is quite simple. Beat Syracuse—again.
East Tennessee St.
The Bucs will be hard pressed to match what they did as a 16 seed a year ago.
With less than three minutes to play ETSU trailed one seed Pittsburgh, a team many experts picked to win the National Championship, by just three points.
Shut out over the final minutes, the Bucs fell 62-52, but not before giving Pittsburgh one of the toughest challenges that a number one seed had faced in the first round since Western Carolina suffered a two point loss to Purdue in 1996.
After last year’s near upset, the Bucs current players have more tournament experience than the rosters of any of the other 16 seeds in this year’s tournament. They also have more experience with hanging with a top team on the biggest possible stage.
In addition, they will be playing a Kentucky team led by a corps of freshman with no tournament experience, so anything is possible as unlikely as it might seem.
Vermont and East Tennessee St. would seem to be the only two teams that can even entertain the fantasy of becoming the first 16 seed to ever beat a one seed.
Pulling off the upset would give either of those teams a place in NCAA Tournament history that even the ultimate champion in this year’s bracket would find it difficult to contend with (after all a team wins the tournament every year, but no 16 seed has ever done so much as win a first round game).
However, given that Vermont has already pulled a momentous first round upset over Syracuse in recent years and given that East Tennessee St. already pushed a No. 1 seed to the limit just a year ago, neither squad can really accomplish a piece of school history just by playing its opponent close.
They would have to actually win the game—and that seems unlikely.
With its past tournament success, Winthrop is more or less in the same boat. Except the Eagles have to manage their way through a play-in game just to get a shot at Duke, and they have much less of a chance of pulling off that first round upset than Vermont or ETSU does.
Lehigh could achieve a piece of school history simply by playing Kansas close for a half—or even better well into the second half—but even that will be a difficult task. The Mountain Hawks real accomplishment may simply be having the chance to play a top team like Kansas in front of a national audience for the first time in more than 20 years.
The Golden Lions of Arkansas Pine-Bluff have already achieved their piece of school history simply by making the tournament, and from a 0-11 start to the season no less. A win over Winthrop in the play-in game and a semi-respectable showing against Duke in the first round would just be icing on the cake.
Likelihood of each team achieving its own “one shining moment”:
1. Arkansas Pine-Bluff
3. East Tennessee St.