NCAA basketball’s impossible job: how does a 16 seed beat a No1?

In the history of the NCAA mens championship, a 16 seed has never beaten a No1. Joshua Kloke talks to the coaches who prepared for mission impossible

If you were to looking for a blanket term to sum up the last year in sports, impossible might be the one.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Cubs came back from 3-1 down in their respective finals to deliver their long-suffering fans a title. Leicester won the Premier League; tiny Iceland defeated England at Euro 2016. And lets not forget Tom Brady and the New England Patriots overcoming a near insurmountable 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl.

And yet, as one of Americas biggest sporting events rolls around, there is still one upset that appears completely impractical to even consider: a 16th-seeded team defeating a top-seeded team in the NCAA basketball tournament.

A No 16 seed has never beaten a top seed in the NCAA tournament. In an era where the upset has become commonplace, the fate of the 16 seed is usually decided before tip-off.

So where does that leave 16-seeded teams as they enter the biggest games of their seasons? How do they prepare players for what is as close to a mission impossible as exists in sports?

The Guardian spoke to coaches that have faced off against one-seeded teams, and discovered some common themes.

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Before the seeding process for the 2015 tournament, Fran OHanlon had a sinking feeling in his gut he couldnt shake. The Lafayette coach just knew his team would be pitted against his alma mater, Villanova.

They didnt treat us very well, OHanlon reflects, with a laugh. After the selection, OHanlon felt even worse. I thought: this really stings. They know me, weve played them. Theyre not going to let us sneak up on them.

OHanlon suited up for the Wildcats between 1967 and 1970. OHanlon and Lafayette had played Villanova the year before and knew there was little way to prepare for what OHanlon called the onslaught of Villanovas superior athletes.

The worst thing about it, he said, was that we were going to have to play the game.

It ended in ugly fashion: Lafayette never really got in the game and lost 93-52.

I was hoping theyd treat me better, OHanlon said. But its competition. Its like playing your brother or your best friend. You know they want to beat you.

New traditions

Before Jim Ferry was head coach at Long Island University, the self-described basketball junkie would follow the same tradition every year on the first day of the NCAA tournament.

He could hardly believe it then when, in 2011, he was finally coaching in the tournament for the first time. That year they were a 15 seed, losing to the second- seeded North Carolina and in 2012, he was pitted against Draymond Green and top-seeded Michigan State.

We changed the tradition, he said.

Though the Spartans would prove to be too much for Ferry and his team in 2012, losing 89-67, Ferry knows that the second time for his team in the tournament allowed them better focus of the task at hand. On the national stage, some coaches and players can become overwhelmed.

But Ferry used the return trip to their advantage.

By the second year we said: You know what, lets focus on ourselves. Our first year we did everything and we said that second year, lets limit the distractions. A bit more of a mature approach..

And in going to two tournaments in a row, Ferry, who now coaches at Duquesne, saw new traditions being created. Long Island University, according to Ferry, became a different school altogether.

It was one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my life to see what that appearance did, not just for the kids on the team, but for the university, he said. Being on the national stage, we went from being a program that no one respected to playing North Carolina in the NCAA, on prime time on CBS. It changed the whole outlook of the university. It changed admissions. It changed the type of kids that were applying to the university. It made us all proud.

Dont change a thing

In 2012 as an assistant coach at UNC Asheville, Nick McDevitt and his team got as close as any team to becoming the first 16 seed to topple a one seed in history. A seven-point loss against Syracuse was one of the slimmest margins in this type of David v Goliath matchup.

For McDevitt, who is now head coach of the Bulldogs, the reason was simple: they didnt deviate from what happened during the teams regular season.

The approach has to be the same, he said. If youre reinventing the wheel in terms of how you practice, how you handle your travel, when do you eat pre-game meals, along with the amount of people that are going to be at the game, youre on national television, then theres too many variables that are different now to give your team a chance to win. The approach to the game has to be the same as it was every game previous to that.

Some teams will indeed switch up how they conduct their practices to counter the most talented teams in the country, but McDevitt and the Bulldogs were prepared after playing in similar games throughout the season.

Bulldogs
Bulldogs coach Nick McDevitt, pictured here in 2016. If you have a team that just has a special night and one team thats off, it can happen. Photograph: Ben McKeown/AP

Like many smaller schools, UNC Asheville took part in guarantee games, which feature much smaller schools travelling to the nations powerhouses in non-conference to reap the financial rewards. Larger schools arrange for non-conference teams to come their way and pay a pretty penny for them as well.

McDevitt said that through the year UNC Asheville will play four or five guarantee games each year, with one of the reasons being preparation for the tournament itself.

By doing that, once were able to make the NCAA tournament, if were fortunate enough to win our league, our guys arent overwhelmed by playing in a 20,000-seat arena against a high quality opponent for the first time, he said. Without those games, youve got no chance. Itll be half-time before their eyes are out of the rafters just looking up at the place.

McDevitt admits that those guarantee games help their athletic department, but it is the players that also benefit.

In 2012, when we played Syracuse, we were a senior-heavy team and four senior starters, he said. By that point, those seniors had probably played 15 games in that environment.

Throughout the 2012 loss McDevitt said his players believed the whole time that they could pull off the upset.

And with guarantee games providing smaller schools with the necessary preparation, McDevitt believes one of those schools will topple a one seed sooner rather than later.

At some point, its going to happen, he said. Theres a lot of parity in college basketball. Theres a difference between the NBA, where its a best of seven series. It just takes one night. If you have a team that just has a special night and one team thats off, it can happen.

Keeping it real

Bill Carmody is a realist. The Holy Cross coach, in his first year on the job, knew that when his team were matched up against Oregon in last years tournament, they didnt stand much of a chance.

And he had no way to spin it otherwise.

We got beat real badly, he said of the teams 91-52 loss against the Ducks. Its not like you can say next year or next time. I dont see it as a teaching moment of any kind. And some people can turn the words around but I cant. You want (Players) to believe you when youre talking to them.

For every game in which a 16 seed keeps things tight, there are five more that feature coaches with a similar fate as Carmodys. The reality of the difference in talent between 16 and one seeds is just too overwhelming to overcome and some coaches, like Carmody, figure there is no way around it.

Oregon jumped all over us. I dont know if we were totally wide-eyed but there was some of that involved. We really didnt stand a chance after that. It was what you would call a pretty normal 16 vs 1 game. They sort of just crushed us, he said.

So, Bill, what can you glean from the experience?

Not much, he laughs.

Let the players enjoy it

John Beckers first year as a Division 1 head coach in 2012 brought with it more than a years worth of experience. Not only did Becker lead the Vermont Catamounts to an American East Championship, he broke the schools record for most wins by a first-year coach.

And when the Catamounts were pitted against North Carolina, Beckers coaching instincts really kicked in.

For him, the tournament brought with extra work in an attempt to just let his players enjoy the moment.

Theres such a quick turnaround, he said. Youre just trying to watch enough film to come up with enough things for the guys to focus on. We were running the flex offense at that point and we were just worried about reversing the ball quick enough. We focused on that and how to get the ball to side to side.

Becker said he had no need to get his team get motivated as the players on the 16th seeded team were living out their dream.

You want to enjoy that for as long as you can, he said. But once you have your opponent picked out, the coaches and the staff do a lot of work to watch tape, come up with a scouting report and you kind of let the players enjoy it while youre doing that.

During the 77-58 loss to the Tar Heels, Becker made it his mission to block out all the noise and if one of the many stars with baby blue and white made a highlight play, Becker would try to call a timeout right away.

Limiting the distractions didnt necessarily get Becker the result he wanted, but it did allow his team to soak up the moment.

All the media requests you had, all the interviews you do, how excited you areyou want to enjoy it but youre also trying to win a game, he said. So you have to stay in a zone and keep grinding away. It can get overwhelming. The players are going through the same thing. Ticket requests, people wanting to come, you have to try and keep those distractions to a minimum.

Pulling out all the stops

In the first round of the 2006 tournament, Will Brown was faced with a taller challenge than hed ever encountered before. In just the fifth season Division One season for the Albany Great Danes, Brown and his team were pitted against the University of Connecticut Huskies.

At that time, the first-seeded Huskies were one of the countrys best in blocked shots and Brown knew it would be simply impossible to simulate the size and strength of their opposition in practices.

His only option? Broomsticks.

Yes, Brown and his assistants ransacked the janitors closest before practices and then guarded with broomsticks to give his players an idea on what theyd be facing up against, including 2006 NBA draft first-round picks Rudy Gay, Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong.

It sounds comical and funny but we thought that was the best way to prepare our guys because we didnt have any shot blockers in our program, said Brown.

The broomsticks were just part of Browns approach: fight to ensure his players understood the immenseness of the opportunity in front of them.

I probably rode our guys harder than I had all year long, he said. I probably told them a couple dozen times, Were cancelling this trip. Were not going. You guys are just happy to be here so were not going. You guys have no idea how good of an opportunity we have here so were not going to waste it.

When the Danes practiced at the Palestra before the game, Brown found his team swept up in moment and beginning to believe that they just might have a chance against the Huskies.

Brown, after all, was a believer.

I showed my guys. I said: Do you want to look in my garment bag? Theres two shirts, two suits, two of everything. I play on being here through the weekend. You dont want these kids to get the sense that it was a nice run and now its time to go home.

Against the Huskies, Brown found his team empowered by an underdog mentality.

Guys were coming back to the huddle saying They dont respect us. Guys were getting pissed off when theyd give up a basket. So Im sitting back thinking, This is awesome. I thought we had something there with each passing minute, he said.

So Brown and the Danes did their best to surprise the Huskies, even surprising the rets of the country when they up 13 points with 10 minutes to go and then still hold a lead with five minutes to go.

The power of one of the countrys best teams was just too much to overcome, however, as the Huskies stormed back for a 72-59 win.

We just completely ran out of gas, said Brown.

Play without fear

In his second year as an NCAA coach, Roman Banks was well aware that a 16 seed had never beaten a one seed. But the Southern Jaguars coach wasnt about to remind his players of that fact.

We had nothing to lose, said Banks. That was the psyche we really didnt get into: that a 16 has never beaten a one. We just talked about representing ourselves well. Our guys never really had the opportunity to realize the situation that they were in: that they were an underdog. We never did let that cross our minds. And we stayed away from the rhetoric that a 16 had never beaten a one.

Its a common theme for many coaches of 16 seeded teams: stress the need to play to their potential, not to their seed.

And Banks and Southern came close, losing 64-58 against a Gonzaga team that would end up being eliminated in the next round.

It was an opportunity for Banks to help show the rest of the country that there are competitive basketball teams beyond the handful of household names.

This is the struggle of coaching at my level: We only play one team in the tournament, he said. We dont play many big TV games. Were not going to get talked about too much. But there are some pretty good teams in our conference but as whole, we arent a Top 10 conference. It definitely gave the allusion or it put people on notice that there are some good teams in our conference.

Impossible is nothing

For Brett Reeds first trip to the NCAA tournament, the Lehigh University coach was thinking big. He knew the matchup against the University of Kansas in 2010 was going to be a difficult one, but that didnt stop him from trying to represent his Pennsylvania school with pride.

It gave a great, great platform to tell the story about what Lehigh is all about, which you dont get to do on a national stage, he said.

The one-seeded Jayhawks would trample on the Mountain Hawks in a 90-74 affair that was never all that close.

So when Reed and the Mountain Hawks returned to the tournament in 2012 as a 15 seed pitted against one of the giants of college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils, he thought even bigger.

There was a different focus, he said of his return to the tournament. We thought: oh, were going to beat these guys. Not cockiness but a confidence came forward right from the onset. They were a little more mission-ocused.

Reed and the Mountain Hawks attacked their practices, doing their best to not let doubt creep into their minds.

Against Duke, led by future Portland Trailblazer CJ McCollum, the Mountain Hawks believed right until the final buzzer and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in tournament history: Lehigh defeated Duke 75-70, becoming just the sixth two seed to beat a 15 seed.

It gave our campus community a great sense of pride, said Reed. Not only did we win, we did so with class and character. In 2010, we had a number of guys that had incredible GPAs. And in 2012, we handled the win with superior class.

After the win against Duke, the team barely celebrated. Reed said this is in part to McCollums pep talks to his teams in the huddle in which he pushed the team to act like theyd been there before.

It was a really cool moment that people wouldnt necessarily notice, Reed said. We didnt go there just to be a participant. Not just to show up but to win games. That mindset and mentality really carried forward into the end of the games. We went there expecting to win so we didnt celebrate as much afterwards.

Reed said that the experience the players gained in 2010 directly attributed to the teams historic 2012 win. The lack of celebration did a lot to represent the school, but it also served a specific purpose: as incredible as the win was, Lehigh still had another game to play two days later.

I think there were eight-and-a-half million people to watch that game. Its interesting: I was so busy in the moment so I never really had a chance to soak it all in. Because immediately after the game Im talking to our team, talking to media, watching film for next game, Reed said.

Lehigh would fall to 10th-seeded Xavier in the next round, 70-58.

A 16 seed may have never beaten a one seed, but coaches like Reed believe it will eventually happen one day.

Until then, Reed is happy to be asked, almost daily, about that monumental upset.

I love to hear the stories from people who come up to me and tell me what they were doing that day when Lehigh Valley beat Duke, he said. Because then I can live vicariously and get back some of those moments that I was working so hard for.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/mar/10/ncaa-tournament-march-madness-16-v-1-seed