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.
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.
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.