Why East Tennessee Should be Your Team
Minus Kentucky fans, of course.
by RJ Anderson / @r_j_anderson
The truth is this: East Tennessee State Buccaneers’ head coach Murry Bartow knows a little bit about the NCAA Tournament. This will be his third journey to the dance as a head coach and his second consecutive trip with the Buccaneers. The other time he experience the Tournament was at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Then he was a 12th seed and following in his father’s footsteps. Bartow’s father knows the Tournament well. You could say coaching teams to the Tourney is a family tradition.
Gene Bartow is in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Wherever he coached, they won. Twice he lead Valparaiso to the second round. Then he headed to Memphis and took them to the championship game. UCLA went to the Final Four and the Sweet 16 under his guidance. And then came UAB. Oh, those years at UAB. The senior Bartow actually created the Blazers’ athletic program from scratch, although the results would suggest otherwise. In year three of their existence, the Blazers reached the Sweet 16. A year later they went to the Elite 8. Bartow’s Blazers would reach the Tourney for each of the next five seasons and a few more times before he retired, allowing his son to take over the program.
After a few seasons at UAB, Murry Bartow moved on to what has become his program at East Tennessee State. He’s coached there since 2003 and boasts an impressive 138-85 record. Last year, the Buccaneers were 16th seeds, as they are now, and lost to the Panthers of Pittsburgh University by 10 points. That loss is significant. Not just because it came 20 years after the 16th seed Buccaneers lose to Oklahoma by a point, but because it was also the fewest amount of points a 16th seed has lost by since the 1997 Tournament.
The truth is this: Since the Tournament expanded to a 64-team bracket in 1985, 1 seeds are a perfect 100-0 versus their 16 seed counterparts. The factoid is well known and will be recited numerous times leading up to and during the 16 versus 1 match-ups. The pairing is the only in which one side can claim complete and utter dominance. 2 seeds have won 96 percent of the time; 3 seeds check in at 85 percent; and 4 seeds at 79 percent. But no 16th seed has ever completed the task of taking down Goliath.
Some have come close though, just like those 1989 Buccaneers. In the initial year of the 16th seed, Farleigh Dickinson almost defeated Michigan, but ultimately lost by four points. In 1989 Princeton too drove a number 1 seed to the brink, and fell by a single point. A Tournament later, Murray State stayed within five of Michigan State until the final whistle. In 1996, Western Carolina managed to lose by only two to Purdue. Since then, no 16th seed has lost by fewer than five points, although Fairfield actually lead the University of North Carolina by seven at halftime, but were outscored by 15 in the second half.
A 100-game losing streak is enough to make the Washington Generals reconsider their chances. If that weren’t bad enough, chances are only getting worse for 16 seeds. Things looked to be on the upswing for the underdogs when they lost by an average of 14.5 points in the 2006 Tournament. In three Tournaments since, however, the average margin of defeat has been 32 points. That just so happens to be the second largest margin for any three-year period in Tournament history, trailing the 1998-2000 Tournaments by mere thousands of a point. In fact, 16 seeds have lost by double digits in every Tournament game since the beginning of the 1998 Tournament.
The truth is this: As if the strict opposition of history is not enough, Murry Bartow’s Buccaneer squad also must face off against a team with four legitimate NBA talents. There are reasons why SLAM put those four Kentucky Wildcats and their head coach John Calipari on the latest issue’s cover. They are legitimate threats to win the whole thing and legitimate threats to run the Buccaneers off the court. Calipari has become the master of the one-and-done since the NBA incorporated the draft age limit, which brings up an interesting point. If the best teams are constantly losing their best players after a year, and are still steamrolling over 16 seeds, then is the seeding system broke?
Intuitively, it makes sense that the lower the seed, the less guarantee of victory that team holds in the first round. Especially the middle seed match-ups which generally feature at-large bids – usually from power conferences who finished as runners-up – where each team’s chance of winning is a coin flip. Would a seeding shake-up, where at-large bids are relegated to lower seeds than tournament winners work? Probably not. After all, seeing the George Masons of the world go toe-to-toe with the big guys makes for compelling copy, or at least more compelling copy than the small guys going ankle-to-ankle with each other in the early rounds.
With the buzzword around the Tourney’s future fields being ‘expansion’, there’s a chance Vermont (the statistical favorite of the quartet for an upset according to statistical analysis), Lehigh, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and yes, those East Tennessee Buccaneers will be the final four sacrificial lambs to go up against 1 seeds as 16th seeds. At stake is the streak and some bragging rights.
The truth is this: No matter how long the odds are, there is always the chance of the improbable, nay, the impossible happening. And that makes March Madness something to cherish.