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Why the Ivy League is well-poised for the first 16 over 1 upset ever

If you’ve ever seen a March Madness opening round game, you know a 16 seed has never beaten a first seed. Sixteen seeds are an ugly 0 for 132 all-time. And for good reason. The one seeds are (ostensibly) the four best teams in the nation, usually stocked with future NBA players and stewarded by a big-name coach. The 16 seeds are traditionally bid-stealing teams from weak, unknown conferences, wide-eyed at the opportunity to be in the big dance.

However, this year offers the most opportune chance for a 16 over one upset in some time. I am, of course, talking about the Quakers of University of Pennsylvania upending the mighty Kansas Jayhawks. Part of me foolishly believes this could actually happen. Let’s lay out why.

(Disclaimer: I’ll be using Ken Pomery’s rankings, or KenPom rankings a lot. Ken Pomery’s ranking of every team in division I basketball is the best, most predictive ranking of teams available to the layman and will guide me here. They’re the best way to get a quick approximation for how good a team really is and how disparate teams stack up. They aren’t perfect, of course, but nothing is. They’re still the best thing to use in an analysis like this.)

A 16 should have beat a one by now.

If you believe the wiz kids that include Nate Silver (a Columbia grad) over at 538, we’re due for the biggest upset in tournament history. Well, they wouldn’t actually say we’re due since that’s the gambler’s fallacy but from a theoretical perspective, we should’ve seen three upsets by now. Sixteen seeds have been a little unlucky. And the 16 seeds are getting stronger as the talent gap between the top and middle of college basketball narrows.

Kansas is a weak No. 1 seed, as far as top seeds go. 

The top-line Jayhawks are a real contender, winning both the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles. The team is lead by senior guard Devonte’ Graham, one of the best players in all of college ball. But as far as one seeds go, it’s nothing to write home about. The team’s star bigman freshman Udoka Azubuike is hurt and may miss the tourney opener. Even if he plays, there is no telling if he’ll be at 100 percent. More importantly, by KenPom’s rating system, the team is only the ninth-best in the nation, sandwiched between Gonzaga and Michigan. In a world where teams are ranked by how good the advanced stats say they are and not by resume, Kansas would be a two or three seed. Still good, but certainly not indomitable.

Penn is under-seeded as a 16. 

While everyone else scratches his head over the committee’s inclusion of Syracuse over St. Mary’s or USC (not to mention TBS’ incoherent presentation of the bracket on its Selection Sunday show),  I was mystified at Penn being relegated to the bottom line of the bracket. The bottom line is usually reserved for surprising, big-stealing teams. But Penn has been in pole position in the Ivy League all year, and posted an impressive 24-8 record overall. Going by KenPom’s rating Penn is better than nine other teams in the bracket. That should’ve earned them about a 14 seed. Penn is certainly an above-average team and certainly much better than the other 16 seeds, which include the likes of a 15-19 Texas Southern team, which is actually well below average teams.

If you’re looking for a 16 that believes in itself, the Quakers check the right boxes. The team certainly doesn’t seem scared by the challenge. On Sunday, the team launched into celebration when it was announced it would head to Wichita, Kansas to take on the Jayhawks. Maybe it’s because the team is coached by Steve Donahue, who has unfinished business to attend to in the state of Kansas. In the middle of a tradition-lengthy winning streak at home, Kansas almost fell prey to Donahue’s Cornell in January of 2010. Cornell had a lead with less than a minute to play after a Jeff Foote layup, but could not seal the deal eight years ago. Donahue would steer the Big Red to the Sweet 16 that season, posting double-digit victories over Temple and Wisconsin. Notably, Donahue’s Cornell team was the last Ivy League team to win two tournament games and would finish the year ranked #17 in the final AP poll.

An upset of this caliber has already happened. 

No. 16 has never upended a one, but plenty of 15 seeds have bested two seeds. (Side note: a 16 has beaten a one in the women’s tournament, when underdog Harvard upset injury-laden Stanford.) Florida Gulf Coast dominated Georgetown above the rim and Lehigh shooting its way past Duke come to mind immediately. And Kansas – Penn is more like a two taking on a 14 — far from unthinkable these days. On top of that, the average Ivy League team is better than you might think. 12-seeded Princeton gave Notre Dame all it could handle last year, narrowly dropping a two point game. Two years ago, Yale won a tournament game over the much more athletic Baylor Bears and hung with the Duke Blue Devils in the next round. Harvard gave another blue blood program a battle when Michael Jordan’s alma mater eked by it, 67-65 in 2015. The Ivy League is equating itself well as of late. Maybe Donahue’s magical run in Ithaca has helped recruiting efforts.

It’s still probably not going to happen. 

Kansas is still better than Penn. I’ll repeat, Kansas is much better than Penn. Even by the KenPom ratings I keep referring to, Kansas should be a 20 point favorite in a neutral court game. And a game in Wichita is decidedly not a neutral court. But, it’s still the most favorable matchup imaginable for a 16 over a one barring a major injury. If most 16s have less than a one percent chance of springing an upset, Penn has maybe a 2.5% chance. What I think will happen is Kansas will sleepwalk through the first half, lulled to sleep by the #16 marking the Quakers, letting Penn hang around in a twenty minutes of basketball. Kansas will awaken after the break and assert itself, winning by about ten points. Everyone in Lawrence, Kansas will exhale. So I wouldn’t bet the house on Penn, but pay a little extra attention to the oft-forgot 1 v. 16 this year.

And, please bookmark this page and call me an idiot in the comment section when Kansas wins by 40!

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