Since 1988, there have been 96 games played between #1 and #16 seeds in the NCAA tournament. That’s 24 years worth of data. Over the course of these games, the 16-seed has lost to the one-seed by an average of 26 points. A 16 hasn’t managed a single-digit loss since ‘97. Kansas beat Prarie View by 58 in ‘98. Mississippi Valley State only scored 29 points against UCLA in ‘08. And all the while, not once has a 16 beaten a one in March. It’s a history of massacres.
Spike Lee was there, slouching in a red sweatshirt. He sat behind the basket near the LIU Brooklyn bench, watching as the Blackbirds defended their Northeastern Conference championship against Pennsylvania private university Robert Morris. The game was in LIU’s gym, the Wellness, Recreation, and Athletic Center, which, filled to its 2000-spectator capacity, looked fit to start leaking people into the Brooklyn streets. Looming at the corner of Ashford and Dekalb, the WRAC is the most visible aspect of LIU’s Fort Greene campus. And, most importantly: the Blackbirds hadn’t lost there in 24 games.
A few quick facts about LIU Brooklyn: they’re the third-highest scoring team in the country, at 81.9 points per game; they make more free throws per game, 20.9, than anyone else; and they’ve actually made 188 more free throws than their opponents have attempted. So, they run, and they score, and they make teams foul to try and slow them down.
The game was crowded, frenzied; we couldn’t get to our seats, and a couple of police officers directed us up onto a balcony, where another police officer told us that we needed to leave, then promptly forgot about us. We watched as LIU burst out to an eight-point lead in a whip-quick first half, riding their offense that always seemed to have the ball. It became obvious that, scoring-wise, LIU was talented and Robert Morris was not; LIU never stopped running, and 5’10” point guard Jason Brickman murdered RMU, alternatively slashing to the basket when they tried to fill his passing lanes and making crisp passes when they stopped him from plunging toward the basket.
Defensively, though, neither team had much to be proud of, and the second half turned into a murky slog, with RMU fouling desperately to slow down the Blackbirds’ blitzkrieg. Try as they might, RMU never made it close, and when LIU won 90-73, with starters Brickman, Jamal Olasawere, C.J. Garner, senior Michael Culpo, and league MVP Julian Boyd scoring all but 10 of the team’s points, the fans rushed the court screaming.
As the wad of people jumped and swelled at mid-court, Spike Lee strolled out of the gym, chatting with members of the crowd along the way. But as nice as it is to have a celebrity at your games, everyone knew Lee’s presence meant something else. With this win, LIU Brooklyn became New York City’s college team, the only squad from the five boroughs to make it to the tournament. They became a team that meant something.
When a school qualifies for the Dance by winning their conference tournament, they have to wait. They wait for two things: first, to see what seed the selection committee deems them worthy of; and second, to find out who they’ll face in the first round. Both of these are important. Obviously, it’s helpful to know who you’ll be playing. And that seed not only gives you an approximate idea of how good the rest of the country thinks you are; it also establishes the historical precedent for your winning your first-round game.
If you’re a 14-seed, then congratulations: 16 of the 108 14-seeds since 1985 have won their opening contest. That’s a ~15 percent success rate. For 15-seeds, it’s a little dodgier — we’re talking only four of these upsets, and none since 2001, when little Hampton vanquished Iowa State. Four out of 108 gives you just below a four percent chance, historically. And we’ve already discussed what the track record for 16s is like.
“There are a number of ways a team can look at it,” Michael Sachs, a sports psychologist and professor at Temple University, told me. “They could go into it saying that no 16-seed has ever won; we got shafted by the NCAA, woe is us, we’ll just go and play and the season will be over.”
But these teams are already winners, at least on a certain level — they all had to conquer their conference tournaments to get here. And if that’s going to be the attitude you come in with, there isn’t much use traveling hours to the slaughter. Instead, Sachs asks, why not use the seeding as bulletin board material, to help motivate your squad?
“They could walk in and say there are only 16 people in the world who think that we might have a shot, the 12 of us and the four coaches or however many there are,” Sachs said. “So there’s zero pressure on them and nobody’s expecting them to win. They’ll go in and be that much looser, play their game and do the best they can.”
At practice on Sunday — five or six hours before the Selection Committee would announce their fate — the Blackbirds practiced for an unknown opponent. They ran through their offenses and took free throws, scrimmaged, practiced late game situations; in one scenario, player after player loped along the three-point arc as though scaling a parabola until Jason Brickman, receiving a quick handoff, drained a beautiful sloping three at the buzzer.
During the scrimmages and drills, the team bared a bit of its personality. Brickman mostly didn’t speak, navigating the court silently, showing the same playmaking skills and knack for driving that he used to tear apart Robert Morris. Olasawere shifted between emotions like a spinning wheel, moving bodies to get a rebound and then laconically draping himself over Boyd’s shoulder and then jawing at an assistant coach like he might at a ref. Boyd had that same lightness as Olasawere but showed it physically rather than emotionally, tensing up and loosening from moment to moment. The weight of the next few days seemed to weigh on him the most, but at the same time, he also did the most to try and wrangle it into something he could use. Culpo was the obvious senior; he took free throws with a subconscious discipline and spoke in the kind of team-focused jargon you don’t so much learn as absorb.
After the practice wrapped up — a half-hour short, since you can only plan so much for an invisible opponent — I sat down with the guys courtside and ran through some names that could end up meaning a lot to them a few hours later.
“Duke.” (Having gone to Duke, I had to lead with the Blue Devils.)
“I definitely want to play them,” Boyd said. “I feel like that would be somebody that we’d match up good with — that’s my first option. Our guards would match up well with them, and down low, you play with your hands straight-up and hope the Plumlees miss.”
“They’re not as skilled as [North Carolina’s] John Henson and Tyler Zeller,” Olasawere added. “So we’d have a better chance down there than we did last year.” (LIU Brooklyn, as a 15-seed, lost to UNC in the first round last year. Henson and Zeller combined for 60 points.)
Big men are a major concern for the Blackbirds. Despite their two forwards, Olasawere and Boyd, being their top scorers and rebounders, both are only 6’7”, and their games hinge on speed and explosiveness rather than size.
Missouri “wouldn’t be horrible, but they’re not first on my list,” Boyd said. But when he pressed Brickman, who had yet to chime in, the shy junior said, in a barely audible voice, “I want to play Missouri. I want to play Phil Pressey.” Throughout the conversation, Brickman spoke up when Boyd plied him and otherwise left the discussion to the other three; when he did speak, though, he spoke decisively. Olasawere laid out the team’s general feeling.
“I mean, the way we play and the way we matched up against [North Carolina], I feel like we do belong, we could win a game in the tournament,” he said.
“This year was a little bit different.” Culpo added.
That notion of being winners carried them through the regular season, which started with three tough losses, including one at Penn State. Following that rough stretch, they turned it around and ploughed through a talented NEC, which featured perennial conference powerhouse Robert Morris, up-and-coming Wagner and the overachieving St. Francis Terriers, another Brooklyn school.
Having lost a couple of thousand-point scorers before the season, it was no guarantee that LIU would be able to reach the same level of success they did last year.
“When you’re at these mid-major levels, winning your conference tournament has to be the ultimate goal, because everybody wants to get to the NCAA tournament,” head coach Jim Ferry said. “We also set a goal to be back-to-back regular season champs to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke. I think the hardest thing to do in college athletics is to win a men’s basketball regular season championship. I think that speaks for our program; we’re not just a one-hit wonder, we’ve built a championship program. And the league’s the best it’s been in ten years.”
Standing there after practice, Ferry laid out LIU’s hopes: a 14-seed — the team thought it had been shafted the year before, when, believing they had a chance at a 13, they were stuck with a 15 — and a matchup with a low-scoring team. “We can score. We’re gonna get 80 points. So, does that team we’re playing have the ability to score 80 points?” The Michigan States of the world, he said, would be a nice fit.
So how do the guys prepare in the week before the most important basketball game of their lives, until the next one?
“Don’t change anything now,” Boyd said. “We’re just going to play another game.”
Could 2012 be the year that a #16 finally knocks off a #1? Sure. Hasn’t every year been the year a #16 would finally knock off a #1? Yes. Basketball is unpredictable. Shots don’t fall, turnovers accumulate; shots do fall, and they fall with inexplicable ease, and point guards weave passes through spaces between players that seem smaller than the ball itself.
Sport, and March Madness in particular, is alluring for precisely this reason, this unpredictability, teams playing miles above their own heads, Stephen Curry leading tiny Davidson to the Elite Eight, VCU screaming to a Final Four after playing a game more than everyone else, Ali Farokhmanesh and the University of Northern Iowa vanquishing a Kansas team with five future NBA players.
Some analysts have pegged this year’s crop of 16s as the finest ever. Sure, and they have the honor of facing the likes of Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis, Kris Joseph, and Draymond Green. Any upset this year will be just as brutally earned as any upset would’ve been in any past year. That’s the beauty of it.
At 5:15 p.m., everyone gathered. The Selection Sunday viewing event that LIU threw felt like something halfway between a team banquet and a kickoff — there was that sense of honoring what the team had accomplished, there was chicken marsala, but there was also the knowledge that what they were celebrating hadn’t happened yet, and could still possibly not happen.
The players waited anxiously, congregating in a tight square to watch the show on the TVs positioned at the middle of the dining area, built adjacent to a campus Quizno’s. Fans, family, and community members hustled about socializing and trying to look less than incredibly nervous. I asked a guy what he thought about their chances of snagging a 14, and he laughed, saying he’d sign right then if they could get a 15.
CBS began broadcasting the committee’s decisions, and everyone there reacted according to their own personal biases as non-LIU results were announced. A couple of 14s and 15s came and went, and onlookers groaned.
Then CBS moved on to the West’s #1 seed, Michigan State, led by coach Tom Izzo, a man with six Final Fours and a national championship under his belt. And their opponent: LIU.
Some of the crowd cheered enthusiastically, excited to hear the team’s name, but the players looked ashen, disappointed; a few texted, others whispered to each other, and they all waited to see the rest of their draw.
Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the guys to gauge their thoughts on what happened. They were an even lower seed than last year, a 16, tasked with doing what no school had ever done before against one of the greatest programs in college basketball.
“I wish we didn’t have to be a 16-seed, but, you know, whether we were a 15 or a 16, we were going to have to play a powerhouse team,” Culpo said. “It’s a little disappointing that we’re a 16, but you’ve still got to play the game.”
“It’s kind of upsetting,” Olasawere said. “But if I had to choose any team to play, it would definitely be Michigan State.”
When I asked him how he felt his guys would deal with the 16, though, Coach Ferry put on an air of optimism. Whether he believes what he said or not, this is the type of attitude you need to show if you’re going to lead David past Goliath.
“I’ve got a bunch of confident guys, man. We’re going to go in and play really, really hard,” he said. “Am I disappointed we didn’t get a 15? Yeah, I would’ve liked a 15, but our body of work is our body of work.”
And what about coaching against Izzo?
“He’s a guy that I really look up to in this business. Great character, he’s great for college basketball, and I’m looking forward to beating him.”
LIU Brooklyn plays Michigan State Friday at 9:20 p.m. on TBS.