Why you should care
Because only once has a No. 16 seed beaten a top seed — and if it’s gonna happen again, you want to be where the smart money is.
Sports fans live for the upset — and at no time more so than in March.
That’s when the NCAA basketball tournament’s particular brand of underdog-friendly “madness” takes over television sets from Anchorage, Alaska, to Zanesville, Ohio. And with every highly ranked Goliath seeded two or three in the tournament to go down in stunning fashion to a 13- or a 14-seeded team from Florida Gulf Coast or Murray State, well, the tournament’s allure only grows. It may be the only major sports tournament in the world where the final rounds feel anticlimactic. The real euphoria — from a fan’s perspective, at least — arrives in the four rounds of play that start with the four play-in games and goes through the Sweet 16 (so-called because it includes the 16 remaining teams, down from an original 68), when the vast majority of upsets happen.
Never in the history of the men’s tournament has one of the four 16 seeds upset one of the four highest-ranked teams.
But it’s the women’s tournament, not the men’s, that once saw the biggest upset of them all. Leave it to the ladies to set the bar.
Remember: This is a sporting event that has built almost all of its cultural appeal on the possibility — nay, inevitability — that some of the pretournament favorites are going to go down to some no-name college in a defeat that nobody predicted. And yet, there has never, in the history of the men’s tournament, been an instance where one of the four 16 seeds — one of the last and weakest teams selected to participate in the tournament — has upset one of the four highest-ranked teams.
Sure, college basketball analysts talk of growing parity in the men’s game, with so-called mid-majors (teams from less-heralded conferences and sports programs) like Butler and Gonzaga becoming fixtures in the Top 25 rankings. Number one seeds, however, remain 108-0 against number 16 seeds since 1985, when the tournament took on its current format.
It’s the women’s tournament that’s witnessed the ultimate upset. That was back in March 1998, when, in a matchup of schools known more for their SAT scores than for their hoops rivalries, 16th-seeded Harvard defeated the heavily favored No. 1 seed, Stanford, 71 to 67. And on Stanford’s home court, no less.
The result sent shockwaves around the women’s game — and college basketball, period — and it remains to this day the only time a 16 seed has won that match.
But, as always seems to be the case, the makings of the upset were 20-20 in hindsight. And it’s certainly plausible we could see the same sort of conditions come together in another 16 vs. 1 matchup in the women’s or the men’s game at some point in the future.
In the 1998 game, Stanford, long a women’s basketball powerhouse, lost two of its top players — including its leading scorer and rebounder, Kristin Folkl — to season-ending knee injuries in the days leading up to the first round game against Harvard. Plus, the Crimson was probably seeded far lower than it deserved. The team had a legitimate star and scoring machine in Allison Feaster, the nation’s top scorer that season, who, in the Harvard college paper’s account, had “one of the most dominating performances of her stellar career.”
Feaster poured in 35 points against the Cardinal, but it may have been her defense that had the biggest impact on the game. She made a key steal — one of three she had on the night — with just over three minutes left in the game, kick-starting a 9-to-2 scoring run. Stanford was reduced to fouling Harvard’s players and hoping they’d miss their free throw shots in the waning minutes of the game, but Feaster hit two out of four foul shots, stretching the lead to four. Stanford’s Olympia Scott heaved a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer, but it sailed wide, and the stunning upset was complete.
Though it’s not included in many of the roundups of the all-time best NCAA basketball tourney upsets that tend to crop up this time of year, Harvard’s victory is truly the Cinderella team among Cinderellas, the first and so far only one to have ever beat a “one.”
So lucky number 16 seeds in the men’s tournament this year: you ready to play your way into the history books? It’s just a matter of time, after all, before the Crimson has company — as the blog Sports on Earth observed last year, a 16-seed team beating a No. 1 seed team “has to happen at some point” in the men’s tournament. “It’s the one upset we all want to see the most,” they wrote. Six teams have a shot at that upset this year (including four teams playing in two play-in games to win the right to be the No. 16).
This OZY encore was originally published March 17, 2014.