If ever there was a time ripe for a huge underdog to win the NCAA basketball tournament, it would seem to be right now.
Think about it. Donald Trump overcomes almost incalculable odds to win the presidency. The Cubs break a 108 year dry spell to win the World Series. The Patriots (though hardly an underdog) overcome a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 second half deficit to win the Super Bowl. Surely, some unheralded school is destined to emerge as the champion of college hoops after the dust of this annual March Madness clears. Right?
Perhaps. But for those of us who particularly enjoy the early rounds of the 68-team mash-up, when a 14th seed occasionally knocks off a 3rd seed, or even a #15 takes down a #2 (a #16 has never beaten a #1), our hopes are now pinned on just three unheralded squads from the ranks of double digit seeds who have survived up to now – all #11 seeds: USC (Southern Cal), Rhode Island, and Xavier, which waxed 3rd-seeded Florida State by 25 points on Saturday.
As with elections in politics, conventional wisdom customarily prevails in this mad dash to college basketball’s ultimate prize. But there are times – like 1980 and 2016 in politics or 1985 and 2005 in college hoops – when the seemingly impossible occurs. In 1985, #8 seed Villanova became the lowest seed to win the tournament with a once-in-a-lifetime shooting performance in the finals. In 2005, a then-almost unknown school in northern Virginia, #11 George Mason, made an inconceivable run to the final four. And for good measure, there was 2011, when another 11th-seeded Virginia squad – Virginia Commonwealth – shocked the world with their own run to the final four.
It’s also the early rounds of presidential races where dreams live for underdogs. Ask Pat Robertson, who surprised everyone in the Iowa caucuses in 1988. Or Pat Buchanan, who knocked off a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary of 1992. Or Ross Perot, who was actually leading for a stretch in the ’92 general election. Or even Michelle Bachmann, the gadfly who won the Iowa straw poll in 2008 and was the putative front-runner for a time. Most of all, ask Bernie Sanders, a 100-1 shot at best who overcame what was thought to be, and then proved to be, a rigged system to almost vanquish the overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton
Which begs the question: if you had seeded the 16 candidate field (conveniently congruous with the 16 seeds in each the four regions of the NCAA tournament) for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 at the start of the race, where would Donald Trump have landed? On June 15 of last year, conventional wisdom ranked it roughly like this:
- Jeb Bush
- Scott Walker
- Marco Rubio
- Ted Cruz
- John Kasich
- Chris Christie
- Rand Paul
- Rick Santorum
- Mike Huckabee
- Bobby Jindal
- Carly Fiorina
- Donald Trump
- Ben Carson
- George Pataki
- Lindsey Graham
- Jim Gilmore
So, seeking a somewhat tortured analogy, Donald Trump winning it all as a #12 seed is roughly the equivalent of George Mason winning the NCAA tournament in 2005 – except GMU didn’t win it all – they only made the final four. That speaks to the magnitude of President Trump’s victory.
It’s a cliche that America loves the underdog. But there’s a reason for that: it’s totally true. How many people would root for Duke against South Central Western Iowa Community College (OK, I made that one up)? How excited would you be for Kentucky’s eighth championship, or North Carolina’s fifth? So let’s all happily admit our underdog bias and (unless you’re a graduate of one of the other schools still in the running) apply our rooting interests to those unheralded teams seeking to shake the foundations of college hoops, much as Trump shook the foundations of the world.
Go Rhode Island. Or Southern Cal. Or Xavier.