In the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, No. 16 seeds have 1 win and 135 losses. That may seem like a daunting stat, but a No. 16 seed hasn’t lost to a No. 1 seed since March 16, 2018. That’s when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers took down the Virginia Cavaliers, 74-54, in an upset for the ages. There are 1-year-old babies who have never seen a No. 1 seed win during the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, and the onus is now on the favorites to show those babies that UMBC was just a fluke.
UMBC lost to Vermont in this weekend’s America East tournament final, and so the Retrievers didn’t get an invite to this year’s big dance. But their blueprint for taking down a No. 1 seed (score 20 more points than them) is available to 2019’s batch of underdogs. Can any of them follow in UMBC’s footsteps? Let’s examine all the possible match-ups to see who has the best shot at repeating history.
North Carolina Central/North Dakota State vs. Duke
Wednesday’s play-in game will decide who gets to face Duke, the tournament’s top overall seed. Led by future No. 1 NBA Draft pick Zion Williamson, the Blue Devils field a veritable all-star team of freshman standouts. Before the bracket was unveiled, NC Central head coach LeVelle Moton spoke about the prospect of playing Duke. Specifically, he said he’d rather not do it.
Is this a lack of confidence, or is Moton playing nine-dimensional chess? Underdogs feed off doubt, and there’s nothing more disrespectful than a bulletin board full of disparaging quotes from your own coach. Your move, Coach K.
North Dakota State earned its ticket to the dance after beating Omaha in the Summit League tournament, but Omaha big man Matt Pile gave the Bison some trouble in that game. This doesn’t bode well for the Bison’s fortunes against Williamson, who some people call “the Matt Pile of Durham.” (No one calls him that.)
It’s been a while since a No. 1 seed beat a No. 16 seed (366 days, to be exact), but Duke should be good enough to eke this one out.
Chance of a first-round upset: 10 percent for NC Central; 1 percent for North Dakota State (the Matt Pile vulnerability is just too glaring).
Gardner-Webb vs. Virginia
Virginia is a proud program, and it has waited a full year for the chance to avenge its humiliating loss to UMBC. The pain is still raw, and the Cavaliers will be the last team to take a No. 16 seed for granted. None of that matters, though, because this is Virginia we’re talking about, and, according to recent history, Virginia tends to lose to a No. 16 seed in the first round.
UMBC may not have made it to March Madness, but Gardner-Webb is fit to carry its torch. Heading into last year’s tournament, KenPom.com had UMBC ranked No. 188 in the nation in adjusted efficiency margin. Gardner-Webb is currently ranked No. 167. Given that Gardner-Webb is 21 places better, arithmetic suggests that Gardner-Webb will win by a minimum of 41 points. (I do not know how to do arithmetic.) If that doesn’t convince you, chew on this: UMBC’s mascot is a retriever; Gardner-Webb’s is a bulldog. The American Kennel Club may not think those breeds are similar, but they’re close enough for me.
Chance of a first-round upset: 100 percent.
Iona vs. North Carolina
The Gaels’ 17-15 record may not sound impressive, but Iona finished the season with 10 straight wins. That makes them the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s hottest team (sorry, Quinnipiac).
UNC, meanwhile, lost to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, and so the Tar Heels are limping into March Madness on a one-game losing streak. They’ll need to hold off the red-hot Gaels if they want to buck the recent trend of No. 1 seeds falling in the first round.
Chance of a first-round upset: 50 percent.
Fairleigh Dickinson/Prairie View A&M vs. Gonzaga.
The winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between the Knights and Panthers will make history. Neither program has ever won an NCAA Tournament game, and whoever is triumphant will surely be playing with house money against Gonzaga. Unburdened by nerves, look for either Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M to come out to a fast start in that game. Then, watch as Gonzaga beats them handily. Despite being a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga is very good.
Chance of a first-round upset: 1 percent.