For years, I have told friends and family I’ve been incredibly lucky to see too many amazing NCAA Tournament upsets and moments to count. Well, I finally went back and counted, and the numbers are pretty stunning. We’ll get to those in a moment.
Let’s start here: My first experience covering the NCAA Tournament for Sporting News was in 2007. I was assigned a behind-the-scenes profile of a potential Cinderella team for the Sporting News magazine (I miss the mag). I was embedded with Winthrop up in Spokane, Wash. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team was a No. 11 seed that year.
I sat through film sessions as Marshall prepared his team for what No. 6 seed Notre Dame did especially well — “Keep a hand in Russell Carter’s and Collin Falls’ faces, no matter where they are on the court!” he implored — and I listened intently as assistant Randy Peele broke down the Irish game plan with an insight that, honestly, kind of freaked me out as I watched it unfold the next day. I watched practices and rode the team bus to a walkthrough as Marshall gave me his day-of-game mental strategy, honed through several thwarted attempts at that elusive first NCAA Tournament win.
Winthrop beat Notre Dame 74-64, and that victory bumped my story up to the cover, which was cool: It was my first cover story for the magazine I grew up reading. Crazy. The Eagles lost to Oregon in the second round. Winthrop assistant Earl Grant (now the head coach at Charleston) had the scout, and I clearly remember Grant begging his players to respect the deep-shot ability of Aaron Brooks and Tajuan Porter — but those two rained 3-pointers down all game from three and four feet beyond the arc.
I loved every minute of the experience, and I prayed it wouldn’t be my only chance to watch underdog dreams become reality on college basketball’s biggest stage. Turns out, Winthrop was only the beginning. The very next year, in 2008, I was in Tampa for the opening round. All four underdogs — two 12 seeds and two 13 seeds — won their respective games. Seriously. I can’t wait for you to read the piece I’m working on about that epic day.
After that year, my friends started asking what region I was covering before filling out their NCAA Tournament brackets. I don’t blame them. Yeah, I’ve been pretty lucky.
If you’ll indulge me, some numbers: Strictly going by seeds, I’ve seen 36 upsets live. It feels wrong to call a 5-over-4 or 3-over-2 an upset, though, so let’s dig into the actual call-your-friends upset specials.
I’ve seen 26 games featuring teams seeded Nos. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 — and those teams are a combined 11-15. Think about that: Teams seeded AT LEAST five spots better have only won four more games than they’ve lost when I’ve been there. That’s really pretty crazy, even by lofty NCAA Tournament standards of crazy. The No. 10 seeds I’ve seen are 3-3, so when you add them in, that moves the record to 14-18. Here’s a breakdown:
No. 11 seeds are 3-1 when I’m there. The winners … 11 Winthrop over 6 Notre Dame, 74-642010: 11 Washington over 6 Marquette, 80-782017: 11 Xavier over 6 Maryland, 76-65
No. 12 seeds are 2-4 when I’m there. The winners … 12 Western Kentucky over 5 Drake, 101-99 (OT)2008: 12 Villanova over 5 Clemson, 75-69
No. 13 seeds are 3-3 when I’m there. The winners … 13 San Diego over 4 UConn, 70-69 (OT)2008: 13 Siena over 4 Vanderbilt, 83-612010: 13 Murray State over 4 Vanderbilt, 66-65
No. 14 seeds are 1-3 when I’m there. The winner … 14 Harvard over 3 New Mexico, 68-62
No. 15 seeds are 2-4 when I’m there. The winners … 15 Lehigh over 2 Duke, 75-702016: 15 Middle Tennessee over 2 Michigan State, 90-81
Everyone talks about the No. 12 seed as the favorite upset pick, but in my years covering the NCAA Tournament, the 15 seeds I’ve seen actually have the same record as the No. 12 seeds I’ve seen. I feel pretty confident nobody else can make that claim.
In the history of the NCAA Tournament, only eight No. 15 seeds have knocked off No. 2 seeds, and somehow, I’ve been courtside for two of those upsets. And think about this: There have only been five 10-vs.-15 games, and I’ve seen 40 percent of them: 15 Lehigh vs. 10 Xavier and 15 Middle Tennessee vs. 10 Syracuse. The others: 15 Hampton vs. 10 Georgetown in 2001, 15 Coppin State vs. 10 Texas in 1997, 15 Richmond vs. 10 Temple in 1991.
That’s Holy Grail, once-in-a-life-time stuff for a sports writer, and I’ve somehow seen that 15 seed upset twice. And, yes, it was just as amazing the second time.
And although No. 16 seeds are 0-4 when I’m there, one of those games ranks up there with my favorite, “holy-crap-is-this-really-going-to-happen” experiences of all time. In 2013, at the same site and on the same day when No. 14 Harvard beat No. 3 New Mexico, 16th-seeded Southern gave top-seeded Gonzaga every single little thing it could handle. That one was tied at 54 with four minutes left before the Zags escaped with a 64-58 win.
There was one moment in that game I will never, ever forget.
The magic isn’t only about the super high seeds: I’ve seen the start of some unlikely Final Four runs. In 2016, I saw No. 10 seed Syracuse’s first two wins as the Orange made it all the way to the Final Four. I was there when Wichita State kick-started its run to the Final Four game with an upset of top-seeded Gonzaga as a No. 9 seed. And I was there in 2014 as 8-seed Kentucky kick-started its run to the title game by beating, you guessed it, No. 1 seed Wichita State in what was, honestly, probably the best pure basketball game I have ever seen.
And in 2010, I was there for every single Butler game as the fifth-seeded Bulldogs made their magic run to the championship contest.
2010 Opening round: 5 Butler over 12 UTEP, 77-592010 Second round: 5 Butler over 13 Murray State, 54-522010 Sweet 16: 5 Butler over 1 Syracuse, 63-592010 Elite Eight: 5 Butler over 2 Kansas State, 63-562010 Final Four: 5 Butler over 5 Michigan State, 52-50
And, I kid you not, from the angle where I was sitting courtside at the title game, Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt heave looked good. I remember thinking, as the ball was in the air, “I’m watching the greatest shot in the history of the NCAA Tournament!” I believed it was going in. After all I had seen, how could it not? As you know, it didn’t. Oh well. Duke won, 61-59.
I have seen seven double-digit seeds reach the Sweet 16. The first year I ever covered an opening weekend devoid of upsets, the second weekend made up for it. I was in San Antonio in 2011 when three double-digit seeds crashed the Sweet 16. One of those three stunned the nation with a Final Four berth by sending Kansas, which was 35-2, home early.
2011 Sweet 16: 11 VCU over 10 Florida State, 72-712011 Sweet 16: 1 Kansas over 12 Richmond, 77-572011 Elite Eight: 11 VCU over 1 Kansas, 71-61
And, yeah, now let’s talk about No. 1 seeds I’ve seen live. Kansas in 2011 was not an anomaly. It has not been pretty for those elite squads.
I’ve seen four No. 1 seeds on opening weekend, and two lost in the second round. Gonzaga, as I mentioned, was nearly upended by a 16 seed in the opener. Here are the second-round results for those four No. 1 seeds. …
2012: 1 UNC over 8 Creighton, 87-732013: 9 Wichita State over 1 Gonzaga, 76-702014: 8 Kentucky over 1 Wichita State, 78-762015: 1 Duke over 8 San Diego State, 68-49
And the 2015 Duke team was the only one that made it through completely unscathed. See, during the Tar Heels’ win against Creighton in 2012, sensational UNC point guard Kendall Marshall — who was averaging 9.8 assists — took a nasty spill as he drove to the basket midway through the second half. He stayed in the game, though, so nobody really thought too much of it. But I’ll never forget UNC coach Roy Williams beginning his postgame news conference by stunningly announcing Marshall (who had 18 points and 11 assists in the game) had suffered a broken wrist. The room gasped. For my money, the Tar Heels were college basketball’s best team that year, but Marshall was done. Without the engine that drove the high-tempo baby-blue machine, UNC was knocked out in the Elite Eight.
So let’s move on to the No. 1 seeds I’ve seen on the second weekend. I’ve seen eight top seeds play Elite Eight/Sweet 16 games, and the survival percentage gets even worse that the opening weekend. Only three made it through the weekend. And all five that were knocked out were upended by No. 4 seeds or lower.
2008 Elite Eight: 1 Memphis over 2 Texas, 85-672009 Elite Eight: 1 UConn over 3 Missouri, 82-752010 Sweet 16: 5 Butler over 1 Syracuse, 63-592011 Elite Eight: 11 VCU over 1 Kansas, 71-612012 Sweet 16: 4 Louisville over 1 Michigan State, 57-442013 Sweet 16: 4 Michigan over 1 Kansas, 87-852014 Sweet 16: 4 Michigan State over 1 Virginia, 61-592015 Elite Eight: 1 Duke over 2 Gonzaga, 66-52
To put a bow on the top seeds, I’ve seen 11 No. 1 seeds play during the first two weekends, and only three reached the Final Four. And one of those teams — Duke in 2015 (I saw the Blue Devils in each of their first four games that year) — actually went on to win a national championship.
Believe it or not, the numbers get worse — much, much worse — for the No. 2 seeds I have watched in person. I mentioned Lehigh and Middle Tennessee, but those aren’t the only 2 seeds to feel the Fagan Jinx. I’ve seen six different No. 2 seeds on the opening weekend, and five have been knocked out — twice by 15 seeds, once by a 10 seed, twice by a 7 seed.
2011: 2 San Diego State over 7 Temple, 71-64 (2OT)2012: 15 Lehigh over 2 Duke, 75-702014: 10 Stanford over 2 Kansas, 60-572015: 7 Michigan State over 2 Virginia, 60-542016: 15 Middle Tennessee over 2 Michigan State, 90-812016: 7 Wisconsin over 2 Xavier, 66-63
The Jinx works in strange ways. I’ve seen Xavier three times on the opening weekend. The Musketeers have made the Sweet 16 both times I saw them as double-digit seeds (as a 10 seed in 2012 and as an 11 seed in 2017), but they were upended in the second round the year I saw them as a 2 seed. Xavier made it to the Elite Eight as the 11 seed last year. I don’t know, either, folks. I can’t control this thing.
Somehow, the fates get worse for No. 2 seeds on the second weekend. I’ve seen four No. 2 seeds on the second weekend, and they’ve been knocked out all four times.
2008: 1 Memphis over 2 Texas, 85-672009: 3 Missouri over 2 Memphis, 102-912010: 5 Butler over 2 Kansas State, 63-562015: 1 Duke over 2 Gonzaga, 66-52
So, total, I’ve seen 10 No. 2 seeds play live during the first two weekends of the tournament. Only one survived the weekend I was there, and San Diego State needed double-overtime to make that happen in 2011.
And think about this: I’ve seen 80 teams play on the opening weekend (I didn’t cover a first round in 2009), and of those 80 teams, only one has gone on to win the national title: Duke in 2015. Five other teams made the Final Four, but zero other top-four seeds. Only Final Four underdogs: 5-seed Butler in 2010, 9-seed Wichita State in 2013, 8-seed Kentucky in 2014, 7-seed Michigan State in 2015 and 10-seed Syracuse in 2016.
So … where am I this year?
When I tweeted out a couple of these numbers Monday afternoon, I got a bunch of responses like “Where are you this weekend? Please don’t say Nashville” and “better keep your ass out of Boise.” Can’t blame them.
So here goes: I will be in Charlotte for the opening weekend, and I’ll be in Los Angeles for the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. Plan your brackets accordingly.
As much as I hate to say it, my presence probably doesn’t bode well for the top overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Virginia. It’s not just that No. 1 seeds haven’t fared well when I’m there, it’s that the Cavaliers, particularly, have had their poorly timed hiccup games when I’m in the house. I have seen Virginia live twice during the opening weekend and once during the second weekend. They have yet to advance past the Fagan Jinx weekend.
2014 Sweet 16: 4 Michigan State over 1 Virginia, 61-592015 Second round: 7 Michigan State over 2 Virginia, 60-542017 Second round: 4 Florida over 5 Virginia, 65-39
I don’t wish ill on the Cavaliers, I promise. I love what Tony Bennett has done with his program. There might not be a finer coach in all of college hoops, and I’m in awe of the way his players compete and execute a game plan. I expected that 2015 Cavaliers team, with Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins, to get all the way to the title game that year. I believed in that group, but I forgot about the jinx.
On Tuesday, the Cavaliers announced that De’Andre Hunter, who won the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year award, will miss the entire NCAA Tournament with a broken wrist he suffered during the ACC Tournament. Losing Hunter, a 6-7 freshman averaging close to 20 minutes and 10 points a game, is a huge blow for Virginia. At this point, I’m almost afraid of what I’m inevitably going to see this weekend.
As for the other high seed in Charlotte this weekend, the No. 2 seed Tar Heels are 4-1 in games I’ve watched live — including the 2009 championship game in Detroit — but the only time I saw them in the first two weekends, the Kendall Marshall thing happened.
2008 Final Four: 1 Kansas over 1 UNC, 84-662009 Final Four: 1 UNC over 3 Villanova, 83-692009 Title game: 1 UNC over 2 Michigan State, 89-722012 Opening round: 1 UNC over 16 Vermont, 77-582012 Second round: 1 UNC over 8 Creighton, 87-73
And as for the other six teams in Charlotte this weekend, I haven’t seen Texas A&M, Providence, Lipscomb or UMBC live in the NCAA Tournament. I do have that short history with Creighton in 2012; the Bluejays beat Alabama to advance to the UNC contest. My history with Kansas State is a bit deeper.
The Wildcats are 2-3 when I’m in the arena, and that 2010 Sweet 16 victory against Xavier — a double-OT nail-biter — was one of the most thrilling games I’ve ever seen in person. Behind 28 points from Jacob “Fear the Beard” Pullen, K-State somehow outlasted a Xavier squad that got 32 points from Jordan Crawford and 26 from Tu Holloway. I was completely exhausted after watching that one, and I don’t have any allegiances to either team. I have no idea how fans of either team survived that classic in Salt Lake City. Anyway, here are the results for the five games I’ve seen K-State live in the tournament.
2010: 2 Kansas State over 6 Xavier, 101-96 (2OT)2010: 5 Butler over 2 Kansas State, 63-562011: 5 Kansas State over 12 Utah State, 73-682011: 4 Wisconsin over 5 Kansas State, 70-652014: 8 Kentucky over 9 Kansas State, 56-49
So … yeah. Thanks for indulging me with this trip down memory lane. I probably jinxed the jinx by putting this out in the open, but that’s OK. I’ve learned that it’s pretty damn cool to see the players on high-seeded teams realize their March dreams, too.
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